My generation’s baptism into the bizarre world of ‘edutainment’ came with our school-mandated curriculum of the Oregon Trail series. Sure, it was supposed teach you about pioneers, but the designers made a crucial mistake – it was actually fun as hell to play. This basically guaranteed two things:
1. We didn’t actually learn shit about the Oregon trail.
2. We discovered at a young age to avoid dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid. Also, that if you were a cheap piece of shit and didn’t pay the ferryman, at least two oxen would pay the price and probably also your brother-in-law.
Computer games during school? Sign me up for that shit. We loved Oregon Trail day. I doubt there’s a child out there who doesn’t fondly remember those blissful days shooting 300 lbs. of buffalo and only carrying 50 lbs. back to your wagon.
Sadly, while the rest of us got to build our management skills one snakebite and shattered femur at a time, others out there were not so lucky. Some unfortunate folks had to endure Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing. Even worse, some poor soul had to play Prince Interactive. But the most deceptive game of them all was Mario is Missing!.
As you may have already suspected, Mario is Missing! is not really a Mario game at all. It’s an educational game thinly disguised as a Mario game. Mario is Missing! is a geography-based teaching game designed as part of a series of five Mario educational games that were developed by The Software Toolworks. Like their close cousins on the Philips CD-i, the games are universally shunned and widely mocked by gamers everywhere.
I came in possession of this unique gaming artifact when my friend Randall gave it to me as a Christmas gift last year. I have no idea where he managed to find it, though I like to imagine he discovered it digging through a forlorn warehouse full of dusty crates à la Raiders of the Lost Ark. One night we sat down with our old SNES and a few beers and decided to see if we could survive the ordeal.
Suffice to say, our experience defied mockery. Mario is Missing! not only succeeds at being totally monotonous and boring to play, it’s downright absurd to boot. It takes place not in Super Mario World, but on Earth, where Bowser has set up a fortress in Antarctica in order to melt the ice caps and flood the Earth. Mario is captured, and its up to Luigi to rescue him. He does this by… visiting a bunch of tourist destinations and saving their national monuments.
A quick glance is all that’s needed to see just how little effort was put into applying Mario’s concepts to the game. There’s just enough of it sloppily smeared in the game’s cracks to get children to buy it. The Mario sprites are ripped straight from Super Mario World and sprinkled liberally into an environment that looks like it was designed for a sequel to Streets of Rage. Red Koopa Troopas, the only actual Mario enemy to appear in the game, wander the streets in an aimless fog but don’t actually hurt you.
It’s no secret that the game is trying to use Mario to trick kids into thinking that learning is fun, though sadly the developers fail miserably to do even that. The core mechanic of the game is to kill the Koopa Troopas you find until they drop the three missing treasures from your current city, which you then have to return to their designated information kiosks. Before you do that, however, the info booth ladies (Princess Peach, actually) will ask you two questions about the monument to certify that you aren’t presenting counterfeit goods. This constitutes the “learning” part of the game. Once you’ve returned all of the monuments, you use a world map to guide Yoshi to your current city, where he can scare away a Pokey guarding your return to Bowser’s castle.
It’s a simple, tedious routine that the developers try to obscure by including too many unessential mechanics. For example, the game makes it seem like you’re supposed to be gathering information about the artifacts you find so that you can later answer questions about them. However, most of the info you need can be ascertained directly at each info booth when they hand you a pamphlet concerning the artifact you are literally about to return. There are five people wandering each city that I think you’re meant to gather knowledge from, but once you realize that the info booths have all the information you’ll need, you stop talking to them entirely. There are also green warp pipes scattered around the cities, but since you spend about 15 minutes in each one, learning their shortcuts isn’t worth your time anyway.
Of course, since its a game meant for children, Mario is Missing! tries to be absolutely harmless in every way possible. There is no way to die in Mario is Missing!. You can kill the Koopa Troopas in each level but they have no effect on you. It’s so bad that we later discovered that not only will Luigi refuse to cross the road unless he’s at a crosswalk, he’ll actually stop to look in both directions before making his dash to the opposite side. Gotta encourage that good behavior!
Once you’ve cleared a city and are back in Bowser’s castle, you do the same thing again in the next city. There’s no variation in this pattern – the city layouts change along with the monuments, but that’s it. You do this four more times before advancing to the next floor of the castle, where five more cities await you.
However, the true monotony of Mario is Missing! really sunk in when I discovered that one of the Koopalings was the boss to each floor. It’s a pitiful excuse for a fight – the Koopalings can’t even hurt you as they scurry frantically along the ground awaiting their death. Even so, I naturally assumed that seven Koopalings must equal seven floors. Seven floors with five cities each must mean 35 cities total. Yes, I realized it was going to be a long ride. Nevertheless, I reasoned that even if I cleared one floor per gaming session, that would still get me through the game in a week. I remained determined. I settled in, shut off my brain, and let muscle memory take control.
To my surprise, however, after the third floor I was greeted with a new cut scene. Luigi pulls a lever, saves Mario, and defeats Bowser. The credits start to roll. I guess the game wasn’t as long as I had thought. Actually, it turns out that due to memory constraints, only 15 cities could make it into the game. The PC version had two more floors, but that still leaves out two Koopalings and a handful of cities.
But hell, who am I to complain? Better to be over this game sooner rather than later.
Final Verdict: Just no.
Fun Fact: Mario is Missing! is actually the first Mario game to feature Luigi as the sole starring character. Unsurprisingly, Nintendo did not try this again until Luigi’s Mansion in 2001.