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August 28, 2006

Super Mario Runners

(Administrative note: This turned into a somewhat strange post, and much longer than I thought it would be - although that shouldn't really surprise anyone by now. If you're looking for something more tangibly related to running, well ... have you checked out Complete Running yet? I hear they're doing some cool things over there. Otherwise, read on...)

For his eighth birthday, my son received a Game Boy Advance.

Actually, I should clarify that statement a bit to say that the package he unwrapped had his name on it. As far as who has spent the most time with the Game Boy, it’s pretty close between my son and me. But I’m sure he’ll probably catch up one of these days.

Seriously - I’m hooked on this thing. It’s one of the best presents I’ve - I mean he’s - ever received. (So much so, that I’m currently revising my own birthday list for this fall. Right now I’d definitely pick a Game Boy over a GPS. You think I’m kidding.)

My son and I spend a lot of time trading the game back and forth with a shared purpose: traveling through the seven kingdoms of the Mushroom World to free all the princesses and reclaim the magic wands that were captured by the evil king Bowser.

The object of our infatuation is Super Mario Brothers 4 – an updated version of the game that altered the video game landscape more than 15 years ago.

Prior to the original Mario Brothers, most video games were about scoring the most points, reaching the final destination the fastest, or shooting the most aliens/asteroids/bad guys, etc.

The premise of Super Mario Brothers is quite different: it’s designed as an Odyssean journey, with new adventures awaiting around every turn. Each of the seven kingdoms is divided into multiple levels, with each level requiring a different set of skills to advance through it. The levels become progressively more challenging, but in conquering the earlier levels you acquire the skills to handle the more difficult ones.

Some relics of traditional video games remain. Mario can collect gold coins along his journeys, worth 100 points each. There is a timer on the screen, counting down the time remaining to complete each level. But these are secondary concerns; it’s not necessary to score any points to complete a level, and the clock is almost never a factor in Mario’s success.

Additionally, when Mario exhausts his 5 allotted “lives”, a player can continue the game with the push of a button. You can play for as long as you desire, and when you want to take a break, you simply save your progress, and pick up from that point next time.

Eventually you’ll make it through all seven kingdoms (and right now we're in #3), but the point of the game isn’t to make it to the finish. In fact, the adventure is so lengthy that many players never complete it. Rather, the fun lies in experiencing each new challenge that is encountered at successive levels, and testing your ability at whatever stage of the journey you find yourself.

(You can see where all this is heading, right? … )

In these regards, the game is an awful lot like running. It presents different challenges to different people. Some people are more skilled and progress further than others. But regardless of our abilities, we all get the same satisfaction and enjoyment out of the activity.

Runners acquire skills from smaller tasks and apply them to larger ones. Very few people are prepared to run a marathon as their first race. 10Ks grow into half-marathons, marathons evolve into ultras, and 50 miles turns into 100 (and beyond). The levels are progressively more challenging, but it’s in doing the easier tasks that we develop the ability and resolve to take on the larger ones.

You can try to collect accomplishments in our sport, but in the grand scheme of things they really don’t matter. Mario can rescue the princesses with zero gold coins or 500 – very few players really keep track. In running, it’s great if you’re someone who accumulates medals or age group victories, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t get the same satisfaction from their efforts.

Similarly, you can worry about the time on the clock, but in many races – especially as the distances get longer - that’s a secondary concern. Does someone who finishes a 50K in 8 hours take away something less from the race than someone else who ran it in 6? In Mario’s world, as in ultras, you don’t get extra credit for rushing to the finish – you only have to make the cutoff time.

Above all else, the main point is to enjoy the process, because the journey is never really over. We can run as far as we want on any given day, only stopping when we decide to. The next time we lace up our shoes (whether it’s the next day or several months later), we continue our own adventure with all those previous experiences saved into memory. Do we really want there to be an end point? Or would we rather continually discover and explore new worlds as we travel along?

