I’ve mentioned it a few times on the podcast, but I love the Virtua Fighter series. Unfortunately, as a Nintendo fan, that puts me in a difficult position. See, the Virtua Fighter series has been absent from Nintendo consoles. There is, however, one noteworthy exception to this history of Nintendo exclusion: the action-R.P.G. spin-off game, Virtua Quest.
Virtua Quest was developed jointly by Tose co. and Sega AM2 and published by Sega. It was released in Japan under the name Virtua Fighter Cyber Generation: Ambition of Judgement Six on August 26, 2004 for the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. It was later released in North America on January 18, 2005. As mentioned before, it was a departure from the standard Virtua Fighter series in that the game is a beat-em-up with R.P.G. elements.
My history with this game is a little different than previous installments of That Was a Thing, as I’ve never actually played this game before. Well, not the full version at least. I knew about it way back when it first came out, due it being playable at the GameCube demo kiosk at my local Target. At the time, I thought the idea of a martial-arts-based action-adventure game was intriguing, but after seeing the middling review scores it received in the now-defunct Nintendo Power magazine, I ultimately decided to pass on it.
It wouldn’t be until a few years ago once I got into the Virtua Fighter series that I developed a renewed interest in this title. After over a year of searching, I finally stumbled across it while revisiting the GameXChange in my old, grad-school stomping grounds. Read more Virtua QuestThat Was a Thing ›
As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, Nintendo has partnered with Illumination Entertainment to produce an animated movie staring everybody’s favorite Italian-American-who-looks-like-a-Mexican plumber, Mario. Of course, given how well the Big N’s last film deal turned out, many fans are understandably anxious about Mario’s return to the big screen. Personally, I don’t think we have to worry about it turning out like 1993’s live-action bomb: that film was plagued with a very troubled production and an obscene number of rewrites that ultimately eroded the quality of the end product. I even wrote an article about the original—and much more faithful—screen play over a year ago.
Howdy, crew! Welcome back to That Was a Thing, where I take a look at strange and obscure pantendo games and paraphernalia!
The Wii: when it’s key feature, motion control, was first revealed, the first two uses that went through everyone’s mind were sword and gun. Not missing a beat for once, game developers were quick to cater to the public’s sociopathic expectations. Many of the Wii’s early titles utilized the Wiimote’s pointer to aim projectile weapons and its motion detection to swing melee weapons, and the results were undeniably mixed. One such game was Ubisoft’s Red Steel.
The game was fairly standard fair: girlfriend kidnapped by yakuza, go to Japan and shoot them, yada, yada, yada. What separated it from other first-person shooters was its motion-controlled swordplay. At various points in the game, the hero would have to fight in one-on-one katana duels. Long story short, it just didn’t work. Unfortunately, the Wiimote’s I.R. sensor and accelerometer simply weren’t enough to emulate the one-to-one precision players expected.
Which is why Nintendo invented the Wii MotionPlus! And this is where Red Steel 2 comes in. When Ubisoft saw the gyroscope add-on, they knew they had everything they needed to set things right. I seem to recall a lot of hype surrounding this game before it came out; retailers even offered preorder bonuses. I first heard about the game from the now defunct Nintendo Power magazine, and was immediately intrigued. This game was dripping with style and—just as important—it didn’t have anything to do with the first game, so I could jump in without missing anything. However, I wouldn’t get around to playing it until I got an extended trial of the late Blockbuster Video’s online rental service, and decided it was time I a gave it a shot.
Nu-Western Post-Cyberpunk Japanimé
Let’s start at the beginning. The game opens with our hero waking up on the outskirts of town. As he slowly comes to, he notices his hands are tied. Tracing the rope, he quickly realizes he’s not just tied up, he’s tied to the back of one of his assailant’s motorcycles. Just woke up, and this day’s already turning out to be a drag.
And this is how we’re introduced to the game: a gloriously over-the-top, first-person cutscene in which the hero is dragged into town, crashes the bike, and dusts himself off like he does this every day. While it admittedly takes a few minutes to get to gameplay, this intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat! You’re the toughest, badest son of a gun on the planet and you can bet your stetson every pinhead fool-enough to take a shot at you is going to make you prove it!
The intro nails the tone of the game and what players can expect right off the bat!
In fact, I’d say this game runs on distilled, unadulterated cool, and not in a “trying too hard” kind of way either. Even when parts of it seem hokey—or downright silly—the game presents its set-pieces with such confidence and commitment that the player really has no choice but to just go with it. While other games try to convince you they’re awesome, Red Steel 2 just leans in close, stares you right in the eye, and in a low, gravelly voice tells you it’s awesome.
On that note, let’s take a moment to talk about this game’s aesthetics. This game is a chocolate-and-peanutbutter-esque mashup of the wild west and samurai flicks, with the occasional dusting of cyberpunk. The game takes place some unspecified amount of time in the future in a dystopian Nevada. The environments you explore are a strange blend of old-west, feudal Japan, and run-down, futuristic towns. It’s not at all uncommon to see Cracker Barrel-esque country stores with tanukis on their signs right next to radio towers and hovering attack drones. Moreover, the plethora of destructible crates, trash bags, boxes, and barrels gives the environments a cluttered, grungy feel that reinforces the gritty tone of the game.
