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Leo Modesto's blog

1:35 AM on 07.03.2010

In defense of Mario game storylines

Um, hey guys. I've been meaning to write for this place forever (I always get ideas for video game related things to write about) but I've never gotten around to it. But today I've decided, why the heck not?

I'm sure all of you are familiar with the classic Mario plotline of "hey, Bowser kidnapped the princess, go save her". And while people go around talking about how it's the same thing in every game, this is not necessarily true.

I'm not here to argue about how compelling the stories in these games tend to be (not much), and I am fully aware that the princess-saving element is always there in some form or another (even in the "complex" RPG titles, you will have to save Princess Peach at some point in time), but there's actually a bit more thought in them than people typically give Nintendo credit for - even though it's completely unnecessary. All Mario really needs is a surface to walk on with Goombas on the way and a flagpole at the end.

Still, there's some typically unseen depth added to the narrative of every game. Let's take a look at them.

Super Mario Bros.

Sure, I could have started with Donkey Kong, but I'm not planning on going through every game in a franchise about to celebrate its 30th birthday (That's next year, by the way, considering Donkey Kong's 1981 release). That would just be too long. So let's begin with its most well-known game instead: 1985's Super Mario Bros.

The game's plot seems pretty obvious at first, but both by looking into it a bit and checking the supplementary material we can see that it's not quite so. For you see, SMB1 is actually the darkest game in the series.

The game introduces us to the Mushroom Kingdom as Mario and his palette-swapped brother Luigi first arrive in it. The place is not a happy sunshine candy land as one would expect, since it's been taken over by Bowser. No, he's not going to. He's not waiting to marry the princess or whatever. In the first game, Bowser has already taken over the Mushroom Kingdom. He's built a fortress in every area, with larger ones at strategic points where he's keeping war prisoners, including all the Mushroom Retainers (Toads) and the ruler, Princess Toadstool, herself. As such, it's Mario's goal to free the areas under Bowser's command.

Interesting to note is that this is one of the few Mario games where the levels preceding the boss stages actually have some significance to the plot. What do you think the little castles with flagpoles are there for? When the little plumber grabs a pole and brings a flag down, he's just freed the area traveled from Bowser's dominance.

Likewise, saving the Toads is as important as rescuing the Princess (By the way, they say "thank you", not "sorry", when you rescue them). As such, you probably should feel bad about skipping whole worlds with the Warp Zone. Of course, once you defeat the real Bowser in World 8-4, the war is basically over, so at least we should be glad there aren't any descendants to the Koopa throne yet...

The game's manual even goes so far as to say the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom were turned into bricks. This gives the whole setting a rather grim tone, not only when you consider that Mario is breaking these blocks for survival and points, but that they're not gone in subsequent games. Princess Toadstool is said to be able to undo this magic, but this doesn't actually happen. The transformed Toads remain in their blocky state for all eternity, even long after the Mushroom Kingdom has been reduced to ruins (I'm talking about the Mushroomy Kingdom stage in Super Smash Bros. Brawl). Of course, NES-era manuals are not to be trusted, but when you decide to take them seriously...

Additionally, I'm sure all of you have wondered why the Mushroom Kingdom is called a Kingdom if the only ruler/figurehead is a princess. Think about this: The princess is the only member of the royal family Mario rescues at the end of SMB. Why? Perhaps what happened is: Bowser killed the Mushroom King, and perhaps even the Queen. Maybe they were executed publicly - guillotined in front of a hundred Koopa Troopas, made examples of to anyone who'd even think of opposing the Koopa empire. The fact Peach still calls herself "Princess" might reflect on the fact she still hasn't come to terms with this.

And you thought it was just a kid's game.

Super Mario Bros. 2

Oh, I know what you're going to say. This one doesn't count. It's not really a Mario game. It's just some game Nintendo made for Fuji TV with Arabian themes that got re-skinned for the US audience.

I say, shut up. This game is as Mario as can be. Not only it was developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, but even Doki Doki Panic's Mario influence is undeniable. The jumping is there. The mushrooms have a different role, but they're there. There are quirky enemies and colorful worlds. Heck, pretty much every element from Mario 2 got carried over to the rest of the series - starting with the ever-so-iconic Bob-Omb. (Not "Bomb-Omb", as many people mistakenly spell it)

Of course, this is the only Mario game that presents the story at the beginning, in text form, so it's a lot easier to know what's going on with this one. Or, well, it would be if it wasn't such a weird story. Mario dreams of a strange land in peril, then he wakes up and finds a door to said land. Then he saves the land, and he turns out to be dreaming all along. It's a game about dreaming about adventuring after dreaming about adventuring. Sounds like something Hideo Kojima would write if he made kid's games.

