Tag Archives: racism

FGC #579 Guacamelee! 2

Sit down and eat your guacYo, white guy here, and I’m going to talk about cultural appropriation regarding a country/culture that is the whipping boy of an entire American political party. Oh, and we’re also going to explore a distinctly American vacation destination, too. And if we have time after all that, there will probably be something about a videogame in here.

Just remember: you’re always a wiener when you talk about Mexico, amigos.

For those of you that have not looked at a map lately, Mexico is one of two countries that border on the United States. And, let’s be clear on what has apparently happened here, it is “America’s” “oh no you’re bringing down the property values” neighbor. Canada is always the example of where United States citizens will flee when their chosen candidate doesn’t win an election, and Mexico is always portrayed as the crime capital of the continent. If someone is “going to Mexico” in fiction, they are inevitably doing it to escape the consequences of some wrongdoing, or to commit all new wrongdoings. Or, to put it another way, nobody ever talks about being kidnapped by a drug kingpin in Ontario. And, to be absolutely clear about my position on this nonsense: this is bullshit. You want to talk about a dangerous place in North America, USA? Have you seen yourself lately? Do you know how many school shootings have happened since I started writing this paragraph? Do you know how many of those big, scary drugs were passed around just in a local Wal-Mart parking lot? You want to build a wall, you nitwits? Maybe you could “build a wall” around those Fox News pundits that seem to be suggesting life-saving vaccines are causing boneitis!?

And the kicker of all of this? You can apparently run two separate presidential campaigns on the concept of Hispanophobia, yet one of the chief vacation destinations for “Americans” is Mexico. Look! There goes Ted Cruz now! Mexico is unquestionably one of the USA’s prime spots for relaxation, and the sheer number of all-inclusive resorts available across the country are a testament to how many (literal) dollars are spent in a country filled with people that a political party wants to “keep out”. The hypocrisy is palpable, and the $475,000,000,000 Americans spend a year on Mexican vacations (2016 data) is proof enough that it is more than a handful of Democrats that enjoy the company of Mexicans.

But if you’re looking for a Mexican vacation, and don’t want to deal with the actual country of Mexico, have you considered… South Carolina?

Welcome to paradise

South of the Border is a roadside attraction in South Carolina, USA. It is just past the North Carolina/South Carolina border on I-95, thus, ya know, “south of the border”. South of the Border is a place that has grown from a simple beer stand to a “resort” that now proudly features five restaurants, seven gift shops, 300-foot-tall observation tower, two pools, campground, reptile habitat, and a giant gorilla wearing an ill-fitting t-shirt. And how has South of the Border seen such unprecedented success over the years? By exploiting arbitrary laws! When South of the Border started as little more than a bar in 1949, it was manipulating the fact that the local North Carolina counties were currently dry. And when local prohibition laws lightened up, fireworks were still illegal in many states. But not South Carolina! So people from all over traipsed over the border to the closest fireworks depot available. Even today, when many “safe” fireworks are available across the country, South of the Border utilizes the more generous laws of S.C. to sell some fireworks sets that are… well, they’re not exactly guaranteed to blow off a limb, but the advertising does seem to imply that as a distinct possibility. And through South of the Border’s meteoric rise to fame, it maintained the “joke” of its own name, by importing Mexican “trinkets” and proudly displaying a vaguely Mexican motif around the grounds.

And, to be absolutely clear, I love the place. Bury me in a coffin with zigzagged red and yellow stripes that light up every time someone gets within 40 feet of the thing, because I love this level of kitsch. Nigh everything at S.O.B. is gigantic and garish. There is more neon pumping through this quasi-city than Las Vegas. There are haphazardly distributed statues of dinosaurs, hats, and dinosaurs wearing hats. Gift shops sell an equal number of children’s toys and “the world’s largest condom”. You can eat at a steakhouse or “Porky’s Truck Stop”. There are marginally abandoned rides for the kids, and you may get the distinct impression that there might be a “monster” running around that will eventually be thwarted by some meddling kids. There is “The Sombrero Restaurant”, and, inexplicably, it has nothing to do with the restaurant that is like 100 yards away and shaped like a giant sombrero. There are “Year 2000” mugs on sale in the year 2021…

WELCOME TO THE FUTURE

They’re vintage! Oh, and there’s the official mascot of South of the Border, Pedro.

These dorks
This Goggle Bob photobombed these poor Pedros

Pedro has… issues.

Pedro is the “face” of South of the Border. He’s gone through a few permutations through the years (who hasn’t?), but Pedro has consistently been the most prominent piece of South of the Border iconography for decades. And where did Pedro originate? Well, let’s check the ol’ South of the Border official website for some information…

“Mr. Schafer [founder of South of the Border] went to Mexico to establish import connections and met two young men. He helped them get admitted to the United States, and they went to work at the motel office as bellboys for several years. People started calling them Pedro and Pancho, and eventually just Pedro.”

