Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Archetype Of A Plumber

At the time of this writing, the Electronic Entertainment Expo of 2009 has concluded. All of the booths have been packed up, the demos put away, the videos leaked across the internet, satiating the hunger for more information on the newest releases to vie for the title of Best Game Ever This Week. It's the newest, the brightest and the shiniest and somewhere sitting in the middle is gaming's most enduring hero... Mario.

There are two new Mario games in production at this time: New Super Mario Brothers Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2. The former is a multiplayer side scrolling adventure, the latter appears to be a continuation of Super Mario Galaxy involving green dinosaur sidekick Yoshi and more small, interesting almost puzzle like levels. This marks the first time since the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System that multiple original Mario games have been released on a single home console. Oddly enough, the games don't play that differently. There's a button for moving, another for running and yet another for jumping. The mechanics are simple: Mario and Luigi are avatars for the players, moving towards a goal while exploring the surrounding kingdom, Mushroom or otherwise. So it has been since he first appeared in Donkey Kong in 1981 and so it continues to this day.

The cycle does not change. The princess is kidnapped, Mario and Luigi are called to the fore, King Koopa or, as he is affectionately referred to, Bowser gets stomped and a slew of spinoff titles is released into the air to varying degrees of quality. End of story right? Well, maybe. The individual games end there but does the simplicity of the narrative negate the characters as simple pixelated or rendered ciphers on the screen?

Video games are interactive by virtue of the player interacting with the games directly. Neither Mario nor Luigi are able to move without the guidance of the player. Princess Peach and Bowser may as well leave the large, last palace in world 8 to go grab a coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Similar to a paused film or a book one just cannot bring themselves to pick back up, neither the story nor the characters can progress without that interaction or outside influence. This is true of most video games, even the ones with the most ambitious artificial intelligence require some sort of action from the player. Given this statement, the characters of the Super Mario Brothers franchise should be entirely interchangeable. Change the pixels, change the pallet, change the character from an everyman hero to some sort of hybrid clown vole, make the princess queen of the clown voles and Bowser the increasingly sympathetic Space Viper From Space and the game will retain all of its charms and qualities, right?

Not quite. That may make for a charming adventure platform, it would have entirely too much to prove as a series. Characters have to be developed if they have room in the programming to do so. What sets the Mario series apart from similar platforms is its use of character archetypes. Mario is an every day, everyman hero tailor made by the 20th Century. He is an unerring force of good dressed as a plumber. Princess Peach is the quintessential damsel in distress, or at least was on the first game's release. Bowser then is a force of considerable and unrelenting evil.

Mario, in his inception as Mario after a brief stint as “Jumpman”, is a classic epic hero. He is an everyman in that his backstory refers to him as a plumber from Brooklyn and his body shape is certainly not incredibly muscular. He is the very picture of a normal human with one particular exception: as a character he does not question his actions. To fit the mold of an epic hero he faces certain doom, gains new powers along the way, and makes new friends such as the Toads of Super Mario Brothers 1, the kings of Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World's Yoshi. His journey follows a path in a straight line but once the game ends, the player returns to the opening screen. He is not consumed by any identity crisis or moral dilemma in his running, jumping and stomping adventures. Even in the Paper Mario series of adventure role-playing games, Mario exists to stomp the bad guys, save the day and spout a catchphrase.

Princess Peach, nee Toadstool, then becomes the very figure of the damsel in distress. She is demure, genteel and, of course, easily kidnapped. She can float, as seen in Super Mario Brothers 2, and has a tendency to send letters with power ups while in captivity. She is the very model of prim, proper and pink which answers the question why she does not mount any sort of escape. As a princess, she is as achetypical as she is anachronistic in her wait to be rescued by Mario. If she, as a character, were introduced in the current landscape of gaming, she would be considered an entirely sexist construct . The reason she gets a pass is her involvement in spinoff series such as Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers. Otherwise, one would think she would want to get kidnapped. Independent PC/X-Box Live game Braid posits that theory in veiled terms. Even still, she has Mario to rescue her nearly every time. That being said, femme fatale does not appear to fit in Peach's character bible, even in her own game for the Nintendo DS.

So if Mario is the force of good and Peach is the impetus for Mario's actions, then Bowser then is the force of evil or, to be accurate, perpetual naughtiness. He is about as evil as silent film villains with top hats, black capes and gigantic mustaches. He's not good by any stretch of the imagination but his character is not so evil that he cannot become a playable character in some spin-off series such as Super Mario RPG and Super Paper Mario with his own greed as motivation to join the “good guys”. He kidnaps but does not kill in cold blood. He gives Princess Peach her own pink, mushroom shaped cottage in Super Mario Brothers 3 as her cell. If he were to tie a girl to train tracks, they would most likely be long disused and disconnected from any railway lines. He is as much of an anachronism as the other two characters and will continue to kidnap the princess and receive humiliating defeat thanks to the natures of the story, his greed and the balance he provides as a villain.

These characters are as successful as they are because they are as old as early silent movies. With the archetypes of epic hero and damsel in distress, they seem even older.

But there's someone else. Someone who is key to any sort of psychological connection to the Super Mario universe. This character is the embodiment of every frustration, every lost level, spoiled surprise and the true mascot of maligned little brothers everywhere.


Luigi was originally a re-colour of Mario, inserted into the game as a second player character to distinguish between players 1 and 2. At first he matched Mario as an unerring force of good. However, the mechanics of the game demanded he always be the second player. While the second player would have the benefit of watching the first player's run through the game, they would have to wait their turn. Luigi was always secondary if he was playable at all. Who would have thought that the frustration of every little brother projected onto the collection of sprites would one day manifest itself in Super Paper Mario? Luigi's cowardice coupled with his resentment towards his successful, older brother would allow him to become a villain known as Mr. L for brief periods. He did not even have his own game until 2001 with the Gamecube offering Luigi's Mansion possibly to his benefit. As he is not on the same pedestals as Mario, Peach and Bowser, he has room to move and become the most multidimensional character in the Mushroom kingdom. Despite not having the same archetypical benefits of the other three discussed characters, he is instantly and easily understood by the audience.

It is a simple story: giant turtle kidnaps princess, plumbers rescue her. What connects it to the audience over, say, space-voles is the ease of recognition with the characters and what they represent through their respective archetypes.

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