I think we can all pretty much agree by this point that there's something about Nintendo games.
I won't say that everything the Big N touches turns to gold, but I'd like to think that there's a reason why they can just shout "NEW MARIO!" or "NEW ZELDA!" from the rooftops and earn plenty of fan adoration. Is that a sustainable model? Partly yes, and partly no, in light of the company's recent troubles. The Wii U isn't in a good place right now, but if nothing else every experience I've had with the console so far has been overwhelmingly positive. The Wonderful 101? Great -- and it would have been my GOTY if not for Metal Gear Rising. Wind Waker HD? Great. Monster Hunter? Well, I haven't really touched that one yet, but it feels great -- even if the prospect of killing a baby dinosaur gave me a mild freak-out. And now you can add Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to that list.
That game makes me feel happier than any number of titles released in the past few years -- well, at least between moments of abject horror in the mine cart sequences. The music, the gameplay, the levels, all those things and more come together perfectly, with the only thing getting in my way being my meager platformer skills. But what really intrigues me about Tropical Freeze is that there seems to be an untold story behind the Kongs' battle with the Snowmads. What kind of world do these creatures live in? What's its history? It's something that I want to investigate further; I haven't gotten far enough in the game to make any statements, but I'm tossing around a few theories.
It's possible that I could be reading a bit too far into a game ostensibly about pneumatic-legged banana hunters. But I doubt it. Because that's just what Nintendo-approved games are like. And as proof, there's always Super Mario 3D World.
Some time ago, I did a post that tried to put forth a theory on the origin of Princess Peach -- namely, that she was some sort of battle-hungry titaness masquerading as a dainty monarch. How well my theory holds up depends on how high a tolerance you have for silliness, but if nothing else it offers up a look at some of the more mysterious elements of the Mario canon. Is it true? Probably not. But the important thing is that the games at large allowed me to interpret Peach in such a way. That's the beauty of a lot of Nintendo games, really; what's left unsaid is often more powerful than the surface-level trappings. (I'd argue that Wind Waker is a parody of the Zelda games, and turns its conventions into a farce... but I'll get to that another day.)
It is more than likely that I'm letting my imagination run wild again, but that's the ideal scenario. A good game should provoke thought in one way or another. And while that's usually done via the game mechanics (as you'd expect from the Big N), I'm finding that the subtext is positively delightful, and routinely so. I don't know what fate is in store for the Wii U or Nintendo at large, but for the moment -- for a little while longer, in the worst-case scenario -- it's serving as the last bastion for colorful worlds and simple, made-for-your-pleasure games. That's pretty preferable to a console where one of its marquee titles is another miserable gray shooter.
But I digress. Let's talk about 3D World -- and the war therein.
The premise is simple enough. Mario and the gang are going for a midnight stroll (or something -- who knows how time works in the Mushroom Kingdom), when they run into a mysterious clear pipe. The brothers go to it and fix the pipe, and one of the Sprixies pops out of it. She tells the gang that Bowser's been running amok in her kingdom, and it's not long before the big boss Koopa snatches her up and drags her back down the pipe. So the gang goes in to rescue her and her friends, doing what they've done for some thirty-odd years: running, jumping, and turtle-bopping their way to captured princesses. And to a lesser extent, glory.
I went into the game expecting to turn it into Super Peach 3D World, in which the story acts as a prequel detailing the foundation of the Mushroom Kingdom and how it/she rose to power against the Koopas. And I almost did, given that the opening shows Peach (of all people!) diving into the pipe first. But the more I played, the more I realized there's already a story in place. It's subtle, yes -- to the point of nonexistence, and I might just be playing the fool for your amusement -- but I feel like there's something there. There's something that I need to say.
Simply put, 3D World is one big allegory for imperialism.
Now, hear me out on this. It sounds crazy, I know, but the evidence is all there. (Minor spoilers incoming... but come on, it's a Mario game.) As you'd expect from a big baddie, Bowser storms the Sprixie kingdom and starts setting up shop, taking their land, kidnapping the princesses, and using their -- admittedly vaguely-defined -- powers of construction to build an amusement park in his image. He's taking advantage of the natives for his own gain, because that's what villains do. Or the British, I guess.