The game reminds me of running in another way, in that my son and I make a nice team. I’m good at figuring out the best path through each level, and he remembers the special tricks that Mario can use along the way. We have a lot of conversations like the following:

Me: I almost know my way through here. You stay on the floating log until the flying fish sails over your head, then you jump onto the spinning stick and land on the drain pipe. I just need to figure out how to get past the hatchet-throwing turtle.

Him: Did you get a magic flower from the mushroom house?

Me: No – I bumped the mystery box and got a raccoon suit, but I still get eaten by the fire-breathing plants.

Him: That’s because the raccoon suit only lets you knock bricks over with your tail. Get the flower suit, then you can throw fireballs at the turtles and plants, and swim through the quicksand.

Me: Cool. Then I just have to defeat the pipe-smoking warthog.

Him: Yeah … he’s tough.

Sometimes my wife thinks we’re speaking another language. But honestly, it all makes perfect sense if you know the game.

Playing the game with my son is a lot like having a good training partner: our strengths complement each other's weaknesses, we trade ideas to help each other get better, and we encourage each other to continue the journey.

Best of all, we enjoy each other’s company. No, we’re not getting exercise when we’re playing, and there are certainly more productive tasks we could be doing, but here’s the thing: we’re having fun. And he’s a kid. And – like everything else in life - as long as we maintain a reasonable balance, I’m not inclined to change anything.

Especially when there are still four more princesses out there for us to rescue.


robtherunner 8/28/06, 11:42 AM  

Great post Donald. I feel like I need to aqcuire more skills at this point in my journey, but I am glad that it continues despite setbacks and temporary failure.

stronger 8/28/06, 1:23 PM  

Every bit as good as candyland.

Brit 8/28/06, 11:49 PM  

This is one of my favorite running themes. My first half marathon was an all female run. There were all these women..laboring. And I was all, what are these people doing here if they can't cut it?

Then I had a baby. Then I had another baby. And I realized sometimes just getting out and doing the run is the accomplishment. I get the same satisfaction from running my daily run as some people do running a marathon.

For some of us. Just getting out of bed and doing our daily run after not sleeping much the night before is the accomplishment.

The 10ks and halfs at this point? Are cake.

Running is a lot like life....you have to run your own run, no one can do it for you, no one but you knows how good you feel, or how much pain your in, or whether your faking it. And even if they feel good, or pain or fakeness? They don't feel your pain....

Now I'm rambling...but I guess this is the blog for that ......based on the title...not the writing.

and dude...astro warriors....was way better than Mario brother...

Sue 8/29/06, 10:23 AM  

Great post - love the use of similes (? - think that's the right word). We bought my kids a Super Nintendo when they were way too young and hubby and I spent most of the time on it playing Super Mario - great games! The kids were soon outplaying us before long. I've never been that keen on any other game, or perhaps maybe Tetris!

olga 8/30/06, 3:03 PM  

Aw, Donald, can you send it to my husband? he refuses any kind of electronic games for kids and gets angry with them still wanting it...I know, we grew up without and did quite well, but then again, it was when dinosauros roared! It's a society for god's sake!
Anyhow, it's just we had a "talk" this morning, so you came very timely. Great post transition, as always:)

Mike 8/30/06, 5:56 PM  

I'm inspired. Where is my Nintendo again?

Bex 8/30/06, 7:51 PM  

I'm afraid that if I got a gamecube I would get addicted. Then again, I'm known for being a techno luddite, so maybe not.

Mike 8/30/06, 9:58 PM  

Hey- nice post Donald. I never "got" Super Mario...I was into the game centipede...does that date me!?

Nice point on enjoying the process / journey though...I'm working on it!

Dori 8/31/06, 8:20 AM  

Years ago I put a quarter in a Frogger game. I couldn't figure it out, and exclaimed to my husband what a stupid game it was. When it was over, the kid at the game next to me, put a quarter in Frogger and without saying a word, demonstrated how to kick butt in Frogger. I was so humbled, I didn't even think to give him his quarter back for the lesson. Now I stick to Freecell.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I know where Carmel Valley is--that's where you go when you stay in Carmel and want to see the sunshine. :-)

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