Mario has been a gaming icon for decades and has been in more games than can be counted. Although no year in recent memory has gone past without some type of Mario game being released, series fans will remember the nearly decade long drought of original Mario platformers.
From 1997-2005, there was only one new Mario platformer released: Super Mario Sunshine. During the second part of this drought (after Sunshine's release), the mysterious Super Mario 128 was the main focus of the fanbase.
No concrete information was given on the game and, eventually, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto claimed it had simply been a series of test concepts that were never intended to be an actual game.
The mystery faded from memory as the Mario drought finally ended and most people forgot about the game that had once been the center of every Mario fan's imagination.
The Mario drought corresponded with a bad era for Nintendo in terms of console sales. The Nintendo 64 and GameCube did not have the financial success of the earlier Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Nintendo, or the later Wii.
For a very proud company that relied solely on video games to make money, this was quite upsetting for the higher ranking employees that were attached to the company and felt its success or failure reflected on them personally.
Nintendo started working on a sequel to the 1996 Super Mario 64 shortly after the game was released, but during the late 90s it became clear that Nintendo was not winning the console war. The Super Mario 64 sequel was restarted from scratch, since the company believed that it was not a substantial enough improvement over the original to turn the tides of the market battle.
Seeing the generally more realistic and violent games on Sony's Playstation, the market leader, Nintendo considered making a Mario that was closer in tone to what the public seemed to want. There was quite a bit of internal conflict over how far to go with this new direction and the new Mario was clearly not going to be ready until Nintendo's next console, the GameCube.
The only hint of this that was released to the public was a comment by Miyamoto that he thought Mario and Luigi should act "more like grown ups" in their games for the (then soon to be released) GameCube.
The new Mario project was ultimately split into two games; Luigi's Mansion, which reflected the darker tone that many felt the series should turn to (although it was still toned down quite a bit compared to what some Nintendo executives and developers wanted), and Super Mario Sunshine, which went in the complete opposite direction.
Both were released within a year of the GameCube and Nintendo felt confident that their new system and Mario games would return them to their former glory as market leader.
As those familiar with gaming history know, they didn't. The GameCube did even worse in market share than the Nintendo 64, and the mass market's taste shifted even more toward violent, realistic games.
During this period, the somber mood at Nintendo intensified and the darker Mario project was revived, this time code named "Super Mario 128". It isn't clear exactly what happened at Nintendo during this period. As we know, nothing called Super Mario 128 was ever released or publicly shown.
The source that revealed the internal strife at Nintendo during the later N64 era refused to discuss what was happening during the time of the GameCube's failure, but released a prototype of Super Mario 128 online that can be played on the Wii homebrew channel.
The following is a recollection of my time playing it.
The game was clearly an early beta; the title screen was nothing but white text saying "Super Mario 128" against a black background. There was no options menu or save file selection, either. After the title screen, the game started. Bowser's laugh from Super Mario 64 looped in the background while a plain text box displayed this dialogue;
Mario, I have taken Princess Peach and she will not live to see the sun rise tomorrow unless you take her place. You know what to do and where to go. Do not try to stop me unless you want to hasten her death.
The game certainly was going for a darker tone. After I made the text box go away, I was thrust right into gameplay. The first thing I noticed was Mario's character model. His body was as detailed as in Super Mario Galaxy (although a little more realistically proportioned), but his head was taken from his SM64 character model. Obviously his design wasn't finished yet.
The setting was a sky level. There were some simple platforms floating in the air. The rest of the area was just blue sky with several clouds scrolling in the background. The clouds seemed more realistic than the usual cartoony puffs in Mario games. They were quite graphically impressive.
There was no music or full voice samples from Mario, but there were sound effect/grunts when he jumped. The jumping was more subdued than in other Mario games. Mario didn't jump as high as he usually did and had little control over his movement in the air. The different types of jumps in every 3D Mario weren't present.
I played through the level. There was nothing especially notable about the gameplay - enemies didn't seem to have been added yet. I just jumped from platform to platform and it wasn't very challenging.
As I went through the level, I noticed the graphics gradually changing. The sky became more and more cloudy until it was entirely composed of clouds, and the cloud background gradually turned to a dark gray.
