One weekend in the late ‘80s an old friend of my parents came to visit. I’d never heard my mom or dad mention her before, nor have I heard much about her since. She was one of those old friends who tunes a kid into the fact that his parents used to be younger, groovier people.
Our house guest stepped in the door with a suitcase in each hand. She had short silver hair. She looked about two decades older than my parents. Too old to be their friend, I thought. I was in elementary school and had never had a friend more than two years apart from me. She travelled to see us alone. I got the impression she had never married. That was weird, too. Our family was churchy. Every family we knew was nuclear. I don’t think I’d ever met a woman so old who wasn’t married before.
I showed her where she could set down her things. Being the older brother I had the bigger of the two kids bedrooms. Mine was used as a guest room when we needed it. It had an old square dining table in the corner. There was a faux walnut Zenith on it. Next to the TV was an NES, less than a year old.
“You have a Nintendo!” she said. “I love these.”
“Pshyeahright,” I thought to myself. Some old lady with silver hair? She’s just trying to smooth things over with the kid who’s losing his bedroom for the weekend.
After dinner she sat down in front of the old Zenith and started playing Super Mario Bros.
“Do you know the infinite lives trick?” she asked me.
“The what?” I asked.
“Watch this,” she replied.
Then I marveled as she played a perfect game, straight through to World 3, Level 1, one of the night levels with a jet black sky. Near the end of the level there’s a half-pyramid of gold bricks. Two Koopa turtles come marching down it as soon as the pyramid comes into view.
“Here’s the trick,” she said.
What she did next would take me weeks to master. I doubt I could do it today, if I still had an NES and an old Zenith. She did it on the first try, flawlessly. She popped the second Koopa, bouncing on its shell with quick short hops. With each hop, the shell ricocheted back and forth one tiny bricks’ worth of distance on the edge of the pyramid, perpetuated by this improbable old woman’s mastery of the controls. With each pop, more and greater points bubbled up from the collisions. The points turned into one-ups. Boop-beep-boop. Boop-beep-boop. Mario’s life count climbed up higher and higher. 98, 99, 100. It got so high that the lives counter used strange symbols instead of numbers. I have no idea how many lives Mario had by the time she got bored and let the second shell go.
Thank you, silver-haired lady, whoever you are, for teaching me that software can be hacked and integers can overflow. Thanks most of all for teaching a rude little boy that video games, like all passions, are meant for anyone who loves them.