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FGC #547 Super Mario Bros 2 (The Lost Levels)

Dispatches from an alternative universe!
This article is provided by Goggle Rob of Alternate Universe #724

Let's do the MarioThe original Super Mario Bros. brought the concept of gaming back from the brink of ruin. So it seems only appropriate that, 35 years later, we examine its sequel, the game that crashed the videogame market forever.

Super Mario Bros. was a revelation here, there, and everywhere. When it was released in 1985, Nintendo knew they had a hit on their hands within a mere four months, which wound up being plenty of time for its creators and curators to consider a sequel. What was it about Super Mario Bros. that everyone enjoyed? Running? Jumping? Malevolent chestnuts? Jumping on malevolent chestnuts? Nobody had the answers, but the designers of Mario did have a theory: people wanted more. They had already begun working on arcade versions of Super Mario Bros., and, given this version was thirsty for quarters, it was designed to be more difficult. Could this be adapted to be the official sequel to Super Mario Bros.? Why not! Super Mario Bros. 2 would be a game that assumed you had already played Super Mario Bros. 1 until your eyes popped out of your skull, and, after a licensed optometrist put those peepers back in place, you’d be ready for more Mario challenges.

So, on a metaphorical level, Super Mario Bros. 2 was designed not to start with World 1, but Super Mario Bros. 1 World 9-1. There are no simple “tutorial” words in Super Mario Bros. 2, just militant turtles and twisting mazes. There are new mushrooms that do not grant Mario new abilities, but simply poison the plumber. Super Mario Bros. 2 is not only a game that requires you master Mario’s physics before you even pop the cartridge in your system, it is also a game that requires you memorize the intricacies of its often dubious world. Super Mario Bros. 1 disguised the length of a handful of castles with a looping maze that required a particular path, but Super Mario Bros. 2 habitually leans on warp pipes that will send Mario back to the start of a stage, or even the start of the game. Super Mario Bros. 2 requires dedication from its audience, and it makes absolutely no concessions for a novice player (give or take a secret way to earn a hundred lives within its opening level). You will lose all of your progress often and repeatedly, and only complete knowledge of the game will allow you to circumvent a frequent, inglorious Game Over.

This sucksIt seems the tipping point for this tale happened when Super Mario Bros. 2 was being exported to America. Howard Lincoln, a man who was responsible for play-testing games for American audiences, felt the game was too difficult, and would not play well with American audiences. He famously said of the game, “Not having fun is bad when you’re a company selling fun.” However, Lincoln’s protests were ignored. While there was brief discussion regarding “reskinning” another title as “Super Mario Bros. 2 USA”, Super Mario Bros. 2 was released as is, with no changes or tweaks made to the abhorrent difficulty of the game. America was going to face down its first poisonous mushroom, and it would not be left in the cold by its Japanese brothers.

And it was a success. Of course it was a success! Nintendo had already set out to make Mario the most well-known mascot since Mickey Mouse, and, back in the 80’s, it looked like they were going to succeed. Yes, Super Mario Bros. 2 was difficult, but it was flanked by The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Nintendo Cereal System, and Nintendo’s own propaganda rag, Nintendo Power. In fact, many claim the success of Super Mario Bros. 2 could be attributed to its place on the cover of Nintendo Power #1 (famously showing a clay Mario as he grabbed a flagpole in front of a blue Bowser) and spread across the “tips and tricks” contained therein. Super Mario Bros. 2 needed a comprehensive guide if you hoped to conquer it, and Nintendo wisely delivered such in every toy and book store across the country. Before long, everyone was “beating” Super Mario Bros. 2, and it seemed like the gambit of releasing such a difficult game paid off. Sure, SMB2 was “beyond Nintendo hard”, but Nintendo stepped in to help the players, and, ultimately the game itself.

Unfortunately, other games weren’t so lucky.

As was said at the time: so goes Mario, so goes the world. Super Mario Bros. (1) inspired a thousand 2-D platforming clones that all attempted to capture the magic of Mario. Did any succeed? Yes, a small handful did, but certainly no greater than a dozen. Super Mario Bros. 2 had a similar effect on the trajectory of videogames. Where once a sequel would account for new players (what would eventually become known as the nigh mythical “first time gamer”), all new sequels produced decided to follow Super Mario Bros. 2’s trail. This led to a variety of games that all seemed dedicated to murdering the player within the opening moments. Bubble Bobble 2’s starting “Floor 101” combined a million monsters with a timer that could barely be surmounted. Contra 2 led to a generation memorizing its “ten extra lives code” because you’d lose your first three inside of the opening seconds. Rygar 2 utilized every mapping “trick” available to create levels that had extremely poorly defined endpoints, and Gradius 2’s “poison powerups” made acquiring a shield intolerable. Final Fantasy 2 introduced an archaic leveling system that was about as opaque as a behemoth, and Dragon Quest (Warrior in the West) 2 featured dungeons that contained traps upon traps. Even Nintendo wasn’t immune to its own hype, as The Legend of Zelda 2 released with more invisible walls and spongey “green Moblins” than you could shake a stick at. And, to this day, no one has gotten past the first stage of Punch-Out 2 without tool assists. The only sequel that seemed to dodge this absurd difficulty fate was Mega Man 2, but, even there, some said the infamous Quick Man stage seemed like something that was “Super Mario Bros. 2 hard”.

