Did you know every copy of Super Mario 64 is personalized?

Well, at least that’s the theory. It’s said that even back in 1996, Nintendo was able to create an AI that adapted to a player’s skill level, playstyle, and even desires. It’s so subtle you’d never notice it, until you try someone else’s copy and realize how strange and unfamiliar it is.

This, of course, is a lie. A 25 year old game like Super Mario 64 could never possibly have such a sophisticated AI. Let alone on the paltry 8 MB that the cartridge was able to store.

So what’s this all about, anyway? Somewhere in the heady days of the pandemic, bored Mario fans reimagined the classic video game as a horror story. The result was that this game made in 1996 saw a MASSIVE spike in Google search volume that hasn’t been seen since 2005.

This is a game, mind you, that people have been playing competitively for decades. It’s a game that IGN considers to be one of the best of all time, beating Minecraft and barely sliding in below Tetris.

Yet somehow this old game, whose finite secrets should have long since been unlocked, has seen its cultural relevance extended yet again by online campfire stories. And believe it or not, I think there are several powerful business lessons to be learned here about the importance of embracing change, the way the internet has changed storytelling, and the powerful endurance of Nintendo’s brand.

And you don’t even have to know what a “backwards long jump” is to understand!

The infamous “backwards long jump” glitch.

Table of Contents

Trying to explain Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories to an unseen reader in a short post is a fool’s errand. Trust me, I’ve tried!

The simple fact is that understanding how Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories started, why they matter, and how they work requires at least a passing knowledge of decades of history. If you have some of that knowledge already, then use these links to skip ahead!

  1. The Super Mario 64 Conspiracy Iceberg
  2. Why Nintendo has been a household name for almost 40 years
  3. Why Nintendo’s branding so perfectly embodies innocence
  4. The rise of 3D video games in the late 1990s
  5. Speedrunning kept Super Mario 64 relevant in the 2000’s & 2010’s
    1. A quick explanation of speedrunning
    2. Speedrunning kept Super Mario 64 fresh for decades by adding new challenges
    3. Super Mario 64 is so old that Nintendo could not discourage alternative uses of its game
  6. The rise of creepypasta, or, middle class internet horror
    1. Super Mario 64 is not the first innocent video game to be reimagined as a horror story
    2. Creepypasta isn’t just online weirdos telling ghost stories about video games
    3. The Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories show us that compelling ideas naturally spread online, even when complex
  7. What is the Super Mario 64 conspiracy iceberg?
  8. A closer look at a few Super Mario 64 conspiracies
    1. “Big Boo unused text”
    2. “Please walk quietly in the hallway”
    3. “Wario apparition”
    4. “Wet-Dry World negative emotional aura”
    5. “[Hazy Maze Cave] is the castle’s septic system”
    6. “Every copy of Super Mario 64 is personalized”
    7. Wait, is this it?
  9. Nintendo’s innocent brand is so consistent, iconic, and omnipresent that subverting it is scary, or at least interesting enough to share
  10. Final Thoughts

The Super Mario 64 Conspiracy Iceberg

Before I talk about anything else, I want to make one thing clear. When I refer to Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories, I am specifically referring to a popular image that has been passed around the internet as a meme. It is pictured below.

As you can see, there is so much going on in this image that it defies succinct explanation. Each bit of red text is its own conspiracy theory.

Now some people are really into the individual conspiracies and their meanings, and that’s cool. I fell down that rabbit hole myself while researching this topic. That’s not what I’m concerned about in this post, though I will touch on them.

Instead, I want to explain why people are telling horror stories about a 25-year-old video game. I want to explain why these stories are emotionally effective, even as readers read them with an ironic detachment.

Why do this? Because for these conspiracy theories to spread online, two extraordinary things had to be true simultaneously. First, Nintendo had to have a brand so consistent and omnipresent that subverting its messages successfully creeps people out. Second, the stories had to connect with people so much that they were shared around the internet, despite being byzantine in their complexity.