Let’s… let’s just sift through the… implications of this story, and the way it is told today. First of all, “Pedro and Pancho” are not recounted by their real names, simply Pedro and Pancho. Dudes inspired the most recognizable part of South of the Border, but they don’t rank high enough to earn a credit like Mr. Schafer. Second, the whole “Pedro and Pancho” thing is a stereotype bordering on slur, right? Did a little research here, and it appears to be something that pops up in On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a book that compared Native Mexican “Indians” to “the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore”. As the tone in that passage seems to indicate that Kerouac is mocking the stereotype, the phrase was probably already widely used in the 50’s. Regardless of whether it was one of those “cultural osmosis” situations or a stereotype that arose from too many episodes of The Cisco Kid, I’m willing to bet that the original “Pedro and Pacho” were not too excited about being renamed for their American jobs. And then they were just both rechristened “Pedro”? Like remembering two separate names was too hard? Or just “telling apart two Mexicans” was going to be a problem for too many people?! And somehow this wholesome story is considered safe enough that it is not only publicly listed on South of the Border’s website, but you can also get it on a t-shirt!?!

This is not okay!

And as much as I love South of the Border, this serves as an uneasy reminder that South of the Border is promoting the general concept of Mexico while doing nothing to give back to actual Mexico. It is not like 70% of every sale needs to assist a random family in Mexico City (though that wouldn’t be a bad idea), but this is still a situation wherein a loose definition of Mexican Culture is being adapted, slapped on a glowing billboard, and then used to sell fireworks. It is nice that South of the Border is unambiguously supporting Mexico with its theming (as of 2021, there were not any signs/merch that I could find that were promoting “keep them out” or alike), but it is still a story of white guys that reduced their Mexican workers to “they’re both Pedro”. In much the same way South of the Border grew as a business by exploiting border-based loopholes, this inextricable chunk of Americana also preyed on the general aesthetics of a Mexico its locals likely would never touch.

You see it, right?And that (finally) brings us to today’s game, Guacamelee! 2. Here is a game about the “Mexiverse” that was made by real, live… Canadians. Huh.

Before we go any further, it must be stated that Guacamelee! 2 is an amazing videogame. And Guacamelee! (1) was, too! Which is good, because G!2 reuses an awful lot from its immediate ancestor. Nearly all of the special moves available to our favorite luchador are rehashes from the prior game, which very well could work poorly for a game that is just enough of a Metroidvania that it should know better. But, on the other hand, Juan always handled like a dream, mixing the simplicity of Smash Bros’ “direction + button” controls with movement and beat ‘em up challenges alike that are the ol’ “easy to learn, difficult to master” that makes up the best of videogames. So, yes, G!2 is a lot like G!1, but G!1 was amazing, so how are you supposed to improve on that? And the new challenges that are introduced, like drifting dimensional zones and various chicken powers, are welcome and well-explored. Did you like Guacamelee! (1)? Do you enjoy beat ‘em ups and/or Metroidvanias, like, at all? Guacamelee! 2 has you covered, and is one of the best entries in two different genres.

And, if you haven’t noticed from the screenshots and name, Guacamelee! 2 is Mexican as Infierno. And, given Guacamelee! 2’s general… levity with everything, it leads to a pretty obvious question: is this another South of the Border situation? Is this an affectionate parody, or a simple exploitation of a culture?

Get 'emFirst of all, according to interviews, the Mexican theming of Guacamelee! (1) was not the origin of the game. The setting for Guacamelee! originated with one of Drinkbox’s animators, Augusto, and was only approved after generating some concept art. And, once again, we are talking about a flock of Canadians here. That is kind of an auspicious start to a game that would eventually feature “The Mexiverse”. And an awful lot of what is featured in both Guacamelee! titles focus on two things: Día de los Muertos and Luchadores. And, while these are two indivisible pieces of Mexican culture, it is also possible to showcase their basic iconography without any more than a shallow reading of the source material. Everybody likes ornate skeletons, right? And wrestlers in funny masks? Throw in some dudes with a decent tan, and that’s Mexico, baby! Let’s get those sweet Coco bucks!

But there is more to Guacamelee! 2 than a few Cempasúchil petals sprinkled around. In an effort to not just be some random white guy talking about a culture he only has the most tangential relation to (technically I have pre-New Mexico statehood “New Mexican” blood in these veins, and all that really means is that there is an ancient recipe for fajitas in my family cook book [oddly, this is not a joke]), I consulted friend-of-Gogglebob.com Zef, a person that is very familiar with Mexico (almost like he lived there for years of his life or something). Here is Zef’s (partially paraphrased) take on Guacamelee!:

GET IT!?“[Guacamelee! has the kind of references that come from] knowing the culture and living in it, and appreciating cultural in-jokes that most people outside Mexico will probably never get, but which have Mexicans in stitches. Instead of appropriating something from a culture for the benefit of, ahem, a foreign audience, it takes the native audience aside and makes a private joke just for them.

This is very similar to what it does with gaming culture as a whole, as Guacamelee is also [in]famous for all of its videogame memes and injokes. When the most difficult, most brutal puzzle-platforming gauntlet rewards you with the same message as the Special Zone of Super Mario World, you know that was done with intent, and that while some people may need to look it up, those who remember it will gape and then laugh at it. And when it goes and has you climbing onto giant feathered snakes that weave up and down and left and right, deftly combining the iconic ‘Kukulkan descends the pyramid staircase’ Spring Equinox event in Chichen-Itza with the Snake level from Battletoads, that’s like a triple-layer pun and I’m all here for it.

