You are staring into the face of sheer terror.
Halloween is only a few days away, and with it comes gamers everywhere thinking about (and dressing like) some of the videogame characters that scare them the most. Pyramid Head, with his blood-soaked deformity and giant knife. Dr. Salvador from Resident Evil 4 and his deadly chainsaw and bag-covered face. Clock Tower’s demented Scissorman and those damned killer scissors.
For me, though, none of these characters come close to being as scary as the dreaded Phanto from Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Seriously. Look at him. Those dark, empty eyes. That creepy smile. The lack of a body. Phanto is like a digital nightmare slowly taking over my childhood memories of running through fields of flowers and dancing with baby deer in the rain.
But why is that? Why does a seemingly silly 8-bit character from a very family-friendly game scare me more than horribly satanic demons, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, and giant devilish scissors?
Hit the jump for the reasons Phanto is the scariest videogame character of all time. But be warned: this feature is not for the faint of heart. Don’t blame me if you can’t sleep at night after reading it.
For people that don’t know (read: people spared the awful nightmares), Phanto is an enemy featured at many different points in Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES.
In the game, you can play as either Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Princess Peach, each character possessing different strengths and weaknesses. Although the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is completely different than the original -- it was famously modeled after Japanese game Doki Doki Panic -- the basic level structure of traveling through multiple side-scrolling stages to eventually fight an end-of-level boss remains intact.
In many of the game’s levels, the selected main character must retrieve and carry a key all the way to the end of a stage to unlock a single, locked door. While this sounds simple in theory, what makes it difficult is ... him. Phanto.
Every key in Super Mario Bros. 2 is guarded by a sleeping Phanto, one that, while immobile, really can’t cause any harm. Once the key is picked up and carried, though, Phanto immediately comes to life and starts to chase the player relentlessly until one of two things happens: either 1) Mario and friends drop the key to the ground or 2) he kills you.
That’s right: Phanto will stalk you through an entire level until you are dead or return his precious key to him. He has no feelings. He has no ulterior motives. He has no remorse. Pick up his beloved key and Phanto will chase you until you are dead.
And it’s the stalking of Phanto that is the most terrifying thing about him. Once he comes to life there is no stopping him. He can travel through every wall; he can float over any obstacle. As you run through the multi-tiered levels he will fly out at the most unexpected moment and come straight for you, the thought of murder hiding behind his black eyes.
Watch him coming for poor Luigi in this traumatizing clip:
You know when you are walking down stairs or a hallway in a very darkened room and all of sudden have a terrifying feeling someone is behind you? The fear almost paralyzes you, causing you to start running uncontrollably to get out of there as quickly as possible? That is the same feeling I have every single time I run from Phanto while playing Super Mario Bros. 2.
When I first experienced Phanto I was a really young kid. It freaked me out, sure, but I was so jovial and innocent that it was easy for me to move on (dancing with baby deer is an easy distraction). But over the years Phanto started seeping into my thoughts. My dreams. My every waking nightmare.
Everything I saw became Phanto, like those kids in the old Tootsie Roll commercials, except instead of gross candy I was seeing THE FACE OF DEATH ITSELF!
And you know what didn’t help? The old horror movie Phantasm.
Here is a picture of the scary shiny ball thing with the knife in it that would kill people in the movie:
Huh. It’s round. It floats. And it kills people.
Oh my God, Phanto is the killer knife ball. PHANTO IS THE KILLER KNIFE BALL!
After watching Phantasm and continually playing Super Mario Bros. 2 as if I was torturing myself (so fun ... must ... keep ... playing), Phanto took over my life. When I went to school my teacher’s face became Phanto, leading to me running out of the classroom with my arms flailing on many occasions. My mother’s loving embrace after getting home from school turned into me seeing Phanto coming straight for me. If you are reading this, mom, I apologize for all the times I punched you in the face in fear. I blame the videogames.
Phanto was chasing the key of my life. MY LIFE WAS THE KEY AND PHANTO WOULDN’T STOP UNTIL HE RIPPED IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS!
Phanto was coming for me. He was following me ...
It wasn’t until later in life when things started to get a little better.
I saw this one day on T.V. (skip to 3:10):
Whew! Phanto is just a harmless member of Judge Koopa’s jury, I thought. Look at all the Mario characters in the court room with him. He is not trying to kill any of them. Man, maybe my fear of Phanto is unwarranted. Oh, Phanto. Why was I so scared of you after all those years? The way you float up when Judge Koopa walks in the room is adorable.
This naivety didn’t last long. A few days later this came on:
NO! Phanto is trying to kill everyone again! He is chasing Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach and trying to murder them! JUST LIKE IN THE GAME! And to commit such an act during “Walk Like an Egyptian?” I LOVE THAT SONG!
The confused, insane thoughts in my head started to swirl.
And, wait, what’s this?! I turned my attention to the Super Mario Bros. Super Show once again. Mario and his friends aren’t even carrying a key! NO! Phanto has evolved! HE HAS EVOLVED! No. No. No ...
With this, my fear of Phanto became too much to handle. He followed me throughout my entire life.
My God, Phanto. Leave me alone. Stop following me! Please. Please ...
Sorry, I really need to pull it together. But at least now you see the reasons why Phanto is the scariest videogame character of all time. He never leaves you. Ever. He is always following. Watching.
And to think it all started with picking up an 8-bit key.
Good luck sleeping tonight.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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