The Lost Levels

I should hate the Wii Virtual Console. Considering how I feel about copyright and whatnot, the Wii Virtual Console seems like it would stand for everything I hate. Paying twice for something you already own, draconian sharing abilities, etc. They continue to stubbornly refuse to make several grand instantly by releasing Earthbound. And yet, I continue to buy from it. I own Mario, Mario 2, Mario 3, and Paper Mario. Mario Kart 64. Punch Out and Super Punch Out. A Link to the Past. Blades of Steel. Except for Paper Mario, I own all of these already. My parents probably paid $60 a pop for them back in those heady days of the early 1990s. So why the hell have I spent another $56 to buy them again?*

*Actually, imagine if you could go back in time and talk to your eight year-old self. Apart from his disappointment that you have not yet locked down that starting shortstop position for the Red Sox, wouldn’t the biggest shock be that you could buy video games for 5 bucks? Like, all of those Mario games could be purchased with a week’s allowance. That would be more amazing for me than the concept of the Wii. I think that would almost help him get over his crushing disappointment in the way life has worked out so far.

Well, I guess I don’t mind because I love these games. They’re a connection to an older time. I don’t want to sound like too much of an old fart here, but there’s something charming about old video games, from back when the plot was “this guy did something bad, kill him” and you have to fight off waves of banana monsters and the occasional big banana monster. Sure, I hated the fact that you only get X lives and the difficulty curve explodes like a Neutron Bomb around World 6 and the last few levels are an exercise in controller-masticating masochism. But (with a few irritating exceptions*), they did it by forcing the player to do the same things they did in world 1-1 (generally “jump over this but not over this), except more. It’s an actual difficulty curve!

*Fucking Mario Kart. There has never been a game more unfair than Mario Kart**. The first one was brutal on 150cc, then they went and added Spiny Shells, just in case you didn’t like actually being in first for any period of time. Fuck them. Actually, Nintendo has done a pretty good job keeping the old-fashioned playerfuckery and even making it worse in the newest one, because now there are 12 racers instead of 8, and people in 4th or worse can get Spiny Shells. Plus there are POW blocks, Bloopers that shoot ink on the screen, and NO MORE DRAGGING ITEMS BEHIND YOU FOR PROTECTION. What the hell, Nintendo? What did I do to you?

**Actually, Mario Super Strikers comes close, with it’s absurd “Dry Bones Just Disappears and Reappears in the Net” dick move. But when it comes to ridiculous sports games, the Babe Ruth of the category is Wayne Gretzky’s 3-D Hockey. Once you went down 2 goals, it was literally impossible not to score. It explains why my cousins and I have played about 6000 games and every single one has been decided in the final 10 seconds. It’s possible, being down two with ten seconds left, to score, win the face-off, score again, win the face-off, and score “at the buzzer,” which lasts at least 5 seconds, to win. “Rubber Band AI” does not begin to describe this game.

I’m not saying old games are “better.” Because they aren’t. Madden 64 is not as good as Madden 10. But that’s not really fair. I had way more fun playing Madden 64 than any other Madden game because I like video games, not hyper-realistic fantasy football simulators where none of the players ever get suspended for steroids. But they can still be more fun. The fact is, Mario wouldn’t have 60 different franchises with his name on it if those old games weren’t fun. Which, after 632 words, brings me to the point of this post: Super Mario World, for Super Nintendo, is an amazing game that deserves better than it got.

OK, maybe that’s not exactly a mind-blowing proposition. Everyone knows the Super Mario games were the best platformers ever. But to me, it seems like poor old Mario 4 gets lost in the shuffle. I have a few theories. First and most importantly, it was on the Super Nintendo rather than the NES. And let’s be honest: if there’s one thing sappy, nostalgic twentysomethings like to wax poetic over, it’s the NES. Even though the Super Nintendo was a great system, it just doesn’t have the same nostalgic street cred. Secondly, look at the NES Mario games. The original, the godfather of video games, which single-handedly saved the home console market. It has the theme song, the levels, the tributes. Mario 2 is the classic middle child. It tries to be different, and is, but it never really gets the respect of its siblings. I feel bad for Mario 2, but considering I actually didn’t like it that much, not too bad. Mario 3, of course, is the greatest platformer of all time. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine this now, with games lasting 28 hours and having levels as big as Wisconsin, but the jump from Mario 1 to Mario 3 is like going from Play-Doh to Titanium. It has an overworld! You can use items on the map! You can pick which levels you want to play! All of the worlds have their own themes! Yes, the boss fights are annoying and repetitive, but crap, it’s the Koopa Kids! At least they look different. And the level design is preposterously good for a game from the late 80s. They’re varied and unique, and you get to hop around in a shoe in level 5-2. You get to not only shoot fireballs, but fly, turn into a statue, throw hammers, and use the frog suit in a level with no water because you don’t want it to go to waste. We’ve all become jaded, but Mario 3 is a crazy-good game, and you should go back and play it. Five bucks on the virtual console and you don’t even need a classic controller.