The game makes use of a heavily stylized visual design. While the Japanese influences on the plot and setting may lead some to call it anime-inspired at first glance, it really has more in common with comic books: bold lines, fairly realistic body proportions, and a deliberate visual roughness that complements the game’s visceral combat and tale of ambition and revenge. As to be expected with a western, the color palette includes a lot of earthy tones: browns, oranges, and sandy yellows. Fortunately, Red Steel 2 manages to avoid the pitfall of making all of its environments dingy brown, with several areas including—if not primarily consisting of—cool blues, grays, and greens. Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another, as every stage either has a unique theme or makes use of color to distinguish itself. That said, all the themes are variations of cowboy, samurai, or industrial, so while each level is aesthetically distinct from one another, the constraints of the game’s themes do start to wear thin toward its conclusion.
Clearly, the art team put a lot thought into making each area visually distinct from one another.
While we’re on the topic of environments, one of my biggest complaints with the game’s visuals is that some of them don’t age very well. Between the murky textures and low-res models, a lot of the environments in this game don’t look very good close up. Fortunately, you’ll probably be too busy hacking-up dudes (who themselves look fine) or searching for loot to pay too much attention to such things.
Cutscenes are another weak point. To be fair, most cutscenes in this game are okay, but the ones that trigger when talking to one of the hero’s allies are just painful. These usually consist of a stationary camera shot with one lone character pacing back and forth while talking. And it is so boring. In the end, while I love the visual design, I suspect the artists weren’t given enough time or resources to fully realize it.
So what exactly is the story? You play as the last surviving member of the Kusagari clan, an outcast banished by the elders for…well, the game never actually says. There was a short “animated comic” online that serves as a prequel to the events of the game. You can still find it, but I wouldn’t bother, it’ll just leave you even more confused. The only revelation I got from it is that the hero is wearing a blue shirt under his signature duster.
Confusing backstories aside, the story really isn’t that complicated. First, you get your sword back from a gang leader, then you find out the real villain wants to make more swords like yours because it has special qualities. Along the way, you compile a cadre of companions. Truth be told, they’re exactly who you’d expect to find in this sort of game: the sword smith/kenjutsu sensei; the old, stubborn sheriff; the hacker girl; and the guy who’s going to double-cross you. The plot’s pretty cookie-cutter when you look at it separate from the game’s unique setting, but I’d argue that’s not really the point; this is an action game. So how is the action?
Hack and Shoot
Red Steel 2 is a first-person action game. I say “action game” instead of shooter because, well, this isn’t really a first-person shooter. Sure, you play from a first-person perspective and you shoot things, but once you get a sword, the guns take a backseat. No, at its core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.
At it’s core Red Steel 2 is a brawler with some F.P.S. trappings.
During combat, players can freely switch between swinging a sword and shooting thugs with one of four guns. As to be expected, swinging the sword is accomplished by swinging the Wiimote and guns are fire using the B-trigger. Sword slashes are individual attacks in a specific direction instead of 100% one-to-one movements, making each swing a discrete action, much like a button press. While it may sound like a cop-out, this system actually works really well: this system discourages flailing and instead encourages you to make deliberate, decisive strikes, which ultimately gives each hit you land more impact.
This game also showers you special abilities. Each one has its purpose, and figuring out how to combine them seamlessly is immensely satisfying. It also helps that most of them are very easy to perform. All special abilities are simply one swing direction and button combination, and because of the aforementioned motion registering method, the game has very little difficulty figuring out what it is you want to do.
Gun fighting isn’t nearly as intricate. Simply point and pull the trigger. That’s not to say it isn’t fun; getting to smoothly switch between the two fighting styles is a blast. It gets even better once you start unlocking special attacks for your firearms and—of course—more guns. You start with just a revolver, but eventually get a sawed-off shotgun, a Tommy-gun, and finally a rifle. Of all the guns, the only one I don’t really like is the rifle: by the time you get it, it just doesn’t feel necessary. That’s not to say I never found a use for it, just that it doesn’t really stand-out.
Fighting is the most fun when you manage to get into a rhythm. Most fights aren’t terribly difficult, so the fun comes from trying to establish a sense of flow. Fights just look awesome in this game, with animations carrying a great sense of impact and frequent visual effects, like slow-motion, punctuating dodges, parries, and finishing blows. This means that once you get that flow, the fights almost look choreographed, especially if you make a conscious effort to make use of your diverse moveset. All of this is enhanced by the game’s first-person view. Because you experience gameplay entirely through the hero’s heterochromatic eyes, you never get to see what exactly it is the hero’s doing, letting your imagination run wild filling in the blanks.
But visceral acts of violence are only what you’ll be doing about half of the time. A good deal of the game is quietly exploring the levels looking for fights, money, or optional objectives. And I have to say, these quiet moments are what give this game its phenomenal pacing. Much like in Metroid Prime, F.E.A.R., or Half-Life, these exploration segments help to break up the action and give the player some breathing room, not to mention a chance to wind down between battles. These brief interludes never feel out of place, however. Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more, especially since your opponents tend to come out of nowhere.
Walking the abandoned streets creates a rising sense of tension which makes you anticipate the next fight all the more.
An odd quirk of these exploration segments is the occasional motion-based prompt. Every now and then, you’ll come across a combination safe or a dial that you’ll have to turn with the Wii remote. It’s never very challenging as you either need to tilt the remote at the appropriate angle and hold it there, in the case of dials, or press the A button to activate the tumblers, in the case of the safe. While it seemed perfectly natural when the Wii and the MotionPlus were still fairly recent, nowadays I can’t help but think it dates the game. Not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, but it certainly screams “Wii.”
