It’s Time to Meet Your (Mario) Maker
In 1983, Mario Bros was released as an arcade title, which means the series is old enough to have back pain. Not only that, the kids who grew up playing this on arcade cabinets or those who played Super Mario Bro on the Nintendo Entertainment System have their own kids.
We are seeing the first generation of offspring raised by parents who defeated the likes of Ganon or Bowser in their own youth. Honestly, kids these days have it easy. We gamed with one hand tied behind our back, going uphill in a snowstorm, and our eyes closed and we loved it. We didn’t have strategy guides, we had at best vague internet rumors of Mew and a Nintendo helpline you could call for hints, if you were a coward.
Regardless of slight differences, in Mario we see a generational culture of video game players. We see parents passing the torch and cheering their kid on as they defeat Meowser in Super Mario 3D World. Or at least let them try for a while, until taking the controller back.
Millennials were the first generation of kids able to grow up with gaming and subsequently share that experience and joy. Which is way better than our parents, who grew up with unions and shared fucking nothing. There was even a modern parent who made their kid play through games chronologically to see how the medium advanced. Speedrunning has also bridged generational gaps and allowed many young players to have interest in older titles in the same way Millennials now have interest in how their parents had a livable wage or could afford college. I kid, I kid. Ha ha.
And while I’ll be focusing on Mario here, Pokemon is another great example of something my generation of snot nosed kids played on Gameboy and now we are seeing the snot nosed kids of today playing kind of the same thing on Switch. There is warmth in seeing that your experiences of youth are living on in the next generation and you can feel that culture of gaming keeping us all in some capacity connected.
But, I’m not really here to wax poetic about gaming culture. I’m here to reveal the dark truth behind the beloved murder simulation we call Mario Maker 2. This game takes Skinner Box to the next level, if you know what I mean.
What is Mario Maker 2? Why haven’t you heard about the game that lets any child play out their darkest Home Alone fantasies? Well, the “game” is arguably about building levels using assets from several Mario titles. Below is a screenshot from a YouTube video where PangaeaPanga is designing his elaborate death trap.
You can place spikes, enemies, ground, create an underworld, set win conditions, and for the most part almost recreate any level existing within the games it draws its assets from. Players design their levels and then can upload them to the internet for anyone to play, so long as the player can reach the end goal of the level they designed. This restricts what appears online and requires truly skilled players to upload truly monstrous levels.
Is that so bad, Faye? Is this not just the Mario games we’ve always known and loved? In some ways yes, dear reader, but a long standing tradition of the Mario-verse is the pursuit of a dream.
We can harp on the game for playing the vaguely sexist trope of a man rescuing princess all day long, but Mario did have a goal. He looked for his princess, he fought his demons, and he had an end to achieve. Sometimes he rescued kings, sometimes he read newspapers, he’s been in bands, he’s practiced medicine, he once help end a gang war and stop a cannibal, but the through-line of these experiences was some central goal that was only achievable through strife and loss.
Mario Maker 2 has no central goal, except to complete level after level ad infinitum. There is no end. There is no princess. There is no hope. The only agency he is awarded is his choice to step forward into perpetual hell. Level after level designed by sadistic masters who push Mario to his absolute limit. I assure you if this existed in real life, players would calculate the exact height, to a pixel, you could survive a fall. So long as your broken and mangled body could reach the goal, the level is valid. It isn’t that dissimilar to OSHA regulations.
Regardless, Mario’s prior reality was anchored with substance. The Goombas and Koopa Troopers, commanded by the Koopalings, under control of emperor king Bowser. Mario would travel from world to world, castle to castle, and at the end of it save his princess. Now? Now out in Donut Plains, Mario might find twenty seven Bowsers, pipes floating in the sky attached to nothing, and locked doors leading to oblivion. The reason Mario Maker 2 doesn’t include a madness meter is that Mario’s psyche must have long shattered.
