Ever since the new season of Game of Thrones started, I've gathered with a group of friends each Sunday night to play video games for a few hours before the new episode airs. We sometimes call it pre-gaming Game of Thrones, because we're huge dorks.
This past Sunday was different, however. We began planning for it several days in advance. When I stepped into the massive, dimly lit space of my friend Jake's apartment that still looks more like the factory it once was than a space people actually live in, I noticed that he'd shuffled the couches so one was directly in front of the other, both facing the huge swath of wall that would soon be lit up by a projector.
"Stadium seating," I chuckled, taking a picture.
This Sunday was a major event, and not because of anything that went down in Game of Thrones. This Sunday, we had Mario Kart 8 for the first time.
We were excited. We had emailed each other earnestly to figure out who was bringing how many controllers and when so we'd have a full roster. Jake created a Facebook conversation titled "Mario Kart Party" and messaged us all the day before to ask if we could get to his house by 4 so we'd have a solid five hours of gaming before Game of Thrones started. We settled on 6. Then Nick, the one who had an early copy of Mario Kart, taunted us with the fact that he'd been playing the game the entire weekend already so he knew he was going to crush us. It felt like we were ten years old again, crowding around a TV in the basement to race each other in Mario Kart 64.
Nick did crush us on pretty much every single track and cup series we played through. But that didn't make it any less fun. By the time the third lap came around in every race, I'd lean forward, gritting my teeth in intense concentration just to get ahead of whomever was directly in front of me. When I finally did, I threw my arms up in triumph.
As we wound our way towards hour three of our Mario Kart binge, we decided to start racing individual tracks so we could cover more ground with the little time we had left. I was confused why we were deciding to cut the game off abruptly when we were still having a blast, so I tried to suggest that we just keep playing instead of watching Game of Thrones. That didn't go over so well.
"I'm just…really into this game," I said, watching Shy Guy (my driver of choice) zoom through another gorgeous track. I was genuinely surprised by how much I was enjoying it, because while I admire Mario Kart's beauty, it's never really been my go-to Nintendo series.
"I think I might actually buy one now," Jake said of the Wii U a moment later as we were placing the controllers back into our respective bags. Fresh off the thrill of playing Mario Kart for three solid hours, I found myself feeling weirdly hopeful that I could take this off-hand remark at face value.
Growing up on PC and PlayStation games, I never had the same level of feverish enthusiasm for Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. that many of my friends did. Jake didn't grow up on an all-Nintendo diet either, but he's also one of those people who lives in an apartment that still has a GameCube plugged into the TV.
The Wii U is the first Nintendo console I've ever owned, for a point of comparison. This has been a bittersweet introduction to a universe many of my peers fell for 18 years ago when the N64 first launched, or even earlier.
They have all moved on in one way or another, or simply remained content to dust off the older consoles whenever they want their Mario or Zelda fix. I, on the other hand, am falling deeper and deeper in love with Nintendo games for the first time at a uniquely precarious point in the company's history.
There's an urgency behind this newfound obsession, therefore -- one driven by the overarching fear that something might happen soon that will alter the very core of Nintendo. Something that would make my first Nintendo generation my last.
This has turned me into an odd sort of evangelist. After one of the recent Sundays, I offered to let Jake hold onto the Wii U until I came back the following week -- on the condition that he learn how to play Pikmin 3 so we could play the cooperative levels the following week. He focused on Donkey Kong Counter: Tropical Freeze instead, texting me at one point just to relate how much fun he was having with it.
Even before our pre-Game of Thrones gaming ritual started, I was already making the hour-plus trek from my apartment in Washington Heights to Williamsburg more often than I wanted to on Saturday or Sunday mornings weighed down with a messenger bag filled with console paraphernalia and stack of games.
I've also hand-delivered it to a friend in Bushwick to let him play with while I was away in California. Hell, I would have brought it with me to California if I didn't have to pay for the extra luggage.
One day this past winter, I crossed over to Queens with the console in tow and got caught in a vicious snowstorm. I showed up at my friend's apartment in Astoria soggy and completely covered in snow except for one spot on my chest where I'd been clutching the bag with the fierceness of a protective parent. Immediately after shaking myself off and before I'd said my proper greetings, I darted straight for his table to open the bag and make sure that it was ok.
"You know, you didn't need to do that," he said, sounding puzzled as I pulled each of the pieces of machinery out of my bag and turned them over in my hands. "You know I already have a Wii U, right?"
Ok, so maybe that time I was being a tad unreasonable. But I wanted to save my Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze progress. What else was a newly minted Nintendo fan to do?
With the exception of the one who already owns a Wii U, all my other friends have responded to my visits with the same childlike giddiness we felt when planning and then playing Mario Kart 8. The first time I brought Super Mario 3D World to Jake's apartment, his roommate and our mutual friend Anthony was so excited he even managed to pull himself away from his League of Legends addiction temporarily to play with us.
"Beautiful!" he kept gasping at the beginning of levels. At one point, we happened upon a particularly tricky series of platforms that moved in different directions depending on where we were standing. Anthony and I didn't make it that far, plunging to our deaths shortly after stepping on one of the first platforms. With no lives left, it was all up to Jake.
"DO IT, JAKE, YOU CAN DO IT," we kept shouting. He held out for a few more seconds.
"I can't…I can't do it," he said, hunching over and shaking his head back and forth suddenly and quaking with laughter. When he looked up a moment later, there were tears in his eyes.
"This game just actually blew my mind," he said a moment later after we'd retreated to an easier level. That was on a Sunday. The following Saturday, I got a text from Jake at 11 that night saying that he was sorry for the short notice but he wanted to let me know that he was heading over to another friend's house to play it again.
Mind-blowing is a good way to describe Super Mario 3D World. But it was only mind-blowing enough for Jake to keep asking me to bring the Wii U over again, or go visit someone who lives closer by his neighbourhood.
I asked Jake this morning how serious he was about buying a Wii U after playing the new game.
"Not very," he responded.
My heart sank once again.
So if there's already a game that brings you to tears, another that makes you want to turn your apartment into a day long arena, and one that's just plain fun, how many more reasons do you need to buy a Wii U?
"Zelda may be the only franchise that would convince me it's actually worth owning a Wii U," he said, though he's also considering picking up a 3DS.
I'm going to pester him again once the new Zelda finally shows up. Until then, I'll keep making my Wii U pilgrimage across the city.