The Duality of Mario in a Battle Royale
Or, how the latest smash hit from Nintendo calls into focus both the light and the dark parts of its reputation.
In February of 2019, the world of Nintendo online gaming got turned on its head with the release of Tetris 99. The addictive Russian puzzle game that drained many a quartet of batteries on ‘90s kids’ Game Boys got yet another fresh coat of paint, this time taking a spit-shine to the two-player option and opening it up to an online battle royale of 99 competitors accruing lines and sending junk to other players until one player stood tall winning the title of Tetris Maximus. It certainly wasn’t the first-ever battle royale game. Fortnite had already been out for something along the lines of 18 months by then and is still going strong right now, for example. Tetris 99 did accomplish something – mining nostalgia as lightning in a bottle for the second time in an entity’s history.
While I have some kind of tenuous brand loyalty to Nintendo, it is fleeting inasmuch as it only extends to the products it puts out and not full online stan-hood. No corporation deserves that, not Nintendo, not even Huy Fong Foods, makers of the sriracha sauce that comes in the rooster bottle. That being said, I think the last time I found myself utterly disappointed with a Nintendo product was with Star Fox Adventures, and that was three consoles ago. I will not defend them playing online panopticon snuffing out emulators and fan-games while running their latest Mario release, Super Mario All-Stars 3D, via emulator on the game software, but I will defend their products as being fun to play.
Enter Super Mario 35.
What I imagine Nintendo doing is saying to another kinda-third party developer type that they want something special for Mario’s 35th anniversary, and then they pointed at Tetris 99 aggressively. That developer, in this case Arika, riffed on the same idea, a retro battle royale-style game, and stumbled upon something special, even more impressive than what Tetris 99 achieved. Tetris 99’s gameplay was already established. If you had a friend and a link cable, you could play a similar game to what has been released, battle royale-style today. You race to complete lines, and with every line you complete above a single, you send over junk to the other player. Tetris 99 is just a variation on a theme, a good theme, but still an existing one.
What Super Mario 35 did was create a whole new paradigm for a 2D platformer. The original Super Mario Bros. two-player mode was basically just you and your second player – a sibling, a parent, a friend, whatever – took turns playing through the game. The only real chance for annoyance was if one player was a whole mess better than the other and just wouldn’t die, thus delaying that person’s turn indefinitely. The idea of agitation and true competition didn’t really come up until the landmark Super Mario Bros. 3, where you could “trap” the other player in the spot where you were stationed and duel them in a minigame that resembled the old Mario Bros. arcade game. But what Arika developed was an entirely fresh take not on what traditional Mario multiplayer was, but on what the Tetris multiplayer style embodied. The idea is similar; you defeat an enemy, from a piddling Little Goomba all the way up to King Bowser himself, and you send a facsimile of that enemy to another player, clogging up their path to the flagpole. You play through levels in almost random order, but your clock remains the same. You don’t get 300-500 seconds per level, but you start with 35 seconds and with each enemy you defeat, each Fire Flower you get when you’re already Fire Mario, and each flagpole you active, you get more time, with a maximum of 400 seconds to be gained (the equivalent of six minutes and 40 seconds).
What happens with these minor tweaks is a tectonic shift in how the game works. Retro 2D platformers have gained a lot of notoriety over the years among gamers for a practice called speedrunning. The goal is to complete the game in as little time as possible. In the case of the original Super Mario Bros., one could beat the game without defeating a single enemy and only clearing six total levels while visiting two more for their warp zones. I would argue that kind of strategy in this iteration of the game would lead to a quick exit from the battle royale, especially since the goal isn’t to defeat Bowser at the end of world 8-4, but to survive as long as possible before your timer runs out. Where speedrunning gave the original Mario a second life at viability, Super Mario 35 is an incredible third rebirth. The game is everything that is wonderful about what Nintendo can do as a company that sells a good and/or service for your money.
Unfortunately, it is also everything that is rotten about the company’s business practices. While they aren’t undercutting emulator operators or aggressively hunting “cheaters” online, they made the announcement that this game will only be available to play until March 31, 2021. It might not seem like a big deal in the long run given that it is free to download and play as long as you have a subscription to the Switch online play, but it’s this kind of artificial scarcity that drives people into the digital underground that Nintendo loves policing. What happens when April 1 of next year rolls around, and someone has found a way to emulate this game? Whether they like it or not, they have created a cultural phenomenon that people want to play, and if they can’t play it “legally,” they’re going to emulate the software.
It’s not a matter of following the rules or keeping up with a lawful society. Laws should be made to serve as reminders to people to follow the Social Contract, but lawmakers pass them not just to uphold a sense of peaceful community, but to make sure that capital keeps being able to make that sweet paper unabated. Artificial scarcity on a game does not do anything to uphold the peace, so the best thing to do would be make sure you curate your library as a game producer to make sure you have avenues for your fans and players to be able to play them. Games are, after all, a part of the cultural history. Imagine being an art buff and not being able to go into a gallery to see the “Mona Lisa,” and if the estate of Leonardo da Vinci (or DA VINKY if you’re the Voros Twins) sent you a cease and desist if you even tried to look at a photograph of it online? Whether or not you want to call video games art is irrelevant. They are a vital thread on society’s recreational history, and history is best when it is curated and maintained.
It’s such a shame that a game that is as vibrant and simply creative like Super Mario 35 has to be a reminder of the failures of the current climate to preserve things that aren’t profitable, because it is a joy to play. Human history is littered with dots of pleasure that have just the ugliest caveats tethered to them. It really doesn’t have to be that way. There can be another way. Do you want to know what that is? Just ask any of the half-a-million people who stopped by a Twitch stream to watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar play Among Us. They’ll let you know.
Graphics via Nintendo.com