Another important thing that often gets overlooked is that, while the games are full of stereotypes, and ‘benign racism’ is definitely a thing in many media productions, the Guac games go a long way towards diluting those same stereotypes by providing a very diverse cast of characters–protagonists, villains, or even just NPCs. As a concrete example, there’s definitely ‘lazy Mexican in a sarape’ background characters, but because of that variety of depictions, the audience can read them as lazy because that’s what the individual character is, as opposed to the ethnicity or the culture. If anything, given the roles they fill and the circumstances of narrative development, I’d say that they’re fantasy stereotypes first and foremost, and Mexican stereotypes second.

Here we goThere’s also a certain jai ne se quoi in the way characters speak, their mannerisms and word choice, that is distinctly ESL (and this, coming from an English-as-Second-Language person). The script may have been originally penned by a native English-speaking Canadian, I don’t have the credits with me, but it was tweaked and adjusted well enough that, as weird as it may sound, it feels localized from Spanish speech.

Now, of course, Guacamelee does maintain certain stereotypes I’d like to see diluted, myself. Both games take place in ‘culturally distinct’ locations such as rural villages, jungles, deserts, and Pre-Columbian-style temples. Which is all well and good, Mesoamerican civilizations need their day in the sun and it’s nice to show colorful and vibrant villages as opposed to the dusty shantytown stereotype (and thank god it isn’t all just Western-inspired deserts and cacti and sombreros everywhere). But it would be wonderful if Guac 3 had, say, ‘concrete jungle’ locales where you had to navigate a big city with Colonial-era architecture alongside modern glass towers and concrete apartment buildings. Just as there’s variety in the depictions of rural villagers and luchadores, it’d be nice if it could show diversity in many other areas of Mexican culture and not just Day of the Dead. The premise certainly supports it, as AAA Lucha Libre is famous and popular at all strata of Mex society.”

BLINK IT!Thank you for that comprehensive explanation, Zef! And, for the record, Zef would like it to be said that this is just the opinion of one Mex. However, let it also be said that Gogglebob.com officially promotes the opinion of anyone that enjoys Guacamelee! 2.

So what does this all mean? Is Guacamelee! 2 another game that is destined to go down in history as a Mexi-leech that thinks “they’re all Pedro”, or is it a shining bastion of Mexican culture in a medium that barely remembers there is anything other than Japan and “America”? Well, as usual, it is not something that is that cut and dry. But one thing is for certain: Guacamelee! 2 is a damn fine videogame, and it contains a host of loving nods to Mexico that are a lot more interesting than a dude in a sombrero.

And, hey, after everything from the last… centuries… Mexico deserves at least that.

FGC #579 Guacamelee! 2

  • System: Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Personally, I prefer the Switch version, as you can play the “important” parts on the TV, and futz around with the more challenging areas while in handheld mode/watching TV.
  • Number of players: Four! You can have four different players at a time! That sounds really fun! And absolutely not something I’m ever going to be able to get a group together to actually do! I’ll be more likely to organize a road trip to South of the Border first…
  • Is it hot in here?Speaking of Challenge Levels: Like in G!1, G!2 has a number of areas that really test the valor of your luchadore. And, like in the original, I am forced to complete every one of these challenges, as I kind of live for that nonsense. Luckily, the respawn rate for these challenges (and the rest of the game, for that matter) is tough but fair, and no challenge seems too far outside the realm of possibility. Even if it did take like two hours for me to get through that chicken crucible…
  • Weird Connections: Speaking of, the existence of “The Crucible” and way too many chicken jokes really reminds of Fable 2. Whatever happened to that franchise? … No, I’m not actually asking that question.
  • Favorite Mexiverse Timeline: The conceit of the Mexiverse at large allows for Juan to visit a number of videogame parody areas, like “Limbo”, a grindy JRPG universe, or a whole timeline apparently dedicated to being a terrible cell phone gacha. That said, the best timeline is one where you get to beat up a car not once, but twice. Thank you, Street Fighter, for giving us the iconic struggle of man versus random vehicle they just happened to encounter. And, hey, thanks again to Zef for reminding us that the featured car is not remotely random, but another “Mexican reference”. Once again turning my mic over to the expert… “The classic Volkswagen Beetle used to be ubiquitous on Mexican roads, as it was cheap, easy to get parts for and repair, and efficient as a taxi cab for its size and ease of driving. So, it received the moniker of “Volchito” (or, to some, Vocho). That’s the kind of detail that comes from knowing the culture and living in it, and appreciating cultural in-jokes that most people outside Mexico will probably never get, but which have Mexicans in stitches.”
  • He is The Juan: There is much made of the plot with Juan being the last living Juan in the Mexiverse. But… is that the joke? Like, Juan died at the start of Guacamelee!, and I’m moderately certain he is dead again about 5% of the way into Guacamelee! 2. Dude basically lives in the realm of the dead, so I don’t see the big deal about sticking a dead Juan’s skull on any random body. He’s a resilient guy. He’ll get used to it.
  • Favorite Costume: Hey, the Switch version came with all the DLC. Guess I’ll dress up as Flame Face, because I like racking up the combo meter and having a flaming head. It worked for Nicolas Cage!
  • Our final fantasyFavorite Boss: Zope y Cactuardo combines two things I love in a game: a boss that is using “your” moves against you, and a giant cactus. Wait, no. The giant cactus is good because it reinforces how Juan really “only” punches and grapples, so a boss that is too spikey to touch is completely omnipotent. Please, nobody give Juan a gun! It will mess up his mojo!
  • Did you know? Drinkbox has claimed they created new moves for Juan, but went back to the originals after determining the OG moves were more intuitive. Just as well, performing a perfect headbutt still feels satisfying when destroying a hundred skeletons.
  • Did you know (South of the Border Edition)? If you think I’m the only person that has ever taken notice of good ol’ South of the Border, please refer to this frame from Season 6 of The Simpsons.
    GET IT!?

