A game frozen in time

In the winter of 1997, my dad trudged into a blizzard carrying a jug of gasoline. I waited in his cabin, listening to the howl of wind and the ticking of a battery-powered clock. I sat up from my sleeping bag and sparked a match to light candles.

Seconds later a Zenith TV flickered to life in the cabin. A cartoon face appeared center-screen, announcing, "It's me, Mario!"

My dad lived without electricity in the Catskill Mountains. He laced up his boots and powered a generator to support his 7-year-old's gaming habit. My mom, who gifted me the console, deserves serious parent points, too.

I think everyone has a technology that is — from his or her perspective — frozen in time by nostalgia. Super Mario 64 is my time machine to 1997. It's the point from which I measure technological progress in video games.

When it comes to captivating players, the designers at Nintendo are masters of the universe. The core mission in Super Mario 64 is so simple yet intriguing that it stuck in my head for 20 years:

  • There are 120 stars hidden throughout a castle.
  • Collect them all to unlock a cannon.
  • Blast onto the castle roof to see what's there.

Fast-forward to adulthood — or something more like it.

After college, I moved to Boston for my first full-time programming job. My apartment only had a mattress and a coffee table, which was actually a cardboard box. On the first day of work, my lunch container fell onto the floor of the Red Line. I hoped that I'd do better with code than I did with tupperware.

Over time my excitement about work overshadowed my anxieties, and I learned some convincing business jargon. When I found out Super Mario 64 was available for Android (through an emulator app), I saw it as a low-hanging fruit. I set a goal of collecting a star as I rode the train to my office.

If grown-up behavior is called "adulting," there should be an analog term — maybe "kidding" — to describe behavior that's youthful and nostalgic. Playing Super Mario on the way to work felt like kidding and adulting at the same time.

After years of collecting stars here and there during my morning commutes, I finally beat the game this week.

Mario collecting the final star in Super Mario 64

The final dialogue managed to capture the feeling of completing a game that I started over 20 years ago.

Yoshi says,

Yoshi says,

Mario flying into the sky