I awoke to see nothing but darkness. Groggily, I lifted myself off of the ground and attempted to recall what had happened; however, everything seemed to have been crushed deep into my mind, rendering all memories inaccessible. My boots tapped on the hard, slippery floor as I cautiously inched forward into the unknown, feeling around for an exit. The soft fabric of my glove pressed against a ceramic surface. Before I could take another step, a mechanical whir surrounded me and the floor began to rise at an alarming rate. I fell against the curved wall as the tube spiralled upwards like a corkscrew. After a few seconds, the whirring noise subsided and the structure came to an abrupt halt. Spring air wafted in, replacing the stale oxygen. Warm rays of sunlight bounced around in the ceramic material, filling the tube with a thick, green haze. I jumped, grabbed hold of the rim, and hopped out. The greenery and white sands of a familiar environment surrounded me.

Birds chirped and gentle wind rustled the leaves of trees. To the north was a towering red-roofed castle constructed of rugged but elegant limestone bricks. A bridge of the same material arched over the sparkling, turquoise waters of its mote, connecting the castle to a sandy path. To the west, a waterfall rushed over luscious hills, crashing into the mote and flowing eastward to form a lake. My shoes padded along the path, leaving a light trail of dust behind. Mellow sunlight illuminated the purple wings of butterflies as they floated past. I crossed the bridge and opened the large wooden doors of the castle. They creaked shut behind me, silencing the sounds of nature and bringing a grand melody to life. I stepped onto the checked floor. A simplistic depiction of a spring afternoon much like the one outside was painted on the walls of the huge room. As I approached the bottom left corner, the faint, high-pitched voice of a Toad became apparent.

“Am I glad to see you! The Princess…and I…and, well, everybody…we’re all trapped inside the castle walls. Bowser has stolen the castle’s stars, and he’s using their power to create his own world in the paintings and walls. Please recover the Power Stars! As you find them, you can use their power to open the doors that Bowser has sealed.” His disembodied voice echoed in the large space. I ran along the red carpet, made my way to the left door, and leapt into the shimmering painting of a war-ridden grassy field. A large, fenced-off plateau surrounded me. In the distance, a spiralling mountain rose up from the plains. It seemed to wave and blur as it mixed with the bright blue sky behind it to create a teal smudge. My thoughts crowded as the message began to drown everything out. My muscles tensed in fear. Everything buzzed and frothed madly. My mind surrendered hopelessly as I suffocated under the waves of deafening insanity.

I collapsed limply onto scalding sand, inhaling dry, dusty air. My vision returned, revealing the leathery, cracked skin of my arm. I got up and began staggering forwards. In my dazed state, I nearly fell off of the vertical slope that the desert ended in. Exhausted, I lay back and tried to let the sound of sand shifting in the wind calm me. My eyes closed and I began to drift off. The sounds of the chaotic desert muffled and faded. Deep in my clear mind, I felt an itch; something boring a hole into my faint dreams. The memory of cracking bone sounded. I snapped awake and jolted up in fear. Helplessly, I thrashed as the tide of irresistible desire began to rise. Though it overwhelmed me once more, I managed to keep my head just above the surface.

I journeyed through worlds of water, sand, fire, and ice, risking my life to retrieve the stars that each of the landscapes held. Emptiness began to seep into my churning brew of thoughts. Something was missing. I walked the bleak, empty halls of the castle, constantly searching for the next star. Music that I remembered fondly now ceased its playing. Apparitions swarmed the back gardens, and I found worn hats scattered about the obstacle courses. It seemed that many had travelled these areas before, but I felt alone. Only the organisms that wandered the areas accompanied me on my journey. I must have passed thousands, each member of the species disturbingly identical.

Occasionally, I caught glimpses of a camera, always trailing just behind me. Each time, it quickly glided out of sight, not wanting to be seen; however, I knew it followed me everywhere. Someone was watching me. Paranoia was now the ruler of my mind. I exited the castle and walked to the southernmost hill. Birds still chirped and butterflies still dotted the fields, but the landscape did not comfort me as I had hoped it would. Instead, it felt tainted. As expected, the hill ended in a vertical drop. I sat on the edge of the grass, sickened. Hundreds of feet below the suspended island was a sea of blue light. Impossible questions flooded my mind. I sat there hunched over for hours, staring into the blue abyss, contemplating jumping. It was a pathetic idea. The desire to follow the message had faded; however, I had to continue.

After spending days scouring the castle and its courses for each star, I stared at the cloudy, sapphire night sky painted on the walls of the uppermost room. Beaten and exhausted, I walked up the red stairs and climbed into the tunnel. Purple light dimly illuminated the suspended objects. I trudged through the course and clambered into the pipe that led to my final obstacle. The Koopa-like monstrosity that awaited me awkwardly crawled around the thick, moss-covered stone disc. It lunged forward, nearly propelling itself off of the platform. Adrenaline and rage flooded my system. As it shredded the skin on its feet in an attempt to stop, I ran behind it and rammed its huge mass into one of the surrounding landmines, setting my anger and disgust free in a hazy state. Slowly, the beast got to its feet. White-hot flames spewed from its mouth, illuminating the dusty, dim air. Again, I hurtled the monster into an adjacent explosive. The impact of its falling body shook the suspended platform, causing the stone to disintegrate. On the third detonation, the tired beast ceased it's struggle.

A rasping voice escaped its unmoving mouth, "You've really beaten me this time, Mario. I can't..." The abomination fell limp. Its spiked green shell split under the unsupported weight with a sickening crack. Organic and mechanical material seeped out, filling the air with a revolting odour. The corpse teleported away, leaving behind a star. As I walked towards my reward, a sharp wave of pain coursed through me. My body was shattered. Broken bones and torn nerves that had been abused and re-abused hundreds of times overwhelmed my senses with excruciating pain. I fell to my knees and crawled. My tears wet the cold stone beneath me. The blurry, golden aura of the bright star dimmed.

Damp, muffled voices became clear. Toads of different heights and features bustled around me in a pristine, white room. I was wheeled past tens of large glass tubes, each holding a figure. On each corpse’s arm was a marking of red ink. Reflections of pure white lights glided over the glass. I looked down at my body. The farther I went, the closer its unnatural shape matched that of the ones in the chambers. In the enclosures on the opposite side of the room, I saw a different figure. It was taller, thinner. I remembered him. He shouldn't be here. Pain paralyzed me as I recalled the past, rendering me unable to move or scream. I watched in silent agony as I was branded with the mark "63 – 119," restrained, and placed into an enclosure. 

Memories of a vast, diverse world formed in my mind, bringing life to the colourless, sterile room. My brother and I operated a plumbing company. We were not rich men; however we were content with life. Suddenly, the tensions of war rose, forcing us into poverty. We argued fiercely for weeks. Frightened citizens swarmed the castle. Bombs fell, extinguishing life and reason. We needed a miracle. A chamber lay beside mine: enclosure 64. It held an unmarked corpse. A fine mist of odourless chemicals sprayed down from the ceiling of my glass cage. As the fresh body was taken away, the sedative forced me into a deep, hard-earned sleep. I awoke to see nothing but darkness.