One of the touchstone moments in video game history occurred in the 1989 movie The Wizard, starring Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis (in her pre-Rilo Kiley days). Savage, at the height of his Wonder Years fame, plays a boy escorting his video game savant brother Jimmy across the country to a competition in California—where Jimmy is expected to dominate. There’s one wrinkle: The judges have the finalists play Super Mario Bros. 3, a game no competitor (or filmgoer) had even seen, since it wasn’t yet available in the United States. Jimmy’s rivals run through the first level as fast as possible. But Jimmy, always the meticulous player, hangs back and discovers a leaf, causing Mario to grow raccoon ears and a tail. Then, out of the blue and without precedent, raccoon Mario runs, jumps, and takes flight.
Up to that point, the sky in Super Mario Bros. games was mostly a place where Lakitu, a turtle who rides a cloud, would occasionally hurl spiky enemies at you. It wasn’t a place for Mario. He was a plumber, after all, relegated to the claustrophobic confines inside his pipes. That moment in The Wizard opened Mario games, and by proxy most side-scrolling platformers, to the possibility of entire worlds above what was already constructed.
Super Mario World, the game that came standard with the new Super Nintendo system in 1991, takes the concept and—here it comes—heightens it. Mario’s raccoon tail is replaced with a cape. Not only can he soar high into the air, but he can gather the fabric like a parachute, staying aloft for almost the entirety of a level. The game also introduces Yoshi, Mario’s dinosaur-like pal, and Yoshi can lift off, too. Whenever he eats the shell of a blue Koopa (i.e., a blue turtle guy), he sprouts wings. And while there are certain stretches that require you to explore the air (perhaps to find an item), for the most part, the skies are an escape route. Mario can soar past enemies without having to face them, like a sort of Superman who can’t be bothered.
“Tubular,” one of the game’s secret worlds—all of which are named for hip and modern exclamations of joy (“Mondo” and “Gnarly” are others)—turns the tranquil sky into a minefield. There’s no longer any open air. The airspace is littered with monsters and obstacles. To survive, you must master some subtle button-mashing to navigate Mario across the sky and towards the goal. And one wrong move sends you plummeting to your doom.
You begin atop a series of pipes. It’s a familiar Mario tableau. Except there are football-player Koopas standing on a few of the pipes, and if you hit them anywhere but the crowns of their helmets, you bounce back at a weird angle—like the random bounce you might get if you tossed a football at the ground. So essentially, unless you knock each football guy off his pipe with pinpoint precision, you die. Then there’s a pipe with a piranha flower shooting out of it. In a typical level, you can stand next to the pipe until the flower hides itself out of shyness. But there’s nowhere to stand next to this pipe. You will not be preying on this flower’s social anxiety disorder. Either you slip by with a mix of finesse and perfect timing, or—say it with me—you die.
Thus ends the easy part.
All of a sudden, there are no pipes. All you can see is one long, empty chasm separating you from the unknown. It’s at this moment that Super Mario World becomes wistful. “I remember the days,” you think, “when there was a ground.”
The remainder of “Tubular” delivers on the promise of the sky and that moment from The Wizard: Freedom, horrible freedom. Your salvation is almost a joke—a balloon item that Mario ingests to inflate his own bowels and make himself lighter than air. Bloated to grotesque proportions, Mario must now navigate past flying Koopas, fireball-spewing flowers, and more football players kicking pigskins like cannonballs. (A few of the football players throw baseballs, which makes no less sense, really.) Oh, and those balloons are apparently the cheap dollar-store variety—they wither quickly, so one balloon simply won’t suffice. The cape isn’t much help here, either: It requires a running start, and you’ve got nowhere to run. You have to keep finding and gobbling down new balloons to stay airborne.
For the first and probably last time in a Mario game, you abandon every button on the controller and focus entirely on the directional pad. Ducking and weaving while airborne is like driving a ski boat for the first time, when the smallest turns set you completely off course, and you find yourself overcompensating in the other direction, starting a vicious cycle. Plus, puffy Mario keeps elevating higher into the air. Pulling him down below a question-mark block in the hopes of finding another balloon is akin to a tug-of-war match against a really fat guy. Just when Mario has finally taken over the sky, the hardest part of “Tubular” becomes the desperate fight to sink back towards Earth.
The funniest thing about “Tubular” is just how short it is. It takes a long time to complete, because every time you get knocked in the air, you sink like a rock. But once you master the delicate art of floating through the air, ascending and descending at just the right time—it takes well under a minute to complete the level from start to finish. And then it simply ends, like any other level. All that finesse for so little payoff. So it’s on to the next stage, where the skies are once again clear and the memory of “Tubular” lingers like the cautionary tale of the monkey’s paw: Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.