Games, Nostalgia and Mental Health

Super Mario 64 has been my favourite game of all time since the first moment I fired up my launch Nintendo 64 back in 1997. I was 25 at the time, my life was going pretty well and things generally seemed to be heading in the right direction.

I had been playing games since I could remember, starting with a Binatone TV Master in the 70’s, but nothing had an impact on me like Super Mario 64. The anticipation had been building for months, with articles in Super Play and clips of gameplay on Gamesmaster and it genuinely felt like I was stepping into a new era of gaming.

I was on holiday in Lanzarote the week before release, and all I was doing was visualising the moment when I would get to play this game. When I finally did on the evening of the first of March, I was blown away with how big a step forward this really was. I finished the game in a week or so, then replayed it a few years later on the Wii, where my enthusiasm was not diminished in any way.

So what does that have to do with my mental health? In the last week Super Mario 64 has helped me to understand a little bit more of how my brain works with regards to my own personal mental health issues. It has led to giving myself a new set of tools to be able to keep myself happier and safer. To explain the how, and why I now believe that nostalgia is a lot more powerful of an emotion than I did, I need to back up a bit and provide some context. 

The biggest issue I face with my mental health is that I have an alcohol addiction. It’s something I have been battling for about 18 years, and at times it looked like it might completely destroy my life. Happily, I am now in a lot more control of my addiction, and it rarely rears it ugly head. But in 2020, with such a disruption to all of our lives, it has become an issue again and when it hits it throws my life, and the lives of those around me, into chaos.

Thanks to some great professional help, I do understand a lot more of why I find myself falling into the grip of alcohol, and how I can try to combat it. I have a lot of triggers that fire off neurotransmitters in my brain that make me recall the good times I had drinking and that leads to me drinking again to try and capture that feeling of happiness and even euphoria. Part of helping me get better is to try and find something else to create that reward of feeling great so that I don’t feel the urge to drink. Thats been really difficult to tie down, as years of drinking have left some strong associations between feeling good and alcohol.

So thats some background, back to Super Mario 64. I’ve recently bought a Switch, and have been immensely enjoying Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild. Then last week I unexpectedly had some extra money and decided to buy Super Mario 3D All-Stars. After reading some of the reaction to the package from reviewers, I was a little concerned that my revisiting of Super Mario 64 might make me revise my opinion of it. I already knew it had it’s flaws, but it was being suggested that nostalgia alone wasn’t able to paper over the cracks that time had revealed. So it was with some trepidation that I downloaded the game and started it up. What happened next was genuinely extraordinary. 

The feeling I get when faced with an alcohol trigger hit me really hard, but in an incredibly positive way. My brain reacted to the sights, the sounds and the experience of leading Mario up to the castle by firing off feelings of joy, even euphoria. The connection that I made 23 years ago was obviously so burnt into my brain that playing again brought back such positive emotions and a sense of happiness that was entirely unexpected.

I played for about an hour and realised that yes, the core game has been arguably improved upon with better graphics, controls, camera and more over the years with Galaxy and Odyssey, but I didn’t care. Super Mario 64 obviously means more to me than what is just there on the screen. It’s a connection to an emotion, a state of mind, a feeling of pure unbridled joy that is worth more to me than the experience being super polished.

And thats when I started to understand how powerful nostalgia can be if it’s connected to something that originally produced such intense emotions.

Along with that I also realised that I now had a new powerful tool to combat cravings when they inevitably turn up again. I have something I can turn to which will give me the same feelings of happiness and well being without being destructive, and I can start to look for other things that could elicit the same response.

I’ve watched some of my Doctor Who DVDs of stories from the 1980s, when I was obsessed with the show, and it brought out the same emotions, although to a lesser extent than Mario 64 did. And now that I understand this a little more, I am using it to my advantage. While I have been writing, I’ve had the Super Mario 64 soundtrack playing in the background, and it made me feel calm and focused, I really think that I have found a new way of looking at things which will make my life better.

Super Mario 64 is still my favourite game of all time. And I don’t think anything will be able to knock it from that pedestal as it is obviously more than just a piece of software to me, it’s an escape to an incredibly happy place.

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