mario party

Mario Party & The Real World Pain and Fear of Pedal Power

Many horror games have scared me hard over the years. My heart’s pounded so bad my chest started to hurt. Had my pulse racing so much that my hands were shaking. Physically injured by a horror game, though? Can’t say that happens too often. There was ONE time I injured myself while fleeing from a ghost. Can’t say I expected to ever hurt myself playing Mario Party.

There’s a minigame called Pedal Power in that title. Most folks probably haven’t played this particular minigame, as it’s single-player. People usually play this game with a few friends, but being the social butterfly I am, I was playing by myself. So, in Pedal Power, you have to quickly pedal a bike that is sending power to a light bulb. As you pedal, it starts to light up. As you’re doing that, a large Boo creeps toward you. There’s no timer, so you have no idea how long you’ll have to pedal for. No idea how long it will take to get snatched. You just have to pedal quickly and hope you’re fast enough.

This probably doesn’t sound too bad. However, this was one of those infamous Mario Party games where you had to rotate the control stick. There weren’t many that used this control scheme, thankfully. Those that did, though, would often require you spin the stick as fast as you can. Holding the stick and spinning it with your thumb seems like the most likely way to do it. You can move pretty fast that way, but for me, it was a lot faster to use the palm of my hand. Then, you just spin your wrist in a hurry.

The trouble is, the N64’s control stick has some little grooves in it. Just a little bit of grip. During normal play, that wouldn’t be enough to harm your fingers and palm. If you were, say, shoving your hand onto the stick and pressing down hard while you spun your wrist, it could start to hurt. If you did that while you were rushing to finish a game, you might not notice the pain. Maybe you fought through the pain as you hurried to the finish. It’s only afterwards that you’d see that you gave yourself blisters or burns from the friction. Or, in my case, tore up the center of my hand, stigmata-style.

Now, some people would argue you didn’t HAVE to spin it that quickly, but Mario Party is a competitive game. You’re going to go for any edge you can get so that you win. In the case of Pedal Power, while I wasn’t facing an opponent I was trying to beat, I was trying to escape a ghost. Dealing with that hint of fear as a creepy spirit flew toward me. Boos may not be the most frightening things, but when you have to do something fast to avoid being grabbed by a phantom, its adds that bit of tension and terror to the game. I was feeling just enough panic that I was going hard on my palm. And I wanted to win bad enough that I ignored the pain that came from that action.

For me, it wasn’t just about that need to win, though. While it uses the playful Mario setting and its silly ghosts, Mario Party still created an interesting experiment in horror with Pedal Power. It’s terribly straightforward, simply having players rotate a stick to make a light get brighter. Get bright enough and the ghost flees. However, it made several neat design decisions to make it more tense.

mario party

Firstly, there’s no timer. Most games had one so you knew when they would be done. You didn’t know how long you had to endure this torture in Pedal Power. You just had to hope it would end soon. The light was also hard to figure out. How bright would it need to be to scare the ghost? You could watch it get brighter with every few seconds of pedaling, but when would it be enough? Finally, there was the act of pedaling itself, which involved exhausting stick rotations. You had to go pretty hard to beat this game, so you would find yourself exhausted and sweating from the repeated efforts. Perfect time to hurt yourself if you rubbed that sweaty palm against the control stick.  

So, you’re tired, sweating, and in pain. You don’t know how long you have to fight in order to survive. And all the while, this ghostly forms creeps your way. It wasn’t extremely frightening, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit of terror as that Boo crept closer and my hand got weaker. It made for an impressive horror moment, one that actually used physical exhaustion and pain in a way I haven’t seen before or since.

You might be thinking that I was going a bit too far to hurt myself playing this. I’m far from the only one, though. “Nintendo of America has agreed to provide protective gaming gloves to owners of a video game blamed for cuts, blisters and other hand injuries,” says an article on the BBC News site from March 9, 2000.

“According to Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Mario Party game for the Nintendo 64 console can cause hand injury because to win, players are encouraged to rapidly rotate a joystick with a grooved tip. Consumers report having to use the palms of their hands to rotate the joystick and, Mr Spitzer says, this damages the skin. Injuries include blistering, burns, lacerations, punctures, and cuts.”

I was far from the only person who was enduring this injury at the time. That handful of stick rotating minigames ended up costing Nintendo a great deal, too. “The company is committing $80 million for the gloves and has also agreed to provide $75,000 for the cost of the New York Attorney General’s investigation, which led to the settlement,” said the same article. It was a common-enough injury at the time. So common that it required Nintendo set aside millions of dollars. When you need to win, you’re going to push yourself hard, right?

I’ve never seen another horror experience use pain and exhaustion against the player. However silly it sounds, Mario Party pulled it off, though, making me hurt myself in a horror game moment. It just cost Nintendo a lot for their little experiment. And thankfully, I haven’t hurt myself since.