Friday, February 24, 2017

Black Sheep Sequels

Several months ago, I resolved to finally watch all the way through all of Star Trek, in chronological order.  I got through Enterprise (which I dearly love) and the original series (which had its ups and downs, but was mostly pretty awesome) and the animated series and the Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan (as good as everybody says it is) and Search for Spock (maybe my favorite Trek movie)… and just sort of ran out of gas before I could really get into The Voyage Home.

I'm sure I'll pick it up again soon, but in the meanwhile, I decided to break up my Trek time with a pure nostalgia kick: The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.  I was five when this show first aired… and to put into context just how strange it is that I loved this show so very much, my parents didn't allow my siblings and I to even own video games until I was at least twelve.  (If there needs to be some psychoanalytic reason as to why I've decided to collect every video game console ever, this would be it…)  But I really did love the Super Show, the Zelda cartoons on Friday, the live action segments with Captain Lou and Danny Wells—these guys basically were the Mario Brothers to the young me (and to millions of late 80s gamers too, I'm sure).

"Hey, paisanos!  It's the Super Mario Bros. Super Show!"

To this day, nothing will ever disabuse me of the notion that the Mario Brothers are plumbers from Brooklyn, no mater what Shigeru Miyamoto may proclaim from on high about what counts as Mario "canon".  This cartoon is probably also the reason why the only Mario games I consider to be truly canonical are those that predate Super Mario 64 and the sudden change of Princess Toadstool's name to "Peach"—or Yoshi's Island, with its bizarre Mario-and-Luigi-as-babies-in-the-Mushroom-Kingdom backstory.  Nope, as far as I'm concerned, the Mario canon consists of Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., The Wrecking Crew, Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American one), Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World.  That's it.  Everything else is a gaiden or an alternate universe.

But I digress.  I'm now about three episodes away from finishing off the Super Show, and I have to say, it still holds up.  It was pretty clever on the part of the writers to make each episode a broad parody of some pop culture thing or another: that managed to keep it fresh over the course of fifty-plus episodes.  But the real highlights were the Legend of Zelda cartoons.  These were just plain good, and yes, I'm saying that even in spite of douche-bag Link.

"Well excuuuuuuse me, Princess!"

But one of the things that really strikes me about both of these shows is the weird place they each sit in the timelines of their respective franchises.  After the Super Show ended, the Mario cartoons at least continued on in sequels explicitly based on Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World… but the original Mario cartoon was this sort of odd and inexplicable combination of Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2.  It took place in the Mushroom Kingdom, not Subcon, but all of the enemies were Wart's minions from SMB2; and King Koopa was this kind of odd mash-up villain, 70% Bowser and 30% Wart.  (That, and any sort of power-up, fire-flower or starman, could turn Mario and friends into a fireball-flinging "Super Mario"—I get why the cartoon did things that way, but it always kind of bugged the crap out of me.)  It's sort of implied by the opening theme that the Mario Bros. have already saved the Princess and the Mushroom Kingdom from King Koopa once before the series began—in other words, that the first game "already happened", and the cartoon is a strangely Subcon-free, Wartless retelling of SMB2.

The Zelda cartoon is even more clear about taking place after the end of the first Legend of Zelda game: the good guys have the Triforce of Wisdom, Link has already saved Hyrule from Ganon, etc.  But Zelda II hasn't happened yet, nobody has even heard of the Triforce of Courage—it's clearly meant to be an "in between" story, a bridge between the two games.

I bring all of this up because it reminded me of something very odd: Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link are both the black sheep of their respective series.  They're each the one entry that departed from the formula before there could even logically be a formula (since they were both the very second entries in each series), and you either loved them or hated them.  Me, I loved them both—still do—but back in the day, it was polarizing.  And the outcry from fans may very well be the reason that classic video games stopped innovating with sequels very much—or why modern retreads, like the New Super Mario Bros. series and all those Gameboy Zelda titles which were just Link's Awakening over and over again (but with color!) got so stale so quickly.

At the very least, the Zelda series has seen two more side-scrollers, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, both on the Phillips CD-i console.  (I actually quite like these games too; they're pretty much the reason to even own a CD-i).  But has Mario ever returned to Subcon?  Gone through a game where the action is all about tossing vegetables at shyguys and birdos?  Nope; not a once.  And it's strange, too, because it's not like Super Mario Bros. 2 was unpopular in Japan—while I couldn't tell you how well the Japanese "Super Mario USA" sold on the Famicom, I do know that its rerelease, Super Mario Advance, topped the charts for Gameboy Advance games worldwide.

Subtle little bits of SMB2 have drifted into the broader Mario canon, where they make occasional appearances here and there—bob-ombs and pokeys; ninjis in Super Mario World; shyguys in Yoshi's Island and Super Mario 64; both a Shyguy and a Birdo character in the Mario Kart series.  The recent Wii U game, Super Mario 3D World, was positively brimming with SMB2 Easter eggs… but there's still no sign on the horizon of a genuine return to Subcon.  And that's a crying shame, because it means that the New Super Mario Bros. series isn't just riding a wave of nostalgia; it's fossilized in one, trapped in amber.

Think about this: when was the last time we got a 2-D Mario game where the end of a course didn't involve a blocky stairway and a flagpole?  The answer is 1992, which saw the release of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins.  (Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2 are two Mario games that I'd consider semi-canonical.)  Back in the day, you could end a Mario level by snapping the tape of a Giant Gate, or grabbing a shifting card and getting a cute little message ("Course clear, you got a card!"), or picking up the crystal ball and then ducking into a giant eagle-head.  But not anymore; nope, for the last 25 goddamned years, it's just been flagpoles in game after game, like it's never not going to be 1985 in the Mario universe ever again.

Having ranted myself into a corner like this, I'm just going to leave it at that.  Anyway, the facts speak for themselves—the 2-D Mario games have gotten old and repetitive, but Nintendo wouldn't have to look very far at all to inject some new life into the series.  Hell, Super Mario Maker proves that they haven't forgotten Mario's early sequels, and Mario Maker is fun as hell!  I just hope they take notice and do something different next time…


  1. I loved the crap out of that Zelda cartoon. I used to look forward to it every Friday. I thought Ganon's voice was terrifying as a kid.

    Also yeah, Link was a huge douchebag.

    Do you remember Captain N: The Game Master?

    I also remember they had an episode where Link was a guest star, and they used the same voice actor, though Link was drawn in a less cartoonish-style on Captain N.

    1. Yep, I consider Captain N to basically be the continuation of the Zelda cartoon. (Zelda's voice actress was also the same in both series.)

  2. I agree with you about both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II; I would personally love to see another 2D Mario game using SMB2's mechanics, but the closest we've gotten is Super Mario Advance (which seems to have been the first instance of Nintendo screwing up the controls/physics for one of their own games). And with the HD and 3D remasters of the N64 Zelda games, I'm surprised there hasn't yet been an official graphical update of The Adventure of Link.

    1. Well… Super Mario Advance didn't really have bad physics, just annoying voices.

      The one actual time that Nintendo borked up their own game was the remake of SMB1 that appeared in "Super Mario All-Stars". In the NES version of the game, if you break a brick, it bounces you back down; but when they re-coded it for the SNES, they accidentally changed "−y" to "+y" and so breaking a brick sucks you up. THAT really messes with the proper rhythm of gameplay. (But thankfully, it's also easily fixed with a very simple rom-hack.)