Wednesday, March 31, 2021

On the Current State of my RPG Collection – and the Variety of the OD&D Ecosystem

Close to two months ago now, I wrote a post explaining how the variety of OSR games has made it possible for a devoted player of TSR D&D to run campaigns in practically any genre—in much the same way that a 3e/d20 System player can, thanks to the OGL and the early 2000s d20 System boom.

While I don't have anything to do with the OSR scene these days, and most OSR content isn't terribly useful to me—I write my own adventures, and I have no need for mini-games or indie games or artbooks or shock shlock—there is nevertheless one category of OSR game that I am extremely glad for, and that is of course the genre hack. In my earlier post, I discussed possibilities; but now I can actually show off my collection.

When I last pruned the old bookshelf, I got rid of most of what I owned, keeping only a precious few books (my white box & supplements, Holmes Basic, the Rules Cyclopedia and Creature Catalog, and a 1st edition DMG). But I've lately felt the pull to expand my gaming beyond the horizons of genre fantasy, as well as to go back and play some AD&D on occasion, and so here's where things stand now:

Original Dungeons & Dragons

In addition to the WotC reprint OD&D set, I have a vintage white box and all four supplements, plus some additional booklets that I've printed myself, just to have as a reference: Chainmail, Swords & Spells, Boot Hill, Delta's Book of War, and a compilation of useful Strategic Review articles (including the original bard, illusionist, and ranger classes):


I've also printed off a variety of fan supplements, mostly Jason Vey's work from grey-elf.com:


It's nice to know that if I ever want to run an OD&D game set in the Hyborean Age, Barsoom, or the Star Wars galaxy, I'm all set. (Though there are better options for all of these, which I'll discuss below.)

Also pictured above is the booklet of house-rules I have for my AD&D games (which is accessible from this blog's Downloads sidebar, to the upper-left, along with a similar house-rules document for my Classic D&D games). Which brings us to—

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

While I'm sure that this will change with time, at the moment I only have three AD&D rulebooks—the 1st editions of the PHB and the DMG, and the 2nd edition of the MM (because I like Tony DiTerlizzi's art).


If I ever manage to get a full AD&D campaign off the ground again, these three books and that little house-rule booklet of mine will be the rules I have on the table. Though someday I do intend to build my AD&D collection back up to its former glory again. (I'll know that I've made it when I have copies of The Scarlet Brotherhood and The Complete Ninja's Handbook once again in my possession.)

OD&D-Based RPGs

I've also lately collected a variety of complete games in digest format from Night Owl Workshop, Simon Washbourne's Beyond Belief Games, and James M. Spahn's Barrel Rider Games. 


These might just be some of the most useful rulebooks I've ever owned, and I'm tremendously happy to have them. Just a quick rundown: I've got White•Star for space opera, Colonial Troopers for harder sci-fi (plus its starship rules, Knight Hawks), Freebooters covering the golden age of piracy, Raiders of the Lost Artifacts for early 20th century pulp adventure, and Guardians for comic book supers. White Lies is a white box based game of modern day heists and espionage, Sabres & Witchery is 17th century monster-hunting, and Blood & Bullets covers the Old West. 

Skyscrapers & Sorcery is basically the 0e-equivalent of d20 Modern: white box compatible rules for games set in the present day, with character classes tied to each of the ability scores—but to my surprise, no scientist class (the game's classes are the Tough, the Snoop, the Hunter, the Faithful, the Occultist, and the Glib, very similar to d20 Modern's Strong Hero, Fast Hero, Smart Hero, etc., but simplified by combining them with the higher-level prestige-like "advanced" classes). Much to my delight, though, Simon Washbourne's Ancient Mysteries & Lost Treasures, which is also a 0e-based game set in the modern day, has precisely one class—the Adventuring Scientist! So it would be a simple matter to combine the two games and cover just about every action movie archetype you could think of! 

