When the Ghosts Stare Back Into You

In the First World, there were no ghosts.

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Everything was new and colourful in a washed out, nostalgic sort of way: like a lucid mind in an ecstasy of mushrooms and fantasy. And as shells of soldiers fell off ledges or collided with each other in contention, plants burned out by fire, beetles failed by foot, squat things were squashed back into the earth, and fish and squids fell in water and monsters drowned below bridges a princess was found in the right castle and all was well.

As a result, the Second World was a sleep of the just and bounty.

Until the Third World.

Until the ghosts came.

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Perhaps the ghosts didn’t so much come as they were always there and it was only in the greatest castles, forts and darkest worlds that they began to manifest. Certainly, in the time of the Third World they seemed mostly limited to those spots and, after, they could be rendered out of sight. Out of mind.

Yet perhaps in mockery of the deeds that heroes did not want to admit to, or examine in too much detail, the ghosts would always stare away from their tormentor … they would stare away until his back was turned and, like a guilty conscience no longer assuaged by excuses, his ethereal attendants would catch up with him.

By the Fourth World and the graduation from shaded 8-bits into vibrant cartoon colours the ghosts gained their own castles. And some of them had different faces. And there were so many of them. So many.

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Did the heroes ever stop to count the number of enemies they slaughtered and attempt to match them up with the restless, mocking, vengeful dead?

And now–now–the ghosts have grown in size and intent. And worse yet, not all of them turn away under scrutiny but lunge for their murderers or, worse yet, stare right back into their eyes. But what does it mean? What does it mean?

What does it mean?

Peering at the Plumbing of a Classic: Super Mario RPG

From what I could remember, I’d never played a video game RPG. It was the mid-nineties and I’d played a few adventure games, but I never really thought of them at all. Whenever I did, I heard mostly about Secret of Evermore, Legend of Mana, or the Final Fantasy games. But it was still the era of Nintendo Power Magazine and I really loved its Epic Center section: a place where they discussed new and upcoming RPGs.

I actually loved the descriptions of these games and the wonderful illustrations that found their way into the magazines more than anything. It was just a pleasure to read through these hints and images of games. So in a way my game voyeurism–of watching or seeing games as opposed to playing them–started around that time. And then, one day, two years after Nintendo and Rare’s Donkey Kong Country and its very exciting “32-bit graphics” (I’d got a video cassette with previews of said game), another game came out for the Super Nintendo.

It was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

I don’t even know where to begin with this game. You might wonder why I would be talking about it on this Blog and what it has to do with the spirit of Mythic Bios until you realize that until this point I’d never played a video game RPG. So my brother and I rented it from Hollywood Movies–an old store that used to exist in the plaza closest to us–and we kept it in our possession for a while.

What can I tell you? Mario RPG–as Nintendo and Square’s baby–had the same graphics as Donkey Kong Country, except instead of being a two-dimensional side-scroller venture–or a 2D game–it attempted to simulate a 3D environment. But it was more like having a bird’s view of a well painted clay animated demented doll’s house diorama that was always on an angle. I can’t begin to tell you how that strange perspective both awed and pissed me the hell off.

If you’ve ever played this game, and you have hand-eye coordination issues you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The endless times I would fall through the gaps of floating platforms, or had to manoeuvre the platforms by jumping properly, or just missing something by inches but the perspective or parallax didn’t register properly in my brain. Also, like I may have intimated, my hand-eye-coordination was not that good in those days and it led to swearing. A lot of swearing.

However, once these hurdles were passed, it was a brilliant game. Now that I have my complaining out of the way, I want to talk about what really struck me. First, you start off playing as Mario as a distant third-person character. You go to rescue the Princess from the bad guy as per usual and then …

Shit goes down.

A giant Sword plunges into Bowser’s Keep and throws Mario, Princess Peach, and Bowser in all different directions as the Mushroom Kingdom and the world face a whole new danger … and a whole new game.

That is how Mario RPG begins. Then it gets helpful. There are mushroom-headed Toads and various other beings that are more than willing to give you tutorials as to how to navigate in a RPG. I mean think about it: Mario has always been in a side-scrolling platform world and now he finds himself in a turn-based role-playing world with a fairly structured story. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that his world had changed, and so has your playing experience with him.

