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Monday, July 27, 2020

NES Replay: Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: July 1987
Most people agree that Super Mario Bros. 2 is a weird outlier. It doesn’t play at all like a Mario game. There are no Mario enemies and no powerups. The boss is some guy named Wart. Half of the stuff in the game never showed up in a Mario game again. It’s all strange.

If you follow video game history, you likely know that Mario 2 was originally released in Japan as a different game entirely. Today we’re going to spend some time today learning about that game: Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic.

Normally when we discuss a game, we talk about how it plays. Today we won’t. The fact of the matter is, if you’ve played Mario 2, you’ve played Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. The music is a little different in some minor places and the graphics are different, but the levels and enemies are all the same. What’s interesting isn’t how Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic plays, but where it came from in the first place.


Let’s start with that title: Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. What the hell is all of that? Well, in 1987, Fuji and a few other Japanese electronics companies got this idea to make a big festival that they called Yume Kōjō, which is loosely translated to “Dream Factory.” It was sort of an electronics expo, showing off all the new, crazy media technologies that people would have in the future. The “Doki Doki” part is onomatopoeia for a racing heart. Panic is something that happens at a disco.

Yume Kōjō was a big deal, and they promoted the hell out of it with a media blitz that lasted for nearly an entire year, with songs, art and mascots. In this case, the mascots of this media blitz were four characters named Imajin, Lina, Mama and Papa. Since the goal of the festival was to look international, they made the characters look like stereotypical, generic Middle Eastern tropes with turbans, flowing robes and the like.

They also took inspiration from something called commedia dell’arte, a form of theater that flourished in Renaissance Italy. All the stories in commedia used a few different character types, and those character types wore masks so that the audience could recognize the character at a glance. In a nod to Italy and commedia, during the run-up to Yume Kōjō, masks were everywhere as a promotional tool.

The capstone of the media blitz was a video game that was set to be released only a few days before the festival began. They released it for the Famicom Disk System, the hottest video game system in Japan, and partnered with Nintendo’s hotshot young developer, Shigeru Miyamoto. Like I said, we’ll cover more of the gameplay at a later date, but it has to be said that Doki Doki Panic is really good. Miyamoto tried things that hadn’t really been attempted in a sidescroller, bringing verticality and a bit of puzzle solving into the mix.

With all of this together, it should help explain why Mario 2 is such a weird game. There’s a lot that only makes sense through the lens of the Yume Kōjō event. For example, why do almost all the enemies wear masks? Because masks were a big promotional tool for Yume Kōjō. Why are there flying carpets and vases? Because the characters had a generic Middle Eastern flair. Why are there four main characters? Because there were four big promotional characters for Yume Kōjō.

And finally, why was Super Mario Bros. 2 such a strange game? Because it was developed as something that had absolutely no relation whatsoever to Mario, and it shows.

Yume Kōjō was a very successful expo. The media blitz worked, and a lot of the technologies they debuted ended up being a big deal. This was one of the first times that tech like HDTV and better 3D movies were shown to the masses, and that made a huge difference in the way we consume media.

For our purposes, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was one of the biggest stories, and it would have far-reaching implications and change the way that games were played, but that’s a story for a different day.

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