If I have kids someday, I’ll have to explain them about how the world worked before the Internet. Given how almost everything in my life now revolves around being online, this might prove a challenge. In need of a good, long-winded anecdote, I might tell them about the feverish hype and anticipation that surrounded the American release of Super Mario Bros. 3.
Here’s how you learned about video games “back in my day”: schoolyard chatter, gossip from the game rental store, television commercials and, of course, Nintendo Power. While laughed off as a shameless propaganda machine today, back then NP was a go-to resource for Nintendo information. You got codes and maps (both of which were sometimes necessary to complete some of the era’s more frustrating titles), you got reviews and features about the latest titles, and you got a sneak peak of what was to come.
While I wasn’t yet a subscriber (as I would become for years after), I did borrow friends’ copies of the magazine and I regularly browsed through the latest issue in the rack at the store. And I distinctly remember seeing the preview for Super Mario Bros. 3. And – although I wouldn’t have used these terms back then – I lost my shit. Like millions, I was a full-blown Nintendo fanatic by this point, and we were all counting down the days until we could get Super Mario 3 in our grubby hands.
Nintendo had released Super Mario Bros 3 in Japan over a year before releasing it in America; one of the luxuries of the pre-Internet age. But the anticipation for this game was so massive that many rental stores actually bought Famicom-to-NES converters to rent with imported Japanese copies of the game. Myself, I didn’t bite, but I did go see The Wizard, a feature film starring Fred Savage, Jenny Lewis and Christian Slater that was nothing more than a 90-minute Nintendo advertisement and featured (for many) the first glimpse of the elusive Mario sequel (although how they knew to find the castle warp whistle, I’ll never know).
However, despite my rabid anticipation for the title, I didn’t buy the game in the stores like a normal person. Oh no – come hell or high water, I wasn’t paying a dime for it.
When you’re a Canadian kid, Popsicles are a key part of your summer – a sugary, cold treat to ward off the July/August heat. The Popsicle phenomenon became even more pronounced when the yearly Popsicle Pete competition was announced. Every summer when I was growing up – the contest has since been abandoned, for reasons that will quickly become obvious – every Popsicle that you bought contained points on the stick, hidden under the frozen goodness. When you collected enough points, you put all the sticks in the mail and could order a whole slew of collectables and items.
In the summer of 1990, the contest’s greatest catch were three Nintendo games: one I can’t remember, one was Tetris, and one was Super Mario Bros. 3.
Ask Canadians in my age group today about it, and they’ll still remember that promotion. The idea of getting the most anticipated videogame of all time for free captivated the entire country. Who cares that we probably spent as much on popsicles as the game cost? It was an experience, a challenge, a quest that needed be conquered not unlike the quest to save the lonely princess in King Koopa’s castle. It was “on like Donkey Kong.”
I rummaged through garbage cans. I harassed friends and adults alike for their points before their popsicles were even done. I’m surprised I didn’t get a cavity from all the sugar. I kept the ever-growing pile of sticks in my room, getting ever closer to the total needed to order my Super Mario 3. Finally, after weeks of work, I had enough – I bundled up my ungainly collection of sticks and sent them to the Popsicle folks. A few weeks later, Super Mario Bros. 3 arrived in my mailbox.
(How close was I to not getting the game? A friend of mine sent in his sticks a week later and received only a pair of shoelaces as an apology note that credited him back his points. They were all out of the game, and believe me – he wasn’t the only sad Popsicle stick collector that year.)
The game itself? A masterpiece, still one of the greatest games ever made. It’s amazing how far Nintendo was able to push the NES hardware with the title, giving us giant enemies, colourful worlds, a flying hero and one of the longest (and hardest) 8-bit adventures going – I’m pretty sure that to this day I never was able to beat the game without using a warp whistle. Released as the NES was nearing its end, it was a fitting send-off to the system and the plumber who brought videogaming back from the dead.
And I didn’t pay a dime for it.
Watch: The Wizard – the final battle and the great reveal of Super Mario 3