This article originally ran on January 29, 2018 on Mike Podgor’s Monsters of Multimedia.
Today’s subject: Super Mario Brothers, originally developed and available for the Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Autobiographically, this is also the year I was released, albeit almost a full five months earlier than Super Mario Brothers. It is also the game that caused a life-long antagonism towards the program Full House but that is a story for another time, or perhaps never.
Super Mario Brothers, at first, seems to clearly portray who the monsters are: Mario is a human trying to rescue another human (the then-Princess Toadstool, whose actual humanity is an enigma) while traversing eight levels filled with waddling creatures. Most of these are able to kill him in a single blow, unless Mario has consumed one of the three helpful items available to him. There are also yawning abysses and lava-filled pits proving that the very foundation of this world seeks to destroy the Super Mario Brothers. In a world where nearly everything is out to kill a man, how could he be the monster? Yes, in truth, this is a game filled with monsters. A skilled player who has mastered the nigh-flawless controls can resolve the troubles of the Mushroom Kingdom in less than twenty minutes, but these troubles are far less cut-and-dried than they initially seem. Here’s one of the first screens of the game:
We see Mario with a block and a Goomba, one of the most common foot soldiers of the Turtle Empire. Some clouds and bushes complete the scene, with a hill at the horizon to add some depth to the proceedings. Soon, Mario will devour a mushroom and be able to destroy the block. You can destroy the Goomba without aid, along with most enemies of the game. While this seems like a quest with a clear goal and clearer obstacles, nothing is as it seems. We turn to the manual, the sole bastion of gaming lore in 1985.
The bricks are people. The field horse-hair plant is a people. At least, I’m assuming those bushes are supposed to be field horse-hair plants. They look nothing alike but there’s not an abundance of plant-life in this game. The point remains that everything, it seems, was once a peasant of the Mushroom Kingdom and so Mario is rampaging across the land and killing those he is there to save. Does Mario know this at the outset? Does Mario realize that the blocks he’s destroying were once people? We have to ask if Mario has all of the information and, indeed, where he has gotten this information from. This is never explored, and we can only extrapolate that his struggles in the arcade game Mario Brothers eventually led him to discovering the plight of the Mushroom Kingdom. Another possibility comes from the Game Boy version of Donkey Kong, in which Mario chases Donkey Kong through the “real world” and into the Mushroom Kingdom. Yet later games such as Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi’s Island provide different accounts of both characters’ origins. At this point, we shall simply assume that Mario came by news of the troubles of the Mushroom Kingdom organically and, perhaps, does not know what damage he is doing to the Mushroom People. Mario, then, is most assuredly not the monster. Luigi’s innocence was never in question, as he was simply being a good brother. We must then ask: what of the enemies?
The Goomba and green Koopa Troopa are truly vile. The Goomba, no matter how little he may be, is the reverse Mushroom Retainer: while Toad and his brethren struggle to save the rest of their people, the Goombas took the easy way out and succumbed to the sorcerous wiles of the Koopa king. While later games do showcase that some have decided that this path was not their wisest course, in this entry they are there only to stop the reassertion of the status quo. Then again, perhaps the Goombas have a reason to betray their country? We know nothing of the Mushroom Kingdom before Super Mario Brothers, so we can only assume that while they were disenfranchised the betrayal of their race was probably unwarranted. The green Koopa Troopa is similarly monstrous: the prime foot soldier of an empire, gung ho about destroying those who are against the Turtle Empire. They have fully bought into the Koopa king’s propaganda and are willing to fight and die for his cause. Except while the Goomba and Koopa Troopa are monsters, they are not the worst monster the game has to offer.
The green Koopa Paratroopa is cut from the same cloth as the terrestrial version but is the equivalent of Randy Quaid at the end of Independence Day, or Randy Quaid in real life now: dangerously unhinged and ready to kill for their beliefs. The red Koopa Troopas, winged and earthbound, are not in this fight because they want to be. They were probably drafted by the Koopa king and forced to fight this war to grow his empire, and pressured by family members to do their duty for “their” empire. Once the battle ended, they were probably among the first to seek amnesty from the Mushroom Kingdom and attempt diplomatic ties. As for Buzzy Beetle, well, he’s just a beetle. He probably has no idea what’s going on and if he hurts you it’s probably just an accident.
