Back in the day, I lied to my older brother about a haunted level in Super Mario 64 that didn’t exist. In this level I made up, Wario would appear if you ran three times in the reverse direction on a merry-go-round. Once you found him, I said, the game cartridge would become cursed.
Of course my brother never found the secret Wario level. I was a needy younger sibling; I’d churn up all sorts of superstition for attention and never think of it again. That is, until earlier this month, when Nintendo announced the game would be, at long last, coming to the Nintendo Switch as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a trio of remasters in celebration of the mascot’s 35th birthday. It was around this time when I discovered a thread on Reddit called “Every copy of Mario 64 is personalized,” which describes a bunch of urban legends about the Nintendo game, including the existence of a very scary, very “cursed” appearance of—you guessed it—Wario.
This creepypasta (or, internet urban legend) alleges that Nintendo was testing the waters with a new “personalization A.I.” technology that created strange nuances in Mario 64—such as alternate levels, music tracks, and characters—unique to every player’s cartridge. This theory seemed to explain why we often share conflicting anecdotes about playing the decades-old game, some of which are completely bizarre. (I had a friend who insisted that he hopped on Yoshi’s back and rode him in Mario 64‘s finale.) The legend gets way more disturbing from there. Apparently, the worst of these “personalization A.I.” glitches is known as the “Wario Apparition,” a disembodied head that can be found in the basement of the game’s castle. According to the theory, if you found the Wario Apparition, you’d suffer stroke-like symptoms and memory loss.
I don’t buy into any of this. The Wario Apparition is most likely a fiction based on weird videos from a 1993 E3 presentation that show the evil Mario doppelganger saying, “You want fun? …Wario show you fun.” Video games have been a leading topic of creepypastas for years now. Just take a look at the Majora’s Mask “Ben Drowned” theory, which is genuinely frightening. I don’t believe that Nintendo, the most kid-friendly company in gaming history, was trying to sedate its audience and inflict brain trauma. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t unsettled when I started reading horror stories about Mario 64 and found a lie from my youth staring right back at me.
There is something so spooky about Mario 64. It takes place inside an abandoned castle where Mario’s completely alone, except for the ghosts in the basement and the colorful wall paintings that are portals to other worlds. Upstairs, there’s a long, quiet room full of mirrors. Downstairs, a white rabbit bounces away when you look at it. In the courtyard, you might get sucked inside a miniature house that transports you to the underworld. And deep in the interconnected hallways of the castle’s highest levels, there’s a staircase that stretches upward, unendingly, called the Never Ending Staircase. I’d often wonder what kind of looming terror would greet me if I ever reached the top. Hell, the game even has the white-and-black checkerboard floors from the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks.
I don’t think Nintendo ever intended to scare children. But the surreal—and at times, unnerving—curiosities that await you around every corner in Mario 64 really make you wonder what the developers were up to. Did they not anticipate how disconcerting the uncanny valley effect of the 3D graphics would be? Were they just trying to build a memorable environment that, like your high school or childhood home, would feel familiar yet somehow different every time you returned to it?
With the release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, a lot of kids today will be experiencing Mario 64 for the first time. This will likely mean new creepypastas and new theories. It will also mean a lot of old mysteries laid to rest, now that the game is no longer housed in a dusty, malfunctioning cartridge from the 1990s. I look forward to playing it again…just don’t expect me to go down into the basement.