I’m the best penalty taker in the world… on paper

Paper Mario (2001)

So, do you have a happiest memory in your life? Maybe I’m just depressed, but for me, it’s harder than one might think to come up with memories or days that stick out as being overwhelmingly happy ones. I know we’re supposed to say our wedding days, or the day we graduated from college or something. Or the moment we lost our virginity. But what sticks out ahead of all these is usually a particularly great night out with all your pals present – or even better, a pizza fuelled house party where everyone’s there.

Harry Potter enthusiasts will know that the method of combating the Dementor creatures is to conjure up a very happy memory, and somehow turn that memory into a spirit animal that chases the shadowy demons of depression away. I remember reading that and thinking that I’d be bang in trouble if I ever needed to do that. Ask yourself, what moment would you draw from?

If you’ll indulge me for a bit, I’ll give you one of my own stories that, even decades later, still gives me that warm feeling and wolfish smile. As you might know, or as anyone who sees my gut and gait could instantly tell, I’m not much use at football. You could perhaps lay me down in the goalmouth and I’d block the occasional daisy-cutter from going in, but that would be it.

Well, we were doing PE in school, a bit of five-a-side indoor football, one goal wins, and it was complete deadlock between my team and the opposition. God, I can even still remember every player on both teams. Even after several penalties, triggered by the ball hitting the roof, not one of them went in and the game continued for an eternity of ten minutes, before we got the Man United special: our fourth penalty.

The idea was floated that I should take it, for a laugh that is, completely patronising really. But I didn’t mind, here was my shot at glory. I didn’t grab the ball off anyone or anything, the idea of me taking the penalty (in a not too dissimilar fashion to the “let Christy take it” scene in My Left Foot) just seemed to gain traction and suddenly the ball, those wonderful green furry indoor footballs that resembled giant tennis balls, was placed on the spot and everyone was looking to me, waiting for my run.

A hush of anticipation descended on the sports hall, and you must remember that there were at least two other teams who were dying to get back onto the pitch, they were waiting with bated breath. It dawned on me that I’d never really taken a proper penalty before, but not much else dawned on me as I almost robotically ran towards the ball like Wallace wearing the Wrong Trousers. I forgot to even look at the tiny goal, just looking squarely at the ball, and the only thing I heard was a teammate, God bless him, imploring me to “whack it”.

Whack it I did, I put my foot through it as hard as possible and, as they say, you won’t believe what happened next. Although you probably will, as me blazing the ball over the bar wouldn’t have made for a particularly happy memory. My peno was a peach, flying towards one goalpost and crashing off it before hitting the other post and bundling into the back of the net, with the diving keeper beaten all ends up. Adding to the joy was the fact that I disliked the keeper as well, so that shut him up.

But, after a moment of stunned silence passed and everyone realised what I had done, you should have heard the cheers – my team and those waiting in the wings absolutely erupted and all rushed onto the pitch, a proper invasion, to mob me and pat me on the back. I haven’t gotten a cheer like that before or since, and sometimes that’s all we want in life isn’t it? I’m sure I’m the only person who really remembers it, but God, it might as well have been yesterday for me.

But sure I can’t just be a footballing God all my life, there had to come a time when I made the transition to gaming God. In 2001, when I was consuming several Nintendo magazines, I opened the pages to see the preview of a new and intriguing game: Paper Mario, an RPG Mario game for Nintendo 64. You must remember that Europe generally had no clue about the SNES’s Super Mario RPG, so this really was a brand new concept for me. Only problem – N64 games on the shelves in 2001 were as rare as hen’s teeth, having been soundly crowded by the PlayStation 1.

I pestered my parents to drive me around as many game shops as possible, I tried to find it on our early dial-up internet, I was even ringing the gaming magazines directly. Can you imagine doing all that now? Thank God for digital distribution. It looked like all was lost, and I may have shed an unmanly tear or two. But finally, some luck – again, I still remember the entire configuration and layout of the game shop I was in when I saw that hallowed Paper Mario box staring back at me from the shelf.

A bit of a snag though, they didn’t actually have it in their stock, I’d have to reserve a copy and they’d get it in for me to collect. Using negotiation tactics that terrorist handlers could only dream off, I pressured my mother to get our name down for that elusive copy of the game. Spoiled child? You bet.

After a few days, that papery holy grail was finally ready for collection, and it was now just a matter of waiting for my parents to come home with it. Forget about a new baby brother or sister, this would be something special. This is where I remember sitting with my nose pressed up against the upstairs window, waiting for that car to swing into the driveway. I was starving hungry by that stage, but I didn’t care. Finally, they turned up, game in hand, and I couldn’t get it into our almost obsolete N64 fast enough. That in itself was a terrifically happy memory, but was it worth the wait?

Well you’ve indulged me long enough I fear, so time to get on to what you may be looking for: was it any good? Was it worth the wait, the agony, the maybe tears? The answer is yes and then some – what a brilliantly unique piece of work Paper Mario is. It’s grown into its own sub-series, though there aren’t as many great installments as we might like. Still, it’s between this and the much-heralded Thousand Year Door on GameCube for title of best Paper Mario game, though the Origami King can’t be too far behind.

For someone like me who hadn’t played any RPGs besides Pokemon, it was just the right difficulty for me, the precocious child. I had enough reading ability to seek out, read and enjoy almost every text box in the game with its several instances of laugh-out-loud humour.

And God, the soundtrack, the wonderfully MIDI soundtrack with over a hundred tunes, many of which you only hear once in a whole playthrough, leading you to savour them. And quite a good story actually, backed by great characters, a story that did indeed make me cry again at the end. Was I a crybaby or what? It’s a wonder I didn’t start blubbing after that penalty, like the England players do.

I can understand if someone took one look at a Paper Mario game and said, “Nah, that’s not for me”. If Paper Mario 64 looked at all enticing to you though, then I guarantee that you’d fall in love with it if you played it. It’s really got so much going for it. And its genius graphical style means that it hasn’t aged badly at all, which not a huge number of N64 games can boast.

We all have good memories of our favorite games and other worlds we’ve been drawn into. Paper Mario isn’t my favourite ever game, but the memories of finally finding, playing and beating this game gives me that kind of nostalgia that’s almost painful to experience. In true Alan Partridge style, if you wanted me to sum up Paper Mario, I’d have to say… back of the net.

3 December 2021

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