    Yes, in 1995, Bart vs. Australia was already parodying of our friend in the sombrero. The Simpsons did it, indeed.

  • Would I play again: This game is super fun. I will play it again. That’s it. That’s the answer. I love this game.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man Powered Up for the Sony PSP! Mega is all powered up and ready to go! And he got really short for some reason, too! Please look forward to it!

Gobble
No no. This isn’t right at all.

FGC #571 Shock Troopers

This is shockingShock Troopers is an Arcade/Neo Geo title from 1997. It is, in essence, an upgrade to SNK’s Ikari Warriors, a franchise that had debuted a little over a decade earlier. It is a top-down run ‘n gun with an emphasis on dodging, exploding, and occasionally going toe-to-toe with a tank. It may not be the most memorable game in the SNK pantheon (or even the most memorable Neo Geo game that involved shooting your way through an entire war, as that was somehow a very well-worn genre on the system), but it is certainly a fun experience for anyone that has ever enjoyed the likes of Contra or very particular parts of Bionic Commando.

And, ultimately, somebody must have liked Shock Troopers, because it warranted a sequel being released the following year: Shock Troopers: 2nd Squad. Mind you, it is entirely possible that Shock Troopers 2 was intended as an utterly different franchise, and merely wound up with Shock Troopers branding for expediency. ST:2S is a top-down shooter, but it drops the “basic” powerup-based offense of ST1 for a weapon leveling system that is closer to Blaster Master than Contra. It also places more of an emphasis on controlling vehicles, drops the signature multiple paths available in the original, and, while the graphics are certainly an upgrade, feels like a simpler, “step back” for what could have become an established franchise. Also, in what is perhaps the most damning omission of all, the game has dropped “team” mode, and now only features four playable characters, a far cry from ST1’s cast of eight. Granted, Shock Troopers 2 relies on the fact that it stars the titular “2nd Squad”, so it is no surprise there is no cast overlap. However, should Shock Troopers 2nd Squad be forgiven for the fact that the cast went from…

Always select Big Mama

… to…

Never select the punk

Notice anything, ya know, different about that 2nd squad? Is it, perhaps, a complete lack of melanin?

Let’s do the math on this one: There are 8 playable characters in Shock Troopers. It is difficult to say for certain with old graphics and generally anime-inspired art, but it can be honestly stated that there are at least four characters that could be described as “tanned” or darker. There are also three blonde characters, and one dark-haired fellow who has the same skin-tone as the blonde characters. So it can be confidently stated that there are four white people in the cast, and four people of color. Shock Troopers 2nd Squad cuts the cast in half, and now there are four white people, and zero people of color. Again, these are two totally different casts, but its clear that when the franchise wanted to boil down the cast to a lesser number, the people of color got cut, and the white remained.

I do not need to explain how this is fucked up.

However, I feel I do need to elaborate on how this is the exact level of fucked up that still continues to this day. Yes, it is easy to chastise a game from nearly 25 years ago for not adhering to the societal norms of today. Yes, we were all dimly aware of racism back at the tail end of the 90’s, and this was well before the enlightened children of the future all happened to simultaneously notice that Nintendo’s entire Smash Bros. roster has more white people named “dark” than actual people with dark skin. But this was the start of “tokenism”, right? A time we widely acknowledge where there might be “a black guy” or two in the cast, but they were only there because the designers “had to” hit some arbitrary percentage goal. A cast of color in the original Shock Troopers should not be lauded for existing or lamented when it was dropped for the sequel, because these characters were little more than the typical “minority hires” of the day. White characters with dark skin, and nothing more.

But Big Mama has something to say about that.

Here comes Big Mama

Now, to be clear, Big Mama is hella problematic. Big Mama is, right down to her name, a deeply racist and offensive stereotype. In a game where there is very little definition for the individual characters (“Marie Bee likes cats” is all you’ll get out of one of Shock Trooper’s other leading ladies), Big Mama does get the characterization of her name (this ain’t Big Papa), and her one ending image, which shows Big Mama being a mama to some random kid.

You win, Mama

Maybe her kid? Maybe a white person’s kid? We are not ruling out that possibility, because Big Mama seems to be in the same category as noted pancake accompaniment, Aunt Jemima. If you are unfamiliar with the mammy/mammie stereotype, it is remarkably straightforward: it is meant to represent the enslaved women of color that were forced to raise the children of their white slavers. Like a nanny, but completely owned by another human being. It is a generally affectionately referenced stereotype (again, check your breakfast table), but it is still a venomous, hurtful reminder that it was once perfectly okay for a black woman to be forced into a role against her will (and, yes, your syrup has made moves away from this for this very reason). Big Mama, complete with one victory animation that borders on offensive, is a textbook mammy stereotype.