Why Nintendo has been a household name for almost 40 years

If you want to talk about Super Mario 64, you have to talk about the company that created the Mario franchise: Nintendo.

Nintendo’s history is a storied one with a lot of twists and turns. For one, Nintendo is often credited with saving the video game industry entirely in 1985 when it released the Nintendo Entertainment System. At the time, video games seemed like a weird late 70s to early 80s trend that was on its way out.

Then, of course, there is the fact that Nintendo has created 12 different home and handheld consoles over the course of more than 30 years that have sold over 10 million units. That includes the Wii, the Switch, the Nintendo & Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii U, Nintendo DS & 3DS, Game Boy & Game Boy Advance, and the oft-forgotten Game & Watch consoles from the really early 80s.

Then you have all its popular franchises. Mario games have sold over 750 million copies collectively, Pokemon almost 400 million, the Legend of Zelda over 128 million, Donkey Kong over 80 million, and so on. This isn’t even getting into Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Yoshi, Wario, Star Fox, Metroid, F-Zero, Pikmin, Splatoon, Fire Emblem, or other games that whip people into a nostalgic frenzy.

That is one hell of a resumé. And it’s that very resumé that explains how Mario has become such an outsized part of our culture – a fact which will become important when I talk about the Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories later.

Why Nintendo’s branding so perfectly embodies innocence

There is a certain je ne sais quoi that makes Nintendo such a powerhouse of a brand. When you know what you’re looking for, brands tend to fall into the same basic archetypes. Nintendo is a great example of an “Innocent” brand.

Innocent brands typically have positive personalities that exude optimism. They are safe brands, honest and pure. They’re wholesome and all about bringing people together.

Everything about Nintendo gives off the vibe of innocence. It’s in the bright and cheery “wahoos” of Mario. It’s in the commercials that focus on bringing together happy friends and family with wholesome video games.

Between enormous home and handheld console sales, a bevy of successful franchises, and highly consistent branding, Nintendo has an essential Nintendo-ness that is impossible to copy.

But as the Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories show, it’s not impossible to corrupt this sense of innocence to create horror.

The rise of 3D video games in the late 1990s

Super Mario 64 was a massive success, selling over 11 million copies by the year 2003. That makes the game an emblem of the fifth-generation era of video game consoles, which is the console generation in which games went 3D. It was defined by the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and to a lesser extent, the Sega Saturn.

It’s this stretch of time between 1995 and 2001 which brought us Final Fantasy VII, GoldenEye 007, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Pokemon Red/Blue and Gold/Silver, Super Smash Bros., and – indeed – Super Mario 64. With such a blockbuster lineup of games, you can imagine that many people from their mid-20s to their mid-30s remember this era fondly.

By 1997, around half of American homes played video games on consoles. About 30-40% of households had a console, and another 10-20% rented or shared a console. Hence the memories that many millennials have of playing Mario Kart or GoldenEye with their friends.

GoldenEye 007 on Nintendo 64. Not pictured: the jerk playing as the impossible-to-shoot Oddjob.

So while the Nintendo 64 sold almost 33 million units worldwide and the PlayStation over 100 million, it’s not fair to assume that the two consoles only reached 133 million households. The number of people who came across these consoles at some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s is much greater than the official sales statistics show.

In short, the popular video games of this era are not just consumer products. They’re culture. They’re artifacts of a bygone time, just like any album beloved by Rolling Stone or any film ranking high on IMDb.

Speedrunning kept Super Mario 64 relevant in the 2000’s & 2010’s

When anything gets old enough, it starts to show signs of its age. Video games experience this more acutely than perhaps any other form of media. The simple truth is that early 3D games are glitchy. Even the best developers in the world had no playbook for creating games in three dimensions, and it showed.

But as time went on, gamers stopped seeing glitches as annoyances and started seeing them as opportunities to be exploited. And let me tell you, friend – Super Mario 64 is GLITCHY.