Then there’s the upgrades, and—oh golly—are there a lot of them! You can upgrade your sword, your special abilities, your guns, the ammo for your guns, your coat, and even your hat! This is where money comes into play. You’ll come across a lot of cash, be it from completing missions, using special attacks to finish foes, finding secret collectibles, or just plain lying around. I can only assume part of what makes dystopian Nevada dystopian is inflation, ’cause you’ll find money flipping everywhere. And even then you’ll still have to go out of your way to get all of the upgrades available to you. Honestly, while I appreciate the effort, I can’t help but think the dev-team went a little overboard. While not being able to get everything in one run does encourage thinking about how you upgrade the Last Kusagari, it can be frustrating to obsessive types like myself, as this game doesn’t feature a “new game plus” option. Then again, maybe it’s for the best. Since enemies aren’t that strong to begin with, upgrading your weapons means they go down even quicker, thus revealing the tragic irony of this game: one-shotting an opponent is the ultimate buzzkill.
Riding into the Sunset
Red Steel 2 is a rip-roaring good time. From it’s sense of style to its fluid gameplay, the game knows what it wants to be. I think it succeeds partially because it’s so focused on nailing the core concept. That said, it is a bit of a one-trick pony. If you don’t like old-school, run-and-gun shooters or hack-and-slash games, then there is absolutely nothing here for you. It’s a great trick, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but the whole game is the same basic exploration and combat loop all throughout. It’s also not without some flaws. Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, the ending is pretty weak, the “challenge mode” is just a mission select with a tacked on scoring system, and there’s no post-game content or completion bonuses to add replay value. But I guess that—aside from the ending—all of those complaints just reinforce the notion that this game is about doing one thing and doing it well. This is—in my opinion—one of the best action games on the Wii and an excellent exhibition of what the system’s motion controls could do to enhance gameplay.
Here’s hoping there’ll be a Red Steel 3 on the Switch!
Welcome to That Was a Thing! A new series in which I discuss my favorite weird, obscure, or simply underrated pantendo games and media. Think of it as the evil twin to Simeon’s Nintendo Experience series. In this inaugural installment, I’m going to look at one of my favorite—not to mention one of the only—real-time strategy Nintendo series out there: Battalion Wars.
The Battalion Wars duology was a spin-off of the Nintendo Wars franchise and originally had the working title of Advanced Wars: Under Fire. Unlike the other Nintendo Wars games, however, Battalion Wars wasn’t developed by Nintendo or Intelligent Systems, but a British company: Kuju Entertainment. The first game was released for the GameCube on September 19, 2005 and its sequel debuted on the Wii on October 29, two years later.
The Battalion Wars games are a combination real-time strategy and third-person shooter. Like most R.T.S. games, players are tasked with completing objectives with the units provided for the mission—riflemen, tanks, bombers, etc. Needless to say, each unit type had its own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities and the majority of the strategy revolves around knowing where and when to deploy each unit. The unique selling point of this game is that the player directly controls one of the units the whole time, with the ability to freely switch between units as needed. Think of it as being sort of like Pikmin but with guns…and tanks.
Both games are set in a fictional world filled with global super-powers just itching to find a use for their massive armies. Seeing as the series was developed in England, each of the games’ fictional nations are comically stereotypical counterparts to real-life countries. The United States is represented by the gung-ho Western Frontier, the Tundran Territories are an odd combination of Tsarist/Soviet Russia, likewise Xylvania combines Imperial Germany with Nazi Germany, the Solar Empire is a futuristic tropical Japan, and the Anglo Isles—first introduced in the second game—mirrors the Anglo Isles…I mean the United Kingdom…seriously, they weren’t even trying to be subtle with that one.
As to be expected, each of these nations employ an eccentric and colorful cadre of commanders. Each mission has the player receiving orders from one of their faction’s commanding officers while the enemy commander emotes and responds according to the events of the game. While they don’t offer any special gameplay bonuses like the commanders of the Advance Wars series, the commanders’ typically blasé attitude toward warfare and nonchalant dialogue helps keep the tone light. I would say the only commander that I personally didn’t care for was Empress Lei Qo of the Solar Empire—who left so little of an impression on me, I had to look up her name just to write the previous sentence.
The third-person perspective really is what makes gameplay stand out. Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict, instead of some ghostly observer calling the shots. When your battalion’s under fire, you’re under fire, and having to make tactical decisions in the midst of the chaos of the battlefield can create some really tense moments. Then there are the times when you spot some enemies in the distance or look at the map and have to plan your next move. I’m not sure I can properly express the feeling I would get as my men crowded around me, expectantly waiting for me to formulate a plan of attack.
If quality gameplay wasn’t enough, these games are also overflowing with personality. The games’ humor and cartoonish visuals give the series a lighthearted tone; these aren’t games out to deliver a ham-fisted “war is bad” message but instead revel in the innocent—and perhaps naive—feeling of playing with toy army men. Despite having the depth of a Saturday morning cartoon, almost every character is likable in some way—with my personal favorites being Tsar Gorgi, Kaiser Vlad, and Col. Austin—and I genuinely wanted to know what happened to them next. Each faction’s units are instantly recognizable, and their designs convey a lot of personality, not just for the unit itself, but for the faction it belongs to.
Giving orders from the perspective of one of your men while returning fire yourself really makes you feel like you’re an actual part of the conflict.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, take a closer look at the first game.
I first heard of Battalion Wars from the now defunct Nintendo Power Magazine. That’s not to say I immediately took an interest in it, however. I wouldn’t pay it much mind until my younger brother returned from the now defunct Hasting’s Entertainment with a used copy of the game. Shortly after he inevitably lost interest in it, I took a crack at it and fell for it harder than Tsar Gorgi off a bridge (too soon?).
