Monday, 25 July 2016

I Am The Shadow, The True Self (Super Mario Brothers 2: The Lost Levels)

Let's plunge back into darker territory here. I'll use metaphors from a recent piece of media that still sound really neat and mystical if you don't Get It. At least, that's the hope. So, here then, we walk the fine tightrope of history. In 1985 the video games were dead, and then they were not. 32 levels of running and jumping and mushroom grabbing saved the industry, and created the foundations of what we know today. Those foundations may pulse with a dark undercurrent, but ours is not to drive a pickaxe into them and send the black, acrid ichor of cultural corruption spurting forth like a severed artery. At least, not today. No, today we travel into the dark itself. You can call it anything you like. The space between spaces. Shadowland. The Upside-Down. Like a flea on the tightrope, we slip in between, and we find new fundamental facts. Facts that have changed our world without us being aware until later, when we could rip a hole between these gates and let information pass freely. It's this rip in space and time that lets me speak to you now, instantly, so let's waffle before we collapse all of reality in on itself, or let any Nightmares roam forth. Because slaying Nightmares is an arduous task, and I speak from experience. So. Here is what we know happened on the side of the tightrope.

And she even gave it a gold ribbon.
June 3rd, 1986. Master alchemist Shigeru Miyamoto, having created a Philosopher's Stone just 9 months earlier, has become attuned to the spiritual side of alchemy. Praying at the altar of the Goddess Valya, She Who Represents The Creativity And Good of Video Games And Alchemy And Who Knows What Else, he is blessed enough to hear her melody. The song she sings to him is the song of Endless Adventure, and with her grace in his pocket he begins his second grand work. In the meantime, he has a supervisory role in the alchemical follow-up to his first grand work. Both are being placed into new homunculi for Nintendo; a bright yellow containment field with a weakness to magnets. The song sung here is a tempting one, a siren call from another Goddess of video games who we encountered, long ago, when this was a Project. We called her Peko The Destructor, naming her after a master class high school swordswoman. She represented Death. Not just death, but entropy and decay. Her song is not a menacing one, like many of her others. She sings to the creators of this new alchemical code, and lets her song fly into the marketing. She's seen how the world has flocked to Miyamoto's first great work. They have challenged themselves through 32 levels of magic and wonder, and become great. Some have even mastered it. This, then, is the Destructor's Challenge. Come, experts. Come to this new realm of diskettes, and face my power. Try A Game For Super Players. Her sword slices through reality, striking a wound through the code. It reforms, and now it is complete.

Super Mario Brothers 2 is released in Japan, and it's pretty damned hard.

Sometime in 1991, now. My own personal history. I'm a small child in the first grade, and both my parents work 9 to 5. I'm out of school at 3 PM and I'm far too young and spooked to stay at home by myself, so I go to visit relatives for the afternoon. They have children a bit older than I, cool teenager types, and they have one of those amazing grey boxes like I have. A Nintendo Entertainment System! Where I only own the first Super Mario Brothers, they have all three! I love them all! Especially Super Mario 3, but especially Super Mario 2! You get to play as all sorts of characters, and pick up enemies, and there's turnips and POW blocks and scary key guys and egg-spitting dinosaurs! What a fun game! Of course, then a voice from the future begins to bellow, its self-evident rage creating a rip in space and time, a Charged Vacuum Emboitment that loops back into the yesteryears when Mulroney was Prime Minister. A disembodied falcon head I had learned to trust flies off of the wall and attacks, the Voice Of Rage bellowing through it.


I take this cynicism and shove vegetables down its fucking throat.

I think it's 1994 now, and I've escaped the confines of Negative Time to play around with family in Nova Scotia. My cousin's boyfriend has graciously left a shitload of video game stuff for me to toy around with. History tells me there's Game Boy games like Kirby's Dream Land and Metroid 2, a TG-16, a goddamn TURBO EXPRESS that I remember playing the Talespin game on, I rent the Power Rangers movie game, I play Super Mario World and need my other cousin's help to beat Bowser's final phase (which is especially funny when you consider that I'd grow up to do this). The important crackle comes when we visit a family friend who lives in this province now. His kids have one of those Super Nintendo things too, and we play stuff on it for a bit. There's Donkey Kong Country, a game that I would end up getting WITH my SNES. I die on the mine carts. Eventually I would impress friends of mine by being able to clear that flawlessly, and I'll be damned if that doesn't make me realize now, in the moment, that the path of Hard Game Beater was always mine to take. We also play a little game called Super Mario All-Stars, and it has all those Mario games I loved back home in Newfoundland in 1991! Plus something called the Lost Levels. I play a bit of this. It's kind of like Mario 1, but it's all-new levels. Wow! Did they make a whole bunch of new levels for this game? What a neat idea! I don't think much on it again.