It’s these very glitches that explain why the game has stayed in the public eye for over 25 years. Yes, it’s a great game that holds up better than its contemporaries, sure, and that has definitely helped with its longevity. But it’s the game’s “flaws” that have kept it alive through the practice of speedrunning.

A quick explanation of speedrunning

One popular way to experience video games after completing the initial challenges is to do a speedrun. The idea is that you play through either an entire video game, or just a part of it, with the intent to complete it as quickly as possible. This may or may not entail exploiting weird glitches to shave precious seconds off your completion time.

Speedrunning in certain games can become quite competitive, and Super Mario 64 is certainly no exception. There are websites where players compete globally to complete Super Mario 64 as fast as possible.

Now if you play Super Mario 64 the way it was intended, you are supposed to collect 70 of the 120 Power Stars in the game in order to be able to fight Bowser for a third time and rescue Princess Peach. Of course, many enterprising individuals have found ways around this, leading to glitches that allow you to complete the game with just 16 Stars. Or 1 Star. Or even none.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that players drop through walls, moving in seemingly impossible ways to fight bosses early in a way that shouldn’t be possible. If you never played the game, speedruns look like pure chaos. Well, actually, I’ve played Super Mario 64 a number of times in the last 23 years and it still looks like chaos.

Now sure, the internet is full of bizarre memes, and the Super Mario 64 conspiracy theory iceberg certainly fits the bill. But to dismiss the conspiracy theories as a weird meme coming out of people’s quarantine-cooked brains is to miss something important. After all, the jump in search traffic was enormous and the “Super Mario 64 conspiracy iceberg” (pictured below) didn’t just go viral by sheer coincidence. People already had Super Mario 64 on the brain, and speedrunning is part of the reason why.

Click for full-size image.
Speedrunning kept Super Mario 64 fresh for decades by adding new challenges.

The important thing here is that speedrunning, something that people are still setting world records for, has kept Super Mario 64 in society’s collective unconscious for much, much longer than it should have. That’s more than you can say for its successor Super Mario Sunshine, which has slowly dwindled in relevance with one exception. (Turns out that naming the final stage Corona Mountain didn’t age well.)

Super Mario 64 speedrunning is so well known on some parts of the gaming internet, that spinoff content has been created and gotten popular in its own right. A prime example is Nathaniel Bandy, who exploits the backwards long jump glitch with – I kid you not – different fruits hooked up to his computer via USB.

Then, of course, you have clever programmers who ripped the source code of Super Mario 64 to change various conditions of the game. That allows mad scientists like SwankyBox to fill the game with over 100,000 Goombas just to see what would happen.

And this is all possible because people have gotten a hold of the source code of the game and studied it for every possible secret.

Super Mario 64 is so old that Nintendo could not discourage alternative uses of its game

The moral of this story is that if you want your product to last long-term, sometimes it pays to embrace creative unintended uses. That’s the kind of thing that can create a subculture that no business can copy, no matter how hard they try.

Nintendo, unfortunately, is not very good about this, ranging from destroying competitive Smash Bros. Melee to taking the heavily internet-based Super Mario Maker offline early. (They can get away with this because they’re a giant company with enormous intellectual properties, and they have plenty of other good things going for them.)

But Super Mario 64 largely escaped this treatment, because you can’t stop individual players from doing what they want with games that have no connection to the internet. In this weird case, the technological limitations of the game extended its lifespan by a lot.

The rise of creepypasta, or, middle class internet horror

To understand why Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories were able to spread, you need to understand one more thing first – creepypasta. People used to spread ghost stories around the campfire. Now they spread them online.

Creepypasta is a pun on the word “copypasta” which is itself a pun on the phrase “copy-paste.” You don’t have to remember that, though. The important fact here is that creepypastas are horror stories and urban legends that spread online anonymously through forums, imageboards, and social media.

