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Games of My Youth: The Last Star photo

The Summer of the Video Game will also go down as The Summer I Moved. Not across town, not from apartment to house. This is the year we made a leap from Portland to Tucson, forced by my husband Matt’s job. In March, after only a month of prepping, we left our lives for a city neither of us had ever seen.

In spring, high on the fumes of novelty, we were infatuated by Arizona’s opposite brand of beauty. The sunsets! The tacos! The sun and rusty earth were a vacation from the perma-gloom of Pacific Northwest winter. Spotting lizards and marveling at cactus forests were distractions gilding the homesickness. I had always wanted to shrink the gap I made with my hometown Seattle family and friends when I moved to Portland for college. Now I was a $400 non-direct flight away, and I felt like more of a departed memory in people’s minds than a real, reachable human.

The truth—that I was marooned—closed in as the Tucson heat leapt into hundred-plus highs. After 28 years of mild seasons, the desert summer caged me like a sweaty hamster inside our new house. I would scarcely walk out the door to retrieve the mail, let alone ride my bike or check out the local parks.

“There’s got to be something you can do inside,” Matt said, sick of my sulking. “Are there any video games you wanna play?”    

My thoughts leapt to the box I had moved to five different addresses, VIDEO GAME SHIT Sharpie-d on the side. It was now in our garage between hoards of glassware and knickknacks I had yet to unpack. The box held my Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, untouched since playing a few rounds of Mario Kart in my dorm room. The old games of my youth were what I craved. They were lazy, maddening and fun, completely different animals from the “new! Interactive!” Kinect and Wii garbage that brought an end to my gamer girl life. If I actually want to bowl, I’ll drive to a bowling alley. The blockbuster titles Matt played, like Call of Duty and God of War, seemed more like sprawling CGI movies than games. The last climatic battle I watched him wage against an end boss involved strangling a corrupt Army officer with the message “press A to choke” flashing.

“When did they start telling you how to win?” I asked from my curmudgeon vista on the living room loveseat.

“Yeah, they’re not so much about puzzling stuff out anymore,” Matt admitted.

* * *

As the first game my sister, Brianna, and I ever played together, and the first game released for the Nintendo 64 system, Super Mario 64 seemed like the right place to start. It was one of the first 3D, platform-style games ever made, allowing kids like us to explore a world from all directions and angles. After years of two-dimensions and side-scrolling, I imagine the moment we fully immersed into Princess Peach’s castle to be akin with Leon Battista Alberti proclaiming, “hey yo. I’m painting this distant tree smaller. BAM.”

I tried to hide my impatience as Matt checked the connections. The kid inside of me was pacing the living room all over again, like that Christmas morning waiting for Dad to finish skimming the instruction manual, dying to just play. “Maybe this cord is trash,” Matt mumbled, tearing the old, boxy back-connector out from the Nintendo 64. The Nintendo 64 Brianna and I nearly wept in joy to receive, now barely worth enough to justify sticking on eBay. He picked up the system and blew into every orifice. “Oh look,” he said, tapping the Reset button. “It’s stuck.” He turned the system over and swatted three times on the bottom. No Signal disappeared from the new, LCD flatscreen, replaced by the spinning 3-D N logo.

“It’s always been a little sticky,” I said, jumping to the old girl’s defense. “It usually starts right up.”

“It’s an old system, Tab,” he reminded me, half-smiling at my denial. “When did this game come out, 1996? That’s seventeen fucking years ago.”

Mario’s bulbous, disembodied head bloated to the opening game screen surface just as it had almost two decades before, but he looked boxy now. Not the smooth, realistic cartoon I remember. His corners were jagged and rough, as if he was made of too much space and not enough pixels. The game was hooked up to the smallest modern TV we could find, a 32-inch, the same size as our family’s old living room set. Did HD ravage what used to look awesome, or had we spent our childhoods gaping at shit?

The Save File screen popped up, and there it was, like a mint-condition Barbie doll still in her Malibu pink cryovac. File 4, 119 stars. One shy of the perfect game, the star the two of us sisters never figured out.