Along the same vein, Freebooters could (for example) be easily combined with A Ghastly Affair to cover a more general 18th century milieu, as could Blood & Bullets with Engines & Empires for the 19th century (particularly if I ever wanted to do a steampunk western in the vein of Brisco County Jr. and Wild Wild West), or Sabres & Witchery and LotFP for the 17th. (Not that I'll ever bother purchasing a copy of LotFP, because I really don't care for the Raggi aesthetic—and that's all you get with that game, is aesthetic.)


As if White•Star weren't awesome enough, Spahn also has The Hero's Journey, which is pure uncut epic fantasy goodness translated into OD&D-compatible rules, along with a reined-in magic system which is extremely flavorful and will doubtless be a delight to take for a test-drive (someday soon, I hope). 

It shares that quality with Beyond the Wall (and its new cousin game, Through Sunken Lands)—two games that have heroic hearth fantasy and antediluvian sword & sorcery well in hand. As much as I like Barbarians of Lemuria for short games, and as nifty as Jason Vey's OD&D Conan supplements look, Through Sunken Lands is definitely going to be my system of choice for Conan- and Kull-esque sword & sorcery campaigns in the future. Pretty much because I adore the Beyond the Wall "LeGuinian" magic system, and given the option, I'll always use a game that employs it over the traditional Vancian alternative.


Rounding out the collection, we have Flying Swordsmen for kung-fu action, Ghastly Affair for gothic horror, B/X Gangbusters for 1920s noir, and Mutant Future for post-apocalypse. (D&D and Engines & Empires are just in the photo for, I don't know, context or completeness or something like that. I just love how it all fits together and spans such a variety of genres and periods!) And I'll expand this category of games, too, if I can ever figure out how to print copies of the unwieldy but delightful Mazes & Minotaurs game system in a reasonably economical fashion.

• • •

In conclusion… why have I written this post? Well it's not just to show off, or to brag about having a bunch of inter-compatible RPGs on my bookshelf. It's to counter an argument I see all the damn time over on the r/rpg sub-reddit, which is full of posters who mostly love to play a variety of RPGs, but who despise D&D's overwhelming popularity and market-dominance. These folks especially hate to see D&D get ported to other genres—further diminishing the popularity of non-D&D games in their eyes, and seemingly contributing to their frustrations at not being able to get non-D&D campaigns off the ground—and they harp on it incessantly.

I can sympathize with their frustrations, of course. If I was seriously into non-D&D RPGs, I would hate to be surrounded by friends who only wanted to play D&D. But I'm not in that position—I pretty much only enjoy D&D, and I enjoy being a DM far more than being a player, so when it comes to starting a campaign, it's usually a matter of me following my present whim and the players in my social orbit jumping aboard because that's what I happen to be running. 

Even though I can sympathize, though, that doesn't mean I won't thumb my nose at these people for their pretentiousness. They think their pet game is better than D&D? That D&D doesn't deserve to be as popular as it is? That D&D is only good for heroic fantasy (or some other snarky assertion—like, D&D is only good for some sort of self-created "D&D genre")? They think that just because I play D&D, I'm somehow obligated to branch out into other RPGs? Get real.

Tough noogies, RPG hipsters. I have no more desire to play Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark than I have to jump on past flavors-of-the-week that people thought were "better" than D&D for one reason or another (FATE, Vampire, and a hundred other also-rans). I've got an infinite variety of genres, periods, and settings to explore with the old-school D&D mechanics that I already know to the point of high mastery: new and different mechanics will add nothing to my gaming project.

