In 2020, Super Mario 64 has been reborn as a horror game – Polygon

While some of the world has fallen prey to false conspiracy theories about human trafficking this year, in the land of video games, a much more playful collective delusion has been unfolding throughout 2020. Some fans swear they’ve been having nightmares about Super Mario 64, but the game they remember and distort while they sleep isn’t the same one you and I have played.

Versions of these supposed Super Mario 64 nightmares are popping up all over YouTube and social media this year, and millions of people are watching them. Pulling from the tradition of found footage films, these uploads appear with nothing more than a date in the title, which tells us when the original VHS tape was created. There is no VHS tape, of course. But you wouldn’t know that while watching — the videos have that chunky overlay display you’d expect from an old cassette tape, fuzzy digital artifacts and all. The footage is often out of focus, as if someone is recording their TV while it plays back the video.

Known for its bright, imaginative levels and robust jumping physics, Super Mario 64 is undoubtedly one of the most influential games in the entire medium. This might be why YouTuber Marionova64 says they’ve been having dreams about the platformer since they were a child, when they were first entranced by the digital playgrounds concocted by the minds at Nintendo. These very dreams ended up being the inspiration behind a series of videos on their channel that depict Super Mario 64 in a creepy light.

Intellectually, we can watch the video above and know it’s not real. Mario never enters a bloody red endless hallway like this, nor does he ever encounter a message warning him from going any farther. But it looks legitimate — these are, in fact, assets from the game, albeit modified for entertainment purposes. Marionova64 told Polygon over Discord that the video above is a collaboration between them and content creator Greenio. Marionova64 built the ROM file that places Mario in a terrifying new reality, while Greenio did the editing to put it all together.

“A lot of what you see is actually in game, and not video editing magic,” Marionova64 told Polygon, noting that it took about two days of work. Many of the content creators Polygon spoke to for this story said they learned their tools on the fly, but that amateur aspect somehow only gives everything an air of authenticity.

Videos like the one above inspired other people to jump in on the trend, which might explain why there’s been such a notable resurgence of Super Mario 64 creepypasta over the last year. Some of it exists as video, but there’s also been a wave of photoshops and fan art that show ominous scenes from the game. One common image trope, for example, shows a floating Wario head terrorizing Mario across Peach’s castle.

All of these gave rise to a popular image known as the “Super Mario 64 iceberg,” a deep-fried graphic that puts all the conspiracy theories in a single place. Usually, any new creepypasta that emerges pulls from one of these threads depicted in the iceberg. The top of the iceberg lists popular, well-known conspiracy theories like “L is real,” which purports that Luigi is hiding somewhere within Super Mario 64. But the farther down you go on the iceberg, the more wild it gets.

The Super Mario 64 iceberg, which lists a series of conspiracy theories. The farther down you go, the more outlandish and obscure they get.
Image: Unknown/4Chan.

A video explaining the iceberg on YouTube has racked up 2.2 million views as of this writing. Likely, a combination of the Nintendo gigaleak this year, along with the announcement of a Nintendo Switch port of Super Mario 64, have both contributed to the rising interest in the classic game, though the trend started well beyond either of those things.

One of the most popular tall tales posits that every single copy of Super Mario 64 is personalized — meaning that everyone played a slightly different version of the game. Likely, this idea took root because it helps sell the larger fantasy: after all, just because you didn’t play a grim version of Super Mario 64 doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t have.

This creepypasta world is, in a way, almost a collective fiction experiment where everyone builds off each other’s ideas.

“Upon showing these hacks to a few people, I was greeted with ‘I swear I’ve dreamed of this before…’” Marionova64 told Polygon.

According to Saltysoda, another Super Mario 64 horror machinima creator, we’re likely seeing this resurgence of nostalgia for the game because most of the folks who played it growing up are now adults, and hungry for something more complex than what the original game provided.

“Going back to the game as older people after not playing it for a while means we see the contents of it with a fresh pair of eyes, and the game definitely has a strange feeling that its hiding something, or something deeper is going on just below the surface,” Saltysoda said over Discord.

It likely also helps that, despite our fond memories of the game, it does genuinely contain some unsettling imagery, like that of the eel or the haunted piano.

“It’s a weird game — half Alice in Wonderland drug trip, half kid’s cartoon,” says game designer Sam Barlow, who once tried pitching an unfinished 90’s platformer that would slowly reveal itself to be cursed. The game was rejected at the time because, in his words, the business suits didn’t see the appeal of a “broken Mario game.”

According to Barlow, Super Mario 64 is “just weird enough that you might see malevolence out the corner of your eye. Gorgeous green fields above, demonic dungeons below. Chirpy dinosaurs one minutes, non Euclidean ghost houses the next … it’s full of fake walls and magical paintings, optical illusions we’d never seen before in 3D. It’s a game that really loves to poke at the fabric of its own illusion.”

The game that people remember, then, isn’t entirely a land of joy and star collecting — and that’s what the larger trend speaks to.

“Hazy Maze Cave, Wet Dry World and Dire Dire Docks are three examples of worlds that feel strangely empty and desolate at times,” Saltysoda said.

Above all, Super Mario 64 has given rise to a series of scary stories because it hails from an era in which there was still a palpable sense of the unknown. Unlike modern games, we don’t have patch notes listing out every single change and inclusion, nor do we have data miners who can tell us about every single file within a title. Cartridges, by contrast, are more of a mystery — and one that can get corrupted beyond repair. This might explain why there are so many impossible-to-verify rumors about old-school games, a quality that Super Mario 64 creepypasta-makers want to bring back.

“Glitching wasn’t something you saw on Youtube … it was something you heard about on the playground,” Barlow said.

“That era of tech was full of evocative oddities — the fidelity was low enough that you could read into it something that wasn’t there,” he continued. Sure enough, even before Super Mario 64’s resurgence (and eventual re-release) in 2020, fans already got obsessed with things that might not be true, like a sign that supposedly teases the inclusion of a secret character.

“When we look back at childhood favorites, it’s easy to tweak them towards horror and gain energy from how much more believing and innocent and fearful we were when we loved them,” Barlow said. “There was a secret world much darker than we knew hiding behind everything served up to us as kids, revisiting that as an adult can be powerful.”