The Nightmare of Nostalgia: How Classic Games Became the Stars of Modern Ghost Stories

Photo by Anurag Sharma from Pexels

When I was a child, I was convinced that Crash Bandicoot was going to come out of my TV and kill me. It was the dawn of 3D gaming, and my developing mind had never seen something with the simulation of depth before. It wasn’t a stretch of my young imagination to think that a shirtless marsupial, or any creature in that world, could cross the boundary of our big screen TV and spin attack me into oblivion. I outgrew that fear, of course… but wasn’t alone in having it. Far from it.

If you’re active on social media over the past few months, you might have seen an uptick in posts about Super Mario 64. Specifically, the claim that “every copy of Super Mario 64 is personalized”. These posts are often accompanied with bizarre imagery like apparitions of Wario’s head, or unnerving messages appearing in error code and dialog boxes. Don’t worry, there’s not some bizarre Nintendo conspiracy lurking inside your Mario 64 cart. These posts are part of a major internet meme, culminating in the Super Mario 64 Lost Tapes, which depict a dark alternate universe where the classic platformer hides a dark secret. It’s a brilliant work of ROM-hacking, editing, and visual effects to create the illusion that these nightmarish scenes are actually occurring. It’s enough to make you eye your old Nintendo 64 suspiciously, wondering if you should take it to be exorcised… just in case.

The Lost Tapes are just one of many video game themed horror stories, also known as “creepypastas”, to emerge on the internet. The first was arguably Polybius; a legend about a sinister MK-Ultra style experiment in the form of an arcade game. However, the genre was really kickstarted by Ben Drowned; a story that remains one of the most iconic examples of the genre.

Ben Drowned, written by Alexander D. “Jadusable” Hall, establishes the tropes and motifs that would come to define the genre. Someone finds a cartridge containing an unusual copy of a familiar game; The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in this case. Over the course of a playthrough, glitches and abnormalities become more and more pronounced until it becomes clear the game is possessed by a supernatural entity, placing the player (and potentially the reader) in grave danger.

Ben Drowned appeals to a fear of the uncanny; the idea that familiar, even comforting places and things are not what they seem. In this case, it preys upon the reader’s nostalgia. Majora’s Mask is a fitting choice for the birthplace of this genre, as the game is already infamous for being an abnormally creepy entry in the long running franchise. The surreal graphics, apocalyptic storyline, and general glitchiness of the N64 make it almost believable that a random cartridge could be possessed by the soul of a drowned child. References to real glitches within the game, like one that extends the game past its three day time limit, only add to the verisimilitude of the story. The Mario 64 Lost Tapes use a similar technique, drawing on schoolyard legends and false memories to add a dose of plausibility. These games are familiar and resonant, yet strangely enigmatic, even today.

The Nintendo 64 emerged at the dawn of the modern internet, in the era of GeoCities and webrings. These amateur websites were made by fans and had little in the way of fact checking. Modern datamining tools didn’t exist, and the only way to delve into a game’s secrets was to play it. Not even strategy guides or official publications were much help, as many were either based off of early builds that contained cut content or were drawn from the same pool of information circulating around the web. Schoolyard rumors passed down from alleged uncles that worked at Nintendo were passed around as fact, and an entire generation of children grew up asserting that Luigi was hidden somewhere in Peach’s castle, or that Link could actually collect the Triforce and use it to defeat Ganon. The most mystifying thing was that, like any good urban legend, you couldn’t disprove any of these stories. If the green-clad plumber failed to manifest, you simply didn’t perform the steps exactly as the developer intended. Or perhaps your copy of the game wasn’t one of the lucky ones to contain the secret.

Today, in the era of games as a service, this sort of mystery is almost impossible. Every copy of Mario 3D All Stars or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is not personalized. Players have to go through great pains to keep Day 1 glitches (often favored by speedrunners for their ability to bypass huge chunks of the game) intact, often by deliberately keeping their systems from ever connecting to the internet. Fans have decompiled the code of these games to rip out assets and explore every single nook and cranny of the code. If there is a deeply hidden secret in a game, it’s existence (if not how to access it) will likely be discovered in a matter of weeks. In the brightly lit world of modern gaming, stories like The Lost Tapes simply don’t have room to exist. It’s why you almost never see these stories applied to modern games, with Minecraft’s Herobrine ghost story being a rare exception. Most modern stories either deal with modified copies of classic games (to explain why such eerie events aren’t occurring in your own personal copy), or supposedly “lost” games that were created exclusively for the story. One recent example is Catastrophe Crow, a fictional video game created by filmmaker Adam Butcher. Presented as a typical YouTube documentary about a lost N64 title that quickly descends into madness, Butcher went so far as to create multiple fake YouTube channels with gameplay footage to sell the hoax. Other games, like imscared, Doki Doki Literature Club, and No Players Online are actual, playable games designed to evoke a creepypasta style experience.

Still, even in 2020, it’s rare for someone to perfectly understand how a video game works. It’s not like a book or film, which remains largely static through repeated readings and viewings. Even well-known games can have undiscovered glitches, like how a player’s betta fish found a previously undocumented glitch in Pokemon Sapphire. Speedrunners, who thrive on pushing games to their limits, often discover entirely new phenomena in even modern games. Particularly clever people have even found ways to force unmodded games to engage in behavior they were never intended to. The fact remains that, while we’ve created tools to simplify their creation, video games are still incredibly complex programs. This, combined with a bit of magical thinking, lends these stories an air of plausibility. After all, if Luigi really was in Mario 64, then who is to say the other creepy phenomenon people share on the internet isn’t hidden there as well? Sufficiently creepy programming is indistinguishable from a ghost in the machine, after all.

So, this Halloween, instead of pulling out the old horror movies, why not dig up your N64 and plug in that dusty old cartridge you found at a garage sale. You might end up as the star of a modern day ghost story.

An Orlandian nerd who writes about pop culture, theme parks, and the autistic experience.

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