I was 8. Grade 2, a bookworm. I could name any dinosaur, my favourite movie was Spy Kids 2, at least until Spy Kids 3D: Game Over came for that crown. And I was anxious, bloody terrified of the great wide world around me. It’s a dangerous place, as I quickly learned when I decided to climb a tree backwards. Top to bottom, some would call that falling, and considering how my arm bone had very suddenly become two separate arm bones, I reluctantly agree. This was also the first day of Christmas holidays, which here in Oz, sits smack bang in the middle of summer. So while all the other kids are out in the sun drinking poolwater to their heart’s content, here I was cooped up inside, arm in a cast, having no fun…
UNTIL. A buddy of mine let me borrow something to keep myself busy, something that’d take hold of my poor impressionable brain and from that point on, never let go. It doesn’t look like much now, and it didn’t look like much back then, but once I had it in my hands, the Nintendo 64 and I were inseparable. Kids, you can keep your poolwater! Let me know when you can get that shit in 3D, then we can talk. Until then, I’m chillin with my new bros Banjo and Mario from the comfort of my own couch.
These candy coloured cartoon worlds were just the escape my wee brain needed from the big bad world outside. Safe and sound, nothing scary here! No sir! If I was scared, then my 8 year old self wouldn’t have just spent the past 16 hours trying to jump this trapdoor which DEFINITELY doesn’t have an invisible wall on the other side. I wouldn’t do that if I was SCARED. Do I look stupid? No, mere mortal, my tastes have refined. Time to part with cheap thrills, I’m here to be… existentially tormented. Ah, do you feel it? Do you feel…
Proto-me loved both Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie enough to waste my most precious developmental years on them. Even after the cast was long gone, I kept chipping away. These games might look like a piece of cake now, but trust me, it’s no easy feat to hold a remote in your hands while also covering your eyes. These seemly cheery games shared an affinity for nightmare fuel, especially with toothy units like Clanker and Chain Chomp. Still, even as I trawled Banjo’s darkest, dankest environments, these are still all HAPPY memories. Mario was a little different.
“Super Mario 64 seems to play with a strangely wide swath of emotions. Or at least, playing it seems to invoke a variety of feelings in me. Loneliness, tension, horror, melancholy… like drifting through sleep, nightmares and all… I felt a small knot of tension in my gut when I played it… a general, blanketed vibe of uneasiness throughout the entire game.”
The above is from Kyle Labriola, purging his trauma for the armchair psychologists of the world to pick apart, and after reading that myself… wow, I didn’t have the words as a kid, or for a long time after that either… But for years, all it took was for a piano to look at me funny, and that same sad, strange, nervous feeling I thought I’d buried for good comes rushing right back. I’d tell myself, maybe I’d misremembered? It couldn’t be game for literal babies leave me feeling like THIS? Well, now I’ve replayed that hell game as a big boy grownup and there’s DEFINITELY something. Two things.
Banjo Kazooie’s worlds feel truly lived in, filled with memorable landmarks, and crafted with an attention to detail that grounds you in a consistent and consistently charming reality, like a storybook come to life. Everything you see in the game can be justified in-universe, the landscapes assume organic formations, no block is just a block, no platform is just a platform. No! It’s a pipe, it’s a branch, it’s the scarf of a giant snowman, and this goes miles where immersion is concerned.
Banjo’s version of a spooky scary level, Mad Monster Mansion is no exception. Before my recent replay, I’d tell you this was “theme park scary”, Saturday morning cartoon, Scooby Doo Spookycoaster scary… which is to say, tame. But I’ll be real with ya, the imagery in this game can get pretty genuinely gruesome, leaning more Brothers Grimm by way of Roald Dahl by way of Trapdoor than I remembered, but there’s a very clear vision and intentionality here. You can tell that by 1998, those Britbongers at Rare have already spent years perfecting the dark art of polygon transfiguration, cutting their teeth on detailed 3D renderings as far back as 1994 for the Donkey Kong Country series, so even when they push the envelope, their designs are consistently well defined, emotive, and appealing, complimented by a cheeky sense of humour, and composer Grant Kirkhope’s characteristically toe tapping tunes.
ON THE OTHER HAND. Mario 64’s Big Boo’s Haunt is a blank canvas collecting dust in the basement of an art supplies store run by the little boy from The Grudge. Preceding Banjo by 2 years, these designs are clearly more primitive, and by extension, abstract. Credit where credit’s due, What Miyamoto’s team managed in the face of technological limitations was immense, and history shows, at this early stage in the genre’s lifecycle, they were right to prioritise gameplay innovation over visuals. A minimalistic design approach was economically wise, but shows that perhaps they underestimated the power of an overactive imagination.