The game places the player in command of the forces of the Western Frontier—with some exceptions in the form of unlockable bonus missions. The story begins during an uneasy truce between the Western Frontier and their longstanding enemies, the Tundran Territories. War breaks out when Western Frontier troops find a Tundran spy on the Frontier side of the border. As the plot continues, the Tundrans ally themselves with the Xylvanians, the Xylvanians betray the Tundrans, an old man is thrown off a bridge, I think there was a zombie-ghost legion at some point…you get the picture.
While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it. Plot-wise, mission objectives often tie into something you did in a previous stage. If you saved a spy, you can bet his intel is what will point you toward your next target. The fort you defend in one mission is essential to launching a counter attack in the next and so forth. It’s a small detail, but having your actions contextualized like that goes a long way toward making your input feel meaningful.
While it won’t win any awards, the story has a great sense of progression to it.
While we’re talking about writing, I need to discuss the most important character: the grunts. Throughout the game, the troops under your command are constantly responding to your orders, quipping at the enemy, talking among themselves, or commenting on the situation at hand…and it is freaking adorable! Okay, I know that sounds like it’d get annoying after awhile, but the troops have so many lines that I would sometimes still be discovering new ones on my fourth or fifth play-through of particular missions.
On to the atmosphere: the visual style is a strange blend of cute, chibi soldiers and vehicles and a muted color palette that gives the environments an oddly grim and gritty feel. This, in conjunction with a great soundtrack that wouldn’t sound out of place in an old WW2 movie, produces a unique atmosphere in which the tone is never too heavy or oppressive but the player is still fully aware that—no matter how cute the enemy’s tanks are—this is still war.
The game isn’t without faults, however. The A.I. for units under the player’s control is a little slow on the uptake, to the point of seemingly lacking a self preservation instinct at times. I found any mission where I had to fight enemy aircraft especially aggravating, as anti-air vets tend to not take initiative, resulting in massive losses from even brief lapses in focus. I didn’t care much for missions where the game expects me to command planes and ground forces at the some time, either. For whatever reason, when given the wait command, planes continuously fly in a straight line instead of staying in proximity to where they were when the order was given. This required me to constantly check back on them to make sure they weren’t about to fly over enemy anti-air embankments.
Battalion Wars 2
Battalion Wars 2 starts its story off 200 years in the past by showing the player the final conflict between the Solar Empire and Old Xylvania at the end of the “Lightning Wars”. Bottom line is that the S.E. nukes O.X.’s H.Q. with an orbital death ray and then—fearing that the weapon is too much power for anyone to wield—chucks the controller (a staff) into a glacial ravine…what could possibly go wrong?
Back in present day, it’s been 2 years since the events of B.W. 1 and the nations of the world are at peace…until the Anglo Isles preemptively attack the Solar Empire based on rumors that they are harboring some sort of super weapon. The plot jumps between flashbacks and modern day from there with each campaign focusing on a different faction: a conflict between the Western Frontier and Tundra, the Anglo Islands staving off the Solar Empire’s retaliation, one where the player controls Old Xylvania’s forces, and finally Tundra’s attempts to prevent Xylvania from finding the staff.
The plot sounds a lot more complicated, but it really isn’t. I assume the 200-year-old-artifact-of-doom plot was meant to make the story feel bigger than the last game’s. Unfortunately, I’m not very fond of epics; I much prefer down-to-earth plots as I think they tend to have better focus and require the author to actually make me care about something specific like people or places. Fortunately, most of the characters are still quite likable, including most of the new ones.
Sadly, the narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had. You only play as any one faction for at most five missions (usually less). Between less emphasis being placed on the player’s actions between missions and the fact the player constantly switches sides, that feeling from the first game of being a single commander fighting in a series of much larger conflicts is completely gone.
Did I mention the volume on the player’s soldiers has also been dramatically reduced? They still speak, and I’m sure it’s still adorable, but I for the life of me can’t hear what they’re saying.
The narrative’s constantly changing point of view leaves the story unfocused and absolutely kills that sense of progression the first game had.
Moving on to the visual design of this game: many of the units received redesigns, especially the Tundran Territories’ infantry, most of which I think are improvements. The same can’t be said for Brigadier Betty: her look, not to mention her distinctive voice and a good deal of her peppy can-do attitude, are gone, making this iteration rather bland and forgettable. Speaking of bland, the game’s color palette is much more colorful which, while fitting well with the cartoonish style, demolishes the unique atmosphere of the B.W. 1 and stands out less by comparison.
Okay, so maybe the aesthetics and narrative aren’t on par with the original, but this game fixes many of its predecessor’s failings when it comes to gameplay. The A.I. is much more proactive: there were many times I would be ordering my units to attack a tank or some entrenched enemy infantry and would be surprised by the wreckage of an enemy gunship I didn’t notice suddenly crashing nearby. Oh, and planes finally fly in circles when put on standby!
The motion controls also make targeting enemies and issuing commands a snap. The only place where they really feel out of place is when controlling aircraft, as pointing the Wii remote up or down controls altitude. This feels awkward, especially if the player is trying to target a ground based unit, partially due to the game not making the change in altitude immediately obvious.
The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. BWii’s missions follow a pretty predictable formula: defend a location then go on the assault or go on the assault and then defend the capture point. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of, so I guess it more or less balances out.
The game’s missions do feel a bit more repetitive than before. That said, BWii doesn’t have any missions that drag on too long or feel unfair—which the first game was occasionally guilty of.
