The time-space continuum
Education is extremely important, but I hated school. I was never very good at it. I’m not very book smart. Then again, I’m not very street smart. What I’m getting at is: I’m not very smart in general, so school wasn’t right for me.
Self-deprecation aside, I think it’s just the academic system I don’t like. I don’t care about grades. How do you even make a child care about aptitude scores? Do you know what children do care about? Defeating Bowser. So in the early ‘90s, Nintendo loosened its grip on the Mario franchise long enough for a smattering of edutainment games to be produced. They’re not fondly remembered, which is funny because many adults still cling to the edutainment games of their youth.
Mario’s Time Machine on SNES is one that I didn’t play back in 1993 when it was released, so I’ve got no horse in this race. Aside from the fact that I own a copy, I mean. Which is reason enough for me to play it.
Bowser is really just interested in Western history
I did play Mario is Missing when I was a kid, but I was too young to understand geography. I played it mainly on the novelty that Luigi was the hero. Mario’s Time Machine is similar, but it focuses on history, making it impossible not to compare the two games to the Carmen Sandiego series. When you compare a game built around a license against one that comes from a love of teaching, it will never be favorable.
The story here is that Bowser has stolen important objects from across time for a museum or something. I don’t get the end goal here, but the result is that he’s disrupted time. Oh gosh, I’m thinking way too hard on this storyline. Narratives get pretty mucky when you bring time travel into them, but when the story isn’t the focus of your game, it just gets weirder. Wouldn’t disrupting time work out poorly for Bowser, too? He lives in the same continuum. Right? I don’t think the Mushroom Kingdom is even supposed to exist on Earth.
In any case, Mario decides Bowser doesn’t deserve nice things and steals them all for the purpose of returning them to their owners.
There are three floors with five items on each. You grab whatever item you want, which then allows you to view a document on your subject. It contains two pages of their history, as well as a date and place. The pages are perforated with blank spaces, and the goal of each stage of Mario’s Time Machine is to fill them all out with the correct information.
So, you punch the date and place it into your time machine, and go surfing through time. You have to grab ten mushrooms to generate the 1.21 Gigawatts needed to power Mario’s flux capacitor. Then you dive into a whirlpool, and if you got your date wrong, it spits you right back to the museum. But if you got everything right, you travel back in time.
Once you’re there, it’s time to have conversations with people who are very enthusiastic about the topic at hand. Looking for Plato? The guy’s got a whole neighborhood of fans who are primed to spill the smallest detail about them. Hobbies, birthday, social security number? Someone on the block has that information. Sometimes they won’t tell you until you find them a cup of tea. There are usually four-ish people to talk to, but they’re at least straight to the point.
That’s about the only thing straight to the point in Mario’s Time Machine. Everything else in its clown funeral of a user interface is slow and clunky.
I have a demonstration for this. There’s actually a bad ending to the game if you “take too long.” I got it because you can’t pause, and I took a break to shower. So, I decided to start over. It would be quick, right? I already had all the details. I just needed to fill the pages out. It took me over an hour to get through the 15 levels. All I did was grab an item, fill in the blanks, punch the date into my time machine, then talk to the historical figure.
It took so long because every blank required me to wait for a menu to load up with the possible answers. The list of answers is usually ridiculously long, but the good news is that they’re alphabetized. The bad news is you can’t skip from A-Z. You can only scroll through the list sequentially and very slowly. Doing this for every blank is painful.
Even setting the date and place is a slow process. The locations are not alphabetized. There’s no way of knowing which way you should scroll. To make matters worse, flipping through them is fingernail-pullingly slow. Then you pray that you didn’t forget to swap it from AD to BC because if you did, you’ll be doing the surfing section twice.
Ms. Of Arc, I have some bad news
Mario’s Time Machine plays better when you’re actually investigating your victim. It still has its problems; for example, doors aren’t always obvious in the background. Sometimes it just looks like a wall, and you are somehow supposed to know that it’s where you’re supposed to enter someone’s home.
You also can’t get people to repeat the things they tell you. So if someone mentions something that seems, at the time, unimportant, and you later find that it’s one of the blanks, you can’t go back and have them run it by you again. This sometimes leaves you with no other option than to guess. You only get so many wrong answers before you’re kicked back to the museum. Oof.
This all goes on beneath a soundtrack that is simply head-scratching. It’s mostly songs from Super Mario World, but they’re remixed. You might think that they’d be remixed to sound like they’re played in a style similar to the time period you’re visiting, but if that was the intention, it definitely doesn’t come across that way. It sounds more like SNES Muzak. It’s what the hold music sounds like when you call the Mushroom Kingdom’s most prominent internet provider.
You’re better off on the Oregon Trail
But how does it work as an educational game? To put it charitably, it’s not Oregon Trail. It scores you based on how quickly you complete the challenges, but why would you ever need to play it twice (arbitrary good/bad ending aside)? The answers are always the same. Nothing changes. There is absolutely no replay value. One playthrough is all you need to suck the educational nutrients from it.
It’s also not fun. I can easily replay Oregon Trail. Even Carmen Sandiego has some enjoyable entries. Mario’s Time Machine is borderline painful. I guess if you were a kid in 1993 and had no other way to convince your parents to buy you a game unless it threatened to teach you something, it would… be something.
It also became more of a goal of mine to try and answer as much as possible without talking to anyone. Apparently, I know more about Queen Elizabeth I than I thought! It’s a bad sign when my solution to making my own fun with a game is seeing how much of it I can skip.
But did I learn anything? Nothing of substance. It’s obviously aimed below my antiquity, but a lot of the questions seem insubstantial. Thomas Jefferson, among many other things, was a farmer! Cool! Beethoven gave his first piano concerto at some dumb young age. Wow! I’m not going to ever use this knowledge. Sort of like most of the things I learned in school.