1997. I buy a copy of Super Mario All-Stars from someone for 10 bucks. I don't play much of it. My SNES is in the basement, and a creature has taken residence there. An It, lurking within the confines of the Video Home System, scaring the wits out of me. A beast living in my basement, keeping me from playing a game with another beast lurking within it. Yes, it's true. What the cynical shouty voice will say ten years in the future is technically true. The "Lost Levels" are naught more than a 16-bit remake of the "original" Super Mario Brothers 2, a game balked at originally because Nintendo felt it would not be well-liked. 1993 was different, and it was re-branded as something else. In hindsight, we know now what this was. What Mario All-Stars was. This was Peko The Destructor, getting ready to reap. So does the link, and our original Project owner, say:

"Scandal", my ass.
"In all of this, however, there is a curious hope: The Lost Levels. The game’s basic existence was a known trivia fact to Nintendo devotees - a Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 that went unreleased in the US because it was, bluntly, too hard for Americans, resulting instead in an unrelated game, Doki Doki Panic, being reskinned into a Mario game. But its name is by and large apt - it was a lost part of history, known to have existed but inaccessible. Always already absent, its graphical restructuring loses nothing; indeed, it is in some ways more honest simply by dint of admitting that it is a reconstruction."

A lost part of history that the shouty voice tries to convince you is a cover-up, a sham, a fast one pulled on you. And yet, the arc of history shows that Nintendo has done what so many shouty voices wanted: Disclosure. There it is, in the annals of... what did our original Project owner call it, when he came back here for a time? Ah yes. "The sole arbiter of, if not taste, at least what Nintendo culture was going to be." Here is your link in full. Lost Levels Havoc. At last, the Song Of Peko comes to us, a hoarse death metal scream to shake our bones. Power Players, take notice. Even the game's new logo used on the box and in the pages of Nintendo Power is menacing, somehow. The greens and blues and purples are darker colors, and somehow it conveys a darker tone. We could go onward with our exploration of history, but enough. Time to dive into the heart of the cloud. Time to play in Shadowland, in the Upside-Down. Time to find out just what we lost.


Death, but not for you.
The Lost Levels conveys everything it is about within its first three obstacles. After dodging a Koopa Paratroopa, you come to this. A boxed-in red Koopa Troopa. A mushroom is hidden in the block there, and bouncing the blocks will give it to you. What one can do next is exactly the sort of thing that only a Power Player would take notice of (or a Nintendo Power Player, if you pay attention to its coverage). The original game had a convoluted and infamous "infinite" 1-Up trick that could be exploited in stage 3-1. The Lost Levels gives you access to this trick within the first 10 seconds of gameplay. Of course, alchemy in the olden days was limited. Your "unlimited lives" amount to 128. Names have power, and so do numbers. The number is 128 in our 16-bit Lost Levels, but in the original we were more arcane. Crown-W was our sigil, and we lived by it. This is Peko's Song, giving us a fighting chance. Your exploit is here, my challengers, if you dare to be smart enough to take it. This is but one of The Lost Levels's mission statements. The other comes in the next set of blocks. A purple mushroom rises from a block. Mushrooms are good! We want to get them. Alas, this one is tainted. Poisonous. It is death to eat. Take stock of this moment, this note of the Destructor's harmony. This is when the Lost Levels shows its true colors. Legend says, if we dip back on the tightrope again, that Howard Phillips experienced this and was horrified. This was not the joyful fun-loving Mario he had grown to adore. This was pain. There are more horrors to be found within the Lost Levels. Gimmicks like green springs and blowing wind. Tricky chain bouncing on Koopas over death pits. Needing to find secret pipes and beanstalks to progress. Warp zones that take you backwards to previous worlds. This is deviousness. Here is the real terror. The Goddess Valya's song inspires the hearts and minds of many alchemists, be they writers or musicians or video game makers. Here, in this moment, we can lay claim that Peko's Song, with its baroque sadism and inversion of the comforts one expects from Mario, is a focal point of the masocore. Kaizo Mario World. Super Expert levels in Super Mario Maker. They are amateur escalation, built from this one moment, this one subversion. Here within the Shadowland we have found another of those foundations, a pillar pulsing with putrid pus. Dear sweet Valya's grace, what have we uncovered? This is far more than just Peko's challenge at work. This is her Mistress's aim, and she has a name. True Despair.

