Sunday evening at the (formerly Nokia) Microsoft Theater at L.A. Live, 16 Nintendo competitors vied for the right to call themselves the champion of all things Mario and Zelda — for the first time in 25 years. Half of them drawn from regional competitions on May 30 and half of them hand-picked by Nintendo, they represented the console gaming elite. After three hours of thumb-blistering competition, Queens, N.Y. native John “John Numbers” Goldberg took home the title and all of the associated glory.
The last time such an honor was bestowed, back in 1990, Nintendo ran a virtual monopoly on the gaming world. The word itself — Nintendo — represented all of the harms and evils of electronic distraction in the minds of sour-puss parents and teachers. Back then, feature films like The Wizard could even be constructed around playing their games, let alone just adapting their narratives. While there was a quintet of fans who waited all night to be first in line for this competition, things are a bit different now.
The Japanese game company — known for its cult-inducing trippy and colorful games (think Italian plumbers eating mushrooms and dodging turtle shells) — now has to contend with a world awash in other platforms' hyper-realistic single-player games and massive multiplayer experiences buttressed by Oculus goggles. It's a bit of a darker and more solipsistic gaming world now and players are more likely to connect with each other as separate individuals (if at all) on their own machines rather than in live groups over bowls of cheese-curls like in the wood-panel finished basements of yore. And sure, most of that has to do with the way the world is now, rather than anything gaming has done — it's just that the idea of people getting together in person to play each other seems both unfortunately outdated and very Nintendo.
Either way, Nintendo's commitment to its awesome trademark childlike whimsy became abundantly clear from the start of Sunday's competition. The feted 16 players started out with a newly-released color-splashing game called Splatoon. Like many of the company's games, the play looks deceptively simple (cartoon kids have to cover a 3-D field of play in colored ink with a variety of “weapons”), but it betrays a complex matrix of strategies that make watching it almost as exciting as playing it. From there, teams whittled down and individual heroes emerged. A peanut-gallery of gaming celebrities DJWheat, his son Miniwheat, and Justin Flynn gave color while host Kevin Pereira ran the main action.
To put competitors on a somewhat even ground, each round's game was a surprise, and Nintendo even brought out an unreleased title to keep them on their toes — Blast Ball, a space-soccer-with-robots kind of thing. Added to that were their bread-and-butter competition games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Brothers — the kind of head-to-head matches that got the diverse crowd of a few thousand all sorts of stoked.
Former children like us appreciated the rounds that used our old cartridge favorites like Legend of Zelda, Super Metroid and Balloon Fight. (Sadly, no Ninja Gaiden or Rad Racer). The crowd did too, as they cheered wildly at the mere opening notes of those signature games' soundtracks. We'd all heard them so many times, we could probably play Zelda by rote. On a touchtone phone. Without looking at the buttons.
In a rousing semi-final game of Super Smash Brothers, John Numbers and professional gamer Cosmo Wright advanced to the finals. Those of us who hadn't bought in to the tension or immersed ourselves in the actual games yet were hard-pressed to avoid doing so as the two players competed on Super Mario Maker custom-created levels of the original Super Mario Brothers, Mario 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Brothers U.
Who under 50 doesn't know the joyful frustrations and eustress of barely landing Mario jumps, or narrowly avoiding digital flames after dozens of tries? This one, though, as a custom creation added new twists — much like randomizing a 3-D chessboard and then blowing it up with an animated psychedelic bomb — was one that only elite gamers could master so quickly. We discovered the levels along with the players, but what would take most folks an afternoon to figure out, these guys had to do in mere minutes. It's not hard to forget that these players are legitimately skilled when you look at the stoic expressions on their plugged-in faces. But when looking at their gameplay amid rousing crowd outbursts, there's no doubt that they're at the top of their craft.
The champions in 1990 supposedly took home prize packages that included Geo Metros and savings bonds. This time? Just after Numbers nailed the final level, he was presented his gilded trophy by Nintendo developer and gaming god Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Super Mario Brothers and the Donkey Kong series, among others. Miyamoto presented both finalists with signed consoles. While no one got hoisted on shoulders, the crowd did swarm a bit. They dispersed quickly, we assume, to get back to their own Nintendos and deep into that delightful cartoon absurdity.