Nerds of a certain age are highly likely to have seen Super Mario Bros. Z. If you liked video games and had internet access between the years of 2006 and 2009, you either watched Super Mario Bros. Z, or at the very least heard about it. There is very little on this Earth that exemplifies the late 00s more than a Newgrounds flash animation crossover of Mario and Sonic filled with anime fight scenes and chugga chugga guitar tracks.
However, this isn’t an 00s Retrospective series; this is about the 10s. And the only relationship with the 10s Super Mario Bros. Z has is that this was the decade wherein the whole project perished, and the world was taught a lesson on the folly of fan fiction passion projects.
Super Mario Bros. Z always faced the problem that its entire existence was owed to one man working for free. Alvin Earthworm, the quite talented series creator, did the writing, the direction, the animation, and even most of the custom spritework all by himself, with no chance of compensation. Solo or near-solo efforts on larger projects can work out well (see Stardew Valley and Undertale, whose creators are multi-millionaires now), but for a fan project? It can be a dicey proposition.
The series, as it grew and grew in popularity, grew just the same in scope and ambition. Each new episode was longer, the plot more “intense” (this is a Newgrounds flash animation so don’t expect Shane Black writing here), and the fights more inventive and dynamic. The first couple episodes were not too much more than your everyday average let’s-animate-a-DBZ-fight-with-Mario-sprites silliness, but once it got onto later episodes, especially everything starting with episode 5, things ramped up into action insanity.
I am not exaggerating when I say that Super Mario Bros. Z has some of the coolest action setpieces in 2D animation, and these are with friggin’ Mario sprites. I mean, LOOK at clips from these episodes:
Whereas the animation in actual Dragon Ball Z is mostly stilted and static aside from brief moments of energy, Super Mario Bros. Z cuts out all the fat and shows only the parts of fight scenes that you will actually care about seeing.
You simply don’t get this in traditional animation, or even much in CGI animation, because of the cost of actually animating all the action going on. When you use sprites taken and edited from video games, obviously things get a lot easier, but I imagine it’s still an incredible undertaking that Alvin Earthworm was able to pull most of this off.
The problem is that these really impressive fights are done in a Mario and Sonic crossover fan fiction, and the amount of effort needed to create each episode was far too much for anyone to consider a worthy use of time. And not saying fan fiction isn’t worth your time–I mean I wrote a 100-chapter Bowsette story—but it was clear the series was too much of a time sink to keep going with just one person at the helm working for free.
You can see a narrative form from the release dates alone:
Episode 5: February 2007
Episode 6: May 2007
Episode 7: October 2008
Episode 8: October 2009
Fan projects rarely succeed, and ones this big, ones with only one guy working at it, are almost universally doomed. And that’s OK. Alvin Earthworm grew in experience and used his impressive talent for ridiculous fight scene choreography to create an entire career out of it, and that’s what matters.
…Oh, uh, wait. No, he didn’t.
You see, I didn’t even know this until several years later, but he didn’t stop with Episode 8. He continued to work on Episode 9 for years, until finally, just to appease clamoring fans, he released “Episode 9 Part 1” in 2012, just an opening scene to what would come next.
The problem was, this was 2012.
I first found the series in like, 2006. I was in elementary school. When this episode came out in 2012, I was an ADULT! This is the case for practically anyone who followed the Super Mario Bros. Z series; we were just a bunch of silly kids, but the updates took so long that some of us already had kids by the time it ended.
Episode 9 didn’t come out, in the end, being canceled in 2013 with Alvin Earthworm citing time commitments and having written himself into a hole with the cliffhanger ending of Episode 8 (???). And that was fine. Sad, but fine.
Until he remade Episode 1 and released it in 2016.
Long, long after the point that anyone could possibly still be waiting for more Super Mario Bros. Z, we get a remake of Episode 1, to coincide with a new Patreon to support this new series. It’s still impressive stuff, I’ll admit, even better than the original series at creating interesting, dynamic fights. But the Patreon was almost immediately shut down by Nintendo because, well, it’s Nintendo.
And so this new series, supposedly filled with promise and hope for Alvin Earthworm, was over from the get-go. With no funding, there was no chance he could keep making new episodes, especially if they were going to all be as long as this new one. And so that was the final end of Super Mario Bros. Z.
…He’s still going, isn’t he?
Alvin Earthworm has essentially wasted an entire decade’s worth of his skills toiling away at a flash animation series that is long past the point of relevance. There is so much he could have done with himself, and he chose to work on Super Mario Bros. Z, almost exclusively, for the entire 10s.
And his folly is sadly not uncommon in the world of fan projects.
A very sad trend with creators of these sorts of niche, free passion projects is that they don’t get canceled abruptly. They fade away into the night like the flame on a candle, only instead of a gust of wind knocking that last bit of light away, it’s a post saying, “Update! I’m still alive!”
I’m singling out Alvin Earthworm because he is one of the most prominent examples, but he is far from the only one.
Take, for example, Tails Gets Trolled, one of the seminal ironic masterpieces of the early 2010s. The creator made a bunch and bunch of content, then slowed down a lot… then hiatuses took over… then the project eventually died and the creator started over brand new with… the same exact series but original characters now…? Then uncanceled years later??
Then there is the infamous Mother 4 fan game. Fan games are already one of the least productive uses of time for fans of any media, but there have been some legitimately incredible fan games (MFGG, lookin’ at you buddy), and Mother 4 genuinely looked like an amazing game. It even had a release target: Winter 2014! …It still isn’t out, and finally rebranded to Oddity and removed all Earthbound references so that it could be sold for actual money.
In almost all of these cases, the creators restarted their projects, with so much time having passed that they decided to go back and “do it right this time.” But their fanbases had already close to disappeared by then; did they really think anyone would care if they were starting from scratch all these years later?
It’s sunk cost fallacy meeting passion projects in a sad collision that ends up wasting more of the time these creators could have spent making something new and maybe even getting money out of it someday.
I’m certainly not above any of this. I know full well that I will one day return to Sandswept: The Squiddle Session, spending months and thousands of dollars on a project to a franchise so far past its popularity that its official sequel has to be funded via Patreon. Sandswept means so much to me that I couldn’t leave it unfinished forever. Maybe it’s a bit of a different story considering this comic has literally hundreds of pages of scripts, storyboards, and not-yet-used art assets, including multiple fully-designed walkaround minigames. But even so, any time I spent continuing Sandswept will have been time spent on a project nobody else will ever care about but its creators, and even knowing that I will surely do it anyway.
Therefore, I am not condemning any fan who tirelessly works on a project far past its point of relevancy out of sheer love for it. But when I see it from the outside, it always breaks my heart.
One day, perhaps, Alvin Earthworm will make something that is wholly original, and it’ll suddenly revive the whole sprite-animation-battle genre into the big craze hit of the 20s. I really hope that does happen because I am always in the mood for ridiculous anime fight scenes. But the fact we didn’t get that in the 10s is a small tragedy.