TW: References to violence, gore, suicide, cannibalism, child abuse, and murder.
Though I have yet to play many of them, I have always held a special interest in fan games. It is especially interesting to see what fans can do with an existing property with nothing other than their own money and free time, and it is especially noteworthy how many have managed to create an experience on par with or better than the original creators can.
Or you could be like (Mario) The Music Box and have nothing to do with Nintendo’s flagship series aside from having Mario and Luigi in it. It’s quite fitting that “Mario” is in parentheses in the title of this game because this game is not really about Mario. Of course one can get the impression that the last type of game that would be appropriate for Mario is a Corpse Party clone, but even still there is so little that has to do with the Mario series involved.
Maybe it’s just because I’m one fucked up bitch, but I think it would have been interesting to twist the Mario universe into something horrifying. Regardless of what one would think of this idea, it would definitely be interesting to see some of the creatures in the Mario universe with the cartoony lens stripped away. Imagine a game over route where you see a Piranha Plant’s jagged teeth in full detail tearing away at Mario’s flesh, or with him falling into lava and seeing his flesh melting away. And just think of what they can do with that piano from Super Mario 64… yes I know I have a fucked up mind!
And so does this game’s creator Jessica, otherwise known as Marios-Friend9 (even though her game is far from friendly to Mario). Right from when you see a fully blown animated intro set to Higurashi music, you know this isn’t going to be an ordinary Mario game AND that a lot of passion and soul went into it. (Mario) The Music Box was not originally intended to be released to the public. It was instead made solely as a title to vent her dark thoughts from a very difficult time in her life that her friends encouraged her to finish and release.
(Mario) The Music Box is another game in that category of “it does a lot of things that I really like but there’s also a lot of severe hindrances” that I also applied to the likes of Doki Doki Literature Club. If you were to ask me whether I would say either of these are good games I’d basically say to flip a coin. My only solution is to examine each of my individual feelings and see what they say overall so I will start with the story.
The story opens with Mario exploring an abandoned mansion in the middle of the Mushroom Kingdom that was never mentioned in any of the mainline titles. Mario enters the house but soon discovers that it is haunted, but the ghosts are not the cute little boos that look away whenever you look at them. Afterwards Mario finds a mysterious music box that the game is named after and finds that the door disappeared and he’s trapped inside.
Right away one will notice that Mario is a bit out of character in this game, and by “out of character” I mean he has a character. I know I already said this but you can pretty much replace Mario with any other Japanese horror protagonist and very little would change. Luigi is a bit closer to his established personality but I will chalk that up to the fact that Luigi has an established personality to be true to. Aside from those two there are no other Mario characters in the game aside from Peach who only appears in brief scenes (and two of those scenes are illusions).
The only references to the official Mario titles are a reference to Luigi’s Mansion at the start, the parallels between Luigi’s status as Mario’s shadow and Anna’s backstory, and a brief side plot where you need to choose between two mushrooms to give Mario to eat and the one that isn’t the same as the types he usually eats poisons him. Otherwise this game not only has little to do with the Mario universe but is often inconsistent. Some examples include Luigi needing to use a stool to reach the top of a bookshelf when he could have easily made that jump in any other game (except for Luigi’s Mansion where he can’t jump for some reason) or a possible death where Mario tries to make a jump he would normally be able to clear easily.
Thankfully (Mario) The Music Box has a fascinating original cast and setting that lend a lot to the overall game. I was seriously hooked on seeing how the story turned out and the true backstory for all of the ghosts that haunt this abandoned house. Going into why I liked this part as much as I did would be spoiling too much though so I will just leave it there.
Unfortunately there are a lot of plot points and characters introduced early on that are never resolved later because the game is more so a hodgepodge of really creepy ideas rather than a consistent title. The scariest enemy in the game for me was actually one of the first ones that you encounter. This enemy was someone whose entrance was only signified with a nervous moan that sounded kinda like Luigi’s voice and who you needed to hide in a crate to avoid. You also get the option to peak out while hiding and doing so leads to you getting a view of his creepy looking face before you die.
I was wondering just what the Hell was up with this guy… and he never showed up again. I am aware that the in development sequel (Mario) The Music Box – ARC is supposed to address some of these things but it comes across more as if Jessica just forgot to implement them into the final game or couldn’t figure it out. I get that “sequel hooking” is a common practice but a lot of these spirits were presented as if we would see them later on.
Speaking of things that Jessica just kinda forgot about, there were a few doors that display a message that said “will be added in a future update” that were not only immersion breaking but are especially jarring considering that it has been three years since the game was released. I admit that I don’t know much about game development but I DO know enough that plans changed often. These doors really should have just had a generic “locked” message to begin with so that no one needs to spend time changing things or leaving this awkward message there.