You would think, then, that the Mario gang would act as liberators who come in and get out as soon as the job is done. But if you really pay attention to the game, you'll find that that's not exactly the case. The gang is a group of visitors from another land, and they're taking back each stage -- Sprixie territory -- from the Koopa Kingdom. Fair enough... until you realize that they never give that territory back. If you're playing as Peach, each time you beat the level by reaching the flagpole at the end, you'll raise a crown-bearing flag instead -- a symbol that the land and everything in it has been taken back from the Mushroom Kingdom's enemies. That means that everything in it, i.e. the stage's natural resources (coins, power-ups, Green Stars, and collectible stamps, not to mention all the flora and fauna unique to the kingdom, and thus worth a pretty penny back home) belong to Peach.
In a way, it's actually a kind of dark tale. The Sprixies are tormented by Bowser and his forces, and thankful for the help the gang (led specifically by Princess Peach, as per the intro) lends to their cause. But here's the thing: the Sprixies clearly don't know any better. The gang is saving them, but they're all too eager to shower you with gifts -- tribute for your presence, i.e. giving you free stamps, offering you access to the vantage points of the stages, and quite possibly summoning giant slot machines out of the aether.
Seconds after you free one of them from a boss' clutches, they'll build you a pipe so you -- whether you play as Peach the Conqueror, or just her crew -- can continue your expedition. They revere you; they understand the basic concept of freedom, but none of the nuances. They think that as long as they're free from their glass bottles they'll be fine, unaware that the Mushroom Kingdom has the potential to suck them dry. If not kill them outright.
You might think that I'm reaching here -- and admittedly I am -- but the game supports my theory way too well. When I say "expedition", I mean it. Captain Toad is exploring the world for more than just adventure; he's looking for Green Stars to pilfer and take back home. The Peach Expedition Committee may be venturing out to save the Sprixies, but at the same time they're lining their pockets with tens of thousands of gold coins -- supernatural resources bound to offer something to the homeland. Progressing from stage-to-stage may be the only way to build a route to the enemy stronghold, but bear in mind that the Committee is removing every foothold their enemies have in the brave new world. The Sprixie Kingdom is as much a battlefield as it is a business venture.
And the Sprixies are none the wiser. Why would they be? This is the first time they've been invaded or manipulated to gain their precious resources, so as long as their basic rights are kept intact there's no reason to complain. I'd wager that to the Committee -- to Peach especially, as a member of the royal family -- what they do is their duty as members of a higher culture... even if that "higher culture" aspect is debatable. They'll take the land, accept tributes, and let the Sprixies revere them. Just the way they like it.
The Mushroom Kingdom is likely the lesser of two evils here, all things considered. Thankfully, they're not destroying the land, or bringing any harm to the natives. Nor are they forcing them into service (suggesting it, maybe, but even that's a stretch). Merely the fact that they're letting the natives keep their freedoms has to count for something -- and on top of that, there's always the possibility that their imperialism can lead to the strengthening of both kingdoms.
The Mushroom Kingdom may be able to grow fat off the land, but in exchange they can install new institutions, spread education, share technologies -- all sorts of things that the stamp-loving Sprixies would never have considered on their own. There is that possibility for good, because the head of state (and the world, barring the rebellious Koopa Kingdom) is willing to be a real trooper about things. She's probably having too much fun burning everything in her path.
Does this look like the face of mercy?
Now, let me back up a bit. I said that the Mushroom Kingdom is likely the lesser of two evils here. That's what you'd expect when one monarchy is ruled by a spike-laden demon turtle, while the other is led by a pink-clad -- if unreasonably large -- blonde. But if the ThunderCats episode "Good and Ugly" is any indication, you can't make judgments about a person's alignment just because of the way they look. So let's go ahead and assume that Peach and her soldiers rout Bowser, expel him from the Sprixie world, and rebuild so as to repair the damages done by the War of 2013. Sounds altruistic, right?