There is no sense to it. No sense to his identity. And what can we do, except imagine him as happy as he goes through it. No better modern day allegory to the fate of Sisyphus, rolling the boulder perpetually through levels designed by sadists.
Is there not some hope, Faye, given each level does have an end? Every level must be achievable. Isn’t that even a message of courage? Overcoming adversity? Can’t we frame this game within the rosiest of values? No. Because again, we don’t gain anything. We don’t earn anything. We have no reward. It is misery and hundreds of deaths over hours with the sole benefit that you can stop when you finish the level. The reward, dear reader, is no different than choosing to never move in the first place. Red Queen, indeed.
And if this fate was not bad enough, it is a fate we worked together to create. The game has hundreds of thousands of levels, submitted by as many players. Hundreds of thousands of minds put together to create simulation after simulation of death. Each goomba placed is a life that can be taken. Each spike or pit is a death that can be experienced. And in true horror fashion so many levels practically guarantee a gruesome death.
There is a concept called “Pick a Path” in which a player typically has a choice between three doors or pipes. Two of them will lead to certain death. It is a complete guess that determines your ultimate fate. And while it’s just a video game, while none of it is real, imagine it was. Keep in mind, we’re not playing blocky block the video game avatar. We’re playing Mario, a representation of a human. A character that’s been on the big screen and had his own television show.
Imagine Lou Albano wakes up in a hallway with three doors, he opens up one of them and is impaled on spikes. He immediately comes to again, with all the memory of what just happened and the strange sensation he could experience death any number of times. He has two doors left. What does he do? He panics. He freezes. He took too long and a flame drops from the ceiling and immolates him. He wakes up again, but the smell still lingers. Haunts him. Did you ever wonder why the live action Mario Bros movie was about a dystopia? Mario has always been a horror game.
And obviously Mario Maker 2 is just a fun game that doesn’t mean anything. The sprites you control don’t have feelings, they don’t experience pain, and the death traps are just abstractions representing a challenge.
But two really interesting things happen when you look at this game more seriously and dare I say fillosawfikly. The first is how absolutely horrifying it is if we consider the situation as real. And I don’t mean that it is physically happening. I mean as just a narrative story. One where Mario wakes up and must navigate death trap after death trap with no goal. Where reality continues to splinter and distort with hardly any logic. Is this really that different than Silent Hill?
People have a tough time understanding how cute things can be horrifying. That’s why Pony Island was such a jarring experience for folks. Mario Maker 2 is a cartoony, vibrant, peaceful murder machine on the same level as the employee morale improvement board at your office job. It’s right up there with your regular kitten’s strong desire to kill for fun. Do you really think the newly added catsuit in the Mario franchise is a coincidence? That they allow you to be a relentless and merciless killing machine? I think not.
And the important filloswafkicoal point isn’t to pretend video games are real. That’s obviously madness. No, you need to do the more sane thing and understand how real life is a lot like video games. Basically we’re all living a complicated rogue-like. We’re all in our own 70 year long Mario Maker 2 level, with a number of pits, spikes, and enemies along the way. Most of us are flying blind and making up our own goals along the way.
And as we progress through the level of our life, we know someone else designed it. I mean, if we were in control, would hour long wait times for your health insurance rep to tell you they can’t help you be included? What merciful designer would do such a thing? It’s clearly the work of a troll.
I don’t have a broader point with this article, except for the general thematic bulk of my work relating to how we perceive the world. And if you pay very close attention, dear reader, there is a deeper story about how the mundane worlds we all navigate can be quite horrifying for some.
There is no capital T truth, there is only the lens we look at the world with and the stories we choose to tell ourselves and others. At the end of the day, we should imagine Mario as happy and engaged to Bowsette. Smithy is at it once again and has shattered the world into pieces. It is up to Mario and Bowsette to set it right, but at what cost?
Follow me for the continuing adventures of Mario Home-Maker.