I remember Winter 1991 very well.  I was only 6 years old, and life was very new to me.  My mom worked at a gas station while my dad had the title “grease monkey,” essentially driving from construction site to construction site and servicing all of the equipment.  Needless to say, he was a busy guy, easily working 12 hour days regularly.  He would always make it home, though; make sure to set aside some time for me, and always made sure I was taken care of.

Now I had grown up with video games and was introduced to the NES in late 1989 – for Christmas I obviously asked to get the SNES.  My dad hadn’t said yes or no, but kept avoiding the question.  Not only was my dad a solid provider, but he also took his commitments to others very seriously.  If he told you he would be at your party, he would be there.  If he told you he couldn’t make it to something, he had a legitimate reason.  If he said no, you didn’t question it and moved on.  So I took his avoidance of the question as a “yes,” as he didn’t want to spoil the surprise, nor did he want to lie to me.  I was one happy boy.

My SNES

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System with Super Mario World – Christmas list item number one.

About two weeks before Christmas, the presents began to gather underneath the tree, forming cliques that any child could see: the big presents hanging out with one another, showing off their bulky nature over the smaller, unimpressive gifts.  Like any sane child, I would check daily for any new presents labeled “Michael,” hoping they would be some of the larger gifts.  These presents were from family – mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandma; these were the gifts that could either be lame (“Clothing? Come on!”), or pretty cool.  But every kid knows the real presents came the day of Christmas, because those were the ones from Santa.  Yes, my parents let me believe in Santa, and normally I would expect the best gift from him, but I knew my dad was going to get me the SNES, and what could top that gift?  What I didn’t expect to find was a lie…

A few days later, I crouched underneath the Christmas tree to expose any new presents, and I found one of medium size I hadn’t seen before.  No one was around (who looks for presents in front of other people, right?).  I pulled the gift out, which had a decent weight to it, and looked at who it was from.  My heart dropped into my stomach as I read, “From Santa, To Michael,” on the little tag underneath the bow.  Santa didn’t deliver gifts before Christmas, let alone a couple weeks before.  In addition, someone should’ve made a big deal that Santa had come.  I didn’t want to believe it, but I came to the realization that Santa, a figure who had given me some of the best gifts I’d ever received, was fake.

I also deduced the only people who could’ve put that gift under the tree without me knowing it were my parents.  Why would they lie to me?  Why would my dad lie to me?  He had never done something like that.  I was hurt and didn’t know what to believe anymore.  What other things had he lied to me about before?  I know, especially in hindsight, that this was a very small issue that most kids just simply move past and forget, but I was a different type of kid.  I kept to myself up until Christmas Day, not letting my parents know that I knew their secret.  I must say, I was fairly depressed that my dad had lied to me, and it took the joy of Christmas out of my step.

On Christmas morning we are all getting up to gather in the living room.  I sat down, not entirely eager to open presents, and tried not to stare at the gift that had turned my young world upside down.  In fact, as I opened presents, I saved it for last.  I received socks, X-men cards, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys, Hot Wheels, clothing…everything but the SNES.  I was even more saddened; not only had my dad lied to me, but he didn’t get me the thing I wanted most.

Finally, it was time to open the mystery present.  I reached over, grabbed it, and began ripping the paper off.  After the first tear in the paper, I saw a drawing of Mario sitting on Yoshi with a picture of the SNES in front of it.  I had gotten my SNES and Super Mario World.  All my sadness floated away as my dad helped me set up the system in my room.  I proceeded to play for the rest of the day; one of the few times my parents let me actually play a game that long.  I never had “the” talk with my parents that Santa wasn’t real, nor did I ever need to, as I worked it out on my own.  I gained trust in my dad again, and resolved that it was a minor issue, so I moved on.  That system and game were inadvertently used to reveal a truth to me, help me accept it, and, consequently, get over it.

Super Mario World Title Screen

Sweet, glorious 16-bit Christmas cheer!

To this day, my time spent playing Super Mario World on my SNES are some of my favorite memories.  It is my favorite Mario game, and always will be (although I adore Galaxy and 3D World), simply because it helped me through a very tough part of my young childhood.  I remember spending hours playing it, working through each level and searching for hidden paths.

In a way, my gaming experience with Super Mario World reflected how I handled my situation.  This game was very new, with new concepts about how to play, and it was hard.  There were many times I didn’t think I would finish a level, and would end up rage quitting and walking away for a bit.

