A holiday in Cornwall, a games room, Mario Kart, a bully, and a mushroom.
Let me tell you a little story about my childhood. I'd say this story starts when I was somewhere between the ages of 8 and 11, and as you can probably imagine with most pre-pubescent humans, I was your typical wimpy peer-pressured kid, so eager for praise and approval from my superiors. I went to school, I played games, I reluctantly did my homework and then I went to bed; same thing day in, day out. At that age, all you can think about is how much better life would be as an adult, they get to do all the cool stuff, right? You could go to bed when you pleased, eat ice cream all day, and play games instead of going to school. It sounded awesome to me.
I was first introduced to gaming a year or two before this point, when I was handed an original Gameboy at Christmas, complete with the cartridge for Super Mario Land. I played that thing to death. I've completed it so many times I can't count, but what I do remember is that the last boss was a right little bitch in that game. Still, I managed to complete it, and with each completion I became more and more competent, which is something I think kids aren't given enough credit for nowadays - their gaming competence, that is. Soon after this, Dad brought home a SNES, and you guessed it: we played Super Mario Kart.
Now, saying that we played Mario Kart was an understatement. My siblings and I managed to play the game so much we needed another copy; no amount of exhaling or jiggling would get that piece of glorious plastic to work, so many grand prix had it seen. We were all masters of the art of karting. 50cc or 150cc, it didn't matter - we could thrash the bots silly, sliding round the corners with grace, hopping over the bumps like it was nothing. We dominated the ice, the sand, the tarmac, but what I loved the most was that we each had our own speciality.
My brothers, quite young at this point, tended to fair well on the sticker surface of tarmac. it felt familiar to them, and they could understand the friction and the accuracy it gave back to their vehicle. My sister, on the other hand, was more at home on the sand - she had pretty much nailed the differences in sliding mechanics between road and dirt. I… well, I fancied myself as a bit of a wild card, managing to pull out the stops when required. Racing last to first on the final lap wasn't unheard of from me, and like the others I had my own favourite driver: Mario.
The year of my story, our annual family holiday took us to the sunny hills of…Cornwall. Now I wasn't complaining, as I loved Cornwall. I had been before and had a whale of a time, especially when I got to go swimming! Our destination was a Butlins-esque kind of place. I don't quite remember what it was called but I do recall it having a poxy games room behind the reception. And for someone aged 8 to 11 that was where I wanted to be. Screw the swimming, I knew what games were and that's what I wanted to do.
"I don't want to make scones with other 8-11 year olds, I wanna play gaaaaaaammmeeess" I would tell my mum. But no, I had to make biscuits, which ultimately turned out to be fairly tasty so...whatever.
In the evening, after my daily activities - which were mostly compromised of making treats and interacting with the other kids - I would travel to the tiny games room. It was quite obvious that this Butlins-like place was lacking in comparison to its competitors. Recently they had tried to spruce things up little with a lick of paint and some new features – and one of these new features was a SNES, sporting Super Mario Kart, hooked up to the tiniest TV you've ever laid eyes on.
I walked in with confidence, something so out of place for me at that age. It was immediately obvious what the main attraction - in fact, the only attraction - was now. Two boys were playing head-to-head Mario Kart, and surrounding them were at least 20 kids cheering them on, in a room so small it felt like a crowd. My eyes lit up. I couldn't wait to play, to show the world how good I was, to play and learn tricks from others and to give tips of my own. I wanted to have a go more than anything, so I waited my turn in a Winner-Stays-On system, and patiently I waited.
As I edged closer to the "loser" seat it became obvious that only one of the boys kept winning. I watched as he sent players home crying. It didn't even matter what they challenged him at, he was good at all the tracks. He was older by a few years, maybe 12 or 13, physically bigger and much more intimidating than anyone else in the room. He was your classic school ground bully... only we were on holiday, so he was a massive holiday jerk. He oozed this douche attitude, that sort of "I'm better than you in every way" mentality, and it was quite obvious that nobody really enjoyed him being there. It was more of a case that they put up with him out of fear, his lackeys included, so whenever another challenger came up to race, everyone had a silent, unified hope that someone could dethrone him. I can't remember his name, but for the purpose of this story, let's call him Brad.
As I sat down, this was the conversation that took place:
Brad: Another loser for the lose pile! You're new.
Me: Hi. You choose the track.
Brad: Fine, Donut Plains - unless you want an easier one?
Me: Mm, okay.
I was timid and nervous, as he had destroyed so many challengers before me. Nonetheless I was going to kick his ass.
Beep beep beep... GO!
We sped round the track in first and second place, trading places, silence in the room as people watched. It got messy, a lot of bumping with shells flying around, carelessly aimed. We ended up finishing first and second…only I was in second place. I was expecting some kind of crappy remark from this bully, but oddly I only got silence.
I felt bummed that I didn't win, and I couldn't stop thinking about it all week. But a few days later, rumours had spread. Turns out I was the closest anyone had ever been to beating Brad. I had challenged him and come painfully close to winning, and because of this, hope had been spreading throughout the holiday camp. A resistance had formed behind his back, and they now had someone heading the charge… me. The news travelled very fast, and inevitably Brad had also heard the rumours that he was no longer the best, that he wasn't top dog anymore, and that there was a dark horse in play. He was pissed; he couldn't understand how someone younger could be better than him.