Of course, Battalion Wars 2 also brought new gameplay elements to the table: naval units and buildings. Naval units basically feel like tanks and artillery, but much more sluggish. That said, the game does a great job of conveying their weight and scale, and their long range means naval missions don’t feel too drawn out. Unfortunately, missions in which the player has to command both land and sea units tend to feel disjointed and tedious, due the two unit types’ inability to travel together and the player not being able to use the “All Units” button to regroup their units without messing up their positioning.
Buildings are a solid addition. Players can’t select their position, instead having to secure predetermined locations. Once under the player’s control, buildings will periodically replace fallen units corresponding to the type of building (e.g. aircraft for airfields). These help take the edge off, as the player doesn’t have to worry about losing essential personnel. That said, the fact that units have to run all the way to the players position, which can be on the other side of the map, means the player can’t rely on reinforcements too much.
Despite all of the flak I just gave Battalion Wars 2, I do think it’s the better game. While I think Battalion Wars has more personality, it can also be much more tiring—and sometimes frustrating—to play. Of course, neither is particularly hard to come by, and they’re both worth your time.
Sadly, Nintendo never commissioned Kuju to make a Battalion Wars 3. I think it’s blend of action and strategy would’ve been a great fit for the Wii U, and the Wii U gamepad would’ve been a great help in micromanaging units, something that neither game made easy. Nintendo still seems to have a fondness for cartoony wars games if the recent 3DS game Tank Heroes is anything to go by, so I haven’t completely given up hope. If the rumors of GameCube games coming to the Switch’s Virtual Console are true, I’d happily double dip on Battalion Wars…and not just because of how utterly unreliable old GameCube memory cards are.
About the Author
Glen Straughn is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming. He is currently studying to receive his masters in computer science from Oklahoma State University. He has gotten an S rank on every mission in BWii, and even managed to get an S on the final mission on his first successful play-through…completely by accident.
Confession time, boys and girls! I like the Super Mario Bros. Movie. There, I said it! I admit, it’s probably just residual nostalgia from the many times I watched it as a kid, seeing as how the movie is a horrendous adaptation of the games (which was no less obvious to four-year-old me as it is today). Even then, I think when judged on its own merits, the movie has a sort of cheesy charm: it’s a film made in the early 90s trying so hard to be a mid-to-late 80s styled action-adventure thriller. In my opinion, it works in a weird, probably unintentional way. Regardless, the film has become infamous among gamers, who deride it for—among other things—not being much like the games on which it’s, ahem, “based.”
The film has become infamous among gamers, who deride it for not being much like the games on which it’s “based.”
However, this was not always the case. The movie had a long and troubled production, mostly due to differing opinions on which direction the film should take. The end result? Many, many rewrites. Most versions of the script are more or less in the vein of the final product, a sci-fi action-adventure sort of a thing. However, there is one major exception: the first draft. Indeed, the first draft was not a sci-fi action-adventure sort of a thing, but instead a comical romp through a bizarre fantasy world. More to the point, it also included many more nods to the series on which it was, ahem, “based.” So, does accuracy to the source material make this version of the movie better? Let’s find out! Uh, I mean, “let’s-a go!”
I’m pretty sure that’s what the cool kids are saying these days…
Seeing as how it’s doubtful the average gamer knows about the many rewrites this movie went through, much less bothered to read the original script, I think it’d be a good idea to briefly go over the plot detailed in the aforementioned first script. The movie follows a pretty clear three-act structure, with the first act taking place in Brooklyn, the second in the Mushroom Kingdom, and the third being comprised of the climax and denouement, as one would expect.
Act 1: Brooklyn
The story begins much like the finished movie does: a dark and stormy night, a robed figure, an infant, and some sort of mystical artifact, in this case, a jewel encrusted locket shaped like a mushroom. In this story, however, the nun that answers the door fails to notice the locket, and it consequentially slips out of the basket and into a nearby storm drain. After leaving the child on the door step of a church, the robed figure—in this version an old man—tries to beat a hasty retreat but is blocked by the shadowy figure of the story’s villain, King Koopa. Koopa threatens the man with unimaginable suffering, and the frail old man—being quite old and frail—dies of fright.
Twenty-something years later in modern-day, early 90s Brooklyn, Mario and Luigi are doing what plumbers do: fixing pipes. Or, at least, Mario is, Luigi is daydreaming about the love of his life, a girl that works at a nearby flower shop. Mario, having been hurt by love some unspecified amount of time ago, abrasively attempts to dissuade Luigi from pursuing a relationship.
Quick aside: for maximum enjoyment, I recommend envisioning Mario being played by Bob Hoskins—like he was in the final version of the film—and Luigi being depicted by Danny Wells like he was in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show.
Anyway, Mario and Luigi aren’t exactly in the best shape financially. Mario is deep in debt to a loanshark named “Big Eddie” (pro tip: never loan money from anyone whose name starts with “big”). Further adding to their problems are the differences between each brother: Mario is all business—which is understandable given his circumstances—while Luigi is compulsively generous and prone to messing up while on the job, resulting in more work for Mario. Case in point, after leaving to fetch some tools he left in the van, Mario returns to find that Luigi has turned the pipe they were working on into something akin to a modern art piece.
Later, after fixing the pipe, Luigi heads down to the flower shop to confess his love to Hildy. Wait, Hildy? Why Hildy? I mean, at least Daisy was an established character in Mario canon (albeit an incredibly obscure one back when the movie came out). Whatever, Dai—Hildy is rebuffing the advances of some sleazy dude named Vinnie. Apparently the two went out on a date sometime ago, and Dai—Hildy gave him a black eye. Luigi enters the shop just after Hildy convinces him to leave via argumentum ad tubulum irrigandum. After wussing out of telling Hildy how he feels, an argument breaks out between Hildy and her employer: Hildy put top dollar flowers in a budget wedding bouquet because weddings should be special or something. Afterward, Luigi and Hildy make lunch plans for the next day.