Note, too, that this isn't an argument that "system doesn't matter." I'm not claiming that I can do anything with the OD&D mechanics. System matters: it matters very much. OD&D is not a narrative game. It's not a game about resolving the dramatic needs of protagonist player characters. It doesn't even lend itself particularly well to the "thespianism" style of role-playing. It does one thing exceedingly well: challenging, exploration-focused, pawn-stance, high-agency, player-driven, open-table, open-world sandboxes—and those are the only sorts of RPG campaigns that I care to run. It doesn't matter whether the milieu is fantasy or sci-fi or modern day: the OD&D rules are exquisite for precisely that sort of game, and so the OD&D mechanics (in however many variations there are now) are all that I need! ∎

D&D's Connective Tissue

This is more of an idle thought than a fully-developed idea, but it occurred to me a while back that the changes undergone by the various editions of D&D and AD&D look quite drastic in the absence of the "connective tissue" between the editions—the supplements and splatbooks and so forth—that shows just how incremental they really are. The transition from OAD&D to AD&D 2e is a good case in point.

While I'm sure there are many grognards who consider the dividing line between "old-school" and "modern" D&D to be the clear and obvious division between the TSR and WotC eras, there are just as many who say that the old-school era ended with the introduction of AD&D 2nd Edition—or even with the midpoint of OAD&D's in-print lifetime, with the appearance of DragonLance and especially Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the Wilderness and Dungeoneer's Survival Guides. These new rulebooks compiled a great deal of material from earlier sources (Dragon etc.) and ractically altered the way the AD&D game worked. Without these books, AD&D isn't too terribly different from OD&D with all of the supplements in play. Implement them, and the game starts to look a great deal like a rough and overly complicated prototype of AD&D 2e.

And this holds true for every edition. There's almost a clear progression from version to version:

OD&D + Supplements → OAD&D + Unearthed Arcana → AD&D 2e + Player's Options → D&D* 3e + Book of Nine Swords → D&D* 4e + Essentials → D&D* 5e …

And it's very likely that the material from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything that rustled the collective jimmies of the world's conservative D&D players will lead directly to whatever 6th edition we get.

But if we confine ourselves to the OD&D lineage, the changes are more clearly incremental. Holmes introduced some ideas that got more fully developed in Moldvay (e.g. demihuman classes), and Mentzer just cleaned up Moldvay/Cook and excised some of the holdover mathematical oddities left over from the white box (like the quirky cleric spell progression and the 3-point kink in the attack tables), and then Denning & Allston completed that process by giving Charisma the same −3 to +3 modifier table as the other stats, and by fleshing the mystic out into a complete character class more uniform with the others. The point here being, every iteration of the original D&D game shares lots of obvious features with its neighbors, and you practically have to skip an edition (e.g. comparing the white box to Moldvay/Cook, or comparing Holmes to Mentzer) to see the same sort of discontinuity you see in the AD&D lineage if you look at the core books alone.

That said, it does rather feel like you can divide the OD&D lineage into two broad "eras," with the white box and the (Holmes) blue box constituting a "first edition" of the D&D game, and the later versions broadly making up a "second edition" of D&D that could appropriately be (and often is) called Classic D&D. But where the BECMI sets and the Rules Cyclopedia are fully and entirely ensconced in this later era, the Moldvay/Cook sets occupy an odd liminal space between the Original game and the Classic game that descended from it. On the one hand, this "lynchpin" position between the two distinct versions is probably one of the reasons it's such a "darling" among old-school (and OSR) gamers nowadays. (That, and the fact that it was killed off and replaced by BECMI before it could receive its own high-level Companion Set, JB's excellent attempt at remedying this historical absence aside, which likely suits players who don't care for high-level content at all.) But on the other hand… that makes the B/X version feel a bit useless to me, in the same way that Unearthed Arcana is.

Like, if I want to play OAD&D, I'm just going to play 1st edition. If I want to add a whole bunch of newfangled bells and whistles, then maybe I'll give 2nd edition a try. I don't have much use for an intermediate state between the original game and the "final form" that its revision eventually took. B/X holds a similar position for me: if I want to play Original Original D&D, I'll use Holmes Basic for levels 1–3 and the white box and supplements for higher levels. But if I want to play Classic D&D? I'll just reach for the Rules Cyclopedia. No need to fuss with the unfinished liminal state between the two versions.