True Despair can take on many forms. She is negativity, personified. In this instance, she is the cheeky death trap which has pulsed dark inspiration like a heartbeat pumping blood to the mind, but on a global scale. I am guilty as well. I have made difficult courses in Super Mario Maker, for expert play. I take my own experiences with the Destructor and True Despair, and craft my own spaces inspired by them. This is how inspiration works. But, I tone it down afterward. I send these monstrosities to a friend, and he plays them. Often, he tells me I have gone too far. In my remorse, I tone things down and make them better. Difficult, but better. The Lost Levels is admittedly quite light on this, having been designed by competent game designers. It is not a bad game, but it is hard in ways that make it feel like a dry run for a ROM hack. Which, really, that is basically what it was. There were tweaks to the graphics and the physics, but at its heart the Lost Levels is Super Mario Brothers: Really Hard Edition. The 16-bit rendition lets one save after every level, creating permanent safe zones along the way. That, plus the 128 lives thing, make it something akin to a modern masocore experience. Imperfect, but a relic of forgotten history that was unearthed. One can make it through. A Hard Game Beater like myself could relatively fly through it. Still finding a handful of difficult and tricky bits, but succeeding nonetheless. 32 levels of Mario Madness, and our Princess is saved. Ah. But Peko's Song is not over. There are more levels to be found, and it creates a ridiculous portrait. These are "Lost" Levels, and yet there are still five worlds left to conquer. 52 levels in total. They "lost" more levels than they put out in 1985! Ah well. Let us take stock in the horrific implications of what one in Japan would have had to do to access these extra stages. World 9 is reached by never warping, and clearing all 32 stages. Difficult, especially without the saving that All-Stars grants, but not impossible. The real trick comes in the original. This is a "bonus" world of sorts, an odd mishmash where you swim through the overworld. The end has a congratulatory message in Japanese... but the tricky thing is, you only get one life to beat it with. If you lose, you get another congratulatory message and the game ends. This is something lost in All-Stars, where you just go through it with your lives if you don't warp ever.

The letter worlds are the real pain. In All-Stars, they're just another present for beating the game without warping; four new REALLY hard worlds. To get them in the original, you had to beat the game. Eight times. Sheer madness, I tell you. I think of all the people who rag on the Ghosts n Goblins series and yell that OH MY GOODNESS YOU HAVE TO BEAT THE GAME TWICE. Certainly, that game is harder... but this one is no slouch, and it would shatter their souls to hear of such sadism. Of course, True Despair always finds a way in. Maybe it's making you really frustrated at 30 year-old Mario games. Maybe it's a more subtle mental invasion. The Nightmares are hers, of course. We're in Shadowland, after all. The Upside-Down, a purely Negative Zone. Why wouldn't negative emotion come here to feed? There are so many of them. Shambling things, abstract dark constructs that threaten to destroy everything you are and everything you love in life. Must these things be fought? Possibly. Yet, there has to be a certain acceptance. These terrible things exist. They can hurt you. True Despair will be a constant, as constant as air or water. It can be kept at bay with the right power. It might be as simple as alchemy. Or the satisfaction of beating a really hard video game. Or, like the last time I battled them, knowing that people care and hearing their words about how they felt inspired and uplifted by you. I don't need to hear the specific words this time, I think. This time, I can play by faith. Reassurance is strength. Bowser falls for the 13th time. We have conquered that which was lost, and mirrored it by regaining that which we lost. I have no specific uplifting words from friends this time, but I do have this. An incantation placed at the end of the journey. Miyamoto had some involvement with this game, in the end. Could this be Goddess Valya's grace, cutting through the dark with bright light, ready to take us back to the land of the happy? It's worth a try. We cast the spell, and swing on back into a better world.


And may they be ever long, indeed.