And, God, what was done to Tetris 2 was criminal. It’s no wonder the Gameboy hardly lasted a year.

glub glubThough, of course, that was the inevitable end of this trend. Super Mario Bros. 2 was a success, but every game attempting to ape Super Mario Bros. 2 just hammered a nail into the coffin of gaming harder and harder. By the time of the predicted Super Mario Bros. 3 release, sales of Nintendo consoles had plummeted. Sure, this was the system that had Mario, Link, and Kid Icarus, but nearly every game that included a “2” was an awful slog of anti-fun. If this was the direction gaming was going, apparently the general public wanted nothing to do with it. In retrospect, it should have been expected: the Videogame Crash of 1983 was followed six short years later by the Videogame Crash of 1989. Stores stopped stocking videogames at all, and, by 1990, you could no more purchase a Nintendo Entertainment System in America than a pet rock. The fad of “gaming” had faded, returned, and faded all over again within the span of a decade.

And, like E.T. before it, everyone pointed to Super Mario Bros. 2 as the most prominent example of the reason no one wanted to touch a controller ever again.

So what became of gaming after the crash of ’89? There is no shame in not being aware of the last thirty years of videogame history, as the hobby became little more than a niche occupied by some very dedicated enthusiasts. Those that stuck around after Super Mario Bros. 2 demanded more and more severe challenges, and, given they were the entire audience, the gaming companies of yesterday and today were happy to oblige. Nintendo got out of the hardware business after the twin bombs of its Nintendo Entertainment System 2 and Super Mario Bros. 4 (infamously featuring a rideable dinosaur that would, after a set period of time, eat the player), but they are still making games for the personal computer, and the recent Super Mario Bros. 35 certainly seems to be 35 times as challenging as Mario’s original adventure. Other companies from the NES era, like Capcom and Ultra, faded into the ether, but they have been replaced by modern, “indie” developers that attempt to capture the feelings of the original titles like Castlevania 2 (a game that literally asked its players to bang their heads against cliffs). Oddly, it seems the most profitable gaming Wart?company in the modern era is a British gang by the name of Rare Limited, as their most recent release, Battletoads 3, is topping the sales charts. Granted, at this point, topping the videogame sales charts is roughly as financially relevant as selling the most model train sets in June, but it is still an accomplishment.

And that’s the world that Super Mario Bros. 2 created. It was a difficult, grueling videogame, and, thanks to its unprecedented success, every other company decided to make games that were more tedious than fun. As we now “celebrate” the 35th anniversary of the first Super Mario Bros. (there is even word President Dean will publically recognize the milestone), please remember that, thanks to one fateful sequel, Nintendo also smothered gaming in its crib.

One poison mushroom is all it takes…

Thank you for the guest article, Goggle Rob of Alternate Universe #724. I’ll be sending over my thank-you article about the failure of HD-DVD in this universe shortly!

FGC #547 Super Mario Bros 2 (The Lost Levels)

  • Dodge 'emSystem: Nintendo Famicom originally, but most of the West saw it as part of the Super Mario All-Stars compilation on the Super Nintendo.
  • Number of players: It’s just one player, right? You have to choose a brother, but can’t cooperate? That is bad, and the game should feel bad.
  • Speaking of All-Stars: The 16-bit remake really did this game dirty. The original NES version clearly has graphics that are an upgrade over the original, “launch” Super Mario Bros. palette. However, the SNES version seems to use the majority of the same assets for both games, giving the impression that SMB2j was little more than an expansion for SMB1. Way to rewrite history, Nintendo!
  • Other complaints: No new enemies or “creatures” are introduced for Super Mario Bros. 2, save that lovely toxic fungus. The Mushroom Kingdom has one of the most interesting bestiaries in gaming, so it’s kind of a shame that the likes of bob-omb, shy guy, or dry bones didn’t premiere in this title. I like a goomba as much as the next guy, but Mario is at his best when he’s introducing something more interesting than “Blue Bowser”.
  • Mario or Luigi? As a child, I saw as a child, and assumed jump height was everything. Now, as an adult, I prefer a hero that is less slippery, and is not demolished by strong winds. I have matured.
  • Other connections: You cannot tell me the same thinking that inspired SMB2j’s ridiculous “spend half the level up above the boundaries thanks to overly powerful springs” level design is not also responsible for (real) Super Mario Bros. 2/Doki Doki Panic’s more albatross riding-based stages. It feels very familiar…
  • Watch those cloudsGoggle Bob Fact: Nintendo Power goaded me into finding World 9 and sending a picture of proof so I could earn a badge of honor for my accomplishment… but I’m pretty sure my dad never properly developed the film, and it may or may not have actually been mailed. Regardless, I do not have a spiffy trophy badge, and my life is all the worse for it.
  • Did you know? The A/B/C/D levels clearly reuse stage layouts from earlier in the game, but SMB2j doesn’t otherwise recycle any levels before rescuing a princess. This is in stark contrast with SMB1, which reuses levels constantly starting with World 5’s castle. Or am I just thinking of Super Mario 35
  • Would I play again: I would literally play any other Mario game first. I don’t really believe this game would have crashed the entire videogame industry exclusively because it is bad, but I do believe SMB2j and its hidden blocks/aggravating warps was basically the start of “Kaizo Mario”, and that’s never been the reason I play Mario titles. Sorry, history, I like fun games.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong Country 2 for the Super Nintendo! It’s sequel time, again, so it’s time to see Diddy’s Kong Quest! Please look forward to it!