Back on the subject of good things that this game does, I really need to praise the creative deaths in this game. Similar to that of Corpse Party and its many imitators, (Mario) The Music Box has 47 unique ways of dying and finding all of them is entertaining all on its own. Add this to the fact that there are over 200 illustrations used for the various custences and how well placed the music, sound effects, and voice clips are and you can see that a lot of effort went into the presentation despite it being a freeware RPG Maker title. The downside is that Jessica couldn’t afford to hire Charles Martinet to voice all these fucked up lines about death, blood, and suicide.
So this begs the question of whether or not (Mario) The Music Box is scary, and the answer is… kinda. There were a few points that were kind of eerie or ominous and there were some death scenes that were fucked up, but I don’t know if I felt genuinely scared or disturbed by this game. The writing does often feel a bit too exaggerated and lacking in subtlety but I can definitely say that the game kept me hooked and wanting to see what happens next. I would be able to give it an unconditional recommendation if not for a specific fatal flaw… that I will take an extra few paragraphs to get to because I use no outline for these writing pieces and I didn’t implement them into what I already wrote.
The first of these is the fact that like the original PC version of Corpse Party, (Mario) The Music Box is a game with multiple choices, endings, and permanently miss able content while ONLY having three save slots. I don’t know how many save slots RPG Maker XP has by default but it really would have been worth looking into having more save slots available. There is a reason that future ports of Corpse Party and later installments in the series added more save files.
(Mario) The Music Box also could have done with a way to skip cutscenes or text you have already seen. There is no reason for any text or cutscene heavy title to not have this feature, especially ones where it is so easy to die AND where seeing said deaths is one of the main appeals. A chapter select function also would have been nice.
As an aside I feel it is important to mention that there are a lot of very confusing puzzles that the player needs to solve throughout the course of the game. A lot of these puzzles require very abstract solutions that most players will not be able to discern on their own. There is thankfully a readme file included with the download that has the solutions to each of the major puzzles listed and that should help with any problems… except for one.
I said earlier that the creepy looking guy that you need to hide in the crate from was the scariest enemy in the game but that was actually a lie. The scariest enemy isn’t the one that locks you in the Freezer until you freeze to death. it isn’t the one that pulls you into the chimney nor is it the one that chases you with scissors. The scariest enemy in (Mario) The Music Box is THE BLOODY SPACE BAR!!!
You remember the torture sequence in the original Metal Gear Solid? Or that god awful mini game in Star Fox Adventures? None of them got SHIT on (Mario) The Music Box and these horrendous space bar prompts. They started out painful (literally) but manageable but they got to the point where I would mash that spacebar like my life depended on it but I still could never get that green bar even halfway full. I’ve even tried going to the effort of using an Auto Hotkey Script but it does not work with this game.
I’m starting to suspect that Jessica has an unrealistic expectation of player abilities. These spacebar prompts were patched in to replace a series of timed button presses to make the game EASIER!!! I have not played the original version of the game but that honestly sounds immensely easier than this spacebar shit. A series of buttons I can memorize and get better at. This absurd amount of button mashing that makes my arm cry out in pain just thinking about it I just flat out can’t do. Hell I was even tempted to learn how to mod the game and get past this scene just to prove a point about how it would be easier for me as someone who is utterly incompetent at anything tech related to fuck around and learn it than to beat it the way the game intended… but I’m too incompetent to do either but I swear the latter may actually be easier.
I instead opted to look the rest up on Youtube despite the fact that I genuinely wanted to complete this game for myself with all the promise it showed. I found out that this game’s equivalent of a final boss requires you to do a similar space bar prompt THREE GOD DAMNED TIMES IN A ROW!!! You know, just to make sure no one will see the end of the game if they miraculously got past the one in the above screenshot. Then they don’t even get the best ending because they missed a journal entry.
Believe me, I tried everything with this mechanic. I tried every subtle method of button pressing out there and tried looking up every trick. The most that anyone said in terms of advice was basically “git gud” or “cheat” and neither of those are doable to me. Such a difficult mechanic is especially out of place in a game where there is usually no action to speak of? Even a Resident Evil 4 quick time event would have been a better choice then this. I mean why not just have a game breaking bug that occurs at that point? Why not just ditch the pretense and go all the way?
This screen is what I got when I tried to load another save file and take the other door at the game’s designated “choose which door to take to determine what ending you get” point and tried to save. I figured if I couldn’t beat that space bar prompt I’d at least see as much as I could with the other route but I instead got this message every time I tried to save followed by the game crashing. This meant the only way I could continue the game as normal would be to start from the last save point I had.
If this game had a way of skipping cutscenes like I said then this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem but alas that ship has sailed. As it stands, (Mario) The Music Box is an excellent 4/5s of a horror game. I would have liked to see the last fifth of the game on my own but If I never do I will not be ashamed to say that I didn’t finish this game. Thank the heavens for Youtube playthroughs and RIP Spacebar. Hopefully it doesn’t come back as a ghost and try to kill me.
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