The Hammer Brothers are definitely the worst enemies in this game, no contest. They’re terrible and whenever I saw them as a child my blood would run cold and my main reason for warping was to avoid these jerks. As for Lakitu and his Spinies, well, one can only imagine that Lakitu is a Josef Mengele-type contorting the Spinies into killing machines for the sole purpose of killing. Lakitu has a deranged mind and is probably responsible for a lot of the terrible things that have happened in the Mushroom Kingdom, and is likely the reason Shy Guys were unseen for many years. After all, with the cloud, Lakitu probably committed many acts of espionage and voyeurism. A guy known for being shy had little choice but to escape into a dreamworld to avoid Lakitu. As for the Pirana plants, well, they’re just plants. I can’t imagine they know what they’re doing, unless they have the sentience of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. This is never elaborated upon, and while Super Mario Sunshine introduces a Pirana plant with a level of obvious sentience, these are not he.
You also can’t blame the Cheep-cheeps or Bloobers for what they do, being simple animals. In the context of another game, their attempts to destroy you would grant them monster status but in this game, filled with things like Hammer Brothers and cloud-based lunatics? They’re simple natural pawns in the Koopa king’s campaign. Bullet Bill is another story, being a sentient bullet that allows himself to be fired out of a cannon to destroy those that oppose the Turtle empire. Except is Bullet Bill really on the attack, or is he simply trying to escape? How many Bullet Bills hit their mark or fall under the Mario Brothers’ heels? Not very many. The rest fly free.
The Podoboos are fireballs. Unlike most of the enemies in this game, they lack a face. Are they evil? Are they even sentient? Or are they simply another tool of the Koopa king? We have no way of knowing, though later games do give them faces. The spring is a simple tool, and while I cannot tell you how many times I misjudged what was happening on the spring and landed in a bottomless abyss instead of my intended horizontal hanging bricks, that was all on me. They are not monsters. We can also discount Princess Toadstool. While she is the figurehead of a possibly ineffective monarchy, she is also the only one who can save her people and is also a victim of the troubles of her kingdom. Toad and the other Mushroom Retainers are also innocent: in fact, other than Luigi, they may be the most innocent. They are prisoners and trying only to help despite being under the same spell as the rest of their countrymen, further proving the purity of Princess Toadstool.
Who, then, is the truest monster of this game? While most of the enemies (and even the Mushroom Retainers) can be considered to be monsters, not all of them really convey the true monstrous attitude necessary to be this game’s true monster. Except maybe that psychopath Lakitu. No, the true monster of this game is the only character we haven’t really talked about yet. It should come as absolutely no surprise that the true monster of Super Mario Brothers is…
No matter what the sins of Princess Toadstool and the ruling class of the Mushroom Kingdom were, they never transformed half the citizenry to bricks and the other half into Goomba. The Koopa Troopas and Hammer Brothers would likely be sitting at home and enjoying life if they weren’t radicalized by Bowser and sent into a hopeless battle against a very stoppable but inhumanly agile foe. Bowser is not only seemingly a charismatic leader with sorcerous abilities, but a coward that uses puppets in his lesser castles in an attempt to stop the progress of the Mario Brothers while saving his own spiky skin. He is willing to sacrifice anyone and anything to keep his power and is completely unaware that by doing so, he is dooming his future endeavors to seize Princess Toadstool and the Mushroom Kingdom.
Future games, after all, feature wider varieties of enemies but it’s simply because Bowser’s failure in this venture proved to his more unwilling minions that one could go against the Koopa king and not suffer death. Bowser had to find more minions who were easily swayed to his cause, and in each game, he has to find more and more. After Super Mario World, he even had to succumb to the whims of the changing times and try to balance out his more outwardly evil desires with that of someone who was more diplomatic and fun to be around, hence his appearance in go-kart races and sports titles while remaining the main antagonist of Mario and Peach. As for why he wants the once and future Peach, it’s simply because Peach equals power and that is all Bowser wants, no matter the cost. Bowser and his lust for absolute power make him the true monsters of this piece of media. The only other character who comes close is that creep Lakitu, but we may discuss him another time. Or not.