The almost-complete game was a shared file. Brianna and I both played it, passing the controller across the couch to make best use of our talents. Brianna was better at the light, poetic movements that required finesse, like ricocheting down the ice slide and catching a drift to sail up and snag all eight red coins before the magic wing hat faded away. I was the heavy-hitter, the closer brought in to slam Bowser into the spike of death and smash the Whomp King. We were typecast in our controller gifts just as we were as siblings. She was small and graceful—the pretty one, the one who would join the cheer squad as naturally as I signed on for the United Nations, who would be pictured in her senior yearbook 20 times, each shot looking like a Sweet Valley High cover illustration. I compensated by being loud, brazen, in turns funny and obnoxious. I sat on the other side of the sofa like the troll who’d snatched her as she skipped across my enchanted bridge. The big sister in every sense. Broader, bulkier, with spasms instead of movements.

I selected the old game and started running around Princess Peach’s castle grounds, getting a feel for the lost moves. Only moments later I was triple-jumping and climbing trees, like playing a song I used to know by heart. The old fortress looked sad now; the bricks were a cheesy repeat pattern that barely translated as texture nowadays. I missed my sprite sister sitting next to me and saying things like, This castle is, like, totally 3D! and getting an enthusiastic nod of approval. I dipped down toward the moat, where a cannon launcher waited, covered by impenetrable grate.

* * *

“Why didn’t you get the guidebook to solve all these mysteries?” Matt wanted to know.

“Mom wouldn’t let us buy the guidebooks. She thought they were cheating.” Meaning, of course, that after spending $60 on a game she wasn’t about to let us blow through it in a single weekend. Instead, Brianna and I would spend hours on the kind of wild speculation that could now secure us lucrative careers as analysts for CNN.

“What if, when you get the last star, the cannon opens and there’s a wedding on top of the castle?” I’d propose.

“And the toads are the bridesmaids!” Brianna chipped in.

“And Bowser is crying in the corner!”
“Maybe Nintendo sends you a prize,” she countered. “Maybe there’s a secret code up top that you send in.”

Hidden games within games. Cross-over subplots with Zelda and Pokemon. Our imaginations soared where Mario, barred by cruel coding, could not. In all nooks of our burgeoning lives, away from the couch, we were drifting away from one another into opposing cliques and interests. We would always be sisters, but the desire to be friends was shrinking. Uniting to solve the puzzle was a last bastion of connection.

The impulse to call my sister now twitched as I headed to our most-dreaded level: Big Boo’s Haunt. But it was almost five on a Saturday, and she would be up in Washington, starting her bartending shift. I was a cubicle-dweller in Arizona. We ran on opposite schedules.

Or maybe she had the day off today. I had no insight into the true life of my sister, after we abandoned our bedrooms down the same hall and a shared state of residence and the same last name. I knew the basic statistics on her job and location, but that was as deep as my knowing went anymore.

The last star in Mario’s world waited at the top of the haunted mansion, guarded by a giant ghost. We had spotted him from below, but the inside of the house was an unsolved maze. Neither of us wanted to spend time in the level populated with Boo ghosts floating through walls, disembodied eyeballs, and a vaguely creepy soundtrack. Going back now was like riding a carnival haunted house ride as an adult. I could see the fishing line suspending the bats, the zipper in the swamp thing’s suit. The MIDI game music was more irritating than creepy, and the Boo ghosts seemed Hello Kitty adorable with their tiny T-rex arms and cha-cha-kaa! chirps of terror.

Now, with a few strokes of our iPad I had step-by-step directions to the top of the house and a YouTube clip of how to smash the ghost boss into submission.

“That was it,” I muttered to myself, watching as the last star shot to the rooftop. No confetti shot out from the screen, as I would have expected years ago.

But the game had flipped a switch, somewhere deep in its coding bowels. The cannon was open, free to jump in and shoot to the top of the castle. I soared straight to the roof, landing underneath the stained-glass tower. I forgot to breathe as I rounded the corners, collecting a few useless free lives—

“Wait, turn around,” Matt said. “Over behind you.”

