Monday, October 28, 2013

Three-Dimensional Death in a Two-Dimensional World

Back in Donkey Kong, Mario died by spinning in a circle and landing flat on his back, with a little halo floating above his head.

However, he died differently by the time he got his second starring role — Mario Bros., which isn’t Super Mario Bros. but is instead the game that dumped him in the sewers, introduced Luigi and for the first time pitted them both against a host of creeping turtles. When one of those turtles got too close, Mario leapt to his death, more or less. It’s weird when you think about what you’re actually seeing: In a game where Mario spent the whole time either facing left or right and scurrying along a two-dimensional plane, he died by facing the screen and jumping off the platform, toward the screen.

This style of video game death wasn’t invented in Mario Bros. A year before, Nintendo released the direct sequel to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., where the main ape died in a similarly theatrical manner: making bug-eyes at the screen, flailing his hands and then plummeting down with a cartoony slide whistle noise. But Mario did it in Mario Bros., and Nintendo used it again in Super Mario Bros., and that’s the game that hit big. Perhaps as a result of the popularity of Super Mario Bros., it ended up everywhere in video games from that era — mostly Mario-style platformers, of which there were many, but some other genres too. Your character died, and he or she looked at directly at the screen — at you, effectively — before they spasmed and leapt into oblivion. It’s like they were saying, “Hey. Fuck you. You killed me.” And then the leap. It seems strange, given that it ads a z-axis into a world that often only had an x and a y previously. But that’s how it happened.

I don’t know how many games featured characters dying in some kind of variation on this Mario-style death, but I think it’s interesting how prevalent it once was in video games. And so I did a little look-through of NES sprites to see what I could pull find. What resulted is the eight-bit Halloween celebration you see below.

Enjoy it. This time, it’s not your failure.

A few notes:

Video games, previously:

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