One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.
It’s September, and 2020 is getting close to being over. Good, because 2020 sucks. This year has been a log flume ride straight into an overfilled splash pool of exhaustion, anxiety, and disempowerment. The pandemic has robbed us of stress-relieving fun. As we trudge toward a monumental election, every waking moment can feel like a series of blinks toward doom. And the surging course that Black Lives Matter has taken throughout the year has come with searing reminders of how unjust and terrible American society often is.
Video games have provided me a way out of reality over the past six months. As I watch the news, fearing for my and my loved ones’ health, lives, finances, — and as I beat the drum over and over that “Black lives matter” and “Every vote counts” — I’ve spent more time playing video games than ever before in my adult life. And that’s saying something, because I used to write about video games for a living.
I’m not judging myself or anyone else who’s found themselves doing the same. Because, hello: Video games are practically designed to take up all your time! They’re fun! They’re compulsively playable! They’re comforting!
Finding comfort in games is what’s drawn me to them the most this year. Which is why I’ve turned obsessively toward the types of games that exude friendliness. I’ve found this most in the nostalgic charm and childlike wonder of (mostly) vintage Nintendo games. Gone is my interest in the new and buzzworthy; I’m here to revisit the kindly faces I can find on my Switch.
And it doesn’t matter if you have pre-established nostalgia for the halcyon days of simple, E-for-Everyone-rated Nintendo games or not. In the same way that Nintendo’s small-town-life simulation game Animal Crossing found mass appeal earlier this year for its coziness, these games promise morally uncomplicated fun from the onset. They’re good for anyone who’s craved some virtual, pleasant, joyous worlds to escape to.
One mainstay for me has been Nintendo’s recent release of a compilation of classic Super Mario games for the Nintendo Switch, featuring three games on one cartridge: Super Mario 64 (first released in 1996 on Nintendo 64), Super Mario Sunshine (2002, Nintendo GameCube), and Super Mario Galaxy (2007, Nintendo Wii). Unlike the old-school 2D Mario games, each one of these allows Mario to explore new worlds in three dimensions. They all provide novel spins on the classic Mario gameplay style — which still involves jumping on sentient mushrooms for coins, avoiding being crushed by angry rock monsters, and finding secret pathways inside big green pipes; saving the Princess from perennial Bad Dude Bowser remains Mario’s nice-guy goal at the end of his adventure.
These games are between 13 and 24 years old, which can make them seem dated by a lot of modern entertainment standards. But Mario games are simple enough to be welcoming, and they’re easy to jump right into because of how indelible their formula is. I’m really enjoying Super Mario 64 in particular, which came out when I was two and a half years old. This is my first time playing the game, and it’s making me feel at once like a delighted little kid and a very placated adult. (Mario games are not, by any means, “easy,” but if a little kid can finish them, that means I can too. Probably.)
And there’s nary a human to kill, never a sign of physical pain, and Mario throws up a peace sign when he finishes a mission. The worst thing he does in Super Mario 64 is squish a mushroom or pull a shell off a turtle’s back. And even though he can plummet to his “death” or run out of “lives,” he’ll always happily come back after each Game Over.)
In Moon, another retro game now available for Nintendo Switch, reversing death is actually the entire conceit. Moon is a more obscure game, released in 1997 only on the PlayStation in Japan. The Nintendo Switch version that came out in August marks the first time it’s been available in English, so it’s a new game to many non-Japanese speakers.
Being that Moon is 23 years old, its graphics are nothing to write home about, if that’s important to you; that doesn’t matter so much to me as a strong aesthetic does, and Moon’s is gorgeous. The game is filled with memorable, indescribable creatures, vast skies, a dreamy fuzziness to the characters’ outlines, and fantastic music. That’s all on top of its witty writing and wonderful story.
Moon starts with a little boy playing a generic fantasy video game, where he is a swordsman vanquishing what we assume are monstrous foes. But somehow, the TV sucks him into the game’s world, and he is transformed into one of its minor characters. The hero the boy had been playing as is still present in the world of the game, but it becomes clear to the boy that said hero is maybe more of the villain. He has been destroying all these little monsters for nothing but money and bragging rights, because none of them were threatening him at all. Now the game’s world is littered with the sad corpses of these creatures, their spirits left to wander for eternity. It’s now the boy’s job to recover the creatures’ spirits and earn their love. Love is what fuels him, and love is what hopefully will get him out of the game and back home to his family.
It’s a brilliant, very meta conceit for a video game. Moon is full of puzzles to make recovering love a challenging adventure, so that it’s not just about a little boy running around hugging mythical creatures and sad townsfolk. But at the same time, hugging creatures and townsfolk is indeed part of the goal. The boy makes friends with humans and monsters, improving a world he only previously knew from playing a video game.
I’ve been engrossed with Moon because of how lovely it is to be asked to bring a world back to life. And its age means I can focus more on the game’s story and concept instead of comparing it to other, newer games that are more technically powerful. Instead of playing the latest, hottest, longest role-playing game out today, I’m having a lot of fun with Moon, which was designed as a parody of more self-serious blockbusters.
These days, I default to finding games on Nintendo Switch, because it’s my current console of choice. Nintendo consoles have always been homes for many kinds of adventures, made accessible to many kinds of people, and the Switch carries that torch. I recently introduced my roommate, who’s not big into video games, to Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics, a newer Switch game. (It came out this spring.) It’s a charming roundup of virtual versions of all kinds of traditional tabletop games, like solitaire, mahjong, and foosball, none of which require much explanation to dig into. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is another Switch standby, and the best iteration of a classic franchise. It’s perfect for when I’m feeling competitive and kind of aggressive and want to drain my energy by running my friends off a rainbow-colored track.
There are swaths of other nostalgic games on the Switch, many from the days of the original Nintendo and Super Nintendo consoles. An annual subscription to Nintendo’s online gaming service, which costs $19.99, includes online multiplayer options for new games as well as unlimited access to a curated slate of old gems. Donkey Kong, Dr. Mario, and Super Mario World are all bright and easy to jump into, and they’re probably familiar to tons of people who own a Switch. I’m also partial to the cutesiness of the Kirby games from the Super Nintendo era, because Kirby is so pink and round and tiny and I love him. Plus he’s really into eating desserts — which, relatable.
These games are excellent distractions from the failings of the modern world. I appreciate finding joy in their older adventures, and pulling from the past to actively avoid the emotional toll of the present — especially when many of the video games from the past are so pleasant, so comforting, such wonderful ways to dip out of the real world for a sec.
Anyway. Back to Mario 64 for me.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars is on Nintendo Switch. Moon is on the Nintendo Switch digital storefront. The Nintendo and Super Nintendo games catalogs are available on Nintendo Switch with a Nintendo Switch Online subscription.
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