WINNERBut, that said, Big Mama is also capable. She is strong. She is one of the few Shock Troopers that does not use an “extra” weapon, like a knife or (inexplicable) boomerang, as she can successfully pummel a foe in close quarters. She comes equipped with her own bazooka, though, for when the going gets rough, and her official art shows her equipped with a Rambo-esque bullet belt’s worth of firepower. And this all ties into something very important: Big Mama is jacked. Big Mama appears to be 110% muscle, and there is no videogame universe where that is not seen as a tremendous asset (okay, maybe not in Pokémon). Big Mama is the rare female playable character in a videogame that is not wafer-thin, and she has got the big guns to put her in Zangief’s piledriving class (which he teaches on Monday nights at the Y). Big Mama is wholly unique not just in Shock Troopers (where there are two other standard issue skinny white women available), but also across gaming, because here are all the other large, muscular black women I can recall playing as across other videogames…

On rare occasions, we get a Sheva (Resident Evil), Elena, or even MK’s Jade, but there is no way any of those women could reasonably take a punch from Goro. Big Mama, though? She could tear Goro’s arms off just as easily as Jax. Big Mama has a unique race, gender, and body type for gaming. And, give or take one of Chrono Cross’s cast of thousands, it’s difficult to immediately recall a single playable character that even comes close to fitting those same parameters. Big Mama is a singular woman in her entire medium.

She is the winner!And she got dropped for the sequel and any of the myriad of other SNK/Neo Geo crossover materials across the last two decades. Shock Troopers introduced a character that could embody a severely underrepresented chunk of the population, but dropped her at the earliest opportunity. Two decades of busty blondes later, and we have yet to see another Big Mama.

And that’s fucked up.

FGC #571 Shock Troopers

  • System: Neo Geo / Arcade initially, and then (like most Neo Geo games) it resurfaced in one way or another for the PS2, PS3, PS4, PSP, Xbox One, Wii, and Nintendo Switch. It looks like it skipped the WiiU, but, then again, so did Nintendo (HEY-O!).
  • Number of players: Looks like two, but you have a choice of eight characters. That is because…
  • Make the dream work: The player has a choice between playing as one hero (“lonly” mode, thanks SNK translation team), or a team of three. I literally cannot fathom why someone would play as anything other than a team. You get three life bars, so you can switch when one is running low (and wait until you see a health powerup)! You get three different offensive/agility options, as every character plays distinctly! You have an excuse to use the chubby white dude and his clearly circumstance-based poison bombs! Why would you ever limit yourself to one character per credit?
  • Favorite Character: Oh, maybe because you want to show Big Mama solidarity. I understand wanting to showcase Big Mama.
  • Say something nice about character design in Shock Troopers 2nd Squad: I mean, it’s nice that both of the women in Shock Troopers 2 aren’t the typical blonde bombshells you see in gaming, and Lulu is fairly androgynous (which is a welcome alternative to “boob delivery creature). Also, Toy is a punk with a laser, which ain’t bad.
  • EAT BUILDING!Favorite Boss: Oh yeah, the boss designs definitely improved between sequels. In the first Shock Troopers, you mostly just fight fantastic military weaponry, like a helicopter or battle tank (“battle tank” is defined as any tank that has more spikes than your usual tank). In Shock Troopers 2, you fight significantly more varied opponents, including an entire office building that changes into a missile/laser fortress. It is basically a Transformer, and I am here for that.
  • Pick Your Poison: Shock Troopers offers three different routes to the final level, complete with an opportunity to switch paths about halfway through. That adds a fun reason to replay the game! That said, Jungle is terribly boring, while Valley lets you blow up a submarine. And Mountain lets you climb a cliffside by hand, and then use a zipline. So why would you take any route other than Mountain?
  • What’s in a name? The terrorists of ST1 are known as the Bloody Scorpions. The sequel features DIO, led by a man named Nakatomi. This implies that the initial Bloody Scorpions are not around anymore because they found a good day to die hard.
  • Did you know? If you leave the banana life up sitting on the ground too long, a monkey will dash over, and steal your bananas. How cheeky!
  • WeeeeeeWould I play again: Shock Troopers is a fun little run ‘n gun with multiple routes and characters that wholly encourage additional playthroughs. I will probably do that! … If I remember this game exists, and there aren’t any Contra games I want to play at that immediate moment.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Night Trap! The game that almost broke all of gaming! Woo boy! Please look forward to it!

FGC #487 Super Mario Bros. 2

This is the second consecutive article about a second Mario game in the year 2020. That’s a lot of twos! So let’s look at two significant things about Super Mario Bros. 2 that appear in this one (1) screenshot.

Mario!  Kinda!

We’ll start with the good

It's good!

This is the best heads up display there has ever been in a Mario game.

What do we have here? Two red dots. That’s your health. And that’s it! That’s all you need to know! It is firmly the belief of Gogglebob.com that every videogame requires an easy, immediately accessible health meter. This helps the player make decisions: you have full health, so do you take some chances? Or are you down to a single hit point, and you play as conservatively as possible? Do you go for that extra heart to keep your boat afloat? Or are you already sitting pretty, so why risk it for something you don’t even need? The choice is up to you, and knowing exactly how much gas is in your tank lets you make an informed decision. Are you getting this, Fable 3? Nobody wants to waste health potions because they can’t tell if that screen filter is supposed to bright or dark red.

Playin' SnakeIn your average SMB platformer, you can tell how vulnerable you are immediately by Mario’s average height and/or ability to hurl flaming balls, but Super Mario Bros. 2 simply has “health”. And that does allow for some interesting gameplay decisions. Are you going to horde that magic potion to find a mushroom? Or is it time to seek out as many gambling coins as possible? Are you full of hearts for the Mouser showdown, or are you going to hold off on opening that door until you’re a little more stable? Options! They’re back! And they all pivot on those simple red dots up in the corner.