B/X D&D is, at best, a bridge between Original D&D and Classic D&D. And while there are plenty of people out there who play it in one form or another (including BFRPG, Labyrinth Lord, OSE, etc.), I just can't fathom using it on its own without Mentzer's clarifications and improvements. ∎

Monday, March 22, 2021

Collecting and Cleaning up my AD&D House Rules

When last I ran AD&D, the suckitude of the thief class bothered me. In fact, it stuck in my craw until I just had to take a few recent stabs at rewriting the class. My last hack seems to have nailed the feeling I was shooting for—the way it feels the thief ought to have worked back when I was a kid playing AD&D in a friend's basement. So naturally, now I need to fold this revised thief into the rest of my AD&D house rules.

The result? Here it is.

EDIT: And now I've done the same for my D&D house rules.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Obligatory Thief Rewrite

Doesn't every old-school gamer have their own take on the thief class by this point? I've decided go ahead and put together one of my own for those occasions where a rogue, expert, or other generic skill-monkey class is less appropriate than a bona fide thief. Like the AD&D house rules I posted about recently. (Although I've made sure to write this thief class so that it works with both D&D and AD&D.) And, yeah, I'm just linking to my post over on Reddit rather than actually reproducing the work here because I'm lazy—sue me.

Happy larceny!



Sunday, March 14, 2021

I've Been Neglecting my Blog Again… so Let's Do the Mario!

I've been neglecting my blog again… which is always a sure sign that I'm in a creative slump. If I'm not writing blog-posts, I'm also not working on other projects. Which annoys me. Because I always have stuff that I want to be doing, and if I can't kick myself in the backside and make it happen, I get grumpy.

There's a bunch of stuff I want to do right here on this blog apart from my work on game publications. I want to get back to writing a series that details my campaign-creation process, something I've been meaning to do since 2017 (and I've only recently started putting something like it up on Reddit—more on this at a later date). I want to get back to my "Retro Rundown" series where I do in-depth reviews of TSR's early D&D materials. And I want to start posting more D&D and AD&D content right here on this blog—I've only just started slapping together a variant thief that looks to the earliest prototypical versions of the class for its mechanical inspiration.

There are also my usual game updates: I've been running an online Engines & Empires campaign for several months now based on the Lands of Älyewinn module that I'm putting together, and I've only lately started a Raiders of the Lost Artifacts campaign in-person with friends & family. The Raiders campaign is set in 1928 Romania and involves the player characters searching the infamous Palace of the Vampire Queen for pieces of an antediluvian artifact with eldritch powers, very Lovecraft-meets-Indiana-Jones. Always a fun time.

• • •

But tonight, I'm not going to write anything more about tabletop gaming. (I'll be back on that subject soon enough, I imagine). No, right now I want to touch upon another aspect of retro-gaming: 2D platforming. Specifically, Mario games. I've had Mario on the brain lately, and I've slowly been playing my way through the early entries in the series. Purely as a means of shaking the cobwebs loose and hopefully overcoming my writer's block, I though I might go through the games and offer a few brief thoughts on them. This'll be another "random pop culture" post, then, I suppose—purely for the sake of a writing exercise.

1981: Donkey Kong


The game that started it all: Mario's first appearance. Four stages of platforming mayhem, and a Mario who can't jump very high and who dies if he falls from any height. (An indication, if there ever was one, that this game takes place in a version of the "real" world with Earthly gravity and not whatever universe the Mushroom Kingdom exists in.) One could easily imagine this riff on King Kong to take place in Mario's native Brooklyn, but in the days before Mario and Luigi went into business as plumbers—Mario is explicitly a carpenter and construction-worker in the lore around this game!

1982: Donkey Kong Jr.