After this, it started to rain. I reached a small platform with a Toad on it. It looked like the Super Mario Galaxy model. When I landed on his platform, dialogue appeared.
We don't want you any more, Mario. You don't belong here. Just give Bowser what he wants. Die.
After the text box went away, I no longer had control of Mario. Mario just stood there for a while, then turned around and walked off the platform. His body seemed to go limp as he fell.
Eventually, it was revealed that there was a realistic, modern city under the sky. The buildings looked neglected, but there were people on the street.
Mario hit the ground with a realistic-sounding thud, but he didn't explode or show any visible wounds. He just lay there. The people in the city just kept walking by, ignoring Mario, although I thought I saw a few glance at him with cold, somewhat angry expressions.
This went on for a few minutes and eventually, people stopped appearing. Mario got up - I was back in control - but he couldn't jump at all and had a reduced walking speed.
The large buildings of the city didn't appear to be interactive, so I just kept walking down the street for a while. Eventually, I found a small house that seemed out of place among the larger buildings.
When I approached the door, Mario opened it. The screen went white and some black text appeared.
House of Torn Memories
This seemed to be the level title. When I pressed a button, the screen faded back to Mario. He was inside the house from before. Everything seemed bigger than it should. It wasn't gigantic, but scaled as if Mario was a very small child.
The house was filled with normal objects covered in dust and signs of neglect. There were no people on the ground floor, just things like broken lamps and rotting food. I found a door that opened to a set of stairs going down, leading to a basement.
In the basement, I found a dilapidated couch and a broken TV. However, what really caught my attention was what was on the couch: two skeletons that appeared to be children, judging by their size. Due to the scale of the house, they were still larger than Mario.
I was starting to get really disturbed by now. How had a Mario game containing this been programmed to this extent?
I went up to the skeletons and tried pressing buttons to interact with them or the TV, but nothing seemed to happen. I was about to turn around and look elsewhere when I was nearly scared to death by a deafeningly loud crash coming from the game.
What appeared to be Bowser seemed to have broken through the floor from below and landed in front of Mario. I say "appeared to be" because this was nothing like the way Bowser is usually rendered.
The reptilian monster in the game had Bowser's basic brownish-yellow and green color pattern, but looked far more threatening than any Bowser model I had seem before.
It was not proportioned like the Bowser I knew. Its arms and legs were far longer in relation to its body and ended in razor-sharp claws. The green shell didn't look like it had spikes glued on; they were more jagged and organic looking with the same dark green color the rest of the shell had.
The face had small but intense pure black eyes and a mouth full of jagged teeth that took up far more of the face than it should have. Mario was cowering in fear from this thing. A dialogue box appeared.
You've kept me waiting long enough, Mario. I will taste flesh soon. Will you finally surrender, or does Peach have to die?
I still didn't have control. Mario just stood there, shivering for several seconds before nodding his head. Bowser impaled Mario with his claws. There was no blood, but it was clear from the animation and sound effects that the sharp digits of Bowser's hands had gone through Mario's body.
In one swift motion, Bowser dragged Mario up to his face and bit his head off. Again, there was no blood or graphic details left behind on Mario's neck - just Mario's character model being destroyed.
The screen faded to black. In white text, another level name appeared.
Mario's Eternal Home.
Mario's character model was whole again when the level started. It was the only thing on the screen besides the black background. It was floating, as if in space. I could somewhat control it, but it felt more like I was deciding the general direction in which Mario would tumble than fully controlling him.
As I drifted towards no apparent destination, voices faded in. They were echoing, deep voices telling Mario that he was worthless... that the world no longer had any use for him and everyone would be better off if he was dead.
High pitched crying was layered onto the voices after a bit. It sounded like it was supposed to be Mario's cries. This really disturbed me and I found myself fighting back tears. For reasons I couldn't understand, this was affecting me on an emotional level.
The voices and aimless wandering went on for several minutes until I spotted a light grey speck in the distance. I moved towards it. It took a very long time to reach, and grew closer at a much slower rate than it should have.
When I was close enough to make it out, I saw that it was a tombstone. It was a very plain one with cracks in several places. When I got right next to the tombstone, I could see writing on it.
I turned off the system right after reading it. I'm not going to play the beta or hack or whatever this was again. There was a single word written on the tombstone.