And don’t even get me started on how good it is to see four dots up there. Mmmm…

There is beauty in what is not included up there, too. A score has never mattered to Mario, so why even bother? The game is tracking the Subcon denizens you defeat, as you are eventually rewarded with a restorative heart after knocking over enough shyguys, but you don’t need a “kill count” to encourage further carnage (eat it, Super Mario Land 2). And even your cherry collection, the closest thing SMB2 has to gathering coins, doesn’t need a counter when you’re just happy to see the occasional super star. Cherries are not something to be rationed across Wart’s invasion. Just grab ‘em! Cherries are good, and that’s all you need to know about that collectible.

Super Mario Bros. 2’s HUD tells you literally everything you need to know, and doesn’t clutter the screen with anything superfluous. It is a shining example of minimalist design.

So it’s a bit of a shame that excellent design doesn’t apply to the problem with Super Mario Bros. 2…

It's bad!

The issue? There at the top of the screen is the bird-mask gate that is the entrance to World 3-2. And that door at the bottom? That’s the exit. You can see it! It’s right there! You’re just going to have to traverse the whole of the stage backwards to find your way to your eventual goal.

And that’s always annoying.

Complete BSSuper Mario Bros. 1 is a game that scrolls from left to right so relentlessly, the screen literally doesn’t allow returning to the left. Super Mario Bros. 3 may allow backtracking, but you can be sure that your eventual fireworks display is always going to be far too the right. Right is forward, left is backwards, and if you’re not making forward/right progress, you are losing ground on reaching your goal. Easy peasy. There are some exceptions to the rule (usually involving a castle or similar Koopa encampment), but, by and large, you always know where you’re going in a Mario game.

Super Mario Bros. 2, unfortunately, doesn’t have this kind of focus. Right from the first level, there’s a branching path that involves the possibility of sneaking up on Birdo through some demolition, or scaling a vertical beanstalk. Choice is great! But it’s not so great on an opening level where you’re still trying to discover the shape of your goals. From there, we have a second level that requires a detour to find a key, and then another stage that entails some up-and-down just to make your way to a boss. Very rarely is there a SMB2 level that requires simple, left-to-right traversal, and, while the final fortress being a maze is to be expected of a Mario adventure, the second to last level hangs its opening segment on the deception of having to progress left when right seems like the most obvious goal. Right until the end, Super Mario Bros. 2 loves tricking the player into confusion at best, and general time wasting at worst.

And I am not a player that likes to waste his time.

Rarely seen crabI replay Super Mario Bros. 3 once a year (though I may ignore some levels). Super Mario Bros. usually sees a go for one reason or another. But I don’t think I’ve completely played through Super Mario Bros. 2 since the advent of the Gameboy Advance. Why? Because it’s a game that practically forces the player to second guess every decision. Is this the right way? Should I be riding that albatross? Is there a key down this pipe, or another stupid turtle shell? Hell, even pullin’ up plants, the temporary replacement for Mario’s iconic question mark blocks, is a lottery to the uninformed player. Are you going to pull up a helpful vegetable, or a bob-omb that is going to blow after an instant? And if there are a row of plants, where is that magic potion? If you pull it up first, it’ll lead to a bevy of coins, but tugging it out last means you won’t get a cent. And, as someone who doesn’t easily deal with missing collectibles, it poisons everything about the experience.

Oh… oh, God. Is Super Mario Bros. 2 the first Mario collectathon?

Well, no, of course not. It’s not like Wart is locked behind finding every last coin or some other esoteric condition. But Super Mario Bros. 2 does appear to be the first Mario title that experimented with eschewing “courses” for “worlds”, and its position as a the first Mario game to give that a try makes it a harder pill to swallow. Super Mario Bros. 2 is neither fish nor fowl in the war between Mario games where you have to find everything, and Mario games where the entire point is jumping around like an idiot. Dang whalesAs a result, even though it is a very singular experience in the History of Mario, it is also a game that doesn’t perform well in either category. There are too many “secrets” and “techniques” required for this to be a simple “run ‘n fun” platforming title, but there are too many pidgits and waterfalls for it to be a game simply about discovery. It’s a title lost in the middle, and that means it is rarely anyone’s favorite.

But it still has a pretty rockin’ health meter, so it ain’t all bad.

FGC #487 Super Mario Bros. 2

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System, then Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and then… I guess it didn’t appear again until the Wii? Then it was on everything, though. Does the Gameboy Advance version count, too?
  • Number of players: This was the first Mario game to include Luigi, but not a 2-player mode. Or I’m making that up. But it sounds like a true fact!
  • Doki Doki Remake: Everybody knows that Super Mario Bros. 2 USA was a modified version of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, a Nintendo game by Shigeru Miyamoto that featured a non-Nintendo license. The heroes of YK:DDP were switched with the Mario staples of Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess, but most of the rest of the game was unchanged. We’ve still got Wart, Mouser, and…

    This is not okay

    They just had to change a liiiiiiil racism here and there.