I do not care for this

FGC #543 Mario’s Tennis

Mario!Nintendo feared that the recent collapse of the videogame market would mar the launch of its first videogame device in North America, so the Nintendo Entertainment System was marketed primarily as a toy. It came with a videogame, yes, but that game also came with a home shooting gallery and a robot that would haunt your dreams. As videogames as a concept regained its footing, the NES dropped the robot (forever), but kept the gun and the plumber. The intention here seemed obvious: Super Mario Bros. is a videogame’s videogame, with abstract monsters and gameplay where you literally have to learn to walk. But Duck Hunt? That’s just aim and shoot. So whether it’s Wee Bobby or grandpa at the console, you’ve got at least one game that is going to sate your very real need to kill chestnuts and/or ducks. But videogames were much more established by the time we saw the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, so that console was bundled with only (“only”) Super Mario World. Besides, why did you need to bother with the “casual” crowd at that point? Nintendo had already conquered that market in the portable sphere by bundling Tetris with the Gameboy. Going into 1995, Nintendo had a perfect record in America with bundling carefully selected games with their featured systems.

And then there was the Virtual Boy. Then there was a new Mario game, and it was… Tennis?

It is illegal to pen an article about a Virtual Boy game without noting that the Virtual Boy is the product of bad decisions. It may be hard to believe today, but, when the Virtual Boy was being developed, many industry analysts believed that iterative videogame systems were a dead end. Sure, the Super Nintendo was a success after the “regular” Nintendo, but Sega Genesis tried to solder all sorts of upgrades unto its base, and it got nowhere. Hell, you could make the argument that Sega never had a successful console again (you’d be wrong, though, because we can’t discount any hardware that hosted cannon spiking). Then there was the parade of “other” systems that barely put a dent in the market. The Atari Jaguar? 3DO? Playdia? The prevailing thinking of the time was essentially that there was nothing wrong with these new consoles (like their complete lack of decent games or omnipresence of Primal Rage), and people simply didn’t want new home consoles at all. In such an environment, Nintendo had to do something wholly different. Sony was obviously going to send its new Playstation straight to the junk heap like all the others, but Nintendo was going to try to do something absolutely new. Nintendo was going to launch a portable virtual reality machine.

… And then they released something that was neither.

Now servingThe Virtual Boy has so many problems. Right off the bat, the controller is theoretically a shining step between the perennial SNES controller and its important N64 descendant… but it is absolutely terrible for a system that 100% precludes the player from actually seeing the controller. Sure, you’re going to be able to easily find that second crosspad on the right, but the players of 1995 were still getting used to shoulder buttons, and now you’re going to toss a pair of buttons behind the controller? It’s a controller that probably worked really well for the designers that had been tinkering with the thing for a year, but it was terrible for a kid that has to shove their attention up the system’s virtual ass. And speaking of which, the Virtual Boy was a big ol’ beast, and about as portable as a St. Bernard duct taped to a cow (look, I don’t know where you grew up, but I’ll never forget my junior homecoming dance). It didn’t require a TV hookup, but it was a bulky battery beast, so you were more likely to be tethered to an outlet than the Gameboy’s “play it anywhere” access. And we have to address “the red thing”, right? How it was so eye-searing, there was literally a warning every twenty minutes that you were supposed to stop? Could you imagine playing Final Fantasy 6 on the Virtual Boy? You’d be incapable of seeing blue before you saw your first moogle!

But, most of all, the Virtual Boy was damned by the fact that it was all based on a lie. The Virtual Boy looked like what we all imagined a Virtual Reality head seat was going to look like, and it was, ya know, named Virtual Boy. But was this humble videogame system from 1995 a “Virtual Reality Machine”? Hell no. It was a Gameboy with modestly 3-D graphics. There were no sprawling polygons or intricate worlds contained within the Virtual Boy, there was only… red. There was not a single game on the Virtual Boy that couldn’t have been easily adapted for any other system of the time. We understand how three dimensions work, Nintendo! We didn’t need new hardware to figure out Mario Clash!

But was Mario’s Tennis, the Virtual Boy’s own/only pack-in title, yet another Virtual Boy mistake?