The only direct sequel to Donkey Kong that's actually any fun to play, it exhibits similar gravity to the original—namely, the titular protagonist, Donkey Kong Junior, cannot jump very high and is killed by even the slightest fall. The platforming is a mix of jumping and vine-climbing, and it's really enjoyable to play through this game's four stages, just like its predecessor. It's particularly satisfying to play through the fourth stage (the one with keys on dangling chains that unlock Donkey Kong's cage), where you can push two keys into place at once by rapidly scurrying up the right pairs of vines.

Apparently no longer a carpenter, Mario's short-lived career as a zookeeper clearly didn't work out.

1983: Mario Bros.


This year also saw the release of Donkey Kong 3, but I'm going to ignore that game because (a) it's no fun to play, (b) it doesn't involve Mario (instead it pits Donkey Kong against a new protagonist, an exterminator named "Stanley the Bugman"), and (c) by this time Mario has clearly moved on from carpentry and zookeeping to take up the profession he's known for, plumbing. This game is Luigi's debut, and it has the brothers clearing out a series of sewer-pipes that have been infested with monsters. Despite the appearance of giant deadly turtles, though, this game does not involve Boswer, Koopas, or the Mushroom Kingdom at all. The turtle enemies are Shellcreepers (not Koopa Troopas), but the fact that they're spilling out of warp-pipes — and the mysterious low gravity down in these sewers that allows the Bros. to jump super high and to drop without taking damage — suggests that maybe this game takes place somewhere "in between" the real world the Bros. hail from and the Mushroom World where they'll end up. 

After all, apart from the Super Mario Bros. Super Show cartoon series (where the Bros. "found the secret warp zone while working on a drain"), the lore from Super Mario Bros. was always terribly vague on the story of how Mario and Luigi found their way into the Mushroom Kingdom and went on their quest to save the Princess. In at least one version of the story, they "heard the Princess's pleas for help echoing through the pipes" underneath their plumbing shop in Flatbush (a plot-device reused in the choose-your-own-adventure-esque "Nintendo Adventure Books"). In the awful anime, they travel not through pipes, but through a TV screen. In the NES instruction manual, Mario simply "hears of the Mushroom People's plight" and decides to help.

But it would seem that the Bros. don't wind up in the Mushroom Kingdom right away, because there's one more career change they need to go through first.

1984: Wrecking Crew


That's right, at least for a while between Mario and Luigi clearing out the New York sewers and their getting warped through a pipe into the Mushroom World, they were demolitionists. This game… actually isn't all that fun either. Mario and Luigi can't jump at all (ostensibly because they're lugging around huge sledgehammers), it's an arcade puzzle game where it's entirely possible to trap yourself in a corner or render a level unbeatable, and in the console version, a Mario doppelganger named "Foreman Spike" (who looks mysteriously like Wario, a character who wouldn't appear officially until 1992) is running around in the background screwing with you as you play. There's really not much to say about this game, and it's obscure for a reason.

1985: Super Mario Bros.


So this is where the Mario series finds its feet and sets the formula for everything that comes later. Running, jumping, stomping, brick-bashing, power-ups, fighting Goombas and Koopa Troopas, Mario and Luigi on their quest to save the "Mushroom Retainers" and Princess Toadstool from Bowser ("King of the Koopa")… it's all here. That Movie Bob guy once remarked that (paraphrasing here, not quoting) "a story where a regular guy who gets transported to another world and saves a princess through the remarkable power of jumping really high" is actually older than Mario, since it goes all the way back to John Carter of Mars… but this just may be the place where that story crystalizes into its most exquisitely polished form.

The only problem I have whenever I play through this game again is how sad I feel that Nintendo just can't seem to let this one go anymore. By rights, this should be the only game where you end a level by pulling down a flagpole. None of the other Mario games I'm going to comment on here work like that. But all four of the New Super Mario Bros. games, as well as Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World? Oh yeah, you bet they're just riffing on this one again. (And there were already no fewer than three other vintage games—Vs. Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. for Super Players a.k.a. The Lost Levels, and Super Mario Bros. Special—that were just this same game again but with different levels! Not sequels or remakes; just… expansion-packs!) Between those six most recent entries in the Mario platforming series and the three Super Mario Maker titles, it's clear that Nintendo would rather mine this game for all the nostalgia it's worth than to bother getting creative again with 2D Mario platforming. And that's a crying shame.

