Out twenty five years ago next month, the second entry in the handheld Mario spin-off series was significant for a number of reasons, but perhaps none as timely as its Halloween world.
The Pumpkin Zone is one of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins’s more festive levels. While some of the game’s worlds are based around general themes like space, or trees, others are hyper-specific like Hippo and Mario zones. But Pumpkin Zone is one of the only Mario worlds to so fully embrace the kitschy horror elements caught halfway between Halloween’s child-friendly rituals and the dark undercurrents that inspire them. The game was famous for introducing Wario, the evil inverse of Mario, but as part of a side-series and the last 2D Mario prior to New Super Mario Bros. a decade later, it was also took the opportunity to go off the beaten path and experiment with the platformer’s weirder, more eccentric (and sometimes spookier) side.
While the Pumpkin Zone stages themselves aren’t terribly complex, they do draw upon the holiday in their myriad enemy designs. First there’s the world’s memorable Bēros, possessed paper lamps that stick their tongues out like Scooby Doo characters. Then there are the F Boys, demonic fire balls which, similar to Bēros, are also taken from Japanese folklore.
The Karakaras are cyclops umbrellas in the shape of human legs. Kurokyura is a singular vampire-type who launches bats at Mario but looks more like a kid trick-or-treating as Dracula than the fanged blood-drinker himself. The Pumpkin Zone even has a few hopping leaches which don’t pose much of a threat but still manage to take the nightmare of lake swimmers everywhere and turn it into something charmingly silly.
The area’s best enemies, however, are two fold. First, there are the Masked Ghouls, small walking hockey masks resembling Shy Guys dressed up as Jason from Friday the 13th. Unlike the enemies borrowed from Japanese myth and legend, the Masked Ghouls are beautifully garish. They bumble around as you stomp on their heads in an homage to Halloween that only designers from Nintendo could imagine and pull off. Where the hockey-masked attacker has become synonymous with the splatter-side of Halloween, Super Mario Land 2 managed to re-purpose its symbolism for something more fun.
And last, but certainly not least, are the Terekuribō, the game’s Goomba ghosts and the only time, to my knowledge, that Nintendo has speculated about the sentient mushroom’s afterlife. The name translates to “Boo Goomba” which is exactly how they act. Otherwise invincible, they can only be with green shells or magic stars. It’s an upgrade for the series’ lowliest enemy type, but also tragic. Not content to simply make Goombas the default doormat for Mario in almost everyone of of his journeys during life, the designers of Super Mario Land 2 decided they would be bound to a similar fate in death.
Death hangs in the backdrop of all things Halloween, and the Pumpkin Zone is one of the few places the Mario games have ever come close to reflecting on it, even if the references remain oblique. The game takes the specter of death and grizzly violence and deploys it toward frivolous ends, something I, as someone whose terribly squeamish and easily overwhelmed by traditional horror beats, always enjoyed as a kid and can still appreciate decades later. Not surprisingly, the Mario looking glass can make just about anything appear more enchanting and welcoming.
It also had some pretty great music that will make you fall in love with the Game Boy’s sound card all over again.
Look forward to tales of ghosts and glitches all week during Kotaku’s Spooky Week.