Look at these losersIt is… difficult to say Mario’s Tennis was a good choice for launching a system. For one thing, this is a Mario game, but it’s not a Mario game. This is not an experience like Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario World. This is a sports game that happens to have a Mario veneer. Were there “real” Mario games available? Well, Mario’s Tennis launched right alongside Mario Clash, which was at least closer to Mario Bros. if not Super Mario Bros. And, during the Virtual Boy’s abbreviated lifespan, Wario eventually offered a more traditional platforming adventure, so there could have been a Virtual Super Mario Land. But once you get past the “I wanna Mario” factor, Mario’s Tennis doesn’t fare all that well as a Mario sports title. The characters are varied, but not in any interesting or exaggerated ways. Put it another way: this is the same cast as OG Mario Kart (minus Bowser, as no one wanted to figure out how that shell works in 3-D), but there isn’t a red shell or turbo mushroom to be found. And the most egregious issue: this is a competitive sports game on a system that never got around to having a 2-player option. There was eventually supposed to be a link cable, but it never materialized, and it certainly wasn’t available at launch. Sorry, Mario’s Tennis players, you’re stuck fighting against the AI from now until Mario’s Tennis 2: Red Racket Boogaloo.

Double troubleBut while Mario’s Tennis may be limited from a Mario perspective, it is a good sports game. While we would have to wait decades to see a chain chomp wielding a racket, the actual “tennis” part of the equation knocks it out of the park (that’s a good thing in tennis, right?). Matches are quick and simple, but also include all the tennis moves you’d expect, like…. Uh… that lungey one? And the overhead… smash? I’m not thinking of another game, right? Smashes are a thing? Whatever! Look, I don’t know from tennis, but this feels like tennis, and that’s what a good tennis game needs to do. And, what’s more, at a time when the majority of sports games felt vaguely slow for following the rules and encouraging play selection and alike, Mario’s Tennis moves at an exciting clip, and you’ll be done with a match within minutes (as opposed to nine innings of agony). And, ultimately, that is a great way to make videogame sports fun for people who don’t like sports. The other uncontested best sports game of the era took a similar approach to making a digital recreation of physical activity actually fun, and, while we might not have any flaming hoops in Mario’s Tennis, it is an exceptional, zippy tennis experience.

But does that make it a good launch title? Is a game that is best described as “doesn’t overstay its welcome” the right choice for trying to sell an entirely new, untested videogame console? Could friggin’ tennis ever be a killer app?

Well, there was that time that tennis kicked off the entire industry…

TENNIS!

And that time when, about a decade after Mario’s Tennis, when it was part of the biggest pack-in game of all time…

TENNIS!

And I want to say that Mario has had a few good runs with Tennis of late…

TENNIS!

So could have Mario’s Tennis been a success? It certainly seems that history has been kind to tennis titles, so that’s a yes. It might not be flashy or extravagant, but Mario’s Tennis could have simply been a good tennis game launching with a good videogame system. Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy’s other crimes are numerous, so Mario’s Tennis was damned to be another one of its parent system’s failures.

Sorry, Mario, you can’t always have a smash hit, but it’s not always your fault (oh God please tell me I got that pun right. I can’t think of any other way to end this article).

FGC #543 Mario’s Tennis

  • System: Oh man I forgot what system this game was on. Was it the Turbo Grafix-3DO? No, that doesn’t sound right.
  • Number of players: Successful tennis titles are two players. This was not a successful tennis title.
  • Wee ToadMario’s Face: It doesn’t impact the gameplay one iota, but Mario’s Tennis doesn’t get enough credit for having the most expressive versions of the Mario cast until approximately the Gamecube era. This seems like the logical progression of the canned animations in Super Mario Kart, but before the polygons of the N64 forced everyone back to being animated like white boards for a generation. You really feel Toad’s disappointment when he screws up a serve, and that is not something you would see again for about a decade.
  • Favorite Character: Princess Peach is adorable in this title, but Donkey Kong Jr. has the badunkadunk to end all dunks. And he’s such an expressive ape! It’s a shame he was either never seen again, or usurped his father’s throne, as he really did know how to rock a onesie.
  • Did you know? This is technically the first “Mario Sports” title, so all future times Mario picked up a baseball bat or kicked a soccer ball can trace back to Mario’s Tennis. This also means that, without Virtual Boy and Mario playing tennis, there would never be a need for the one and only Waluigi. Imagine a world without our greatest hero…
  • Would I play again: No. What? This was a great game for its time, but it has fallen behind practically every other game that involves both Mario and a ball of some kind. And it doesn’t help that the whole damn system gives me a headache…

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Combat for the Atari 2600! Pew pew, we’re gonna fight some stuff! Please look forward to it!

Bad monkey

FGC #536 Super Mario Bros. 35

Here we goCan we talk about how important it is when numbers go up?

Today’s title is all about special numbers. Super Mario Bros. 35 is a “limited time” Nintendo Switch title celebrating the 35th anniversary of our favorite plumber, Jump Man. Ol’ J.M. made his debut in Donkey Kong back in 1981, but he was established as super/mushroom-based in 1985, so that’s the game we’re going to celebrate. And that’s an important title! Super Mario Bros. introduced Princess Peach, Bowser, the Mushroom Kingdom, and, oh yeah, it kind of sold thousands of gaming consoles to an eager generation of gamers (what? You didn’t think ROB has responsible for the redemption of gaming, did you?). Super Mario Bros. was a revelation in 1985, and it seems only appropriate that that be celebrated in the same way we revel in other important events like Arbor Day or National Squeezings Month.