  • Favorite Character: Growing up, I always relied on Princess Toadstool/Peach. But now, as a mature adult, I apparently prefer Toad. I… I just gotta go fast.
  • Innovation: I may be against how much thinking is required to complete Super Mario Bros. 2, but I am continually impressed by how often the simple concept of “riding” an enemy is used for fascinating gameplay. Soaring across the skies on the back of a bird is pretty straightforward, but who would expect skittering up a tree with a hoopster? And seeing how far you can get while riding on a shyguy is always fun.
  • What’s in a name: Oh! Subcon! As in subconscious, as in the part of your brain that is working when you’re dreaming. I just got that!
  • Floating bubblesDid you know? Clawgrip is an entirely new boss added to the game to replace a third Mouser battle in level 5. It’s obvious that a number of SMB2 luminaries never made it into other Nintendo titles because “SMB2 USA” didn’t have as much cultural clout in Japan, but Clawgrip is on the Mike Jones-echelon of never being seen again. Come on, Nintendo, he’s a giant crab! Nerds love those guys!
  • Would I play again: It might not be my favorite, but it sure is a Mario game. That means I’m sure I’ll give it another go sometime, even if it won’t be for a while. Maybe I can go visit Mecha Birdo…

What’s next? We’re keeping this two-train going! Random ROB has chosen Sonic the Hedgehog 2! Are you up 2 it? Please look forward 2 it!

Sleep well

FGC #485 The Simpsons: Bart vs. the World

That's Bart!What’s so wrong with Monty Burns?

Today’s game is The Simpsons: Bart Vs. the World. It’s the direct sequel to The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space Mutants, and it’s another Acclaim title that puts the “crap” in “craptacular”. This go-around, Bart has dropped all the adventure game-lite trappings of the previous title, and all the action in Vs. the World is wholly based on platforming challenges and boss fights. There are a few puzzles littered here and there, but it’s much more “find this doodad” and not “use spray paint on trashcan” like in Vs. the Space Mutants. As a result, Vs. the World feels somehow… dumber than its predecessor. And, what’s worse, for the reemphasis on platforming and action set pieces (you skateboard down the Great Wall of China!), nobody thought to improve the atrocious controls of Vs. The Space Mutants, so those “platforming challenges” are very likely to be the death of your favorite Simpsons character (Bart, to be clear, not Disco Stu). Basically, the one unique part of Vs. the Space Mutants got dropped, and all we’re left with is that inscrutable “hold jump to run” nonsense.

But Bart vs. the World does have one advantage over Bart vs. the Space Mutants: It’s actually a Simpsons game. Like Fester before him, Vs. the Space Mutants forces Bart to battle aliens who presumably want to abduct some cows, man. And they’re not even Kang & Kodos! They’re just generic aliens (occasionally mutating forms through the different ports). Meanwhile, Bart vs. the World might see Bart up against the world, but it’s a world seemingly controlled by Homer Simpson’s boss, C. Montgomery Burns. This strangely convoluted plot involves Bart entering a drawing contest on The Krusty the Clown Show, winning thanks to Burns’ meddling, and then being sent on a trip around the world wherein Burns can destroy the “despised” Simpsons family. Die in darkness!This, naturally, raises a lot of questions, as… what is the goal here? Burns has to kill one of his employees’ children internationally, or it doesn’t count? Oh, wait, the last stop on the trip is Hollywood, so that doesn’t even work. Maybe Burns’ various assassins don’t want to go anywhere near the Springfield Tire Fire, so they’re scattered about the globe. Or maybe Burns just doesn’t want to spring for airfare for any killers, and shipping one Simpson family around is cheaper. Whatever the case, Bart is on an international scavenger hunt for Krusty brand merchandise, and Burns is trying to kill him all the while.

Which raises the question: if you had to pull a villain out of The Simpsons, why Burns?

At this point in the franchise, you can’t blame the source material. This videogame was released in 1991, and only had a solid two seasons of The Simpsons to draw from. And, in that batch of episodes, there were only a handful where Burns was the antagonist. In Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, Burns is a “villain”, but only because he won’t grant Homer and other “unskilled workers” a Christmas Bonus. From there, we’ve got Homer’s Odyssey, where Homer is fired for nearly causing a nuclear meltdown… which, let’s be honest, sounds like a pretty reasonable reason for termination. And that’s about it for Burns being a “villain” in Season 1. Babysitters are more of a threat!

Profits?Season 2 of The Simpsons ramps up Burns to full-blown antagonism levels, but we’re still nowhere near murderous. Three Eyes in Every Fish sees Burns running for governor after his plant poisons the local water supply, but, big deal, that’s been the Republican MO for the last few decades. Then Bart Gets Hit by a Car, but that was an accident, and more of a parable about not overreaching when trying to shake down the filthy rich. Brush With Greatness is the story of how Burns has an incredibly nonthreatening penis, and the Season 2 finale (which likely wasn’t even available when Bart vs. the World was being produced) is Blood Feud, wherein Homer goes nuts over Burns not being generous after receiving a blood transfusion. Again, we’re in a situation where Homer expects more than his boss has to give, and the central conflict is that Burns is appreciative, but not appreciative enough.

Yet Bart vs. the World portrays Burns as wholly homicidal. And if we’re going to include The Simpsons Arcade Game (released the same year), we’ve got a Burns that kidnaps babies and launches nuclear bombs. That’s a significant escalation from “sent a pleasant thank you note”!

So what happened here? Why, in only The Simpsons’ second year, did videogames promote Burns from “bad boss” to “genocidal madman”?