1988: Super Mario Bros. 2


You all know the story: Mario has a dream, goes through a door, and a voice begs him to save Subcon from the evil Wart. The next day, he goes on a picnic with Luigi, Toad, and the Princess, and they find the same door from Mario's dream in a cave! Also something, something, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic

Anyway, I love this game. I love it so much; it cannot be stressed how much I adore Super Mario Bros. 2. It's a breath of fresh air for its series, a trait that it shares with Zelda II and Castlevania II. It's just a joy to explore the stages of Subcon at a leisurely pace (the game has no timer), and you do need to explore: sometimes, finding your way through a stage is a small puzzle, but an eminently satisfying one when you do figure it out.

Whereas the movie adaption of SMB (which I appreciate far more nowadays than I did as a kid) had nothing whatsoever to do with this game (it sort of mixed up Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World, what with all the dinosaurs?), the Super Show cartoon series was a shameless mashup of this game and its predecessor, with the cartoon version of King Koopa being something of a mix of Bowser and Wart, and having both Koopa Troopas and Shyguys for his minions. (Along with other oddities: the cartoon ostensibly took place in a Mushroom Kingdom where warp-zones could be found in pipes, jars, stone eagle-heads, or red doors produced by throwing a magic potion; each discrete "world" that the Mario Bros. traveled through as they either chased or fled from King Koopa was its own dream-like parody of a real-world genre or movie; and, of course, both fire flowers and star-men turned Mario into a fireball-flinging Super Mario… who could sometimes fly. Cartoons; am I right?) 

Child-me of course had no problem with reconciling the notion that the Mario Bros. were Brooklyn plumbers with the start of this game's backstory, where Mario and Luigi are apparently just hanging out in the Mushroom Kingdom like they live there. After all, with their quest to defeat Bowser over, why wouldn't they have a warp-pipe where they could travel between the real world and the Mushroom World whenever they wanted to? Exactly the way it worked in both the Nintendo Adventure Books and the Super Mario Bros. 3 cartoon series? Ponderings like this—working out the canon and the chronology for how the Mario series fit together—were of tremendous importance to me when I was a little kid. And I can't help but feel terribly sorry for any kids growing up now who feel the same way, since they have about a gazillion more Mario games to sort through than I ever did.

1989: Super Mario Land


This was actually the first Mario game that I ever owned a copy of. I played it to death as a kid. It's not very long. It has a weird story. (Sarasaland? Tatanga? Princess Daisy?) It plays a lot like the first Super Mario Bros. but with looser controls and two shoot-'em-up levels. Not much more to say about it, other than the fact that even though it's short, it still holds up as pretty fun to speed through.

1990: Super Mario Bros. 3


If the first SMB set the formula for Mario gameplay, this sequel—where Bowser and his seven kids, the Koopalings, try to take over the seven lands of the Mushroom World beyond the Mushroom Kingdom where the first game took place—sets the formula what the various stages of all the later Mario platformers would look like. This game introduced the world-map, the ubiquitous flight power-up (the Super Leaf remains a classic and has appeared in subsequent games, whereas the Cape Feather and the Bunny Carrot have not) and most importantly the "gimmick level"—where a level introduces some gimmick, teaches the player how to use or deal with it, and then varies the gameplay or escalates the difficulty as the level progresses. Every modern Mario platformer is basically rehashing this game and World (and World was arguably just a rehash of SMB3 with only a few innovations of its own, like secret stages).