But here's the thing: there is absolutely no guarantee that Peach will make the Sprixie's land any better for them. Think about it: what could the Mushroom Kingdom possibly offer that made a difference in their world? Sprawling castles aside, in the context of the Mario canon the most we've seen of what's ostensibly the "good guys' territory" is almost as wild, perhaps more so, than the Sprixies'. Compare that to Bowser and the Koopas; setting aside the fact that his kingdom makes use of tanks, airships, and arguably an extensive space program, the first thing he does once he gets his hands on all the Sprixies is build an entire city. Granted it's in his image and done presumably via slavery, but the potential is there. He's just being an asshole about it.
It could very well imply that in the Marioverse, technology has a significant lean toward evil and corruption. Maybe not outright evil (as Kingdom Hearts proposes underneath its almost-impenetrable narrative), considering that the Mushroom Kingdom uses technology for its sporting events -- though those could just be the products of Koopa craftsmanship.
Whatever the case, if there IS an association with technology and the Koopas, then it would behoove the princess to set up as big a divide as she can; if that's the case, then she wouldn't want to spread those corrupted ideas to the Sprixie populace. But if appeals -- if revolution itself -- can't be had with machines and mechanisms, then what else can Peach offer?
As a monarch -- and a pretty one, in the sense that she's not a sentient fungus -- she has an advantage over any other living being in the canon. She may have power, but she doesn't need to lift a finger or write a law to use it; her presence alone is enough. Remember, this is a character that is universally loved by all her subjects; she has stained-glass windows of her form, beaches named after her, and (as you'd expect) instills mass despair when she's not safe.
She's a divine figure in the eyes of the Toads, in the sense that she's A) something not unlike a warrior goddess to a civilization without knees, and B) despite dozens of kidnappings -- which I'm not convinced pose any threats to her -- she always makes it home safe. She's been blessed, and can stand side by side with the deities on high.
So why wouldn't she pass on that adoration to the Sprixies? They're literally watching her save their world from what's effectively the devil. Her actions are the start of a new chronicle -- scriptures that will turn mere natives into devout followers. Exactly as planned.
But with all that said, I have to wonder: why can't the Sprixies save themselves? Or to be more precise, should they be able to defend themselves? If the Peach Expedition Committee is really devoted to stopping Bowser, they're doing so on native soil as a benefactor -- a force that's (tangentially) for good, but effectively staging a turtle-stomping intervention. Are they right in doing so, though? Protecting those that can't protect themselves is important, but what happens during and after it goes into a moral gray area.
How far are the interveners allowed to go? Should Peach sanction the posting of Toad soldiers to make sure that the Koopas don't strike back? Should she allow the Sprixies to learn how to defend themselves against future invaders? In doing so, is it possible that the Sprixies -- with their possibly-limitless power of creation -- could become a threat to the Mushroom Kingdom? Are they already a threat, and they don't even realize it? Could it be that the intervention is as much a means to control the fairies as it is to save and exploit them?
Yikesy mikesy. 3D World isn't just about imperialism -- it's a vehicle for modern foreign policy disguised as a platformer.
Far be it from me to go questioning a canon I don't genuinely understand. But if nothing else, I think 3D World presents one of -- if not the most -- interesting looks into the Marioverse yet. There's very little actually said outright, with no opinions on whether or not these characters are in the right -- except Bowser, because screw that guy -- but maybe that's the point. What happens to this world and the peoples within it is in the hands of a chosen few. And when all's said and done, that's the way it should be.
A game that allows for interpretations like that is a clear indication that it's got some real oomph to it. Granted, it could be completely wrong, and just a happy coincidence by a bunch of well-meaning developers looking to test the limits of jump physics. But whether I'm right or wrong, I don't mind either way. Super Mario 3D World is a great game. I'm glad I have it. I'm glad I played it. And I feel like playing it some more. Seriously, people: this game's a sign the Wii U's got some juice in it. Don't count it out of the race just yet. Especially if we're destined to get games as thematically dense as this one, in spite of their silly trappings.
But of course, if you need more proof, you know what you have to do. As do I. I'm hoping I can crack open Tropical Freeze somewhere down the line, and find some real oomph behind its myriad platforms.
Why? Well, as the weight-conscious vampire said as he cheated on his diet and took a bite out of a hapless obese man, "Oh, it's so juicy."