The original Super Mario Bros. taught us all a lot. For game designers, Shigeru Miyamoto delivered an absolute masterclass, changing the face of videogames forever. Even for players, Super Mario Bros. had a lot to teach us.
Run too fast and you risk dying, but standing still is death in itself.
Explore off the beaten track, take the path that isn’t obviously laid out for you.
Sometimes you get to the castle and the Princess is in another one.
One lesson it tried to teach us doesn’t seem to have sunk in, particularly for many videogame enthusiasts. Once you go forwards, you can’t go back.
It was 2014, and I was belatedly working through Mass Effect 3. Fully invested in the trilogy and the universe, I put hours into the multiplayer so I could have the best possibly Galactic Readiness Level.
I spent a lazy Sunday alone on my sofa, shooting the Reapers’ armies on my television while on my tablet, I watched through the entirety of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle Season 3. It was fantastic. By some combination of my mood, the weather that day, the hilarious comedy, fun shooting action and the loop of unlocking equipment and furthering my investment in the game’s world, I just had the best day ever.
Since that day, I’ve tried to recreate that feeling of having such a nice afternoon and evening, but I’ve never quite done it. With Gears of War and Mass Effect Andromeda, I never got as absorbed in the horde mode gameplay as I did in Mass Effect 3. Even now, I’m trying to line up an evening to get stuck into Splatoon 2’s Salmon Run and rewatch the fourth series of Comedy Roadshow, but I know it won’t do it.
I can never recreate that experience. I can never go back in time and relive the teenage afternoons of playing Super Smash Bros. with my friends either, no matter how hard I try when each new iteration launches. No new Pokemon game will have that same sense of magic and mystery as getting stuck into Pokemon Blue as a young kid with no internet or prior knowledge of what to expect.
This doesn’t stop me, and every other gamer, from trying. With each classic gaming masterpiece, we clamour for a remake, remaster or reissue. The beauty of games is in the interactive experience, the learning, the challenge and the overcoming of that challenge.
Despite that, we always chase a way to relive it. The obvious example, and the worst offender, is Dark Souls.
Like so many other people, my first playthrough of that game was something incredibly special. The interconnected world, the deep lore that was slowly teased out, the mature characterisation and the combat that I slowly learned and mastered. It was one of the all-time classic games. The emotions and experiences it gave me were so profound, I’ve spent the years since desperately trying to relive them.
I’ve replayed the game since, to get the alternative ending. There is a certain joy in returning to the game with a newfound mastery, easily trouncing sections and enemies which were brick walls before. Nonetheless, it never again felt the way it did discovering it all for the first time.
Similarly, I played through the two sequels. Dark Souls II offered a very personal story about human memory, but it did little to change or expand on what the first game had to say. Dark Souls III was more bombastic and over-the-top, with pacier combat and constant references and revelations about the first game. This obvious attempt to pander felt hollow, as close to the original game’s quiet dignity as a gaudy hot chicken wings challenge.
The real way I’ve found for reliving Dark Souls has been vicariously. Like most fans, I’ve found myself poring over deep dives into the fiction, youtube channels like VaatiVidya or podcasts like Bonfireside Chat. I love seeing new players go through the game for the first time, streams like Richie Tries to Play Darkside, Mat Murray of the Computer Game Show or IGN’s Prepare To Try series.
These little nicotine patches of the Dark Souls experience have never fully removed that need to relive my own experience of playing the game. Whenever I’m watching someone else fighting their way through the game, I look for an opportunity to get stuck in myself.
Soon, I’ll have that opportunity. Dark Souls is returning, a reissue with spruced up 4K graphics or, my personal favourite, a Switch release I can comfortably replay over and over, in bed or on the bus. I’ll be able to always have a run on the go, maybe trying new builds or challenge runs. This will be fun, but a very different experience to my initial one.
The best part of a game, and I've written about this before, is not mastery of it but when it's a challenge, when you make it through by the skin of you teeth. My first time playing Mario Kart 8 at 150cc, I would be jostling with the other racers all the way around the track, punching the air in triumph as I scraped a podium finish. I can go back and replay those tracks any time I want, but now I can cruise around as though nobody else were even on the roads.
Similarly, something like Metal Gear Solid is engrossing when I feel like any guard could kill me, like I really am Snake on this mission and I'm using my wits and whatever weapons I can gather up to fight my way through incredible odds. Once I'm holding enough ordinance to topple a Terminator, and I know exactly how to have guards eating from my hands, that feeling is gone. I adored the original Metal Gear Solid and Snake Eater, but I'm hesitant to replay them and find myself seeing the code like Neo at the end of the Matrix, instead of doing cool somersaults and shooting baddies like Neo in the middle of the Matrix.
Going back to Dark Souls, some have suggested that the game could remix enemy placements and items, fix up some unfinished feeling sections and generally create a new experience. This will never fully replicate playing something as new as the original game, but could give players a little of that old feeling. At the same time, changing it too much could take away the warm feeling of returning to the Firelink Shine players feel so at home in.
This is the inevitable fate of beloved games. They live either in our dreams, where they are untouchably perfect but infuriatingly unattainable, or they’re in our hands and slowly being transformed into comfort blankets. We can't return to the past, but we can feel new emotions and experience new worlds. We can't go back, but we should definitely keep going forwards.
By Luke Summerhayes