All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Brothers 2
Reviewed by: J. Scott Donahue
ISBN: 2 978-1-940535-05-0
The game begins with a tableau in red, blue and sepia. Each character is frozen in a vaudevillian mélé. Press start and select one of the four characters–Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Peach–to begin one of the most bizarre dreams in videogame history.
In the same clever way a Super Mario Bros. 2 gamer chooses the right player for each world, Jon Irwin plays four different roles: a videogame journalist, a nostalgic fanboy, a personal essayist, and a player in life negotiating obstacles in death, existence and the absurd. Writing with reverence and good-natured snobbery, the prose oscillates between a doting blaison and a sleuthing inquiry.
We learn the origin story of SMB2, an exegesis of the game’s genesis. Mario is traced back to his original role as “Jump Man,” the protagonist of Donkey Kong, and the ubiquitous “Video Man” in other early ’80’s Nintendo games. Then came Mario Bros. in 1983 and Super Mario Bros. in 1985, games that prepared the way for Mario’s pop culture canonization. Fun fact from the book: Mario is now a more recognizable icon than Mickey Mouse. An even funner fact: The Mario Bros. game franchise has since progenated over 200 games.
With Mario’s Methuselan genealogy in context, it’s a mystery as to why SMB2 stands out in history as this mutant limb, or maybe a super-glued limb, on the family tree. Humorously, upon the games release in 1988, the jarring inconsistencies were inexplicably camouflaged before the transfixed player. Even critics hailed the game as a “direct successor”, according to Irwin.
Irwin spends much of his book investigating that which many of us NES players only could sense was amiss about the game. So many questions arose: Why is Mario throwing tubers at quadrupedal Shyguys wearing masks; where are the Goombas and Koopa Troopas; and where are those iconic boxes with question marks? Players absorb mushroom power just by lifting the thing up. Players vanquish enemies by overhead-throwing objects (or other enemies). And instead of following the damsel in distress trope, the Princess can play to save her own damn self. Such questions and disconnects that Irwin points out, compared to the original SMB, somehow evaporate more quickly than a moment in the game’s Sub-Space–if only for the game’s brilliance, mystery, theatrics, and adorable weirdness. The game begs the questions aimed at the game, “Who are you, and what have you done to Mario?”
One could suspect foul play or fraud. The original sequel of Super Mario Bros. was first released in Japan. “Masochistic,” in fact, is the word Irwin employs to describe the Japanese game, designed by Takashi Tazuka. Poison mushrooms, levels of excruciating difficulty, not to mention words that flash on the screen that literally translate to “Unskilled crap”, reminding you of your failure–proved too much for any sane gamer to take. In Irwin’s words, “It took a player’s confidence away, decimating self worth.”
Upon reading the book and realizing the true origin of SMB2, my nostalgic feelings toward the game admittedly took a rage spiral. How did I not notice some clue of foul play? And surely my seven-year-old self had been duped or worse–in the American suburban child’s case–handled with care. From this book I learned that my childhood experience of playing NES had been censored for the safety of my mental health.
Yet somehow, American Nintendo Rep Howard Phillips found a way to satisfy the American addiction to winning, all while crafting a game that isn’t boring, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Enter stage left: A Japanese game, called Doki Doki Panic,comprised of a family of four characters and aesthetics of One Thousand and One Nights. Enter stage right: Nintendo’s ethos, striking a balance between the reused and the nuanced. SMB2 is, in every sense, Nintendo’s philosophy of adding nuance to the husk of a game. The book answers the question early: Nintendo found it to be in its best interest to cater to Americans’ victor complex. Take away the punishment from its predecessor, all while crafting an unforgettable game as cheaply as possible. Nintendo’s ethos strikes a balance between the reused and the nuanced. To that extent, SMB2 beloved to Mario Bros. fans and a profitable successor to the original, is nothing but a testament to Nintendo’s philosophy.
This book is hardly an indictment of Nintendo’s committing mass fraud to devoted Mario players, and more about how Nintendo saved the brand of Mario from going the direction of torture. Irwin earns the answers with some hard-won sleuthing, interviewing Nintendo pioneers like Tazuka, Phillips and other Nintendo pioneers.
Getting personal, Irwin’s obsession with the game breaks a wall between a third-person avatar. He embodies the oft-chosen character, Toad, who wears turban-like mushroom headdress. The action of the player tapping the D-pad, and buttons A and B, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet is nonexistent, while braided throughout the book are scenes in which author might as well be in the game. The narration of each play field is performed in first-person, so much so that you almost imagine a minimized, digitized version of the protagonist; think Jeff Bridges in TRON. A crisp scene of the author sucked into the game in the final dramatic moments of game play. Toad isn’t battling the boss; the author is fighting the boss.
Of course, no book devoted to a retro ’80’s game should forgo an inevitable moment of the absurd. After all, absurdism is as much a trait of the game as it is in existence. SMB2 is like a ready-made game, a piece of dada art. The connection between the game and existence is finally bridged, however, after Irwin witnesses the final moments of his grandmother’s life. After which he returns to the game and, in a moment of sobriety, asks himself a question.
The author’s relationship to the game mirrors that of his Toad character struggling to keep a key above his head, while a demented flying mask zooms by. This game, I agree, is too important to slip into a wrinkle in Nintendo’s canon of classic games. The author fights to keep SMB2 relevant as a Mario Game, to keep the book from disappearing from the collective consciousness of Mario Bros. aficionados. In the words of former “speedrunning” world record holder of SMB2, the game’s has a lot of weird things in it.” Weirdness, Irwin makes the case, is at the heart of the game’s worth.