Of course, you wouldn’t think Super Mario 64 would be a good subject for horror stories. To describe Super Mario 64 as innocuous is an understatement. It’s bright, it’s cheery, it’s nostalgic, and the gameplay holds up remarkably well decades later. It doesn’t seem like the kind of game that would be excellent raw material for horror stories.

Au contraire.

Super Mario 64 is not the first innocent video game to be reimagined as a horror story

But you might be surprised to learn that Super Mario 64 isn’t the first game of its generation to get reimagined as a horror story. That dubious honor belongs to the Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. In 2010, a story was published online about a haunted cartridge previously owned by Ben, a 12-year-old who drowned. Legend has it that his spirit was haunting the old game’s cartridge, causing all kinds of unsettling glitches, among other things. This story went on to be massively popular, and was culturally significant enough to earn its own Wikipedia page.

Ben Drowned is an excellent example of creepypasta.

Some of the textures from old Nintendo 64 games are genuinely creepy-looking.

Creepypasta had a way of subverting 1990s nostalgia into “extremely online” horror. You could find horror stories about Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic.exe), Pokemon (Buried Alive Model, Pokemon Creepy Black), SpongeBob (Squidward’s Suicide), and Rugrats (The Rugrats Theory).

Now, yes, some of these stories are quite cheesy. But they are still crudely effective at being scary, and – I sincerely mean this – I recommend you don’t research them if you scare easily. There’s a reason I didn’t link these stories.

The latest batch of Super Mario 64 conspiracies is but a humble continuation of this long-running trend.

Creepypasta isn’t just online weirdos telling ghost stories about video games

Now at this point, I should say that creepypasta doesn’t just confine itself to twisting nostalgia. Online horror stories have created new monsters like the Slender Man, who resembles a tall, thin man wearing a black suit and with no face. Then there is the wonderful wiki of all kinds of spooky phenomena gathered by the SCP Foundation, which is a sort of X-Files for people like me who spent way too much time online from the late ‘00s to the early ‘10s.

I point this out mainly to say that creepypasta is a thriving cultural entity in its own right. It just so happened to collide with Super Mario 64 recently.

In August 2021, YouTuber J.J. McCullough, known primarily for creating videos on history and politics, created a video on Middle Class Internet Horror. His work contextualizes the current horror stories of the internet as being part of a larger tradition of creating art to shock middle class people by subverting their expectations.

In his own words, “the stereotypical middle class person values things like schedules, routines, and familiar products and services…This stability of life offers a great opportunity for horror since often all you have to do to create a disturbing moment is to tweak one of these experiences in a slightly unexpected way.”

In short, creepypasta is a form of art. Its goal is to make you think and feel.

McCullough’s explanation of why middle class horror works also explains why Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories succeed in creeping people out, or at least catching their attention long enough to push them to tell their friends. After all, after the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed many of our routines and expectations for the future, why couldn’t an old nostalgic video game that’s stayed culturally relevant for decades do the same?

Yes, the Super Mario 64 conspiracies are – as I’ll demonstrate later in this post – very silly, and I don’t think most people are taking them seriously. Among creepypasta, these are relative lightweights.

I personally think the Super Mario 64 conspiracies, in particular, work well because they twist, mock, and distort a safe and omnipresent consumer product with a lot of nostalgic appeal. “What if Mario wasn’t so innocent after all?”

The Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories show us that compelling ideas naturally spread online, even when complex

So Super Mario 64 conspiracies are creepypasta, and creepypasta are a natural extension of horror stories and the age-old practice of subverting middle class norms. In this sense, the heart and soul of creepypasta is nothing new. It comes from a distinguished and long lineage, with roots in the oral tradition, even.

The only real difference with these ghost stories is the addition of the internet. Instead of one person telling a group of people a story, many people are making up many stories all at the same time. Simultaneously, others are cataloging stories, reacting to new ones, and trying to find explanations for some of the more mysterious ones. Decades of urban legends can flower online in a matter of days.

SCP Foundation is a wiki-style website full of creepypasta stories.

