Mario has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can recall the moment I became acquainted with the plumber back in the late 80s, when my parents bought me an NES with WWF WrestleMania Challenge and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One of my best friends wanted to borrow TMNT and I was pretty much done with it at the time, so I borrowed his copy of Super Mario Bros., and the rest as they say, is history. Over the last three decades, I’ve spent hundreds of hours exploring the Mushroom Kingdom and fighting off Bowser and his goons, and whilst there have been times when Mario and me haven’t quite had the quality time we used to, I’ve felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love over the last five years.
Now, I don’t want to bring the mood down, but it’s worth mentioning just how I came to play Mario games more and more recently. As some of you know, I suffer with mental health problems. I’m not ashamed of it, and to say it can affect me greatly on certain days is an understatement. Over the last couple of years it has become a huge burden on my everyday life. I won’t go into the ins and outs, but I can find it hard to disconnect from it. One day I’ll just go from morning to night without it affecting a thing, and others it’ll swallow me whole, chew me up, and spit me out. The thing about depression is that it’s emotionally and mentally crippling. You can’t just snap out of it or find an instant fix to the way you’re feeling, no matter how good your life is or how much you’re loved.
I have a fantastic family and a bunch of great friends, but you can’t just switch it off. I often turn to video games as a form of escapism, as I’m sure many of you do. From the age of about sixteen, I more or less chose to exclusively play more mature titles like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and Fallout. Mario became that friend you promise to keep in touch with after college, but never do. We went our separate ways for a while, but every now and again we’d bump into each other and hang out for a coffee, until our lives split off once again.
Mario Kart Double Dash and Super Mario Galaxy were about the only Mario titles I played a lot of. I missed out on the whole Wii U era, and never managed to play Super Mario Sunshine or Super Mario Galaxy. Through my twenties, I was more into playing games with a heavy storyline or plenty of guns and gore. It wasn’t until my kids were old enough, and I became a part of God is a Geek that I fell in love with Mario all over again. My eldest daughter asked for a Nintendo DS about five years ago, and we bought her Super Mario 3D Land on it. We played loads of that game together, and it reminded me how wholesome the franchise is, but also how incredible Nintendo is at creating video games.
Before the coronavirus, I went to Windsor tons of times to preview Nintendo games, and I’ll never forget how it felt to play Super Mario Odyssey for the first time. It felt like a breath of fresh air. The gameplay felt new, it looked amazing, and the nods and references to the plumber’s legacy reminded me why I adored Mario in the first place. September 2017 was when I first began to experience anxiety and depression, and the symptoms it gave me were horrendous. I suffered (and still do) from continuous brain fogs, immobilising worry, problems with my memory, and carrying out day to day tasks effectively. It was all new, and I was terrified, but Super Mario Odyssey offered me a friendly face. It reached out its hand to me and refused to let me walk in the darkness.
When I finally got to play the full game, I adored every minute. I felt safe, and for the first time in months, I felt happy. I can never thank Nintendo enough for that. Super Mario Odyssey is so much more to me than just a video game. From that moment, I began to absorb anything Mario-related because it allowed me to escape into a world filled with vibrancy, pure fun, and unbridled joy. There’s one moment in Odyssey I remember so fondly because it hit me just how special the game was, and how important it was to my mental health. When visiting the Wooded Kingdom, I found the boombox and watched Mario dancing away, doing his best to bust some moves that didn’t look like anything other than a dad at a wedding. I broke down in tears. In that short moment, it hit me just how important that game was to me.
There are still a few games I’ve yet to play, such as Luigi’s Mansion 3 and the recently released Super Mario 3D All-Stars (if only for Sunshine), but pretty much every other game is stored safety on my Switch. Last year when my house was burgled and my Switch was stolen, I’d just started playing Odyssey again, meaning it was in my console, meaning those fuckers took it away from me. I got it back, but it broke me. I still leave the light on downstairs when I go to bed, and ever since I’ve struggled to get a solid eight hours of sleep a night. Losing my Switch and the few games I had lying around was so upsetting, more so because they were some of the Mario games I adored.
In the last week, I’ve played through Super Mario 3D World and Bowser’s Fury on Switch, finishing them both in a couple of sittings. I’m now going back through to collect all the green stars and Cat Shines because I’m having such a blast in those worlds. I’ve got a much better handle on my mental health now, more than when I played Super Mario Odyssey for the first time, but even now it helps me to feel good. There are no other games that have this kind of impact on me, and I doubt there ever will. Mario has been like a best friend, a therapist, and a platform to escape the bad days all rolled into one. I don’t know what I’d do without him, and I hope that in some way, he knows that.