And now the videogame that was Super Mario Bros. has finally become a game.

Super Mario Bros. 35 is simultaneously the most creative thing Nintendo has released, and its most banal. For years, men, women, and a few extraordinarily gifted bears have been speed-running Super Mario Bros. Hell, even before we had the term “speed-run”, we had people racing each other to beat Bowser. It may not have been online, but we could stick two CRTVs in the same room and see who could be the first to rescue that pink blob of pixels squatting at the finish line. Or maybe we could just wait and see who could get off the NES’s blue flashing screen first. Whatever! Point is that Super Mario Bros. 35 has turned Super Mario Bros. into a competitive sport, and, while that may not have always been the intention when Miyamoto first married mushroom to man, it is an evolution of an aspect of Mario that has always been there. Should every game get the battle royale/racing time treatment? No, of course not. But we already did Tetris, so we may as well hop on the Mario train and full steam ahead.

I love this placeBut don’t worry, this isn’t just a straight Mario race for the prize, Super Mario Bros. 35 offers a variety of new quality of life improvements to separate itself from simply wiring 35 different versions of Nesticle together. The most important new feature in Super Mario Bros. 35 is how it allows you to be a jerk to your friends and neighbors. Whenever one of Mario’s enemies is defeated in SMB35, it is “sent” to another player as a relentless, undead version of its already menacing self. This means that World 1-1 may wind up crowded with 30 continuous goombas, or, if your opponent is particularly unfriendly, seven different pairs of Hammer Bros. And, lest you think these zombie opponents are little more than their usual, 35-year-old selves, some of these ghost creatures have new behaviors, like those previously mentioned Hammer Bros. tearing turtle ass through the stage if you dare attempt to sneak by their stationed positions. And Bowser! Big, bad Bowser can appear in any stage, and his fireballs can be a nuisance in even the most submerged of levels. And, lest you think you can perform some manner of pacifist run, so everyone can just be content with the koopa troopas they already have, the timer of Super Mario Bros. 35 has been tweaked so you must commit turtle murder to accrue enough seconds to finish even the first level. Mario’s more elegant moves can be performed to earn extra time (like bowling a buzzy beetle through a strike’s worth of goombas), but, worst comes to worst, you can just fireball everything that shows up in Mario’s periphery. And thus are those poor creatures sent “at” other players, and the circle of death continues…

Get out of hereAnd it will likely not surprise a single person to hear me extoll the virtues of such a game. Yes, gentle reader, I enjoy Super Mario Bros. 35. It is the experience I have been chasing for the last 35 years. It is Super Mario Bros., yes, but it is also a new undertaking every time. I have memorized the ins and outs of 1-1, but this is the first time it has included an army of bloopers (at least that I can remember, shut-up, nerds, if I’m wrong). And, yes, SMB35 provides a number of good vibes because I consistently put myself in the top ten, and definitely have scored the top ranking on more than one occasion. Does this mean I am a Super Mario Bros. champion? No. It simply means that I am likely better than everyone reading this article, and you peons better line up to lick clean my sneakers that have unfortunately been muddied by my deigning to meet you plebes halfway. There need be no Super Mario All-Stars, I am the only Super Mario All-Star this world needs. Super Mario Bros. 35 compliments my usual speed-based Mario playstyle, and it literally compliments me every time I successfully earn the highest ranking. What’s not to like?

Well, there is the little matter of not having any idea how to make progress.

Super Mario Bros. 35 seems to imply that it unlocks the whole of Super Mario Bros. over the course of traditional play. Assuming you can survive just one stage in SMB35 (which is a big assumption, considering how many players seem to feed Mario to the nearest goomba), you’ll unlock other levels upon seeing your final ranking. 1-2 or 1-3 seem to be gimmes, but maybe you’ll even score the whole of World 2, too. From there, further stages are unlocked, which allows for a greater number of challenges to enjoy. You would not ever see a single Hammer Bros. without 3-1, and 2-2 is the home of so many aquatic nuisances. Unlocking more stages means more monsters to menace your opponents, so this is much more than a cosmetic unlock, as you need some fresh attack sources after running through 1-1’s limited challengers a thousand times.

I win!And, despite my stellar rankings in Mario, I have no idea how to unlock further levels. I mean, sometimes new levels are unlocked… but why? Was it because I chose to have Mario think about later stages at the start? Was it because other players choose Mario’s thoughts in a manner that agreed with mine? Did I level up? Did I play against someone with a higher level? Was it unlocked by play time? Or the time it took for me to score a victory? Was it unlocked as a consolation prize after I came so close to actually winning? Was it because I wished to the right Mario gods during this particular run (I hear Geno is being very generous this year)? I have no idea! I have absolutely no clue how a player is supposed to unlock new stages, and I haven’t seen a single world past six. Is this part of the limited time release nature of SMB35? Is Nintendo getting off on withholding? Is it possible to cram any more rhetorical questions into this paragraph? Maybe!?