You know what I want? Apart from a new Mario platformer where the sage doesn't end with SMB1's flagpole (or, hell, SMB2's eagle-head, or SML's tower, or SMB3's "course clear—you got a card!", or SMW's giant gate, or SML2's bell and door—something new for crying out loud!), I'd really, really like to see a new Mario platformer that bucked this old formula and came up with something truly new. Something more than each world being its own biome, and each stage being its own gimmick. That'd be something to see.

1991: Super Mario World


The fourth Super Mario Bros. is really just the third game all over again, but with dinosaurs, 16-bit graphics, and somewhat slipperier and floatier controls. In some ways, the gameplay is considerably more refined than SMB3 (for example, there's much more involved exploration in this game than in its predecessor), but in others it's a huge step back—the debut version of the spin-jump just makes this game far, far too easy to play through. The challenge here is in discovering all of the secrets, rather than in the platforming itself. And on that account, it's little wonder that the NSBM series has primarily looked to SMB3 rather than World for its inspiration. Although I would like to see a game more like this one (just without the overpowered spin-jump) in the future.

Also, the cartoon was pretty awful. No wonder they ended the series after the cartoon adaptation of World. (Never mind the fact that the games following this one—like Super Mario RPG, Yoshi's Island, and Super Mario 64—all had stories that were entirely divorced from and often conflicted with the "Brooklyn plumber" lore underpinning the old Super Show.) The fact that the cartoon expanded on the meager story from the game's instruction booklet—that Mario, Luigi, and the Princess were on a vacation to Dinosaur Land when they ran afoul of Bowser and the Koopalings again—was all well and good; but where the hell was Toad through all of this?

Also: fuck Oogtar. Scrappy Doo is more tolerable than stupid Oogtar.

1992: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins


This was, in my humble opinion, the last good Mario platformer. Like SML, this one is weird. It introduces Wario (and a bunch of really quirky enemies). It takes place on an island with a castle, both of which apparently belonged to Mario before Wario took them over. Where did Mario get the private island and the castle? From Princess Toadstool? From Princess Daisy? Who the hell knows? The game doesn't explain it; kid-me figured it had to be one of those two possibilities, because if the island and the castle weren't a reward for previous heroics, they made absolutely zero sense. Also, the absence of Luigi is keenly felt here: as an entry in some sort of Mario "canon," this game is a total aberration. Once again, to today's kids who care about this stuff and feel the need to piece it all together: poor you. For me (I was eight when this game came out), this was when I started to get the barest hint of an inking that maybe Nintendo just didn't give a shit about Mario having a continuity.

The controls of this game are admittedly maybe the worst in the series, but it's a fun time nevertheless. There are six worlds to explore, the levels aren't too terribly gimmicky, and every environment is quirky and strange and teeming with gonzo flavor in a way that really reminds of me of SMB2, but ratcheted up to a higher degree. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that I consider this to be the "final" Mario game because it's the last main Mario platformer where he isn't shrieking "Yahoo! — Here we go! — It's-a me, Mario!" all the damn time.

1994: Donkey Kong


One game does get honorable mention, though: the one that brings us full circle, back to where we started. Donkey Kong '94. This game is fucking fantastic. It clearly takes place outside of any canon or continuity, a trait it shares with all of the later Mario games; there was no pretending after this game that it was possible to sort the Mario series into a single coherent story. But by this time, it didn't matter, because this game was just too fun. The gameplay mixes arcade Donkey Kong action with SMB2 picking-up-and-throwing-shit in a puzzle-platformer that's just a joy to play through every time. 

A follow-up game on the Gameboy Advance, Mario vs. Donkey Kong, tried to recapture the magic of this one and didn't quite pull it off. Do yourself a favor if you've never played DK94: bust out the old SNES and Super Gameboy, track down this cart, and give it a whirl—or, you know, just emulate, it's easy—and play through this game. It's one of the essentials. Maybe the last of the 2D Mario essentials that everyone ought to play through.

• • •

Next time, I'll go back to talking about D&D again. I need to clean up my alternate thief and put it into context with the other AD&D classes. So, yeah—that, and hopefully soon! ∎