And the cultures that arise as a result can be shockingly resilient. Remember how I mentioned the SCP Foundation earlier? It’s a gigantic Wikipedia-style website maintained by many authors. From whispered storytelling online, great repositories of information can be quickly created with no central authority figure maintaining them.

How does any of this relate to business or a business lesson? To me, I say we should take a note from the online horror stories. You know you have a viable idea when it spreads naturally.

That doesn’t mean the idea will naturally monetize or that there will be no logistics issues along the way. Virality doesn’t guarantee profitability. But there’s no replacement for making a product that fits your market, and gets people talking.

The internet is a thriving communication ecosystem. In many ways these days, a marketer’s job is like a gardener’s – plant a seed and do a little pruning, but to otherwise let the soil, sun, rain, and worms do their work. Sure, there’s plenty of work to be done, but you can’t force an idea to work.

And regardless of whether you think “Peach is [literally trapped] behind the stained glass window [in the lobby of the castle],” the Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories are ideas that work.

What is the Super Mario 64 conspiracy iceberg?

All this history brings us to the Super Mario 64 conspiracy iceberg, which we now have proper context to talk about. Here’s the image again.

Click for full-size image.

If you’ve never come across an image like this before, think of it like this: the tip of the iceberg is what normal people off the street are likely to know about. As you go deeper into the murky waters, the conspiracies become weirder and more obscure. Get it?

Each little bit of red text is either a conspiracy or an obscure fact about Super Mario 64. Even before this image, bizarre and unsettling Super Mario 64 conspiracies have been around, floating in the aether. But there is no better illustration of them than this chaotic image from who-knows-where. This image is a laundry list of every possible trivial fact, ghost story, and conspiracy theory about the game.

A closer look at a few Super Mario 64 conspiracies

With an understanding of Super Mario 64’s cultural significance and how horror stories spread online, we now have the context necessary to discuss some of the individual items in this image.

If you want a complete exploration of this iceberg, here’s a video you can watch for more info. It’s over half an hour long, because the scope of this image is just really that huge.

But let’s just talk about enough of the theories for you to get the idea.

“Big Boo unused text”

It should be noted that some of the conspiracies on this infamous image are actually true. There is, indeed, a bit of unused text for Big Boo – the boss of one of the levels – buried in the game’s source code. For whatever reason, Big Boo never utters the line that the developers wrote for him.

“Please walk quietly in the hallway”

There is, in fact, a sign that says “Please walk quietly in the hallway” that seems out of place and doesn’t have much function. It’s on the second floor of the castle, attached to the stairwell that takes you to the third floor. It’s an oddity. Mere trivia.

“Wario apparition”

Some of these conspiracies are twisted facts taken out of context. The “Wario apparition” mentioned in the second-to-bottom section of the iceberg is a reference to some ripped footage from the E3 convention in 1996. It should be noted that Wario’s floating head was applied on top of an actual portion of the game. The explanation is mundane, but it’s still quite uncanny if you grew up playing the game as I had.

“Wet-Dry World negative emotional aura”

This is another twisted fact taken out of context. The level Wet-Dry World is one of the weirder ones in Super Mario 64. For one, it’s a water level with some fairly annoying water puzzles, which makes it less enjoyable than others.

For another, the level’s overall design is just odd. It has a real, albeit blurred, photograph of a city in the far background. The soundtrack is all in a glum minor key. Plus there’s this entire abandoned city under the main level with an odd church-like structure at its center.

There’s nothing mystical about it, it’s just a level with some odd design choices that are further exacerbated by the sparse details characteristic of late 1990s video games.

A related conspiracy on the iceberg is that Wet-Dry World is a “brain diagram”, which I find to be an utterly bizarre and inscrutable statement that probably came out of thin air.

“[Hazy Maze Cave] is the castle’s septic system”

This is one of the more bizarre theories on the iceberg, but it’s simple enough to explain. Hazy Maze Cave is a dark, grimy level that you access by jumping into what appears to be a pool of oil. It features spiders, rolling brown rocks, and a sickly yellow haze that slowly depletes your life.

