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The Olsen twins have a conundrum (and no, it’s not their intern wage lawsuit). They started a rumor in their beachside town that they’re tight with the two cute new lifeguards, though the lifeguards might not agree.
To save face, they need to be spotted together. The Olsens become their own paparazzi: Mary-Kate poses near the hunky dudes as Ashley snaps a shot showing them all together. The twins follow the lifeguards to the skatepark half-pipe and then the surf shop, where the dudes have clearly caught on — they try to evade the girls by hiding behind surfboards, but Ashley takes pictures in perfect time. The resulting reel suggests a vaguely believable tale of Mary-Kate hanging out with the beach boys.
A loading screen from Mary Kate and Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall. Photo: n-space
This ridiculous — and, in retrospect, kinda creepy — scenario plays out in the video game Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall. The game, released in 2000 as the Olsen’s first PlayStation title, let tweens, like me at the time, guide uncanny valley approximations of Mary-Kate and Ashley through a magical mall — one they’ve been trapped in, we’re informed through a choppy cut scene, by the curse of an enchanted heart-shaped friendship necklace.
While that’s usually a fun cliche, this is a bad mall and the twins have no money. According to Ashley, “This is one of the few malls I think I don’t want to be stuck in forever.”
To escape, the twins have to find gems missing from the necklace by completing challenges in the open stores: from the food court where they, as roller-skating waitresses, ferry food to shoppers, to a fashion show in which the player chooses outfits and then takes photographs of the twins modeling on the catwalk, to a choreography-focused dance round and even a mountainside snowboarding level. (Clearly, the player must suspend her or his disbelief and accept that both a beach town and a snowy mountain can exist inside a mall.)
The Olsens at the launch of Mary Kate and Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall. Photo: Getty Images
As a tween, I wasn’t a huge gamer, and I’m still not. I had a Game Boy Color only because it was cool, and my PlayStation was mainly a consolation prize for waiting at Circuit City while my dad scoped out home-theater gear. The pressure to beat levels and the frustration of getting stuck if I can’t get past them means that I put games down and never pick them back up again. But I loved Mystery Mall, even without winning the game — or even finishing it.
Of all the levels, the fashion show was by far the one I played the most often. By today’s standards, the outfits are dated: variations on capris; chunky sandals; and tees with vague, pixelated patterns. But for someone whose favorite part of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was choosing the clothes and skateboard for the lone girl skater, making my own outfits as an actual level — and not as a necessary step to get to the real level — was exciting. There were new combinations constantly and even favorite outfits.
According to Amy Williams, who worked at game developer n-Space from 1998 to 2006 and did set and character design for Mystery Mall, translating fashion for tweens into an early PlayStation game proved to be a surprising challenge.
“The people at Dualstar put an emphasis on fashion, so for us gamers there was a lot to learn,” she says, recalling marked-up magazine clippings sent by the team at the twins’ production company.
Fashion posed further challenges on the technical end: Early PlayStation games were low-resolution and couldn’t be modeled as intricately as modern games. “At the time, you couldn’t really show off the details that you can today. It was a lot like dressing up a box and you’re only given twelve crayons,” said Williams.
Fashion options in Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall. Photo: n-space
It’s true that Mystery Mall has the distinct look of the 2000s. The twins have blocky faces and hair that resembles wood grain more than it does chunky blonde highlights. The characters run in an awkward glide, with perfectly circular shadows. Sometimes, glitches in the food-court level make them go through walls, or get stuck inside them.
Yet Mystery Mall also feels strangely timely. It both encapsulates early-aughts tweenhood and acts as a sort of distillation of the throwback trends we see now: chokers, low-rise flared jeans, and shiny pleather pants; glitchy, pixelated aesthetics; dreamy electronic music. It’s like something you’d make in a vaporwave meme generator.
In the early 2000s, the “games for girls” genre was new. Laura Groppe started the company Girl Games Inc. in 1994, which worked on computer games for Mattel including Clueless and Barbie Nail Designer. She says that while bringing girls into the tech sphere was a goal of the girl games movement, the market was also largely at play: Brands like Barbie and the Olsen twins were recognizing the need to age up their products to hold onto their consumers, and games became a platform for that.
For the Olsens, who were 14 at the time of Mystery Mall’s release, growing up meant incorporating fashion, shopping, and dating more and more into their brand — things that were no doubt part of their actual teen lives, but that also sold the teenage fantasy to tween fans. A draw of the Olsen twins was that they were part relatable, part fantastical. (See: the Witness Protection premise of Our Lips Are Sealed.)
Mystery Mall was uncharted territory for the team at n-Space, for whom this was the first girls’ title. There wasn’t a lot of background to draw on as far as games for girls. “What’s important to remember,” says Groppe, “is that we have a long way to go and women in tech isn’t where it needs to be. But then, there was nothing.”
And while Barbie titles, like the ones Groppe worked on, were successful, they generally targeted a younger demographic, not tweens. With Mario Party as style inspiration, the n-Space team used the mini-game format to maximize the amount of content for tween and teen girls to enjoy — and more importantly, to minimize fluff.
Overall, reputable video-game sources don’t agree: IGN gave Mystery Mall a 4 out of 10 (“the gameplay is sucky, and so are the graphics”), and a slew of YouTube bro dudes have done walkthroughs bashing the game. But the point — and the lasting appeal, to me — of Mystery Mall is beyond the technicals.
The Olsens in Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall. Photo: n-space
For writer Sarit Luban, Mystery Mall was the only game she enjoyed as a child. She wasn’t very good at most video games because she played them so rarely, she says — but Mystery Mall, which she played at friend’s houses, was the one that she called her game.
“I felt like it was made for me in a way that I felt like other video games weren’t,” says Luban. “I was definitely a ‘girly girl’ when I was really young, so I liked girl stuff, and maybe there was a part of me that felt like it was more acceptable for me to like that game.”
Mystery Mall kept me playing because it actually focused on things I liked and things I could relate to. There wasn’t pressure to be good or win or be anything except a tween girl. I didn’t have to be good at gaming — I could just play.
“It was not so much about the surface of things like dating, driving, and fashion, but also respecting the player and challenging them so they want to come back and play more,” says Williams. “We have this whole new population of female gamers who grew up with starter games like Mary-Kate and Ashley. You start thinking ‘I want more’ or ‘I want better,’ so it helps launch more players, and I love it.”