Gerta phoned me later that week to tell me that I’d been assigned to the Penn-Can Mall in the town of Cicero, just north of Syracuse. “Congratulations!” she said. But I was crestfallen. In the hierarchy of Central New York malls, there wasn’t a more down-on-its-luck mall than the Penn-Can. “Is that place still even open?” I asked, not bothering to hide my disappointment. The last time I’d been to Penn-Can, fountains had been drained, ferns had yellowed, and water stains had ringed the ceiling tiles around the skylights. Newer, sleeker malls like the Great Northern and the Carousel Center had opened in the area, simultaneously siphoning off customers and making Penn-Can’s once stylish Spirit of ’76/American Colonial milieu look painfully dated.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, assuring me that it was, in fact, still very much open.
I lobbied Gerta for a better mall. Penn-Can, she explained, was the best she could do. Santas with more seniority drew the assignments in the new malls. “Besides, you’re our Primary at Penn-Can. Do you know how rare it is for a new hire to be a Primary?” A “Primary,” in the Blossom Hills vernacular, was the main Santa in the two-Santa rotation that every Santa Squad required. The Primary worked the day shift; the Secondary Santa worked the evening shift. And the Primary, Gerta continued, was afforded certain privileges.
“Like what?” I asked.
“For starters, the Primary gets to make ‘The Arrival,’ ” she said.
The Arrival, Gerta explained, was the moment when Santa arrived at the mall for the first time. “If you haven’t seen one before, let me tell you, it’s an epic moment,” she said. People apparently showed up by the hundreds for The Arrival, in every mall, regardless of its condition. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but you tell people when and where Santa is going to be, and without fail they will be there, going completely bananas,” she said. There was, she said, nothing more coveted among the Blossom Hills Santas than The Arrival. “Some Blossom Hills Santas have been with us for years and have never gotten an Arrival. You? You’re getting one your first time out.”
The Penn-Can assignment was sounding more appealing to me all the time.
“And are you ready for some even better news?” Gerta said. “Because of a scheduling hiccup, your Arrival is happening first, before any other mall in Central New York.” My Arrival, she explained, would occur the Saturday before Thanksgiving, while every other mall in the area would have their Arrivals the Saturday after Thanksgiving. “Since Blossom Hills always tries to make the first arrival in a region special, we’ll be bringing you into the mall in an antique fire truck.”
I said the words, “Are you kidding me?” again and again into the phone. “I am most certainly not kidding,” Gerta said. I was beyond elated. After the weeks of existential angst I’d endured at the closing-for-the-season Roaring Twenties-themed restaurant, my life seemed to have purpose again, even if that purpose was to be dressed as a beloved mythical character while being transported in an antique vehicle. I saw myself ringing the bell—clang, clang—and waving wildly to children while saying, “It’s me, Santa!” All my woes—well, most of my woes—disappeared.
I peppered Gerta with a series of rapid-fire questions: Would the truck be going through the mall itself? (Yes.) Would I be driving the truck? (No.) Why not? (Because, you’ll be too busy being Santa. That’s why.) How would they even get something like an antique fire truck into the mall? Was there some kind of antique-fire truck entrance that I didn’t know about? (That wasn’t really something that I needed to be concerned with.)
“Listen, all you have to do is show up next Saturday morning by 9 a.m., ready to get into character,” she said. Then she hung up the phone.
Time to find out what stage 9-6 has in store for us. Donkey Kong is up in his stage-top perch standing next to a switch which does two things: one, it raises and lowers one of those store-front barriers in front of Pauline (she’s open, she’s closed, etc.); and two, it extends and retracts a bridge across a bed of sharpangles at the very bottom of the stage. Also at the bottom of the stage: our hero, Mario. In between these two sworn enemies: five lengths of electrical wire, a single platform, and a pair of enemies (one walking steer skull and one slow-moving knight of some kind). Let’s begin.
Electricity courses through the bottom three stretches of wire in the form of a spark that makes an eerie, wavering here-comes-the-spark sound, which is without a doubt one of my favorite sound effects in the game. These electrical sparks run the length of each wire, right to left, in unison every five seconds or so. Avoid these sparks at all costs lest you’re curious to see what Electrified Mario looks like. Hint: He turns all black and smells like the sky after a lightning storm. Climb up the power pole on the bottom tier and onto Wire One. As we all know by now, pushing the directional pad up and holding it causes Mario to spin on the wires. Once you’ve got a head of steam going on Wire One, hit the jump button, and Mario will sail all the way upwards and connect with Wire Four, just beneath the platform.
There is no electric spark to worry about on Wire Four, but what you do have to concern yourself with is the walking steer skull, which constantly makes loops around the level. Naturally, the laws of gravity do not apply to the steer skull, so around this time he’ll be traveling up the righthand wall and heading towards you. Once he reaches the platform, he’ll turn and travel along the underside of it. Because of the strange shape of his steer-skull head, he will connect with your dangling Mario. If he does, it’s game over.
What you need to do is this: quickly climb to the left until you’re above Wire Three (the third highest wire starting from the ground up). Wait for a spark on Wire Three to pass by, then immediately drop down in the wake of it. This can be tricky, because you’ll need to, 1. hit the jump button to cue Mario to let go of Wire Four, and 2. once he’s in free fall, press up on the D-pad again ensuring that he connects with Wire Three.
Once you’re on Wire Three, you’ll want to quickly climb to the left, lining up Mario so that, when he spins and flies upward, he does not connect with the platform above him. Once he’s airborne, push the D-pad to the right. This will cause Mario to curve a bit during his ascent, taking him back over solid ground again, and guaranteeing that he eventually lands safely on the platform.
The slow-moving knight will be patrolling the platform. Hop over him, climb the electrical pole, then eek your way out onto the the fifth and final wire, a.k.a. The Angled Wire. We’ve seen this type of angled wire before. What you want to do here is get a slow spin going—trust me, less is more with this spin—then launch Mario so that he lands directly in front of Pauline. If you get too much of a head of steam going, you’ll sail clear of Pauline and into the clutches of Donkey Kong. D.K. will toss Mario into the air like he’s the bride’s bouquet at a wedding. Again, use a soft touch on the wire, and you’ll be fine.
What a thrilling moment this must be for Pauline, seeing Mario come flying in like Superman and sticking the landing directly in front of her like that. There’s got to be hope in her heart after seeing something as awesome as that.
Three more stages to go, Pauline.