You get where this is going. Just plain old gross-out humor.

“Every copy of Mario 64 is personalized”

This is the most famous conspiracy on the iceberg, and probably the best example of a horror story on the iceberg.

This is what I was referencing at the beginning of the post when I said, “even back in 1996, Nintendo was able to create an AI that adapted to a player’s skill level, playstyle, and even desires. It’s so subtle you’d never notice it, until you try someone else’s copy and realize how strange and unfamiliar it is.”

Put another way, this is about the game playing the player instead of the other way around. It’s a creepy idea, but one which does not have basis in reality.

Wait, is this it?

Yeah, pretty much.

When you look at some of the conspiracy theories up close, it’s kind of…underwhelming. Many of these “conspiracy theories” are really just nuggets of trivia or vague assertions. Others are completely ridiculous, and still others are totally made up. Seems like a total anticlimax, right?

Well, honestly, it is. And in the 35-minute video I link above that explains each individual theory, narrator Mish Koz seems to speak disdainfully about some of these “conspiracy theories.”

When you get down to the root of it, I’m a nerd who is much more interested in why the theories spread as opposed to what the theories say. I think that’s far more interesting, even to someone who’s never played the game.

Nintendo’s innocent brand is so consistent, iconic, and omnipresent that subverting it is scary, or at least interesting enough to share

So why do these ideas work well enough to share despite being deeply silly? It’s mainly because of their subversion of Nintendo’s brand ideals, and little else. Which brings me back to J.J. McCullough’s video on “middle class horror.”

The stereotypical middle class person values things like schedules, routines, and familiar products and services…This stability of life offers a great opportunity for horror since often all you have to do to create a disturbing moment is to tweak one of these experiences in a slightly unexpected way. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lzUpx4vLyys

Nintendo is one of the safest-feeling brands out there. Family-friendliness is at its core and it’s a remarkably consistent brand that cashes in on its familiarity and innocence. At the same time, Nintendo, and in particular, Mario, is an important part of our culture and has been for decades.

Meanwhile, the internet has been churning out horror stories that feed on jamming nostalgia. The internet allows ghost stories to be written by many authors at once, simultaneously chattering among themselves, spreading rumors, and telling stories. It was only a matter of time before internet horror and Mario collided, and the pandemic was the perfect time for it.

And the reason this blew up as much as it did? It’s because Nintendo’s branding is so solid. The core message of “Nintendo games are safe and fun” has been taught to generations of kids since the 1980s. Imagining a world where the Nintendo game plays you instead of the other way around is really creepy.

The lesson for small businesses here? You’ve succeeded at branding when people conflate your brand name with certain feelings. Subconsciously, a lot of people have made the connection that Nintendo = Safe. You want to do the same thing with your business, whether that means My Brand = Luxury or My Brand = Creativity.

Final Thoughts

At a first glance, the Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories might just seem like a bit of weird internet fun. And, yes, that’s definitely true – it is weird and it is a lot of fun!

But so many events had to take place beforehand to make this silly meme go viral, and they’re worth talking about. Nintendo is at once one of the most consistently innocent, kind-hearted brands and one of the most recognizable and nostalgic ones too. Reimagining it as sinister is a gut punch for people who grew up playing Mario, and that’s only possible because Nintendo’s branding is successful in stoking emotion in its fans.

The Super Mario 64 conspiracy theories are also a lesson in how the right ideas can draw massive amounts of attention quickly online. You can’t force ideas to go viral. All you can do is consistently generate ideas, and the right ones will take off.

Finally, it’s a wonderful lesson in the importance of embracing creative uses of your product. Nintendo themselves may not be good at that, but as small business owners, we can be. If customers are using your products in a way you never expected, consider embracing their creativity. As long as they’re not hurting themselves, you may well find your old products getting a new lease on life decades later.