Thursday, September 11, 2008

Two Takes on Super Mario Bros.

I nearly let this one slip by, but the fact that I experienced the two things I’m writing about one the same day, within just a few minutes of each other, prompted me to think it was important enough to write about.

So I write about Super Mario Bros. here with more regularity than most people who write on blogs that aren’t solely dedicated to video games. Sometimes I feel I’m pegging myself as a geek for doing so — it’s deserved, I’ll admit — but then other times I see other people also taking old video games and discussing them, reexamining them and putting them in odd new contexts and I feel a little less awkward about it all. This week, two different sources released creative products based specifically on the original Super Mario Bros., and I figured I should mention it here.

First up is Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, who debuted his new Burger King-sponsored, Burger King mascot-haunted online series of shorts, Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy. As many reviews have noted, the shorts don’t seem to depart drastically from his standard method of joke-telling. If the Super Mario Bros.-inspired debut is any indication, these shorts will basically function as slightly longer versions of the “cutaway” jokes that Family Guy has become known for: strange little pop cultural riffs that have no bearing on the plot of the episode in which they’re embedded.

Here’s what he did:

Pretty standard MacFarlane stuff, really. I don’t think it’s all that funny. The internet seems to disagree. I wonder what drives the humor more, for the people who enjoyed it: mapping cynical human emotions onto flat, undeveloped eight-bit video game characters or the kicker at the end, where Mario basically says “Fuck this bitch” and lets Bowser eat Peach. Could be both or either, depending on who’s doing the laughing. Overall: I say “meh.” But this guy’s next joke could work as well as this one didn’t. That’s the thing with Seth MacFarlane.

Just a few minutes after I saw the Cavalcade of Comedy clip, however, I stumbled onto Stereogum and read about a new single by The Mountain Goats and Kaki King, “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is in Another Castle.” Along the same lines as what MacFarlane did, the song attempts to give human motivations to a fairly static Super Mario Bros. character: Toad. Fucking Toad, of all people! The result: Still not totally successful, but interesting, and something I’ll probably remember longer than the cartoon.

Basically, Toad narrates his experience of being held captive in level four of whatever Super Mario Bros. world he’s stuck in. It’s dark, scary, and full of fire. But eventually Mario shows up and frees him and that makes everything better.

What makes the song work better than the cartoon, I say, is the fact that the writer managed to turn Toad into a decent metaphor for the shittiness of being in a bad place — probably not a literal one — and needing someone to pull you to safety. If a person just listened to the lyrics without hearing the title of the song, they might not even realize that it was in any way inspired by Super Mario Bros..

See for yourself, below. (Or, for that matter, listen for yourself.)
I waited here all by myself
The room was dark and it smelled like sulfur
I heard the screams from way down in the darkness
Felt pretty sure my life was over

I kept my hat on just for luck
Sang simple tunes the whole night through
I wondered if I'd wake to find myself in flames
As I waited here for you

Yeah, when you came in
I could breathe again

I saw some guys dressed up like sorcerers
Blue robes that flowed above the ground
They came and went and I was frightened for my life
I tried not to make a sound

Just when my solitude was closing in
I heard a howl like screeching tires
And I told you the one thing I know how to say
Through the bright ringing drone of eight-bit choirs

Yeah when you came in
I could breathe again
(The guys in blue robes, by the way? Magikoopas. Magikoopas being references in a pop song. I’ll be damned.)

So that was my moment of weird: Feeling validated by seeing these stupid games that I’ve come to love popping up into pop culture and into online media — and independently of me, no less. People can make of either of these what they want. In the end, I’m just happy these assemblages of pixels mean something to people besides just me.

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