“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
This riveting sentence was uttered in 1933 during the first presidential inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It has stood the test of time as an inspiring message to rally a nation (definitely up there with “nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care” and “my fingers are long and beautiful”).
Trenchant though the sentiment may be — and yes, that’s the most pompous word I intend to use in this article — FDR was not yet privy to the true horror that would be unleashed upon the world some six decades later, when Super Mario 64 launched alongside the Nintendo 64 in 1996.
So I ask… do you remember the first time you arrived at Jolly Roger Bay?
After romping around sunny meadows and scaling a snowy mountain populated by penguins, there was a sudden, tangible change in the atmosphere. Belied by the gorgeous soundtrack, this stage had an eerie fog and dark, foreboding waters ahead.
“Plunder in the sunken ship” was the only guidance we had, so deeper and deeper we swam down the cavernous void, our health ticking away with each passing second.
The eponymous ship came into view, and there he was, peeking at us from out of the window — Unagi, more commonly known at the time as ‘the eel’ or simply ‘aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh’!!
Thalassophobia in gaming — that is to say, a fear of deep bodies of water — had been explored in the preceding console generation, particularly in ocean-based titles such as Ecco the Dolphin. But this was something else. The new perspective and graphical fidelity, dated as they may be by today’s standards, were engrossing in a way that proved unsettling to my eight-year-old eyes.
That dead-eyed stare, those razor sharp teeth… As soon as I saw that son of a bitch writhing there in the depths, I froze on the spot and peaced out with the ‘exit course’ option.
He felt wrong, so distinctly un-Mario. It was the worst betrayal of my expectations in family entertainment since Large Marge or the Troll from Ernest Scared Stupid.
All of these factors (alongside having to rouse it from its hiding place in the following chapter) created a haunting, impactful moment in my life as a gamer. Like a defining step into adulthood; the step that has gargantuan eels, as Freud once spoke of in his thesis, ‘holy shit, there’s eels in the freaking lake’.
After this, Unagi took his ball and went home for quite some time. There were a few imitators who would step up to the plate — most notably, the deep pythons of Majora’s Mask and Super Mario Sunshine’s Eely-Mouth — but they failed to have nearly the impact of their predecessor.
Even when he resurfaced in the Nintendo DS port of Super Mario 64, it wasn’t really the same. The brighter color palette and sleeker polygonal appearance combined for a less intimidating interpretation, plus he seemed much shorter this time around.
This was Chibi Unagi, and I’m sure he would hang out with you if you asked him nicely enough. He probably plays the trombone.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the real eel deal would make his official comeback, crashing onto the New Super Mario Bros scene in appropriately jarring fashion. Confined to only two stages, miniature Unagis snapped hungrily at Mario’s sizeable rear from their lairs, but of course, they paled in comparison to Mega Unagi, an unkillable leviathan who took up half of the screen.
Just as he had done a decade earlier, this Brobdingnagian tyrant undoubtedly petrified a new generation of gamers, sweeping by the screen and destroying all in his path on his perpetual quest for snacks.
Alas, he retained the snuggly aesthetic from Mario 64 DS, and his confinement to the 2D plane alleviated a degree of menace for the same reasons established previously: we lost that sense of agency over Mario as a character. This was clearly his danger, and much less our own.
At the very least, this did successfully reintroduce Unagi into the lore, and he was periodically seen in the background of Mario Kart stages, though the heavy lifting would be carried out by Gringills, Dragoneels and the godawful spike eel of Super Mario 3D Land. That thing was a truly detestable aberration that makes me feel icky in the subconscious.
Then in 2017, we would finally see Unagi’s finest hour, coming out of another decade-long retirement to reaffirm his hatred for Mario while also reaffirming his fondness for Mario’s tasty ass.
Super Mario Odyssey was pure, unfettered bliss in so many ways, but one of its underrepresented qualities was how it wasn’t afraid to venture back into the less cutesy character models, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Wild West days of the N64.
We’re talking photorealistic tyrannosauruses, the majesty of the Ruined Dragon, and most of all, our boy Unagi.
Nowadays he goes by the name Maw-Ray (clearly a byproduct of a midlife crisis), and he’s been hitting the gym, ’cause our eely boy is thicker than a Snicker.
Seeing hordes of them coming towards you in the underwater tunnel is ghastly enough, but if you want peak eel madness, look no further than Moon Shards in the Sea, where they lunge towards you relentlessly from the sands below.
To predict what lies next for this underwater bully, one need only take a glance at his past. Odds are, after the latest romp, he’ll have gotten his fill, content to mill about for another ten years or so before making yet another unexpected return.
At the very least, he can rest easy knowing that he has a nightly starring role in my nightmares.
You do you, Unagi. You do you.