Graphics relying on fuzzy textures and artificial shapes, push the onus onto the player to mentally fill gaps in detail… and though things look fine and dandy in a world of sunshine and rainbows, things go south quick when spooky’s the name of the game. Big Boo plays both its setting and polygon alignment shockingly straight. Nary a wink wink nudge nudge, or a kooky crooked angle to speak of here, leaving my kiddie brain working overtime to fill these visual gaps, projecting back onto the mansion walls, the cracked paint, the cobwebs, the evaporated orphan tears that it thinks belong there. And when a bundle of polygons doesn’t immediately lend itself to a familiar, expect that unearthly angular monolith to stick out like HP Lovecraft’s sore thumb. When I look back to 2003 with 4KHD wide-screen hindsight, no ride on the Gold Coast was scarier than getting stuck on Big Boo’s horrible hell roundabout.
Arguably 2D games are by definition more abstract than what we see here on the 64, but the inclusion of Mr Z axis poses new and surprising challenges regarding how players interpret space itself, and I don’t think Nintendo could have anticipated the difference that a third dimension creates psychologically. In some ways, they adapted incredibly well, at least compared to their contemporaries making the same transition from flat games to fat games. Recognizing how the extra dimension of movement made precision platforming virtually impossible, Nintendo were smart to shift away from Mario’s bread and butter in favour of more freeform exploration in these new, wide open… empty, desolate, vacant void worlds.
This necessitates a generally slower pace and more relaxed style of play, giving the players time to ponder things like… where are the NPC’s? Shit, where am I? The highly linear, directional nature of Mario’s side-scrolling titles meant that regardless of how bare a level really is, no player will ever see, or need to see anything but what’s a few steps directly in front of and behind the little guy at any given time. With only one main path, the screen itself gives you all the direction you need to reach the end of the line.
Jump to 3D and things become more complicated. Suddenly, you can see in all directions and the world’s your oyster… but uh, sorry, hello waiter! I think somebody already ate this oyster. The game’s top loaded with the courses that strike the most effective balance of openness and directionality, giving the player the latitude to explore freely within geography that intuitively nudges them along the optimal path. If it were up to me, Bob-Omb Battlefield would be hanging in the Lourve, but the middle stretch of this game is filled with a lot of these vaguely themed, either dauntingly open or oppressively cramped, labyrinthine spaces with precious little in the way of either appealing landmarks or friendly faces, lending to a sense of isolation that reaches its peak in game’s most hair raising level.
Forget Big Boo, Hazy Maze or Lethal Lava, this is the one. Tracing my steps back and forth, searching the winding, empty halls of this godforsaken castle for proof L is real, is the most alone I ever felt playing this thing as a kid. The music isn’t cheery or jaunty, Mario’s been lured under false pretenses of baked goods and imprisoned in this boobytrapped mcmansion from hell, looking at best like the Winchester house get a new paint job. Even the few toad buddies stuck here with you ominously vanish the moment you break eye contact. Nintendo must’ve been made aware of this, as later Mario titles that venture into the 3rd dimension since have taken clear strides to minimise exactly this feeling moving forward, taking notes from devs like Rare, who made sure to pack levels with landmarks and friendly faces up the Banjo wazoo. So committed to the cause, Rare’s sticking googly eyes on damn near any surface that doesn’t pass their patented whimsicality test, and looking great doing it.
Levels are generally designed with a stronger sense of directionality, with plenty of appealing destinations dotting your line of sight at any given time. Even the hubworld, Grunty’s castle, though more sprawling and intentionally foreboding than Peach’s castle, compensates with tons of charm, googly eyed enemies to keep you company, and a more roughly linear path initially, that leads players through a number of varied, clearly themed zones on their way to their goal. And if this teddybear’s picnic gets spooky for you, fuck it. Banjo can go home literally any time he wants.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
To top it all off, Banjo himself is the perfect companion for an adventure like this. A capital C cartoon character, his silhouette says everything you need to know about him. This topheavy tough guy has the fur and the fists to take on anything the world throws at him, but he’s also a goofball with a nose for adventure, and he’s resourceful! As long as illegal exotic pets are the kind of resource you’re talking about. The specificity of this design is vital to making sure players never feel alone with the bear and bird.
Could you really say the same of poor Mario? Sure you’ll see snatches of his happy go lucky attitude shine through in his animations, but c’mon! Stand up straight young man! And how about a little smile? Sporting such an ambiguous expression, the door is left wide open to interpretation, turning Mario from a consistently comforting companion, into a conduit for the emotions of his environment. In film, a similar technique known as the Kuleshov effect has been used to impart a greater range of emotion on horror and science fiction’s greatest masked villains. Joy is rarely one of those emotions.
