CW: Violence and Gore.
The (Mario) The Music Box series is just so insane and absurd that I can’t get enough of it. The first installment was a solid Corpse Party clone marred only by having button mashing prompts that will make your arms fall off before completing the game. I did have some other complaints about unresolved plot points and a lack of relevance to the Mario canon, and the sequel, (Mario) The Music Box – ARC, takes those criticisms into account… in the weirdest way possible.
The first (Mario) The Music Box was a fairly standard Corpse Party clone but the (Mario) The Music Box – ARC decides to abandon any semblance of sanity that remained in this series… if there was any to begin with.
ARC takes place after the Missing Ending of the first game. I won’t go into too many details to avoid spoilers but the gist is that Mario is possessed by Alice, a malevolent spirit bent on world domination. This results in him stabbing Luigi then returning to the Mansion of the previous game to find a way to save himself and his brother.
If you think that it is fucked up to bring Mario characters into such a dark setting involving dark themes of murder, grief, and insanity… you must be new here. Similarly to the first game, there is very little to do with the Mario series at play and the plot is made up of mostly original characters. Given just how grimdark this series is, there is a genuine sense of discomfort playing as E-rated characters and turning something that was never meant to be story driven in something so macabre. It’s like coming across rule 34 of a show you watched as a kid, only here it… kinda works.
I mentioned that some aspects of canon Mario series were implemented into this game more so than in the first one. The result isn’t a subversion of the Mario canon that I was expecting before heading into the first game, yet on a meta textual level there is something added to the horror of having Mario and Luigi as the central figures of this game. The first game could be completely reskinned with original characters and nothing would change, but doing the same with ARC may take a bit of the sting away from it, and I have reason to suspect this was intentional.
Early on in the game, you have a choice between a “sane” route and an “insane route.” Which one you picks will have some significant effects on the game that follows. The sane route is pretty much more of the same from the first game with the exception of those space bar prompts being banished to the abyss where they belong. The insane route is where things start to get pretty freaky.
Your choice to determine which route you take is pretty simple; you decide whether or not to kill Princess Peach. I actually am not too fond of this being a simple narrative choice. The reason is that the plot explains Mario killing Peach as a result of Alice’s influence and thus not a simple “Press X to Murder” situation unless there is a plot relevant reason for Mario to do so. It is also shortly revealed to actually be a ghost instead of actually being Peach on the sane route, but on the insane route this is never explained.
I can see what Jessica was going for with this plotline with Mario’s possession being an obvious stand in for mental illness in a lot of ways. It would make sense for someone to undergo PTSD after the events of the first game and it is not out of the realm of possibility to harm someone by accident due to an inability to manage one’s trauma. This in turn leads to constant guilt and self hatred, and this only continues to worsen one’s mental state until they spiral out of control.
I know this precisely because I experienced this in the past, albeit nowhere near as bad as in this game. Given that the first game was made in order to vent Jessica’s own fucked up feelings, I don’t think it’s outside of the realm of possibility for this to be personal to her as well. If this is the case then I really need to applaud the fact that Jessica didn’t take the easy way out of having “insane” be a substitute for “evil” and perpetuate a harmful stereotype about those of us who suffer from harmful mental conditions. I also may just be looking too deeply into it, but it’s also possible to interpret Mario being burdened with this trauma as a way of saying that mental illness is not as abnormal as we all think.Most people would react the same way if introduced to these exact circumstances, even someone as innocent and free of controversy as Mario. It doesn’t mean that any of us are less human or worthy of love and respect.
The insane route of ARC definitely has its ups and its downs. The ups are that the story is genuinely engaging. The story of ARC heavily relates to the backstory of two new characters known as Marchionne and Luciano, both of whom look exactly like Mario and Luigi respectively. As is typical with this game and its predecessor, the backstory of these two characters is especially tragic and out of place with the Mario series as a whole.
The more that is revealed about these characters, the more you see about how they relate to the characters from the first (Mario) The Music Box. While you have a few nods to the main canon such as one of the ghosts being a Toad and the Boos showing up in one area… you know, the ACTUAL ghosts in the Mario series, but you don’t actually get an explanation for what this shit is unless you beat the game without saving, and I’ll just say the ending you get is up there with Silent Hill 2’s dog ending in terms of the craziest and most out there endings you get… only this one is simultaneously joking and serious.
