You know, I was worried when I learned that Mario & Luigi Dream Team wouldn’t be out in America by the time my review went up. Because my reviews usually benefit somewhat by coming out a few weeks after the general release of a game, when everyone’s had time to play it and let it percolate in the old brain meats. What I was really worried about was that I might have spoiled something, namely that Bowser ends up being the main villain. Because that’s not the case from the start. It happens a little way in.
Now, at first I chided myself at the thought. Who in their right mind could possibly be offended that I spoiled the fact that Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach and Mario has to rescue her? That’s the fucking default setting. It’s like spoiling the fact that standard acceleration in Earth’s gravity is approximately 32 feet per second. But then again, it’s a Mario RPG, and what makes the Mario RPGs interesting to me is that Bowser being the villain is more the exception than the rule.
In fact, it’s not even the case in the very first Mario RPG, creatively titled Super Mario RPG, on the SNES. Bowser being the villain was already being treated as an ironic joke, and it started the occasional trend of Bowser being a playable character, or at least a party member. There have been nine Mario RPGs in total, the SNES one, four Paper Marios and four Mario & Luigis. Of those nine, games in which Bowser is the straight villain are in a clear minority – the first Paper Mario, and the two of most recent memory: Paper Mario Sticker Star and Dream Team. And yet, I described both those last two games as ‘tired’. When it seems I should have been praising their innovative spirit.
Except not really of course, because Bowser-as-villain takes the majority again the moment you extend the survey to every non-RPG Mario game. The role of the Mario RPGs was to be a sort of voice of dissent to show that Nintendo weren’t completely above a bit of a nudge-wink self-effacement and congratulate the audience for having been clever enough to realize how tired Mario vs. Bowser is as a concept. Mario RPGs going stale is bigger than just one franchise – it’s a symbol of Nintendo’s ever-decreasing capacity for self-awareness. In case we needed another one after the Wii U.
The ongoing gag in Mario RPGs, when Bowser is enlisted as an anti-hero, is that he opposes the new villain because he considers kidnapping the princess to be his territory alone. This is a pretty firm indicator that Bowser is just as invested in the status quo as everyone else. His attempts to kidnap the princess seem almost ceremonial. I believe that the very first Super Mario Bros represented the only time when Bowser was genuinely kidnapping the princess to pursue his goals, presumably the attainment of power and influence. And he succeeded. From that point on, he is occasionally seen wearing a crown and being identified as ‘King of the Koopas’. He lives in a castle and employs most of the land’s monster workforce. Why does he need to keep kidnapping her? He’s already a king. I don’t see the saccharine lands she rules appealing to his taste for lava and perpetual twilight. It must just be some regular ceremony recreating the original successful revolt, like a friendly game between two rival footballing nations.
Indulge me while I explore a train of thought. The object of each game is to recover the princess, and it is Bowser who engineers that situation, as well as the many arenas in which Mario battles his minions. If Mario is the protagonist, representing the will and the goals of the player to be challenged, then Bowser, as the antagonist, represents those who created the challenges. Don’t you see? Bowser is Nintendo, in a complex metaphor that has been going on for over thirty years.
Bowser is Nintendo, and the Princess represents the investment that we, the player, make. Because the moment we recover her, the game is over; our interests have been concluded. By ‘kidnapping’ her Nintendo is making the cocky statement that they hold our undivided attention. Our free time is being held hostage by those crafty fun merchants.
Super Mario RPG came out for the SNES and was, as we have established, the first game in which Bowser was not the straight villain and actually joins your party. Because the SNES era was also the first time since the 80s video game crash that Nintendo had strong competition, meaning Sega. A new outsider villain kidnaps the princess and Bowser will not tolerate a rival for her, for our leisure time. Interestingly the main villains in Mario RPG are anthropomorphic weapons, which may be prophetic of Nintendo’s rivals moving more towards violent content while Nintendo has persisted with a kid-friendly image.
Paper Mario on the N64 had Bowser as the villain again, Nintendo being confident in their superiority, but Paper Mario 2: Thousand Year Door has Peach being abducted by sophisticated aliens armed with science fiction technology, and Bowser is almost a figure of mockery, a relic. Here, the metaphor is at its clearest: gaming technology is moving on, and Nintendo is being left behind. Why are the Gamecube discs so bloody tiny, Nintendo, you silly sods? In Super Paper Mario on the Wii, again Bowser is a party member and actually has some moments of nobility and heroism. Yes, our console has worse graphics than those flashy newcomers, but that was part of our heroic decision to attempt to innovate in ways other than this cheap and doomed race for prettier graphics that can only lead to stagnation.
Incidentally, one thing worth noting is that when Bowser kidnaps the princess it’s because he desires her, the person. It’s a case of unrequited love. But whenever another outsider villain does it, it’s always as a means to an end: because they needed a hostage, or to make use of her unspecific ‘power’. Perhaps this is what Nintendo tried to tell themselves: that they want our time because they want our affection. A far nobler goal than that of their seedy rivals, who just want our money.
The recent trend in Mario RPGs for Bowser to be the straight villain reflects, as I say, a decreasing self-awareness on Nintendo’s part. They want simply to declare victory and hope to be correct, clamping down on uncomfortable metaphors. The Mario RPGs were the silly games, they were the fool in Nintendo’s kingly court. But it is the job of the fool to point out that the Emperor has no clothes; to confront the things that the rest of us are happy to ignore. And the truly great Emperor will humour the jester. It’s the insecure despots who send them to the dungeons to have their jingly hats shoved so far down their throats that they poo out silver bells.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.