“Playing a Mario game is about finding secrets,” Jon Irwin writes in Super Mario Bros. 2, the final installment in the first series of video game books from the innovative publishers at Boss Fight Books. And anyone who has picked up a Nintendo controller knows this to be true: from Warp Zones and Star Worlds to portal paintings and other Galaxies, the secret areas of the Mario franchise stand out as some of the greatest achievements and most rewarding experiences in all of gaming. After all, Irwin explains, though “the surface level effort of progressing forward is often enough” to entertain the casual gamer, more often than not the true gamer plays Mario “not even to ‘win,’ but to simply access that sense of control and joy inherent to moving fluidly through his world.”
Buried in this tradition of generous, secret-bearing environments is one of the saga’s most unappreciated but perhaps best iterations of it, namely SMB2‘s access to Subspace, a parallel world to the game’s setting in the land of Subcon in which one’s enemies vanish from view, common turnips transform into rare coins, and once-invisible prized mushrooms appear to uniquely enhance the player’s HP. It’s a bonus land, one entered into via a magic red door that appears after the player smashes a magic beaker of potion, one inhabitable for only a matter of seconds and incapable of ever being fully explored. In short, it is a mirage, beautiful and torturous and gone.
Subspace inverts the game’s traditional color palette, reducing the background to a rich midnight blue and the foreground to a uniform black, throwing into relief the lone pops of color in the magic doors, coins, mushrooms, and visitors (you, the character), and even reverses the direction and orientation of all of the objects on screen. It’s backwards: a world inside a world, a portal to the sacred within the profane, a chance for the player to step into that liminal space lying just beyond the proverbial curtain.
And it’s these sort of weird subversions of game-reality, these unexpected inversions of what we’ve since come to know or expect about Mario, for which Irwin’s book serves as a monumental labor of love. Equal parts description of game specs, history of product development, and narration of Irwin’s own gameplay, and smattered with a few brief interviews with some of Nintendo’s more relevant personnel, the book functions best as a close reading of the various “in-betweens” that have populated the long history of the pseudo-sequel to Nintendo’s 1985 cornerstone Super Mario Bros.
Giving heavy treatment to the origin story of SMB2 (a.k.a. Super Mario USA), which emerged from the ashes of Japan’s somewhat unimpressive vertical scrolling two-player co-op game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic after the original Japanese SMB2 (now called The Lost Levels) proved too difficult for American gamers, Irwin uses this bizarre foundation to launch into a larger discussion regarding some of the other uncanny underpinnings of the game, including the neither-dead-nor-alive floating mask that chases Mario & Co. across the level whenever a character holds a key, the Wonderland-esque body-shrinking and -growing as Mario submerges into and emerges from charmed vases, and even the gender ambiguity of the pink dinosaur named Birdo, whose bio in the original instruction manual, Irwin explains, states “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called ‘Birdetta.’” (To add to the confusion, Irwin goes on, the manual sometimes refers to the dinosaur as “Ostro,” and to an ostrich-inspired enemy as “Birdo,” and in all subsequent games, “Nintendo has turned Birdo female or neglected to mention gender at all.”)
Couple the above with the fact that this Mario features four playable characters (Mario, Luigi, Toad, Princess Toadstool) instead of the traditional one, expands levels vertically as Mario & Co. move upwards instead of ever-horizontally to the right, and erases Bowser and his Koopas as principle enemies of the game in favor of the toad king Wart and his minions, and one begins to understand the heart of a transcendentally “other” game that was, then wasn’t, then was again, but shouldn’t have been (shouldn’t it?), and has since lingered in gaming history as one of the stranger and more jarring ventures a major platform has ever produced.
The book, surprising and interesting as it is, however, is not free from criticism, though the select issues seem to be shared communally and have been espoused in sufficient detail elsewhere. Sure, at times it feels lightly researched, nothing a late night down the Wikipedia rabbit hole wouldn’t have brought to light eventually (albeit perhaps less efficiently). And a stronger editorial hand would have certainly gone a long way with respect to ironing out the the herky-jerky narrative—Irwin seems to start and restart the project multiple times in a single chapter, and even among multiple chapters, as if hesitant to pick a focused trajectory for the book and stick to it—and to better integrating the otherwise-distracting outside source materials (e.g. interviews, meet-ups, personal anecdotes) that sometimes read as darlings that Irwin should have killed in a previous draft.
But this is not to say that SMB2 is pure content without any style. In fact, some of Irwin’s funniest and most insightful writing comes in his honest, flat description of SMB2‘s gameplay, in which long-familiar images on the screen are shown for the truly bizarre occasions that they are only when rendered in text form (e.g. “I strike Mr. Fry with a third thrown block. But our friend doesn’t gasp and shudder into ash; no, he explodes into smaller versions of himself. The fiery spores hop along the same frozen ground I slip across. We touch and my diminutive Toad freeze-frames, looking out from the screen at the perpetrator of this murder: me.”). It’s a real pleasure to read these moments, which after a while begin to resemble excerpts from the prose poems in Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations or Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons more than they do a throwback review in Game Informer. Strange nouns are activated with even stranger actions, and their affects on one another—a block thrown by a plumber shatters a flame into mini fireballs which, when felt, hurl a mushroom-capped humanoid up into the air, then down into oblivion—come to create plot lines that read like progenitors to those in contemporary indie games or in the hallucinatory TV shows we now watch regularly on Adult Swim.
The book as a whole is, in its own way, a kind of literary Subspace: colorful, surprising, filled with more than just the occasional gem, but ultimately a bit frustrating in its limited scope and duration. It offers a peak at the game behind the game, though, and renders the experience as so nearly timeless that we feel like, for once, we’re able to recapture the newness and haecceity—the Mario-ness of Mario—of a classic game as it was when we first pressed start.
Super Mario Bros. 2, by Jon Irwin. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books. 184 pages. $14.95, paper.
Michael Gossett is an arts grants archivist for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a books editor for Thought Catalog. He received his MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland in 2013. His recent poetry and criticism have appeared in Architectural Digest, The Volta, The Found Poetry Review, Poor Claudia, and elsewhere. He lives in Astoria, Queens, and tweets a commonplace book of conceptual poetry, riddles, and Memphis basketball at:@michaeljgossett.