In other instances, I would have trouble finding a hidden path to get to the Star World.  I remember believing I wouldn’t get past that obstacle, and it would demotivate me.  This resembled the two weeks I sat around in betrayal, wondering if my world would go back to normal.  However, just like the way I bounced right back after receiving my SNES, I would go back and somehow finish the difficult level or find that hidden path.

The SNES and Super Mario World helped me to cope with a shift in my reality, but it also opened me up to something much deeper that has had an impact on my life for quite some time.  Learning that Santa wasn’t real, and that my dad had lied to me threw my world into chaos, and I didn’t like it.  Change, coupled with loss of control, intimidated me.

Super Mario World was the first game that I completed fully on my own; when I was stuck, I didn’t have the internet to look up how to progress in the game.  I had to deal with the obstacles in the game, and I had the control.  When I failed, it was because my skills weren’t developed enough.  If I succeeded, it felt genuinely satisfying knowing it was due to my own finesse and perseverance.  In this time of chaos, Super Mario World gave me a measure of control at a time when I needed it.  Mario’s fate was solely in my hands for the first time, and it felt great.

SMW

The cartridge that taught me so many life lessons.

The Christmas gift of SNES/Super Mario World taught me a few things: life wasn’t always what I expected, but I could be resilient and still keep trying in the face of disappointment.  It also reminded me that some things weren’t worth dwelling on, because at the end of the day, they were ultimately irrelevant.

Have you ever played Super Mario World?  Do you remember the Boo Mansions and how frustrating they could be?  I do, and I also remember how good I felt  once I passed them; my skills were improving.  How about the level with dolphins jumping out of the water constantly while a giant spiked fish would follow your every move?  That was one of the levels I had been stuck on for a few days, and I remember finally reaching the end of the stage and hearing the music cued in; it was a feeling of satisfaction.

How about the crazy Bowser battle at the end when he is gliding around (unfairly!) in his special hovercraft?  I vividly remember barely beating him and seeing those fireworks appear on the screen, symbolizing my achievement.  The Christmas Day event I experienced affected my view of the SNES, and more specifically, Super Mario World.  Little did I know it would also open my eyes to games being much deeper than just “dumb entertainment.”  Instead, the experience would launch my passion and enjoyment for games on a path that would take me all the way to where I’m currently at in my life.

Games do a lot more than just “take up your time.”  They can create an experience that stays in your mind, tucked away in your private mental library, only to surface every now and then and remind you of the joy they can bring.  Super Mario World on the SNES will always have a special place in my life, and I can honestly say that no other game has had a similar affect on me during, and after, my time playing it.

I still have my SNES connected to the TV with my copy of Super Mario World, waiting for my son to hopefully enjoy the gaming experience it has to offer him.  Will it be the same experience?  No, I don’t think it will be.  But I would hope that from the moment he turns it on, hears the theme music for the first time, and witnesses Mario and Yoshi running across the screen, it will be an experience that affects his gaming life from then on.

  • Jared Waldo

    Great story, and the best part is that I know you’re not alone. While others may not have the exact same story, this story is exactly why video games are such an amazing form of entertainment.

    The memories and emotions associated with these games is incredibly strong and it’s often a very, very overlooked detail as to why ‘silly video games’ are so near and dear to many people.

    This was a great read, and reminded me of the same Christmas from the same year. Opening up that Super Nintendo and playing Super Mario World for the first time was something special. The fact that you have a very distinct memory associated to it makes it even better. I think we all have a game or two like that, and it’s what keeps me so attached to them all these years later.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Thank you, Jared! And you are completely right: games can make powerful marks in our memories! :)

  • Excellent article! I love Super Mario World, and received it in the same bundle for Christmas that you did, at what I imagine was around the same age you were as well. I’ll never forget being introduced to Yoshi for the first time, as well as finding out about the Star Road and its strange, funky levels by almost complete accident. I still associate “wife-beater” tank tops with the koopa enemies in this game!

    A couple of months ago, I played SMW for the first time in many years to record a brief clip for a video I was working on…it was a joy to “rediscover” the game, and I didn’t want to put it down! Unfortunately, my old complete save file was wiped, so I had to start from the beginning…but there’s nothing like starting fresh! ;)

  • Thanks Jimmy! You know, I recently replayed it, too, and it’s amazing how things come back to you. Haha. And there isn’t anything wrong at all with starting fresh!

  • Demian Sky

    Great article. It really brought me back to my own Christmas gaming experienced (and Santa betrayals!)

  • Glad you could relate. Not glad about the Santa betrayal!