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.
On my last night I decided to return to the games room to see if I could have another go on Super Mario Kart, hoping that Brad might have left. After my first defeat I didn't want another confrontation, but unfortunately Brad was sitting there, as if waiting for my arrival.
Everyone turned round, and once again, silence filled the room.
Brad: You think you're so good, you've been spreading rumours behind my back!
Me: No, no I haven't!
Brad: Well, if you're so good then why can't you beat me. Go home loser.
Me: Maybe you should let other people have a go and stop being such a bully.
Brad: Maybe if someone could beat me then I would.
Me: FINE! One race, winner takes all, I choose the track! If you lose you let other people play, if I lose then I won't ever play here again! [I was going home tomorrow, what did I care?]
Brad: Fine, which track?
Me: Special Cup Final - Rainbow Road.
Gasps filled the room. Rainbow Road was notorious for being the hardest track in the game. Its difficulty was equalled by no other: there were no barriers, very tight roads and extremely hard-to-hit shortcuts. I could have picked an easier one - hell I could have just gone with Mario Circuit 1 and had a good chance - but no. This was the way it had to be.
And guess what Brad, you were shit out of luck, because this was MY speciality! All that time playing with my brothers and sister came down to this. I selected my one true friend in the room, Mario.
One final time, the games room fell quiet. It felt as if every kid on the site had come to see this moment. The little cloud dude came down and initiated his lights. This was it.
Beep beep beep... GO!
Brad flew off the line. He was absolutely tearing up the road, throwing green shells and bananas to keep me at bay. There was no way I could catch up, he was playing smart, keeping green shells in reserve for when I got a red. DAMN IT! By the beginning of lap 2 he had a significant lead; I had fallen off the edge once already while trying too hard to shave time off my laps. He was slowly getting away and there was nothing I could do about it.
Please Mario do something! Pull out all the stops, don't mess up, get a red shell, all the coins, all the shortcuts. But it was all for nothing. I was making little progress; the best I could do was keep my cool.
And yet something changed in that bully's mind. Brad started to become overconfident, and his lead had caused him to become reckless. He got hit by one of the big bricks, and that was the beginning of the end. He made one mistake after another in the final third of the race: a slip off the side here, another missed mystery box there, all adding to his frustrations. I was gaining, like the tortoise and the hare. I was getting closer, and you could see it all unravelling. The mental war was mine - the more he messed up the worse he performed and the better I played.
On the final lap we were almost even, and if you know Super Mario Kart, then you'll know you can see what the other player is holding in their arsenal. Furthermore, if you know Rainbow Road, you'll know that just before the last corner the road splits into two: one side has powerups, the other doesn't. Brad was ahead, and naturally he took the fork with powerups, but in first position he could only obtain green shells and bananas - though that was still enough to give him the win. I watched as he veered right... and I also watched how he missed the powerups. YES! He had nothing, jack all, but he was still in the lead and flying round the last corner.
Now it was my turn. I hit the powerup. Diladiladiladila "Coooommmooooon!" I was spamming the button to make it stop spinning. "Coooommmoooonn!!!!" I turned the corner, Brad was almost there. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Taptaptaptaptaptap, Diladilaildailda. I could see the line; whatever this was it had to be good. Diladila... it stopped spinning.
TAP, BANG, ZOOM, WEEEEIIOOOOOOO!
I flew past Brad in the final moments, whistles signalling the winner. The mushroom had secured me victory. The kids around me cheered: I had done it, dethroned the almighty. Screw you Brad, and your stupid game! Go home! Leave now, as I am the winner and everyone saw it!
He left like any pissed off kid would. "Stupid game, you got lucky. I wasn't even trying". A string of excuses mixed with faked apathy.
Many will not believe this story; it sounds horrendously clichéd to say the least. But I can assure people that this really did happen. It was one of my greatest childhood moments, one that I can clearly recall to this day. I can remember the colour of the games room, the little wooden plinth the TV was on, the naff brown chairs we sat on.
I thank Mario for being there for me, always reliable, and for being the best all-rounder there ever was. You truly did make me a hero that day.