Most of the time, we like to imagine ourselves a pretty hardcore PC gamer. We’re all about punishingly detailed strategy games, MMOs that require more keys than any two average keyboards combined, and the most graphically intense of first person shooters. However, there is one game that, to this day, maintains a very special place in our long, spotted history with gaming.
Super Mario 64.
If you’ve played it, you’ll know it’s a classic. Hell, even if you haven’t played it, you’ll more than likely be familiar with this epic 3D adventure game. As one of the launch titles for the Nintendo 64 is ushered in not only a new era in console gaming and hardware, but also introduced gameplay elements that to this day are simply unmatched. We could waffle for hours about this game, but really, the one thing that sticks with us is the sheer white-knuckle terror this game inspired.
Yes, for me, Super Mario 64 is one of the scariest games of all time.
So, perhaps a bit of background might be in order here. I am not one of nature’s swimmers. More accurately, it’s probably better to say I am in fact one of nature’s sinkers. In another age, I would have made an awesome deep sea diver – you probably wouldn’t even have had to weigh me down with much at all! I just don’t float.
A friend once claimed I was being silly, that everyone floats, and that if I trusted him he would show me. So, cue a trip to the pool, him holding me in the water getting me ready to float, and then dropping his hands away. Breath normally, relax, and let your natural buoyancy work. I can still remember the rather shocked look on his face, witnessed through a growing depth of water, as I sank like a stone to the bottom of the pool.
So, unsurprisingly, I’m not much of a swimmer (ie, not one at all), and have a healthy respect (read: deepseating distrust and something close to fear) of bodies of water. I get nervous near the edge of pools, and while I’m good with it now, crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge used to give me the willies because of that vast depth of water below me.
So, Super Mario 64 – a brightly coloured, feverishly cheery action adventure platformer. Lots of leaping, grabbing of coins, rescuing of princesses, and... that fucking underwater level.
I sunk a lot of hours in SM64. Probably more than any other game outside of Counter Strike, Day of Defeat and Lord of the Rings Online (though World of Tanks is surely now getting up there). I wanted all those coins and stars. I really, really wanted to rescue Princess Daisy (what can I say, I like cake), but that underwater level, with the sunken ship, that sea serpent, and the deathrace to get to air pockets before poor Mario turned blue and went belly up was too much.
It broke me. I would literally start feeling tight in my chest the deeper little Mario swam. I had to work myself up to climb into that damn cannon before shooting myself across the level and into the water. And because of that - let’s be honest - absolute terror the level inspired, I could never finish the game.
Super Mario 64 has a wealth of laurels, but in a lot of ways I think my pants-wetting fear of that underwater level is one of the strongest. For a game that was all about cartoony bright colours and dancing flowers, the fact that it nailed that sense of depth and literal immersion so well is mindbending. The game was released in 1996, and for the life of me I cannot think of any other game since that has gotten the feeling of being underwater – at least for me – quite so right.
I’d like to think I’ll finish that game one day, but really... if I never see that damn level again, it’ll be too soon.