Kyle Labriola muses,
“Is he brave, is he scared? is he sad”.
To me Mario could’ve been any 3 at any time, and sure enough he often was. So drop him in a less than cheery world and as Kyle says…
“There’s no sense of a world or community to save or citizens to root for you. There’s very little sense that you have any friends or allies at all. Nobody has your back. I never felt brave, adventurous, or like a hero playing this game. I felt trapped. Like waking up from one nightmare just to find myself in a surreal, new one.”
Here we are, at the intersection of abstraction and isolation, we find the perfect storm for a terrifying feedback loop. Take an 8 year old with only one good arm, half a brain, and an unstable grasp on object permanence, cooped up at home with lights off and parents at work, searching the halls for a level I’d seen in my dreams but convinced myself was real, I just had to find the right painting, all while the rest of the world is free to spend their summer gleefully speedrunning melanoma development. On my dozenth lap of the castle, loneliness creeps over, lonely turns to anxious, slowly the abstract angles of Wet Dry World shift from odd to outright hostile… and it goes on. But I can’t put the damn thing down. At this intersection, it’s the feeling of getting lost in the supermarket, or sitting down in the cinema for a fun afternoon of Spy Kids 3D, only to hear those jungle drums and immediately wince fearing a faceful of lava.
Banjo was its own kinda spooky, but I was ACTUALLY scared by the world under Bowser’s fist. And though I have fonder memories of Banjo’s heroic heist, I think it’s my time trapped in Peach’s castle that’s played a larger part in my media appetite today.
That anxious feeling I had to fight past to finally nab the giant eel’s star, that’s a feeling that in the years since, as I’ve grown older and less easily spooked, I’ve come to crave. The creeps. I pine for the uncomfortable jitters of grim otherworldly horrors, alienating anti-comedy, or the endless low poly hallways of long abandoned virtual worlds. And I don’t think I’m alone. Over the past 20 years, the spectre of early 3D tech has formed the backbone of countless of cultural touchstones of the internet age. Think of the countless gaming creepypastas birthed from the fires of corrupted nostalgia, like Ben Drowned, Sonic.exe, and the most recent batch of tall tales insisting that every copy of Mario 64 is personalized and buzzing with hidden content, from apparitions to digital human brains. Taking these ideas, ROM Hackers push the game to its limits with frequently unsettling results. It’s telling that while Banjo is venerated online, Mario 64 is the one that has drawn and maintained a dedicated community of old and new fans decades later, driven in no small part by the game’s disquieting idiosyncrasies.
Elsewhere, you’ll hear the gloomy synthetic sounds of vaporwave, A genre of music and aesthetic developed from GeoCities detritus, skewering the naivety and artificiality of internet past. Look at the steam store and you’ll find an unending torrent of rough as guts retro throwbacks, Slender and Five Nights at Freddys hit a nerve that creators have been pinching for ever since, building off the unique discomfort of low poly, low res, (and yes, often low effort) graphics. It’s no surprise to see new audiences of doomer zoomers lapping up the thrills.
Not so coincidentally, the modern title that reminds me the most of how I felt trapped in Peach’s castle is also easily one of the biggest. Minecraft drops the player in an impossibly expansive world with no clear goal in sight, a world that on the surface is bright and sunny, but stick around until night time and the danger feels real. Once you‘ve spent a few nights soaking in Minecraft’s synthy ambient soundtrack, this is a game that, I think, evokes a more complex, even mature gamut of emotion than anything else of its kind. I’ve focused on the anxiety of Mario 64, but not the contemplative serenity of the courtyard and Dire Dire Docks, or the real sense of discovery, that feeling on a first run-through that truly anything could be lurking around that next corner. These are the feelings that you’ll only have when a game gives player’s the space to get lost, and the leeway to let their brain fill the gaps, and on both fronts, Minecraft has it’s senior beat.
Banjo’s still a favourite of mine, and as is I’d probably even call it the better game, but when Rare loaded in their Hanna-Barbera brand emotional training wheels, pasting googly eyes on onions and cauliflower so no player is ever not feeling their specially calibrated brand of cheeky cheer… maybe they lost something there. Maybe deeper thrills sit at the intersection of the abstract and the isolating, because when you first have to fight through those uncomfortable feelings to beat the boss, or build your masterpiece, maybe it’ll be a more memorable and rewarding journey because of it. Low-poly lives on for a reason, so what’s next?