Dread is an emotion that I would not typically assign to playing Super Mario 64. When the game arrived at our home in 1996, my brother and I spent weeks filled with wonder and joy. This new three-dimensional world was filled with bright colors, adorable enemies, and inviting locales. The soundtrack was equally upbeat, featuring gorgeous melodies and bouncy tunes to match the gameplay. Yes, everything was consistent with the fantastic journeys from Mario’s past… save for one dark stage.
After nearly a month of play, I thought we had explored every nook of Princess Peach’s castle. My brother successfully unlocked the basement, while I cleared the way to the upper floors. One day while we were making our way through the castle, a single ghost appeared in a familiar hallway. This was unexpected; there wasn’t a ghost there before. It leered at us, goading us to follow it down the hallway, laughing the entire way. As we passed through the door to the royal fountain, we were shocked to see it corrupted by dozens of ghosts.
We punched our way through the spectres, watching them drop coins as they dissipated. We efficiently exorcized the courtyard, until a particular ghost dropped a birdcage instead of gold. As we crept up to investigate this item, Mario was swept up and shrunk down my a mysterious force. The new stage screen appeared, signaling that we had discovered Big Boo’s Mansion.
Mario’s enthusiastic cheer of, “Let’s-a-go” was the last joyful sound before a dissonant dirge blasted out of our television speakers.
This was the first time we had been so unsettled by music from the Mario series. In the past, long-time series composer Koji Kondo had managed to keep things light-hearted and uplifting. Even in the previous encounters with ghosts, his music had a sort of winking quality, like players were a part of a spooky-but-goofy moment. In Big Boo’s Mansion, the mirth was gone, replaced with the sound of dark chanting and ominous notes. The stage matched the soundtrack. The mansion was large and foreboding. Washed-out walls and rotted wooden floors held man-eating monsters and cackling ghosts.
Thanks to Koji Kondo’s composition and an equally ominous environment, I was legitimately frightened while playing a Mario game.