And this is all a terrible shame, because one underrated but absolutely essential piece of Super Mario Bros. was how it all clearly defined progression in 1985. We absolutely take it for granted today, but back in the day of excessively reused assets and limited graphics, it was difficult to ever determine if you were making progress. Is there an “ending” for Asteroids? Pitfall? Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and even Donkey Kong all had loops that quickly blended together as you desperately tried to survive. Donkey Kong Jr. had a bizarre progression method in its American arcade incarnation, and had additional levels “unlock” as you completed more and more loops. And did that work at all? Did people just assume DK Jr. was like his old man, and one loop meant you saw it all? Even when there’s a “round counter”, games of yore were terrible about properly conveying progression.

SELECT SOMETHINGBut Super Mario Bros.! Now there was a game where you knew where you stood! You have to rescue a princess, and she’s at the end of world 8. Everything before that? Clearly labeled and categorized. You know you’re heading to another castle after every rescued Toad. World 2-2 isn’t a punishment, it’s just the next stepping stone between World 1 and World 3. The skies didn’t get black because you did something wrong, this spot is just a little dark. And there simply could not be the Super Mario 2-D staple/innovation of Warp Zones without this measured development. You know you have to reach World 8, and you can use these hidden warp pipes to get there. It’s going to save so much time!

How do you get to World 8 in Super Mario Bros. 35? I have no idea. I have ranked first repeatedly, leveled up continually, and am sitting on a cache of coins that would put Wario to shame (editor’s note: incorrect, Wario is incapable of feeling shame). But do any of these clearly delineated measures of success get me any closer to the princess? Not as far as I can tell. I feel like I have mastered a great breadth of Super Mario Bros. 35, but I have no idea how to make any sequential progress. There are stages to be unlocked! And it looks like they are going to continue to be as inaccessible right up until we see Super Mario Bros. 2 – 35 (now with more Clawgrips!). World 8 may as well not exist, as I have no idea how to get there. And it is profoundly demoralizing to have lost something that was so basic and observable in 1985.

Super Mario Bros. 35 is a celebration of 35 years of Super Mario Bros., but it forgot one of Super Mario Bros.’ most important innovations. All these numbers going up are great, but how about increasing that world counter?

FGC #536 Super Mario Bros. 35

  • System: Nintendo Switch! It’s the only Nintendo console around!
  • Number of players: Two. Wait, no. 35. Sorry. Forgot for a moment.
  • It's wet down hereJust play the gig man: One thing that Super Mario Bros. 35 has taught us is that there is no universe where the starman theme was ever meant to be played in its “sped up” incarnation. That is audible cancer, and I hope it is patched out and replaced with, I don’t know, Kirby’s lollipop theme.
  • Favorite Level: I will repeat World 1-2 over and over again given the choice. Literally, in fact, as using the warp pipe there often randomly generates the opportunity to re-roll the stage. It may be because of the easy powerups and starman, or it may be because I like blue goombas. Either one works.
  • I thought We Had an Arrangement: I have encountered World 4-4. It is an endlessly repeating maze if you don’t know the proper route. And, assuming I haven’t gone completely deaf, it drops any helpful tones for indicating you’re going the right way. I thought we agreed some aural feedback was a good idea back in 1993! Particularly during a race! Nintendo, see me after class.
  • Further Leveling: You can unlock a variety of Mario sprites as your player icon. I’m happy with repping my buzzy beetle pride, but I really want a rare pull to be… I don’t know… Let’s say the yo-yo from StarTropics. Yeah, that should confuse all the other players into thinking there are more secrets abound.
  • Did you know? Buzzy Beetle first appears in 4-2. Its premiere is, oddly enough, the only instance of a Buzzy Beetle appearing underground in Super Mario Bros. (1).
  • Would I play again: As long as this game is available to play, I will play it.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Parappa the Rappa 2! One would have to assume some believing will be involved in our future. Please look forward to it!

Gotta hang sometime

FGC #529 Banjo-Kazooie

knock knockIt is 2020, and Banjo-Kazooie is still one of the best 3-D platformers of all time.

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I have no affection for Banjo and Kazooie. I hit puberty right around when Banjo was making the scene, and that resulted in some lingering issues regarding the goofy bear. Actually, to be clear, I officially became a teenager a couple of years earlier (right about in time for me to focus on other things in polygonal graphics), and that meant I was well and truly over it by the time the Nintendo 64 was hitting its stride. Did I still play videogames? Of course. But did I only play videogames for mature, highly sophisticated teenagers such as myself? Indubitably. Excuse me, Rare & Nintendo, I only have time for developed JRPGs right now. Did you see that tactics game insult God during the intro? I don’t think this fuzzy creature is going to offer me a similar experience.

