I was at the tender age of four when I played my first ever video game. The year was 1996, and I was lucky enough to have that first experience come from Super Mario 64. To this day, I still love this game with all my heart. The movement of Mario throughout these various colorful worlds hidden behind paintings leads to one of the best video games ever made. However, one specific scenario in this game frightened my poor young soul like no other at the time. The Super Mario 64 piano remains one of the most terrifying encounters I have ever had.
The piano in question is in Big Boo’s Haunt. This world is located in the back garden of Peach’s Castle. The area is infested with Boos, and if you ground pound the largest one, you can jump into a cage it drops to enter this level. As you might expect from a manor filled with ghosts, this area has a spooky theme. There are various instances of books flying off their shelf at you, furniture being flung your way, and a carousel of ghosts attacking you. However, the most frightening event happens in the first room on the left when you enter the manor.
While exploring the bottom floor of Big Boo’s Haunt, I came across a mostly empty room. Nothing but wooden panels all around and a simple black piano sat in the corner. My mind was drawn to this. It stood out from everything else in the game. My naïve mind wondered that maybe if I jump on it, it will play some nice music for me?
As anyone familiar with this game ought to know, this ended poorly. The jaws of the piano opened up revealing a row of jagged teeth and chomped Mario to the tune of clanging keys. In reality, Mario just took damage and fell backward. In my mind, though, he had been chomped to bits in front of me.
As a young boy experiencing his first video game adventure, this terrified me. At the time I was already scared of an image on the game’s manual of Bowser roasting Mario with his flame breath, so the sight of a piano jumping to life and biting at me was enough to make me terrified of this entire level for a long time. It would be a while before I worked up the courage to return to it.
The nature of being scared like this really was an unintentional first step in making sure I never got into horror games. To this day, I do all I can to avoid scary games and movies. While I appreciate the Resident Evil series for its story, I never have been able to muster up the courage to experience them firsthand. Sure, I might have never been a person to enjoy that stuff regardless, but I find it more fun to trace my trauma back to a piano in a Mario game. It’s an odd situation to point to for why I don’t like horror games. While an image of Bowser on the manual gave me pause, I never felt any anxiety with him in-game. I think it all stems from the effect of the jump scare.
The unexpected nature of the Super Mario 64 piano is what makes it one of the most effective jump scares in gaming. With such a bright and colorful game for kids, you don’t expect something as innocent as an instrument you may very well have in your own home to jump at you. I can appreciate it now, but at the time, I wanted nothing to do with that carnivorous piano guarding a red coin or the entire horror genre it represented.