You also begin to realize that the Mushroom Kingdom is only a small part of a much greater world of weirdness and old enemies, and new ones come into the fore. You also get new allies as you realize that Mario can’t fight this new enemy and undertake his new quest on its own.

Remember when I said that Mario RPG reminds me of a weird angled doll-house? I think it would be more appropriate to compare it to a interactive reality bento-box. Yes, that’s right. A bento box. Not an Italian plumber’s feast. I went there. 🙂 At first the jumping and angling can be as awkward as learning how to use chopsticks for the first time (and in my case you never learn how to use them properly), but when you learn the basics you realize that the contents of the open-lidded box are compact, well-organized, elegant, and heart-warming.

This seemingly simple game is complex. There are so many in-jokes and easter-eggs–hidden secrets–it is positively ridiculous. And when actually sit down and take the time to think about Mario RPG, it influences me to add another criterion to what I think defines a classic game. This criterion is replay value and a different experience each time you play it. I can tell you now, if I replayed this game, and I have seen others replay it, my knowledge of some of its secrets now as an adult would change how I played it when I was much younger. Hidden chests, and puzzles, and knowing how to fulfill certain tasks changes a lot of things. You can tell, just by watching someone interact with this strange little world, just how skilled and experienced a gamer they truly are. I feel like was–and is–one of those litmus tests.

When you get past the awkwardness of navigation, you have something really compact and very dynamic. You are not attacked randomly. You either run into enemies, or you don’t: which is awesome because while Final Fantasy VI is an awesome game, the random enemy encounters got annoying fast: just yanking you rudely and obnoxiously out of the immersion of this world you find yourself in. Mario RPG doesn’t have this as much. Moreover, if you press a button– and you time it just right–in combat, you can double hit your opponents, block damage, and even get extra items.

The timed hit mechanism made it seem like the characters have actual reflexes: which was a brilliant piece of innovation in what can become an almost robotic and boring turn-based fight of dealing damage. And then there is also a very personal touch in healing your characters–like Mario–with an item in battle and having him turn to the screen with a dialogue bubble of “Thank you” coming out of his mouth. There is just something really nice about your character thanking you for helping them: especially some you’ve known since childhood.

As the Mario games have continued, they seem a lot like interactive slapstick comedy and this was definitely in Mario RPG: especially with the hilarious dialogue, the Mario-pantomiming that would occur from time-to-time, and the game’s often lighthearted and alternatively epic carnival-toned music box soundtrack.

This game influenced me a lot in more ways than I care to admit, or even know. I was very disappointed when the other Mario RPG games were not direct sequels, but–while really good in their own rights (having played Paper Mario and–even more enthusiastically– Super Paper Mario)–were their own standalone worlds. I mean, they brought all these new characters into play: Croco (who was the humanoid alligator equivalent of the octopus Ultros from FF VI who pissed me to no end in those early days), the sentimental marsh-mellow weather-controlling Mallow (who I didn’t mind), Smithy (who was a bad-ass villain) and his minions, and–of course–Geno: the animated wooden walking puppet guardian seeking to restore the Star Road so that people could have their wishes granted again. I guess at the very least, the game was not going to cop out by stating that it was “just a dream” like another Mario game we all know. ;P *Cough*Mario 2*cough*

I loved to play with Geno and Bowser in my team: Geno because of his powers, and Bowser because he was strong and scary. But they were all awesome and especially Mario. You know, Mario RPG really hit home just how unlikely Mario is as a hero. A plumber that finds himself in a weird world almost defying Alice’s Wonderland who turns into a giant from eating mushrooms, throws fire after finding a flower, and becomes invincible for a brief time with a star and jumps so high. This plumber goes to save a princess and fight a monster. He is quiet and he looks one of the least menacing figures ever. He never speaks but he has a definite affable personality.

In fact, aside from Kirby from Kirby’s Dreamland, the only other heroic figure who is so unlikely is The Doctor from his own television series. But he has that same heart-warming quality and care along with his enemies–even Bowser–and they have continued throughout the years to the point of having their own epic role-playing game. I would have once laughed and found this silly–which it is–but there is just so much packed in just this one little game that it is simply incredible.

So yes, tangents aside I give this awesome classic a five out of five. It was well-made and a joy. As Boltage McGammar in his own “Let’s Play” of this same game liked to say, “later plumbers.”