Well, it probably speaks to videogame producers identifying what The Simpsons was initially about.

After 20 some seasons and over 600 episodes, it’s hard to remember that The Simpsons started during the 80s/90s wave of blue-collar style sitcoms. After years of high concept situation comedies like “what if people were trapped on a desert island”, “what if they’re creepy and they’re kooky”, or even “what if a woman had a decent job”, The Simpsons rode in on a wave of programs like Roseanne or Married… With Children wherein the protagonists faced very real problems. No more did people worry about magical girl wives or whether they were secretly the dream of Bob Newhart; this new wave of sitcoms derived humor from upsetting real world situations, What is even happening here?like teenage pregnancy, hiding from your landlord, or gradually falling out of favor with your spouse. And the biggest, realest problem of all? Money! The world is a cold, harsh place, and your family is never going to love you if you can’t bring home a host of Christmas presents. There are jokes along the way, but, once upon a time, every “comedy” out there was expounding the horrors of our collective everyday drudgery.

And, while The Simpsons did lend itself to whimsy more often than not in those early seasons (Bart winds up making wine on another continent inside of ten episodes), it was still a very grounded, “real” sitcom. …Granted, this might just be because TV Guide was somehow impressed on a weekly basis that Homer didn’t ride a mastodon to work, so the writers deliberately, defiantly veered into “real world” territory just to sunder expectations… But this is still a franchise that officially started with a treatise on commercialism and a family trying to keep it together in the face of financial hardships. And the cause of that financial hardship? It’s Burns. The man who fires Homer a few episodes later? Burns. The old man responsible for injuring a young boy and then never paying for it? Burns. And is showing kindness to a rich white man financially rewarded? No, because you simply can’t win in a world where you’ve been constrained to the lowest rung of the ladder.

Of course Burns is the enemy of the Simpsons. Burns is the enemy of every working-class family.

Burns is money incarnate. Burns has all the power not only in Springfield (like, literally all the power), but he also decides whether Homer lives or dies. Want to keep earning a salary? Have a good Christmas? Lisa needs braces? Well, that dental plan is 100% controlled by one man. Burns doesn’t have to be villainous, he simply is villainous because of his position. He’s the king of the castle, and the Simpson family has to pay him tribute to so much as set up a tent in the courtyard. Burns is, one way or another, the source of all the woes afflicting the Simpsons.

Winner!So it’s only natural that transposing that character to other situations would mean he would have to adjust to the medium du jour. When Mr. Burns had to be the antagonist of a NES title, he became murderous and gained an army of generally identical/vaguely racist “family members”. When he had to headline a Konami beat ‘em up, he gained a super suit and explosive weaponry. When The Simpsons itself veered away from “reality” and more into “a cartoon”, Mr. Burns became an appropriately cartoonish supervillain with a penchant for petty antics. Mr. Burns was always the villain, just what is “the villain” had to change between mediums and epochs.

Except Mr. Burns himself never changed. In a 1989 sitcom, he was a rich, old, white (yellow) man. In a 1991 videogame, he was a rich, old, white man. In 2020, he is a rich, old, white man. Through thirty years, right there from his first appearance, he’s been a villain. His actions may have varied across the years, but he’s also been the same, easily identified archetype. He’s a rich, old, white man, and that makes him the natural enemy of the average, middle class family.

Mr. Burns was always going to be the villain. Mr. Burns has always been the villain. And everyone has been able to identify that right from the start.

FGC #485 The Simpsons: Bart vs. the World

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System, but also the Game Gear and Master System a couple of years later. I absolutely do not want to see what this game looks like on the Game Gear.
  • Number of players: Just a Bart, man.
  • Thanks, momCollect-a-thon: This is another weird, early game featuring collectibles that can alter the course of the game. Every level is hiding a hidden Krusty doodad, and, if you collect them all, you get to play one extra level that is atrocious. It’s supposed to be a Duck Amuck-esque adventure for Bart in an “animated” world… but it’s mostly just a half-baked stage with terrible hit detection… which, granted, is basically the same as the rest of the game. But! If you clear it, you get a secret bonus ending where you can hit Mr. Burns with a pie. Cowabunga!
  • Favorite Continent: I guess it’s the final world, Hollywood, as it uses the tinsel town trappings to throw in a whole Halloween level. There’s a skeleton! It’s also, oddly enough, exactly the same excuse for a “horror level” that we saw in Gremlins 2. Was there some Acclaim/Sunsoft overlap?
  • It’s Trivia Time: There are various minigames available between levels. The best is Simpsons Trivia, which offers a number of questions regarding esoteric Simpsons knowledge. That makes fans happy! A sliding block puzzle that reminds good little Goggle Bobs of Beyond the Beyond is… less fun.
  • Say something nice: The “Bartman” powerup was pretty fun in the ol’ days before flight was shoehorned into every platforming game. It may have only lasted for something like seven seconds, but it’s always nice to have movement unfettered by the laws of gravity.
  • That's Moe!Did you know? Entertainment Weekly designated this title as a “travel-action game”. I would like to see more of this previously unknown genre.
  • Would I play again: No thank you. Is The Simpsons Arcade Game available? I think that would be my first choice over this mediocre platformer.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Mario Land 2 for the Nintendo Gameboy! Everybody do the Mario! Or the Wario! Please look forward to it!

Homie, no!