Dr. Mario, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pill

My grandma is better at Dr. Mario 64 than I am at any game.

Dr. Mario is a plumber-turned-doctor who solves all of his problems with a torrent of colorful pills.  He exists in a world where viruses are smirking and primary-colored, and where three consecutive instances of a single color is a surefire recipe for viral destruction.

When you first load Dr. Mario 64, you can begin as high as level 21.  Once you beat it, the game’s credits roll.  And then, if you’re in the mood for sudden and inescapable failure, you can play level 22—they add a few more viruses.  Each subsequent level adds more and more viruses until there are so many that it is literally impossible to win.  Here’s a shot of what the game looks like on virus level 23:

My grandmother regularly reaches level 25.  It’s uncanny how quickly she flips and flits the pills into place as they tumble into the bottle, fast and inexorable.

In the early ‘90s, Grandpa bought an NES.  My brother and I went to his house all the time to play Gauntlet II, The Legend of Zelda, and Super Mario.  Initially, Grandpa played games to get closer to his grandchildren, but he discovered that he really enjoyed them, and before long he was playing them all the time, even when we weren’t there.  And so, initially, my grandmother played games to get closer to her husband.

She spent many hours sitting on the couch, watching him play Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Final Fantasy, and Golf.  She didn’t particularly enjoy any of these games, but she came to love a different genre: puzzle games.  She consumed hours at a time playing Tetris, Dr. Mario, and The Adventures of Lolo.

When Grandpa bought a PS2, the N64 was relegated to the shoe room, a dingy entranceway to the house.  Even after all of those years, the little stack of tube TVs sits right next to the door, and grandma still perches on the crowded futon, flipping pills and killing viruses.

Maybe games like Dr. Mario, Tetris, etc. are about creating order out of disorder.  Maybe people who play them are like Amelie’s mother, who likes to empty the contents of her purse and then return everything to its neat and rightful place.

In Solitaire you start with a shuffled deck, and you sort the cards into meaningful piles.  In Bubble Spinner (a perennial favorite of my girlfriend), you begin with a spinning hexagon of orbs and you pair like with like, eliminating swaths of color.  Tetris starts with an empty screen, and you fight to organize falling blocks as quickly as you can.  Every game of Dr. Mario begins with a brimming bottle of viruses, and you have to clear the squirming chaff and return to simplicity.  Simplicity is an empty bottle.  Games teach us that no quagmire is so murky that we can’t fight our way out with guns, magic, or a fistful of pills.

Grandpa died a few years ago, and now Grandma lives by herself.  One of her daughters lives just across the road, and everyone still comes to visit, but the house is big and she has little to do.  I can’t imagine the oppressive loneliness that she must experience, but I rarely see her without a smile.

I asked her what was so special about Dr. Mario 64 that it would keep her playing for nearly a decade.  She shrugged.

“When my mind is all filled up with problems, and I don’t want to think about anything, I can just come and play my game.”

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  1. Michele A.

     /  September 11, 2010

    Thanks Kent. That was a nice blog. Brought tears to my eyes. Grandma can beat the pants off any of us at that game. :)

    • Another fantastic show. Bionicleman’s litlte touches that he adds in post-recording crack me up, and he does an awesome job. And SPIRIT brought a lot to this episode I enjoyed the whole thing. =)

  2. What a nice article, Kent. (Incidentally, your tweet was wrong. This was the best thing I read about Dr. Mario 64 ever.) I like reading stuff like this, which highlights how diverse “gaming” really is now.

    I had a girlfriend who got into Columns on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. She was crazy about it, while I more taken with Sonic, Red Zone, Zero Tolerance and Dynamite Headdy. But she was always better at this game than I was. I could never beat her in head-to-head mode. It’s probably the same now, even though I bet she hasn’t played Columns in years.

    But that comment from your grandma is so true: When you play games, you don’t have to think about anything else. They can be a wonderful break from reality.

    • Shnissugah

       /  September 11, 2010

      A lot of people tend to find the fact that games “can be a wonderful break from reality,” problematic with games that are similar to real life in tedium. For some reason this ‘problem’ has never really bothered me. Regardless of how much like real life a game is, it’s not reality, and therefore can be a break from reality.

    • If you like classical Mario the get New Super Mario Bros. Wii but if you like modren day Mario. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the best choice I have Super Mario Galaxy and NewSuper Mario Bros. Wii so I’m thinking bout getting Super Mario Galaxy 2

  3. Dao Jones

     /  September 12, 2010

    Great article! My mother destroys me in all puzzle games since the NES days. Christmas and her birthday were such easy holidays to get gifts for her: puzzle games and horror movies (yes, she is that awesome!). To this day, she still plays the GBA daily, Plants vs Zombies on the PC and sometimes Peggle on the DS. One time she came by and saw me playing Peggle on the 360. After a few moments of watching me, she told me, “you suck”.

    I love my mother. :)

  4. This is a great story, Kent. Your grandma sounds awesome.

    • Actually, he forgot to mnotien that this game technically comes with SMB for Super Players aka Super Mario bros the lost levels aka the Japanese version of super mario bros 2. He didn’t unlock it yet it seems but you got to get a high score (300,000 points maybe?) in the original SMB to unlock it. Good game to own.

  5. Stories like this are still so unreal to me, considering that even my parents don’t remotely see video games as having any redeeming qualities. It’s always eye-opening to see something beyond the world I’ve always known.

  6. Hey guys: thanks for the kind words.

    You know, it’s not like a lot of my favorite RPGs have particularly fascinating GAMEPLAY (AHHH I SAID GAMEPLAY) either–I wonder if the threadbare stories are really what keep me going, or if they just give me an excuse to zone out and play mindlessly.

    • I think it depends on what the game doles out to you to indicate progress. Phantasy Star Online dangles the carrot of rare drops, but buoys it with involved combat. Games like Fallout and Gothic spread out the levels, which make gaining every smidgen of experience encourage going further.

      Of course, Gothic’s high difficulty level makes exploration more interesting; I can’t make a lot of solid progress just scouting ahead, since the enemies inevitably catch up to me and end my life in one blow. However, I can zone out and rush in headlong, just seeing what I’ll come back to later*.

      *This usually ends with me jumping off a cliff. It’s actually pretty satisfying.

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