 “Yoshi!” we exclaimed, and the green dinosaur-dragon bounded toward me. A text box appeared above his head.

Mario! It that really you?

“It that?” Nintendo couldn’t bother to check for typos in the last dialogue box?

Thanks for playing Super Mario 64! This is the end of the game, but not the end of the fun. We want you to keep playing, so we have a little something for you. We hope you like it!

My life meter blew up with 100 lives, an absolutely worthless bounty after playing through every secret the game held. And with that, Yoshi leapt off the castle toward the waterfall and moat below. No fancy animation or tricks. The short scene played like it was cobbled by the last designer left in the office, scrambling to clock out on a Friday afternoon.

No fireworks, no passwords, not even a carpool ride down the castle with his old pal. Reaching the last star didn’t feel so much like an ending as an annihilation of every hope I had.

* * *

A few weeks later I made my first escape from Tucson summer, flying up to Seattle for a visit. The night I got into town, Brianna offered to meet me at her favorite bar. I had my Mario adventure tale ready as my conversation poker chip. I stressed over knowing what to bring up with her anymore. I didn’t know where to begin. The past was safe; we both knew how to get there.

I went into the bar, trying to glean any detail on who the girl on the other couch cushion had grown up to be. Brianna likes a dark-wood, pub feel. Brianna loves blueberry spritzes and spinach dip. Brianna roots for Liverpool. Brianna is really into thin headbands and scarves right now. She sat between me and her boyfriend Tyler, a guy she had been with as many years as I had been moved out. Tyler loves horror movies. Tyler bruised his ribs playing baseball last week.

“So Matt got my Nintendo 64 hooked up,” I said.

“OUR Nintendo 64,” Brianna corrected, still bitter over the claim I had made over our mutual Christmas gift.

“And I played OUR old Super Mario 64,” I conceded.

“Did it still have our game on it?”

“Yes! And I even Googled how to get the last star.”

“The one on top of the boo house?”

“Wait,” Tyler cut in. “You two were able to figure out every other star. Why not this one?”

“It was in a scary house,” she explained.

 “There were books that would fly out of the bookshelves!” I said. “Remember that killer piano that would start chasing you anytime you got close, and you couldn’t kill it?”

“Oh my GOD! And each time it chomped its teeth it would blurt out a creepy piano chord! I haven’t thought about that in years,” she said with a laugh. Tyler raised an eyebrow and hid his expression with a pint-gulp, too polite around me to speak up. Tyler thinks we’re total pussies. Tyler is correct. Brianna and I went through the strangest and most infuriating memories: shimmying down Tall, Tall Mountain without falling, swimming behind the Jolly Roger eel to snag the star without drowning. All 8 red coins in that Wet-Dry World abandoned village!

“Which was the worst level in the game,” I pointed out.

As our nostalgia and drinks ran down, I caught Brianna checking the time on her phone and exchanging glances with Tyler. Brianna and Tyler can telepathically communicate impatience. “We should probably get going,” she said, flagging down the check. She had an extra shift to pick up in the morning, and Tyler wasn’t feeling so great.

After we closed the tab and said our goodbyes, I was almost to the car before realizing I had missed out on my big reveal: the ending is just Yoshi and a spelling error!

And I still didn’t know my sister. What fears haunted her like those old Boos? Who was her best friend? When was the last time she cried?

I may never find out. Perhaps that knowledge is like the last star pay-off.  No spectacular rewards after reaching the last goal, and no grown-up closeness followed the unconditional love of our sisterhood.

There was no ill will between us. But the distance and differences in our personality DNA couldn’t be eliminated by retracing the breadcrumbs of our shared youth, or with a few laughs in a bar. We had ways back to each other—a narrative we liked to hear as our two voices striking a harmony. But aside from those time capsule fragments, replayed like an old game, I didn’t know how to move forward as our current selves to a closer place. I stuffed the final star ending back in my mind as a story saved for another day, a last way back.