So to summarize, Mario is gruff and cynical, Luigi is warm and whimsical, and Hildy is tough but sweet.
Later that night, after having dinner with his brother (and some arguing), Luigi heads out on the fire escape to look at the city lights. He starts daydreaming (nightdreaming?) about being with Hildy. His happy thoughts are soon interrupted by that most inconsiderate of bugbears, foreshadowing. He imagines Hildy being stolen away by a reptilian claw and then himself holding the locket from opening. He then wakes up in bed, which leads me to question how much of the previous scene even happened. Did Mario and Luigi even have dinner, or was that part a dream too?
The next day, Luigi bumps into some of Big Eddie’s goons. They start hassling him until Mario steps in. Mario assures Eddie and his thugs he’s got a job lined up and he’ll be able to pay them soon. Mario then heads to the City Engineer’s office. Unfortunately, the City Engineer won’t even look at Mario’s proposal for the unspecified project until Mario pays a bribe. Mario, of course, refuses to stoop to bribery. After a debate on business ethics, the meeting inevitably concludes with the defenestration of the City Engineer’s golf bag.
Afterward, Luigi is telling some of the neighborhood children a story about a fisherman who outwitted a wrathful genie by daring him to enter a bottle. Mario, already having a bad day, dismisses the tale. Luigi attempts to cheer his brother up by telling Mario he found them a (pro bono) job fixing a leak in the basement of the church from the opening. During the job, they accidentally break open a sewer pipe, out of which comes the locket. Luigi immediately recognizes it as the one from his dream, and Mario immediately recognizes it as his ticket out of debt.
The next day, an unusual fellow tells Hildy he’s a detective working for her parents, and they would like to meet her. Previously believing herself to be an orphan, Hildy readily agrees. Meanwhile, Mario meets with Big Eddie to pay off his debt using the locket. Unfortunately, Luigi switched the locket with a rock when Mario wasn’t looking, which Big Eddie doesn’t find amusing. Back in the flower shop, Luigi shows up for his lunch date only to catch the Hildy right before she leaves with the strange man. Quickly realizing something’s amiss, Luigi chases after their cab in the Mario Bros.’s van. Mario, trying to escape Big Eddie’s goons, tries to escape to the van and after a brief chase only barely manages to hop in the back. Luigi chases the cab to an alley and continues his pursuit on foot. Mario follows him and they enter an abandoned diner with a large pipe jutting from the floor in the kitchen. They enter the pipe and are quickly whisked away.
Act 2: The Mushroom Kingdom
They exit on the other side of the pipe in…well, the movie never specifies, but we’ll just say the Mushroom Kingdom. After a brief scuffle over the locket and an encounter with some Piranha Plants, the brothers start wandering about, trying to determine where they are. They eventually stumble across Toad, who’s attached to a metronome-like deathtrap. They free him and he decides to tag along.
I should mention that this depiction of Toad is more or less the same as his portrayal in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but with a little less chutzpa in the face of danger. I’ll leave it to you to decide just how annoying that sounds.
The brothers eventually catch up to Hildy and the strange man, who then changes form to reveal himself to be none other than King Koopa (why can’t they ever just call him Bowser?). Luigi rushes off to save her, and—having no plan or weapons—gets himself and Mario captured. King Koopa leaves with Princess Hildy (she’s apparently a princess now) in tow while Mario and Luigi are to be executed via ballista. They just barely manage to show their executioners—who happen to be of a bearded human-like race known as “Yeelahs”—the locket before the trigger is pulled. Upon seeing the locket, the Yeelah proclaim the Mario Bros. the heroes of prophecy (is it just me, or are prophesies more common in movies than the Bible?). They then direct the trio to a nearby village to meet a wizard.
They meet the wizard, Woltan, and after some convincing, he sends them on a quest to the Pit of No Return to retrieve his wand. Meanwhile, Toad sends a message stating the brothers are still alive to Koopa via rocket-powered carrier turtle. Woltan gives Luigi three silver coins and sends the three on their way. As Mario’s complaining about never wanting to go on any quest, Luigi gives a beggar the three silver coins and receives a magic bean in return.
Meanwhile at Koopa’s castle, Koopa elaborates that he needs Princess Hildy to willingly marry him so that he can get his claws on the Crown of Invincibility. After briefly and awkwardly attempting to use charm and wit to persuade her, he defaults to love-potion laced chocolates, because apparently, it’s consensual when she’s under the effects of a love potion. The script cuts back to the progression of this plot point several times, presumably to provide a sense of urgency, but I’m not going to bother.
After camping out for the night, the Mario Bros. (and Toad) eventually stumble across a group of “toadstoolians” (i.e. Toads) working as slaves for King Koopa. This is followed by a chase scene in which the Mario Bros. have to run from the Hammer Bros., who’ve been sent to assassinate them. After escaping the Hammer Bros. and some more of Koopa’s minions, they find an egg in the woods which hatches into a “brontosaurus-like” creature. It’s actually a Yoshi, but is never referred to as such. It imprints on Mario, who shoos it away. After some more hiking, they (finally) come to the cave’s entrance. They enter, navigate some traps: including Thwomps and a strangely out-of-place Bob-omb, and enter a treasure chamber where the wand is. While in the treasure chamber, Luigi finds a jar of mushroom powder, and Toad takes a red leaf.
