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September 25, 2011 / jwaxo

Super Mario 64 (Free Trials)

How strange to see Mario not go-karting or playing golf or riding a bike.

I still see them every once in a while. They’re in the bigger Fred Meyer’s, not the one that I live two blocks away from, but the huge ones with a proper supermarket and a toy section that can compete with Wal-Mart. They generally have a tiny slide and a TV constantly showing The Fox and the Hound and a small doorway that only kids can fit through.

I am, of course, talking about Kiddie Land. Or the Fred Meyer Play Place. Or whatever you want to call them. The small, magical land that you drop your kids off while you fill your shopping cart up with stuff that bores those same kids out of their minds.

These don’t exclusively exist at Fred Meyer’s (which is a combination grocery and various other things supermarket), of course. McDonald’s and similar fast foods restaurants have their obligatory ball pits and slides, and Chuck-E-Cheese’s is pretty much an entire Kiddie Land in itself.

I’m pretty sure these places exist as a form of convenience for the adult shoppers. After all, you could go to X Shopping Center and have to drag your kids through the aisles with you, or you could go to Y Shopping Center which has a Kiddie Land and shop in peace for a lovely twenty minutes, safe in the knowledge that your kid would even see this shopping trip as a pleasant surprise.

The problem, I imagine, is when your kid eventually outgrows this place.

Unfortunately unacceptable.

That was the problem for me, that is. By the time you’re in third grade or whatever, you’re far too old to hang out in that increasingly small room, far too tall to walk through that tiny door without bonking your head.

It was around this time that I discovered the electronics section of Fred Meyer’s.

There I could stalk through the aisles, poring over the backs of games that I desperately wanted and had never heard of, alike. I didn’t have much money, and these hours were generally filled with the knowledge that I was there exclusively as a browser, but that was okay. Window-shopping for video games is much more desirable over hanging around the cart while your mom shops for different curtain rods or debates over a new towel or something equally snore-inducing.

The entire situation was massively improved in the mid 90’s when display consoles began appearing in my local electronics sections. Maybe this happened for years before; I can’t imagine that some advertising executive didn’t think of what a genius idea they were prior to 1996. But the first game that I can remember seeing in such a state was the legendary Super Mario 64.

Probably what sticks out the most to me in these memories was that the console wasn’t just an ordinary Nintendo 64 plugged into a TV with a controller sitting nearby: this was an actual display unit. The console was proudly kept in a plastic bubbled, the crazy N64 controller emerging from a port in the front, the TV framed with a cardboard billboard explaining all of the awesome things that could be accomplished in the latest incarnation of everyone’s favorite Italian plumber. And even better, after 10 minutes of play, Mario himself would appear on the screen and suggest you had been playing for enough time, and to hand that insanely-shaped controller to the next person in line.

It was perfect for midnight escapades and scaling walls.

We flocked to these machines. Heck, we still do. We stand in the middle of the aisles, necks craned way back, fingers fumbling on the unfamiliar controls, trying to get a taste of this game that we had never even heard of before but is really actually pretty cool.

And if there’s no one else who wants to play, well, you just laughed in Mario’s face and mashed the Start button. He wouldn’t know. He was just a stupid cartoon.

Eventually, maybe after twenty minutes, our mom would come and pry us away from the game. But those twenty minutes of thirst-slaking playing were more than enough to convince us that the game we played was awesome. I mean, we are talking about Super Mario 64. The game that ushered in an entire generation of previously 2D games to the 3D universe. It’s in these console displays that I first played it, along with StarFox 64, Grand Theft Auto III, WarioWare, and a hundred others. They’re stupidly clever in their simplicity: you give someone a taste of what they want, and they’ll realize they can keep playing it if they just pick up one of the copies sitting right there, in the case.

Pretty smart, and a good lesson.

Not that it works on people without money.

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