So I didn’t play Banjo-Kazooie in its prime. Despite loving Mario 64, I had moved on to other genres by the time one was supposed to be collecting collectathons, so BK was dropped as easily as DK (he’s the leader of the bunch). And, as I eventually became a poor college student during this time, I didn’t wind up snagging the game in any capacity until the Gamecube had conquered the gaming continent (or at least the Nintendo island). Then I was able to pick up N64 games by the bucketful, as they had dropped in value from “hundreds of hours of fun should cost nearly a hundred dollars” to “you can have a new game, but you have to buy one less taco”. So Banjo-Kazooie was purchased with other titles that I had deigned too “kiddy” at the time (see also: Paper Mario). I played it for about a week, collected what I could, beat the bulk of the game, and then moved on to other adventures. There were new, better games out, and why should I waste my time on something so obviously past its prime? Just look at Eternal Darkness! Need I be more fair? Aim for something more in the same genre? Well, I recall jumping directly from BK to Mario Sunshine. “Now this is a modern platformer!” I exclaimed to an empty room while dropping bear ‘n bird forever…

And who knew that nearly 20 years later, I’d be writing an article about how Banjo-Kazooie kicks Mario Sunshine’s soggy ass?

Here we goWait, heck, I feel like I have to elaborate on my own opinions again. I like 3-D Mario titles. Hell, I consider all of them to be some of the best videogames out there. I’ve spoken of it before, but the feeling of controlling Mario is unparalleled. There is nothing like perfectly leaping over obstacles to grab another star, shine, or moon. I like Mario Sunshine. It is probably the Nintendo Gamecube title I revisit the most, and that’s saying a lot when you consider how many smashing brothers reside in that system. 3-D Mario games are still the gold standard for moving and “playing” in a 3-D space.

And, to be clear, Banjo is no Mario. This bear might have the somersault jump, and something approximating Mario’s 3-D triple leap, but the similarities end there. Beyond that, Banjo’s moveset is a bit stiff. It’s not bad! It’s actually pretty great compared to some of the turds that appeared in the 3-D space in the late 90’s. But there are a lot of… little things that hold Banjo back in his first adventure. Shooting requires stopping and ducking, which is immediately frustrating when a witch is lobbing fireballs. Switching to Kazooie’s footwork is fun for climbing hills, but it’s another move that requires you stop and swap. And why are we even talking about a bird walking when she can be flying? Banjo’s Kazooie-aided float jump is pretty fun, but actual flight can be a bear. Landing and/or determining your exact location relative to the ground is difficult when you’re anywhere past about six feet off terra firma, and dive-bombing your opponents is nearly impossible to properly aim (and, half the time, you add injury to insult by losing health if you miss). Maybe it’s the familiarity, maybe it’s the focused design, but, somehow, Mario feels effortless to control, while Banjo is stuck in a number of situations where his abilities are lacking thanks to a combination of controls and camera. It should not take any more than a second to power-poop an egg into a hole!

Don't look at meBut judging Banjo-Kazooie as merely a platformer does it a disservice. Yes, Banjo doesn’t control as well as Mario. Mario wins that match every time, against every opponent. But Banjo-Kazooie does beat Mario in its own, chosen field: Banjo-Kazooie is a better collectathon than Mario 64. What’s more, Mario, from Yoshi’s Island to Odyssey, has never beaten Banjo-Kazooie at its own game.

Banjo-Kazooie is every bit the collectathon your parents warned you about (“Stay away from that bad boy, and don’t waste time grabbing everything in a collectathon!”). Every one of the nine worlds in BK contain no less than 100 music notes, 10 jiggies, 5 jinjos (required to obtain one jiggy), 2 honeycombs (health), and any number of silver skulls, eggs, and feathers of all colors. And, like many collectathons, every last bauble and collectible is simultaneously optional and mandatory: you need to nab a certain percentage of everything previously listed, but you don’t need every last item if you stocked up on some in an earlier level. Regardless of required amounts, though, this does mean there is a lot to find in every level, which is always a blessing and a curse. It is fun to find a new jiggy, but it is also a pain when you’ve got nine out of ten and… where did that last one go again? Was I supposed to beat some manner of giant crab, or explore the depths of the ocean? It’s… somewhere around here… Right?

But that is exactly where Banjo-Kazooie excels. By clearly defining the number of essential collectibles for every area, a simple checklist is immediately generated. By limiting the size of levels to something that can be easily traversed in minutes, you’re never stuck in an area that is far too large to explore for that final music note. By transparently outlining “extras” in an area with the assistance of a friendly mole, you always know if there is still a new move or ability to find. And when every world gives you a clear goal and a constrained play area, you wind up not having to sweat the small stuff. Found eight jiggies, have a general idea on the locations of those last two, but haven’t completed their associated challenges yet? Great! Now you can caper around the area at will, and all you have to worry about is eventually returning to those last few pieces of gold. When you know the parameters of every world’s challenges, you can have fun within those borders. No need to obsessively press A next to every nook, cranny, and NPC to hope for the best…

WeeeeeeAnd this is a lesson Mario never seems to learn. Mario 64 vacillated between “you can earn every star immediately” and “you must complete challenge A before moving on to challenge B” from level to level. Mario Sunshine decided to focus on sequential challenges, and wound up making each “world” more of a “level” in the process (and aggravatingly tossed unaccountable blue coins all over the place in the process). The Super Mario Galaxy games focused even further on making “courses” as opposed to “exploration worlds”, and would once again hide a collectible or two around a level, but never a consistent amount. Mario Odyssey finally returned to the exploration of Marios gone by… but every area suddenly contained an unruly number of moons. Would this mundane block randomly grant you a moon? Or do you have to defeat a mighty boss to get the same reward? How about jump roping for thousands of hours? All the collectibles were equal in value, but violently varied in their collection methods. And, since that “final moon” for the level could be found through something as routine as throwing a hat at an unexceptional frog (basically how I spend my Tuesdays anyway), a player without a distinct guide was forced to try every goddamn thing in every world about six times. Hey, sorry to bother you again, but maybe you are the one skeleton dude that will hand over that final moon…

Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have this problem. Banjo-Kazooie doesn’t have autoscrolling levels, flying shyguys hording red coins, or areas that require six kinds of backtracking. Every one of its nine worlds is very honest about its challenges and collectibles, and, if you’re getting lost, there’s probably a googly-eyed toilet around that will shout some clues at you. There are no situations where you will have to repeat an entire area just for one last jiggy, and (by my count) there is only one possible challenge Nice placethat requires a powerup out of sequence with the rest of the game’s flow (that would be the running shoes in the ice stage, for the curious). Everything else is straightforward to a fault, and you’re every bit as capable of immediately finding everything in the first world as you are at the finale. Banjo-Kazooie is designed in such a way to help a player understand the rhythm of its worlds very quickly, and then, once that is accomplished, gently guide play from one challenge to the next.

Banjo-Kazooie is an expertly planned collectathon that wholly avoids the greatest pitfalls of the genre. That makes it one of the best 3-D platformers ever committed to cartridge. It is, to this day, a smashing success.

FGC #529 Banjo-Kazooie

  • System: N64 to begin, and then it migrated over to the Xbox 360. It’s currently available on Xbox One, too, as part of the Rare Replay collection. This is ideal, as N64 games make my eyes bleed.
  • Number of Players: This is one of the few “Nintendo” N64 games that didn’t at least try to use all four controller ports. So one player here.
  • Reused Game: As I have stated before, I generally do not delete old save files from used games if I can help it. This is because I have brain problems, and treat save files like precious children. So, speaking of children, here’s what the previous owner of my copy of Banjo-Kazooie was up to…

    33 hours, and they didn’t even beat the game. Tell me your secrets, N64 cartridge! Did someone just like running around in circles for hours? That’s perfectly okay! Just tell me what happened!

  • Port-o-Call: Okay, I might insult the graphics of the N64 on a routine basis (I think it goes back to that teenage angst thing mentioned earlier), but the controls of Banjo-Kazooie really were made for the N64 controller, so playing it on the original hardware at least once adds a little context to how the whole “using a gold feather” thing made sense on at least one console. That said, definitely play the Xbox360 version, because at least that unlocks new features for other Banjo-based games.
  • Are you talking about the Stop ‘N’ Swop Eggs and the Ice Key? Yes. Please don’t get me started on Nintendo Power lying to me yet again. I’m still grumbling about Crash Man.
  • This is the worstHey, Mario 64 called, it wants its everything back: There was a lot of discourse in the 90’s that Banjo-Kazooie wholesale ripped off Mario 64. There’s a desert level full of pyramids and flying, a huge castle filled with secrets and portraits, and, perhaps most damning of all, an entire ice level themed around an impossibly large snowman. And, while these are all great points, it’s important to note that Banjo-Kazooie is 100% its own adventure. How can you tell? Well, you don’t see oversized cartoon eyes on Mario 64’s ridiculous eel, do you? Check. Mate.
  • Favorite Level: Tick Tock Woods actually disproves my thesis, as you are repeatedly returning to the same area with slightly different changes, and then have to explore the whole area all over again. It’s like a dry run for Donkey Kong 64! That said, it’s the exception that proves the rule, and I enjoy even the slightest scraps of time travel, so I’m down. Also, it contains the only worthwhile magical transformation in the game, so I’ll take it.
  • Everybody Talks: If I’ve got one complaint about Banjo-Kazooie, it’s that absolutely every damn thing has something to say, and 90% of that dialogue is awful. I don’t need a shark explaining that he is trying to eat me, Rare, he’s a shark. And the whole Gruntilda thing could be fun from a “she’s a scary/gross Halloween witch” perspective, but the entirety of her interactions with the world boil down to “she’s fat”. Over and over again. Same joke. She’s fat, and nobody likes her because she’s fat. And it’s wonderful to see that joke continued into the most recent Banjo adventure…
  • The goggles do nothing: And they insult people for wearing goggles!

    The goggles!

    But I guess it gets better.

    They do nothing!

    Partial credit.

  • Did you know? Diddy Kong and Donkey Kong are not disguised as a basic chimp and guerrilla lurking in the first world. Those are totally different characters, and, if you want Banjo and Diddy to interact, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
  • Would I play again: Probably! I was impressed by how Banjo-Kazooie fares compared even to its own direct sequels, and I’ll probably give Banjo another go in the future. It’s fun collecting things when a game is designed around placating my OCD, and not just running it into overdrive.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Little Nemo: The Dream Master for the NES! Yes, that’s right, it’s inexplicable bee transformation week here at Gogglebob.com! Please look forward to it!

Bee yourself