“Legends of Cannon Fodder” is an ongoing series of articles that sing the praises of non-boss enemies (no mini-bosses, either!) who are nevertheless memorable foes that provide engaging conflicts. Which makes them the opposite of cannon fodder, I suppose… but I like the name so I’m sticking with it.
It is dark in the pharaoh’s tomb. You step into the secret chamber hidden beneath a clay pot and find what you are looking for: a key. You reach towards the key, but hesitate. Hanging about the pot are three red-and-white masks, featureless save a sinister, demonic smile. You shake your head: your imagination is simply getting the better of you. But when you bend over and pick up the key, the chamber shakes. One of the masks begins to vibrate, and then… it looks at you. With a cackle, it dive-bombs towards you; you just barely manage to duck in time. The race is on. Your blood pumping, you leap out of the jar and scurry once more through the depths of the tomb, the grinning monster on your heels, screaming towards you again and again from all directions as you search frantically for the locked door that will take the key and end this nightmare…
That is what we call a dramatization, but I’mma be honest with you: that’s what it felt like every time 11 year-old me had to pick up a key in Super Mario Bros. 2. I’ve written about SMB2 before, and it is very possibly the game I have spent the most total hours playing over the course of my life. Over all of those hours, nothing was so stressful as finding a locked door, searching for and picking up the key to that door, and then running back to the door while dodging the red and white hellspawn the SMB2 instruction manual called Phanto.
Gaming obstacles, by design, are conquerable. Video games are supposed to feed the gratification centers in our brains with little *Pings!* each time we get past that which stands between we, the gamer, and our goal: save the princess, save the kingdom, destroy the giant bubble-spewing toad man… whatever. A game’s protagonist goes through a miniature dramatic arc with each goomba they stomp or moblin they skewer: conflict, resolution, repeat; conflict, resolution, repeat; etc., etc.
Phanto, though, is different. He is the direct descendent of Evil Otto, the “Time’s UP!” smiley face of doom that came hunting for a taking-too-long-to-destroy-all-the-robots Player One in the Atari-age classic Berzerk! Like Otto, Phanto’s smile is the harbinger of unstoppable doom. If most video game enemies are antagonists to be conquered, Phanto is one to be endured and escaped. He’s not Darth Vader, he’s the twister from Twister (only with a better backstory.)
I had my Phanto avoidance skills down to an art. I don’t know if I was an overly anxious kid or what, but I didn’t want to see him, ever. He only showed up when you were actually carrying they key, so I, as I’m sure everyone else did, repeatedly picked up the key and threw the key, picked up the key and threw the key, pick up, throw, pick up, throw… all the way to the locked door, a move which keeps Phanto zipping on-screen and quickly off-screen, on-screen and off-screen, a poorly rehearsed actor who keeps jumping his cue. Forget the bomb-throwing mouse or the cross dressing bird. Phanto was my nemesis, my Sub-Con nightmare.*
But can you blame me? Trying to figure out which of the masks hanging around the key is going to come to life, the shaking awakening, the swooping, the face stuck halfway between clown and demon… I haven’t played Super Mario Bros. 2 in years, but the next time I do, I can guarantee I’ll be right back to my Phanto dodging ways.
And loving every second of it.
* That’s a pun, cuz Super Mario Bros. 2 was all a dream. Remember? Remember? And Sub-Con was the name of the dream world you were saving. Remember? I’ve ruined it.