Let's tackle that last question first. I was relieved that they both do, in fact, know who Mario is. I wasn't at all sure that they would - why should they? Nintendo has only released a handful of "real" Mario games - games in the so-called Mario Brothers Main Series - since the turn of the century, and it wasn't hard for me to imagine them having missed them for one reason or another. Of course, I was forgetting the raft of games featuring Mario playing golf, baseball, racing, or a million other activities he's dropped into in games like 2009's Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games or 2004's Mario Pinball Land. Nintendo has released nearly 100 Mario-related games since the year 2000.
Caleb and Amanda both encountered Mario for the first time in games like these. In a way, I think this is a shame. Finding Mario for the first time smiling at you from a pinball machine or punching Link in the face in Super Smash Bros. is a little like finding out about Jesus for the first time from a Buddy Christ action figure in Spencer's Gifts. But Jesus and Mario have both are largely suffered the same fate of late, divorced from their original context and set adrift in a sea of signifiers.
Italian stereotypes aside, what do kids really think about Nintendo these days? Let's tackle the bad news first. Caleb, who's 13, has about as long a history with Nintendo as you could hope, getting a Game Boy Advance when he was six, followed by a DS and then a Wii. Not that this has translated into any loyalty, or even longtime use - he abandoned his Wii even before getting an Xbox 360. After a year of Rock Band and Super Smash Bros. he felt, like most of America, that waving a white plastic remote control just "got old." His DS has suffered the same fate. I recently spent a lot of time with Caleb, and while he was playing games virtually non-stop, they were all on his iPod Touch and never his DS. Why? The answer is pretty simple: "Other games are just more fun," he tells me, in the laconic style of teenage boys everywhere who are more or less being forced to talk to their uncle. But what's really going on here? Are DSes for babies? Are they for girls? "No," he insists, "they just don't have fun games."