You could argue that since Wart has already taken over Subcon in the beginning of the game, that it's as dark as Mario 1, but consider that not only "it was just a dream", all Wart did against the citizens of the kingdom was to stuff them all in a jar with a cork on it. Sadistic, yes, but nobody was permanently turned into a brick block - or worse, turned into a brick block and crushed by Mario's hand (or is it his head? We may never know).

Super Mario Bros. 3

If you still think SMB2 went too far from the Mario formula, you should be happy to know that this is a return to form. The Goombas are back! The Power-ups are back! Bowser is back, and he's kidnapped the Princess again!

Err, on that last one - not quite.

The plot of Super Mario Bros. 3 is as follows: The seven Koopalings have invaded seven kingdoms within the Mushroom World. All these kingdoms are ruled by kings with epic facial hair (plus a bald one) who possess magic wands. The Koopalings managed to steal the wands from the kings, and used them to turn the monarchs themselves into animals (plus a plant).

After recovering the magic wands and turning the kings back to their "old selves", you're given a letter from Princess Toadstool, who tries to help you out in the best way she can, worried sick about you in her home back in the Mushroom Kingdom. Yes, for the most part, the princess being kidnapped is not even a plot point. She even assures you that she is well once you beat World 6.

Of course, when Mario saves the last king, the letter he receives turns out to be from Bowser. He's kidnapped the princess (oh my) and dares Mario to try and save her. You could think that this was an elaborate plot from the Koopa to keep Mario busy while he snatches Peach, but I believe it was more an act of grief than everything else. Upset that Mario put an end to his plans (even when these plans didn't even involve the Mushroom Kingdom), Bowser tries to lure the plumber into a deathtrap. He ultimately fails and the day is saved again, of course - but he still hasn't kidnapped the princess for the heck of it. Dude's reasonable.

Or, was. After this point I think he starts to take a liking to the girl, or simply the act of kidnapping her, or maybe even to fighting Mario. Whatever it is, his motives get less clear with each new game.

Super Mario World

After the events of SMB3, Mario decides it's time to take a vacation. Or, Princess Toadstool decides that, and she brings the Mario brothers along as her personal bodyguards. Who knows. Regardless, the group arrives in a strange new world known as Dinosaur Land, where they find out - surprise! Bowser's been causing trouble. Not only there are seven castles scattered around with Koopalings ruling over (with Bowser's own, considerably larger fortress sitting right next to Larry Koopa's), but each of those is keeping a dinosaur egg in it. These are said to be Yoshi's friends - Yoshi himself tried to stop the Koopas (once more, as the game's sequel would show), but was (fittingly) trapped inside an egg. Mario frees him, but apparently doesn't pay much attention to anything else because the princess goes missing. So it's up to Mario, Luigi and Yoshi to go around destroying castles (and the brothers are very creative in this regard), picking up eggs, and ultimately rescuing the princess.

So why did Bowser go through all that trouble? Who the heck knows. At this point, he might be losing his touch.

Super Mario 64

This is an odd one. The game starts with Mario being invited to eat cake at the princess's castle, only to find that Bowser has taken over the place. No, not the kingdom, just the castle. Apparently, the place is run by things called Power Stars, and someone thought it'd be a good idea to leave them laying around for Bowser to take them. Which he did. And then scattered around several worlds of his own domain, connected to the castle paintings for whatever reason. Once Mario recovers the stars, he can access different areas of the castle and ultimately defeat Bowser himself.

Oh, and he's kidnapped the princess too. For some reason. Maybe to prevent her from sending Mario letters. Although he's gotten a bit too late on that one.

Super Mario Sunshine

Not touching this one. No, seriously, I'm not even going to try and reason here. It was a good game and everything, but, Jesus.

New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii

Okay, I admit: Here the plot is about just kidnapping the princess with no clear explanation why (Moreso in the first than the second). Did Nintendo give up? Did they realize that Mario doesn't need plot, or that no matter what they do with it, people will boil it down to "Bowser kidnaps Princess"? Are they afraid that something like Sunshine is going to happen again?

Maybe Bowser's gone old and senile. He's just trying to relieve the old days. Maybe he's gone mad, and much like the Joker obsessing with Batman, he's been obsessing with the idea of defeating Mario. Or it's as the Paper Mario games put it, and he just likes the princess, but doesn't have good people skills. Still, you gotta give it to him: He had some pretty evil schemes back in the day.

(before you ask, I drew the header image myself)   read

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