Outside, they’re greeted by Koopa and his minions. Koopa shoves Luigi and Toad off the ledge at the edge of the cave, sending them plummeting to their doom. Fortunately for our heroes, Luigi and Toad have the raccoon-leaf from earlier and use it to land safely. Mario, thinking his brother is dead, swears vengeance on Koopa as the Yoshi from earlier comes to his rescue. After the two escape from Koopa’s troops, Mario says goodbye to the Yoshi as it goes to be with its real mother.
Act 3: Koopa’s Castle
On his way to Koopa’s castle, Mario comes across the beggar Luigi got the magic bean from. The beggar reveals himself to be Woltan. Mario returns the wand and they head off to defeat Koopa. Koopa’s chief wizard, Beedleman, senses that Woltan has regained his powers and summons a storm to slow them down. As the storm brews, Mario takes cover, but Woltan tells him that there is nothing to fear because his magic is strong enough to protect them from the storm. Immediately afterward he’s vaporized by a bolt of lightning (Okay, I got to admit that’s pretty funny). Anyway, Mario continues onward, alone.
Mario arrives at Koopa’s castle and rushes in. Luigi and Toad, who escaped the caves by sprouting the magic bean from earlier into a vine they could climb, see him run in but are too far away to call out to him. Inside, Mario finds the place unexpectedly deserted. He seeks out Hildy, following her cries for help. He follows the voice only to find that (all together now) it’s a trap! After delivering the famous “the princess is in another castle” line (which is probably the most clever allusion to the games in the whole movie), Mario is taken away in chains. Fortunately, his captivity is brief as Luigi rescues him en route to the dungeon of Koopa’s real castle.
Now reunited, the brothers sneak into Koopa’s castle. The duo knock out some guards, steal their uniforms, and inadvertently stumble into King Koopa’s bachelor’s party. The king mistakes them for jesters and demands a song. After improvising a tune, the brothers sneak off to find Hildy. Upon finding her, they are shocked to find that the once sweet Hildy has been transformed into a “grotesque wench” (way too much makeup, long claw-like fingernails, etc.) by the chocolates. Hildy only barely recognizes Luigi before the guards barge in and take the Mario Bros. to the dungeon.
In the dungeon, our two heroes await their fate: in the morning the floor—which is made of ice—will melt and they will plunge into a pool of man-eating fish. Without anything better to do, Luigi resorts to having a real-talk with Mario. Turns out, the only reason Luigi still lives with Mario is because he promised their mother that he would look after Mario, because all Mario cared about was money and work.
The next morning, the ice begins to crack, Toad finally decides to check and see what’s taking our heroes so long, and Koopa’s wedding begins. Just as the remaining ice becomes too small to support both Mario Bros., Toad shows up. He manages to trick the dungeon’s guard into eating a poison mushroom, thereby straight up murdering him, and then rushes to the brothers aid.
Mario and company barge into the wedding. Unfortunately, Koopa is able to finish the ceremony while the protagonists are busy fighting through the guards. Just after Hildy says “I do,” Luigi breaks the spell on her via the mushroom powder he obtained in the Cave of No Return. Now the rightful-ish ruler of the kingdom, Koopa takes the crown and uses its power to begin turning Luigi to stone. Mario hefts Luigi’s petrified body and attempts to escape with Toad and Hildy. Just before his petrification completes, Luigi reminds Mario of the story of the genie and the fisherman.
As they escape, there’s a largely pointless confrontation with a pair of chain-chomps and a rather cool implementation of roto-disks. Eventually, the group is chased into an underground chamber…full of magma. Duh.
Our heroes attempt to cross a rickety rope bridge when Koopa finally catches up to them. Mario directs the others to take Luigi and get to safety. Koopa, at first, tries to use illusions to defeat Mario. When that doesn’t work, he uses his magic to pull Mario toward him and deliver a powerful uppercut. Mario is sent flying and only barely manages to grab onto the bridge. With his opponent now dangling precariously above a pool of magma, Koopa approaches to deliver the coup de grace. Just before Koopa cuts the rope Mario is hanging on, Mario remembers the story of the fisherman and the genie. Mario says that even though he may be small, he’ll always be bigger than Koopa. Koopa, of course, uses the crown’s power to grow. Mario continues to egg him on but Koopa becomes wise to Mario’s ploy and begins levitating to avoid destroying the bridge with his weight. That wasn’t Mario’s plan, however: Mario tells King Koopa that his shoe is untied and Koopa reflexively looks down, thus causing the crown that is now many times too small to fit on his head to slip off. Koopa plummets into the magma and everyone (including his former henchmen) rejoice. But suddenly, a giant flaming head emerges from the fire. Mario does the only logical thing in this situation and…tells Koopa that it’s over and he just needs to give it a rest? With one last furious roar, Koopa takes Mario’s advice and finally dies.
Woltan reappears and reveals that he was actually the former king of the Mushroom Kingdom all along. Later, in the field of pipes that will take our heroes home, the King gives a speech congratulating the Mario Bros. and Toad and presents them with medals. He then gives Hildy permission to return to Brooklyn so she can be with Luigi, stating that he will simply remarry and produce another heir to the throne. That’s a…surprisingly practical way of resolving that plot issue. Anyway, after saying their goodbyes, Mario, Luigi, and Hildy all return to Brooklyn.
Three months later, the trio are eating dinner at an Italian restaurant. Hildy and Luigi are now married, and Mario is finally out of debt. The newly-wed couple ask Mario if he’s seeing anyone. Just as he starts to explain—while he’s very happy for them—he’s not interested in a relationship for himself, he spies an attractive woman sitting by herself who happens to resemble a bit character who I didn’t bother mentioning before now because she only exists for the sake of this one call back. We see Mario walk up to her and start a conversation through the front window of the restaurant as the camera begins to pull back, revealing the Mario Bros. van whose side now reads “Super Mario Bros.: Ace Plumbers.”
