Castles in the Clouds (The Artistry of Video Games)

As a youngster, I always imagined that the castle in the background of the “Mickey and the Beanstalk” world in Mickey Mania (SNES) was supposed to be the Mad Doctor’s lair from earlier in the game. When you were in the Mad Doctor levels, everything was really scary and dark like a haunted castle. So, I assumed that we were now looking at the same place from a distance, after the dawn, and suddenly it’s not so scary anymore. Instead, the castle appears peaceful and majestic. Made me think of how the dark can make ordinary things seem creepy, especially when you’re a child, but the sun reveals the beauty in them again. It sounds silly, but that one detail always filled me with a vague sense of accomplishment, knowing this area I’d been afraid of had a splendor to it in the right light. Not only that, but it made me happy to think of how Mickey was on his way to more brighter, upbeat worlds ahead of him. It was just a meaningful little touch that always stood out to me, evoking a sense of reverence and wonder.

But then I realized later on in life that this isn’t the Mad Doctor’s castle where you’ve already been, it’s the Giant’s. You know, where you will eventually go in the game, like in the story Jack and the Beanstalk (of which this in-game world is an adaptation). And I’m not gonna lie, some small part of my soul died that day, you guys. There used to be a feeling of complete triumph seeing a horrifying nightmare setting rendered serene by my progress through the game. It was the perfect visual metaphor for conquering your fears, toughing it out until the sun came up only to realize it wasn’t so scary in the first place. Once that illusion was broken for me, the game was still charming enough but without that depth I’d projected onto it before.

Fortunately, there was another childhood favorite that actually fulfilled the same specific vision for me. In Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars, I always loved that iconic shot of Mario on Vista Hill, looking upon a great sword piercing Bowser’s Keep. In one shot, the game evokes the frustration, confusion, fear and helplessness Mario (and by extension, the player) feels when faced with this strange new foe. On the surface, the idea of a sword with a face staring out over the horizon is absolutely comical. It speaks to the immersion that comes through great storytelling in that we suspend our disbelief and embrace the absurdity. The whole game was like that, it always felt like a playable Wizard of Oz to me back then considering the evil castle, childlike wonder and the way you meet new characters one at a time. (I used to think Geno was a scarecrow as well, which completed the association.)

Geno was always my favorite character. He and Mallow really deserved to appear in other games. It makes no sense to me why Square should just sit on the characters–if you’re not going to use them, give them to Nintendo!

At the end of the game, when you’ve bested the sword and its cohorts, you’re rewarded with this satisfying visual payoff. The source of all those negative forces in Mario’s world, and the player’s emotional state, dissolves away into a relaxing sunrise. It’s still perfection after all this time. Unlike the Giant’s sky-castle, some perceptions don’t change from childhood to adulthood. Some moments still hold the same meaning after all these years…

There’s one more example of this same iconography in the games I grew up playing. Kirby’s Dreamland 3, one of the most underrated games in the Super Nintendo’s library, and one of the best soundtracks too. In the final level of Cloudy Park, our hero traverses through a beautiful strawberry shaped cloud with gorgeous pink interiors. (My sister and I always called it “strawberry castle.”) Unfortunately, with how much less iconic this game is than SMRPG there’s no cool fan-art or even high resolution screencaps I could find of it online. I don’t know what to say–I thought it was a very imaginative concept.

In fact, KDL3 had some of the most attractive and inviting level designs of any game I played. They really stimulated my curiosity and made my younger self wonder what it would be like to live in them. I’d come up with these wild backstories in my head for the ancient society that built the temple-looking structure in Ripple Field, or pretend that the 5 mini-game hosting characters were part of a secret society to stop King Dedede. It may not have established a deep mythology but KDL3 forced you to help each inhabitant in every level in order to unlike the final boss. This was a different approach to world-building, forcing an emotional connection to the denizens of Dreamland even if the world itself had no lore. It was just enough to compel a kid like me to fill in the gaps with their own ideas.

Anyway, my favorite level in the game wasn’t actually a castle but a pyramid. I’ve seen it referred to by many names: “the black pyramid,” “the desert pyramid,” and even “LSD pyramid,” “trippy pyramid,” “pyramid of drugs” as well as “Windows 95 pyramid” by tongue-in-cheek Let’s Players. Personally, I always called it “the techno-pyramid” because the backgrounds made me think of a circuit board. It’s just so creative–and even with the internet it seems neither an official nor fan-made explanation for this mysterious architectural wonder has surfaced. I guess that’s part of the fun, though. Why do the black tiles pulsate? Why are there rainbow squiggly-lines floating around? Why are some sections underwater? What’s with the glass-like material in all the entrances? Why the elaborate trials to hold R.O.B. the Robot hostage? Nobody knows–probably not even the programmers. But it looks cool and makes a kid like me ponder the infinite possibilities and that’s what’s most important. This game deserves more attention than it gets for its interesting level designs alone.

In the medium of videogames, things don’t need to be directly spelled out, given an elaborate backstory or even make logic sense the way they do in novels, TV serials or non-experimental films. It’s all about leaving the player in control, both in terms of moving the protagonist around and stimulating their mind just enough so their imagination takes over. Videogames are a more interactive medium where the player is just as much a creative participant as the designer.

This video should begin to play during the level in question, the mysterious Machine-Pyramid
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