So that leaves us at Mario 4. What do you honestly remember about Mario 4? Well, it gave us Yoshi, so that’s a good start. If you ever beat it, you know Bowser flew around in that weird clown/hovercraft thing. That was pretty cool. You maybe even know about Star Roads and different colored Yoshis. Oh, and Ghost Houses. And that fucking forest, where every level had multiple exits. And those switch palaces, of course. And different colored Koopa shells gave Yoshi different powers. And there was a cape. And something with a football helmet that threw baseballs at you. Actually, thinking about it, there was a lot of shit going on in that game! And that’s what I had forgotten when I started playing it again. Mario 4 is a huge fucking game. In terms of pure variety, it blows Mario 3 out of the water. Levels have multiple exits that lead to different places on the map. The map itself is huge and interconnected, which has to have been a first. You could do two different kind of jumps, and each had its place in the game. Once you got about halfway through, the levels start to throw curveballs at you, with new baddies, new toys to play with (The countdown platforms, for e.g.), and new puzzles to solve. It’s striking to go back and play it again.

Take, for example, the previously mentioned forest. I hated that forest when I was a kid. I didn’t have the patience to solve those puzzles and beat all the levels the alternate way and get out of the stupid place. Playing it again though, it’s frustrating in a good way. It makes you think while you’re mashing B to jump and Y to run, which believe it or not, is something the NES Mario games don’t make you do much of. There are fences to climb, moving walls to jump onto, and big green balls that inexplicably float through the air along with the Boos. Actually, Ghost Houses are the epitome of this think-mashing. You often have to dodge weird baddies found only in ghost houses that can’t be killed, while you’re searching for that P-Switch and the blue door next to the yellow one, except you have to actually hit the box with the vine in it. Really awesome level design. And the music, as my non-video game playing girlfriend pointed out, is actually pretty creepy for Midi music.

It’s not all roses, of course. Some of the alternate exits are not nearly apparent enough, which makes it pretty amazing people used to complete this game without the internet. The Koopa Kids are cute, but they double up fights rather than have 8 different ones, so they aren’t that hard. But really, the game is so good it doesn’t matter.People often talk about “immersion” in newer games. They usually mean something like, “feeling like I’m part of the game,” “being engrossed in the story to the point it affects your outside life,” or “becoming tempted to hijack cars anytime I go to Queens.” But for my money, immersion can be found in a game like Mario, where you become so focused on finding the hidden doors, mastering the spin jump, and beating all the levels that you forget to eat lunch. Yeah, the story sucks, it’s a Mario game. I mean, let’s be honest. Nintendo makes good games, but most of the best ones have the plot “Princess captured, hero uses items to rescue her.” But it doesn’t even matter, because the gameplay is so good.

This actually brings me to my third reason why I think Mario 4 gets left behind. It came out around when Link to the Past came out and actually was a game with both good gameplay and an actual story to go along with the captured princess. There were a bazillion RPGs with epic stories and gameplay. Doom was released on the PC. Mortal Kombat came out and everyone started worrying about violence. All of a sudden, games were changing and poor Mario got left behind. I mean, he did start driving go-karts. But still, his story seemed too childish for our evolving tastes in video games. So we never really gave him the chance he deserved. And then Mario 64 came out and turned it into a pseudo-action/adventure franchise and that was that. Mario 4 got left in the middle of video game history, and it doesn’t deserve that.

I don’t mean to suggest games can’t have great stories and also great gameplay. But now, with 20 levels of tutorials and 15 minute cutscenes and jiggle physics, a lot of people have forgotten that games are games too, and not just vehicles for stories. Self-proclaimed “serious gamers” are the worst hypocrites when it comes to this. Every complaint about a game’s horrendous play control or clunky and annoying levels is buried under 55 comments about the awesome new trailer for “Jimmy and the Girl with Not Enough Clothes’ Quest for the Quest 4,” which shows .2 seconds of gameplay and 12 minutes of cutscenes. I like games with good stories, I really do. But making games is so intensive now that developers seem to be willing to chuck out developing boss fights in favor of another dirt cheap cutscene, where you don’t have to worry about that stupid player ruining your message.

I’m as big a hypocrite as anyone, of course. I fucking loved Twilight Princess, while I actually can’t stand the original Legend of Zelda. Ocarina of Time is better than A Link to the Past. Yes, with all the cutscenes and forced tutorials (Point at the screen to aim your bow! Press B to dismount!) and Navi (“Hey! Listen!”*), I loved it. I ate it all up. I got wrapped up in the story and didn’t care that the final boss fight in Twilight Princess was buried in an hour of cutscenes. So I’m part of the problem too. I mean, christ. I almost bought a used copy of “No More Heroes” today.

*In the last Strong Bad game on the Wii, Homestar gets trapped in the game interface and pops up with hints for Strong Bad. At one point his box popped up and he said “Hey! Listen!” and I almost fell out of my chair laughing. The Brothers Chaps are awesome. That was a perfect reference.

But maybe that’s why I download old games on the VC. No, they aren’t as good. And yes, I’m paying for something I already own/could get free on the internet. But it takes me back to a time when games were games, and you could pick one up and play it and have a good time. It’s like wearing an old shirt. It’s faded and out of style, but man it used to fit great and it’s comfortable as hell and holy shit, I just found out if you jump off Yoshi under the gate in Cheese Bridge Area you can get to Soda Lake!

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