Analysis and Review
So, this story is obviously more faithful to the source material, therefore it’s clearly better, right? Eehhhh…
Okay, first things first, movies are a collaborative effort: they are the end product of many people’s input and passion. For that reason, it’s hard to judge a hypothetical film solely on a script alone. Many factors can influence the quality of a movie: direction, acting, editing, the list goes on and on. So for this reason, I’m judging this assuming the performers never miss a beat, the director has some actual talent, and no scenes were cut for length. With that in mind…
Let’s start with the positives. Some of the jokes are actually really funny. I like that this script has a rather dark sense of humor in places, like having Woltan vaporized with little warning or fanfare. Some of the one-liners are fairly clever (though most are a little cheesy) and—if properly acted and edited—the slapstick could potentially be almost on par with something like Looney Toons or the good seasons of SpongeBob. Over all, many of the jokes have potential, and they do a good job of establishing a wry, yet light-hearted tone.
Over all, many of the jokes have potential, and they do a good job of establishing a wry, yet light-hearted tone.
I also like the dynamic between Mario and Luigi. Having Mario resent Luigi for no reason other than the latter is a responsibility the former never asked for may not be the most original idea, but I think it was a very interesting direction and made for a surprisingly deep and psychological take on the characters. Also, let’s not forget the reveal near the end in which Luigi admits to having similar feelings regarding Mario, which I thought was a good pay off for their character arcs.
Lastly, I liked that they made an effort to make the movie’s world resemble the games’. The thought of seeing a live action Super Mario Bros. that more closely resembles the games is enough to make me salivate.
Now the bad, few of the other characters other than Mario and Luigi get much character development. With the possible exception of Toad, none of the side characters really change or grow throughout the course of the story. Hildy remains tough but sweet, Woltan’s only change is that we discover he’s really the king, and Koopa’s not fleshed out much as a villain. This last one’s particularly infuriating because Koopa at one point mentions how his father had everything taken from him and his family was reduced to living in abject poverty. Taken by whom? King Woltan? That moment raised so many questions: questions I was very much looking forward to having answered, and they never mentioned it ever again! Easily the most aggravating thing in this script!
Next were some miscellaneous issues. Firstly, you probably noticed there were quite a few scenes that I only mentioned in passing. Well, that’s because a lot of scenes don’t really add much to the story and were effectively padding. Next, the story doesn’t quite know who its protagonist is. I know of two basic ways of determining who’s the story’s hero: “who drives the plot?” and “who undergoes the most character development?” For most of the film, Luigi’s driving the plot, but Mario undergoes most of the character development, but toward the end the movie changes gears and has Mario do both. I don’t think this is too big of a deal, seeing this is the Super Mario Bros. movie, and thus the writers may have just figured both brothers should share the spotlight, but even then it came across as a tad unfocused. Lastly, the movie shows its age in some of the worst ways possible: parts of it are painfully cheesy and cliché-ridden. It’s very clearly a product of the 90s.
A lot of scenes don’t really add much to the story.
Now for the Reznor in the room: the efforts to reference the games are often times distracting. I know that doesn’t sound right, so hear me out. The script makes an effort to reference the games, but it’s incredibly inconsistent in how it does so. I’m not against there being new ideas—especially considering this script was written in ’91 and there was a lot less material to go off of—but there are missed opportunities all over the place. For example, they never call the Mushroom Kingdom the Mushroom Kingdom, or Hildy “Princess Toadstool”—even as a title. Also, why have the majority of Koopa’s army be comprised of Yeelahs instead just having Yeelahs be the conquered peasants (I’m not anti-Yeelah, but give me my gosh-darn Koopa Troopas!)?
Because of this, the movie’s references feel kind of half-hearted: like they only included them out of necessity. Heck, some come across as completely shoe-horned, like the bob-omb in the Pit of No Return or the Chain-Chomps in Koopa’s castle: both come completely out of nowhere and add very little to the plot. While reading this, I got the impression there were times where the writers stopped and said, “wait, weren’t we writing a Super Mario Bros. movie? Oh crud! Quick, put in a character from the games.”
This may sound really weird, but I think the movie we got is easier for me to judge on its own merits than this one because it doesn’t try as hard to connect itself to the games, meaning I have to overcome less bias to accept it as its own thing. Because the first draft includes so many references to my favorite video game franchise of all time, I want it to be even more faithful.
Because the first draft includes so many references to my favorite video game franchise of all time, I want it to be even more faithful.
In its current state? It’s okay. I don’t think it would’ve been as controversial as the version that made it to theaters, though. It would probably be seen much the same way as Street Fighter: The Movie is. Either way, it’s nothing spectacular. I do think with some revisions, some trimming, a good director, and talented actors, it could be quite good. I liked most of the stuff in Brooklyn, and I think the climax works pretty well, but the second act drags and is lacking in the Mario charm I expect.
All in all, while it may be fun to speculate, I don’t think we’d be much better off with this version of the movie. But hey, Nintendo’s said they’re going to start licensing the movie rights to their franchises, so maybe a good Super Mario Bros. movie isn’t that far down the road.
About the author: Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan whose love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming; so much so that he is currently studying to get his masters in computer science. He also likes the Street Fighter movie for much the same reasons he likes The Super Mario Bros. Movie, cementing the fact he has questionable taste in films.