I will say that another ending takes a meta approach that was really successful at fucking with me and throwing me for a loop. I’m not going to say what it is, but I will say that this type of weird ass ending works far better in a serious that was already this weird to begin with. Both games just had this elephant in room in that I was constantly wondering… why Mario, and the game is as effective as it is because it never answers this. It always keeps you wondering.
I don’t know if (Mario) The Music Box – ARC is good by the usual standards of storytelling or video games design, and I also don’t care to be honest. What is most effective about this game is the way it connects and the lasting impact it leaves. And (Mario) The Music Box – ARC leaves one hell of an impression.
The downside of ARC would have to be its gameplay and design. While the story made me complete a sane and an insane playthrough, the gameplay is what made me look up the remaining endings on Youtube rather than find them myself. ARC is an improvement over the first game by default simply because there are none of those space bar prompts, but it has own problems.
The first of these is the limited slave slots. While including nine save slots is an exponential improvement over the original’s three save slots, it still puts an arbitrary limit on how much the play can access without needing to repeat large chunks of the game. While I’m sure it is possible for the player to only need nine save slots to access everything if they knew the events of the game in advance, Team Ari failed to realize that most players never know when a choice they make will influence the ending or if they missed something important.
Corpse Party mitigated this through its episodic and chapter based format, but ARC only gives you nine save slots for the entire game. A chapter select function that allows you to revisit earlier chapters for anything you missed would make this immensely more tolerable, but this game couldn’t use a chapter select function because there are now consumables in this game.
I sated earlier how gameplay stays the same on the sane route, but the insane route randomly decides to go from a Corpse Party clone to a Ys clone halfway through. It is quite obvious that the sane route was developed before the insane route was and that every crazy idea for gameplay was instead implemented into the insane route. This starts out with Mario being attacked by vengeful spirits that will damage him in areas that were safe in the sane route. This results in some bullshit deaths caused because these enemies still attack you while talking to NPCs and you STILL take damage. You also find healing items to help you but they wouldn’t carry over if there was a chapter select.
It gets even worse when you suddenly get the ability to swing your cleaver and actually attack shit with it. It gets worse because you have an entire three floor dungeon with no saves and that you need to redo from the start if you die. This initially isn’t a problem because the only enemies are spiders that will walk into walls that you can hit them from behind, but you also have an underwater section where you can’t attack. There are also no invincibility frames so you will likely die in a matter of seconds.
This is objectively poor design considering that ARC was not an action game before this point and the player could save almost anywhere. You also have a boss at the end that ends up being the hardest in the game even though it is also the first if you choose the insane route first. The two boss battles you have on the sane route are more puzzle based and play much better, and you can find an infinite use healing item that makes any future bosses much more tolerable, but the very first boss you fight you can’t do anything against other than “git gud.” Also it is worth mentioning that each way you can die in this dungeon has a unique scene so you still need to replay it multiple times even if you don’t die.
The rest of the game decides to just not have any more full combat levels and instead just has bits and pieces of it, along with a final boss that is admittedly pretty badass. It becomes quite obvious that Team Ari decided to go with a whole bunch of different weird shit as they went along. Some of it worked out well in the game’s favor, and some of it backfired.
What is important though, is that most of this game works very well and had a lot of passion put into it. I’ve said this over and over again, but the best games to me are those that put artistic passion above profitability or popularity. (Mario) The Music Box – ARC is a game that fits this description to me. I doubt there will be a third (Mario) The Music Box game and if there are plans for it then I would advise against it though.
The reason is that I don’t trust Nintendo to not cease and desist this series like they have frequently done with other fan games. Additionally, I would like to see what this series looks like without the vague Mario connection. It would be interesting to see a third game in this series that doesn’t have any Mario characters but has some loose connections with the previous two games. That way Jessica and the rest of Team Ari could profit off their work, but it’s not my work to decide.
It does make my consider game development more than I already have though. I’d have a lot of things I’d need to work out, but I genuinely would like to make games in the future. And if you’ve got me thinking about this, then you’ve definitely done something right.
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