Nintendo’s characters aren’t really characters. Their most famous creation, Mario, was originally called Jumpman and was almost named Mr. Video; the name “Mario” was an unwanted, practically offhand homage to Nintendo of America’s landlord. Super Mario Brothers hit the NES 30 years ago this week, and, 30 years later, Mario’s key character trait is still how good he is at jumping.
He saves the princess, and he’s nominally a heroic figure, but the Mario games don’t really do “motivation” the way most fiction needs to. Any attempt to graft emotional dimensionality onto the Mario branch of the Nintendo pantheon usually fails. Fox McCloud and various Links get superhero-tinted backstories — dead-parent daddy issues, mysterious orphan origins. But the mainline Mario games don’t even really bother explaining where Mario comes from. Which makes total sense: No coherent narrative could ever properly explain a universe where a plumber shoots fireballs to rescue princesses from great apes and spike-turtles, except for those extracurricular days when he challenges those apes and spike-turtles and princesses to tennis and golf and go-kart racing.
I recognize how clickbait-y and thinkpiece-y it is to suggest that Nintendo should make a game focused on Mario’s oft-captured love interest Princess Peach. This isn’t like the fleet of Marvel fans who actively campaign for a Black Widow movie. Games like Braid and shows like Adventure Time have teased real resonance out of the Super Mario princess myth — but it’s not like Nintendo cares about emotional resonance, nor do they need to care. You could almost argue that characters don’t matter for Nintendo, that they could create a new Super Mario game without Mario, and that the games’ mechanics are the only thing that matters.
Nobody actually believes that, of course, because everyone played Luigi’s Mansion at least once.
But roll with me on this for a second. In the 30 years since Mario rescued the Princess Previously Known as Toadstool in Super Mario Brothers, Nintendo has found time to give practically every Mario character his or her own spinoff. Luigi has Mansions, Yoshi has Islands, Wario has Lands. Donkey Kong has his own sub-megafranchise. (Forget Diddy Kong. Freaking Dixie Kong has her own game.) Last year, Nintendo created Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.
In all that time, Nintendo has created precisely one game centered on Princess Peach. (The character was always “Peach” in Japan, which got market-translated into Toadstool until Super Mario 64. Peach first appeared in Super Mario Bros. and should not be confused with Pauline, the non-princess Mario rescued in Donkey Kong, or Daisy, the princess Mario rescued in Super Mario Land, who now serves as the non-blond secondary love interest trapped in the world’s worst love triangle with Luigi and Waluigi.) The game was Super Princess Peach. It was a platformer in the early days of the Nintendo DS. It was infamously easy. Its central mechanic required Peach to use color-tinged emotions like Joy, Gloom, Rage, and Calm, which sounds in hindsight like the blueprint for Inside Out. (The game takes place on Vibe Island, which sounds in hindsight like a blueprint for Spring Breakers.)
Super Princess Peach is the only game to focus on the Nintendo’s reigning female character. (Unless you consider every Zelda to be the same Zelda, in which case you’re wrong.) And so it’s possible to be mildly bemused and disheartened by the whole emotion mechanic. (One of Peach’s main powers is Crying Lots Of Tears.) The game sold over a million units worldwide. Around the same time, Nintendogs sold 6 million. The Super Princess Peach franchise has not continued.
I don’t want to argue that making a Princess-centric game will save Nintendo. But this is a weird cultural moment for Nintendo, and the prospect of putting a radical new spin on their most beloved franchise isn’t the worst idea. After all the hubbub over a potential new Zelda game and a definite new Star Fox game, Nintendo’s big release for 2015 turned out to be Super Mario Maker.
Maker isn’t so much a game as a mechanism for remixing pre-existing games. There’s a way of reading this as an incredible lateral-thinking leap forward for the company; there’s another angle, where you acknowledge that Super Mario Maker is a celebration of game mechanics and visual aesthetics that haven’t necessarily changed much since the first Clinton presidency.
So, actually, maybe a princess-centric game would save Nintendo — or anyhow, it could push the designers to put a mildly radical new spin on one of the oldest universes in the history of videogames. Super Princess Peach already had the most obvious and best pitch: What if Mario got kidnapped by Bowser? Our new princess game could start there, or go off in a completely different direction. Maybe it could avoid the Mario dude pantheon all together — surely Bowser has a mother? And I’m not necessarily asking Nintendo to turn the new Super Princess into their next AAA console-launching title.
If you think about it, the ideal princess game was probably Super Mario 64, which sent Mario on a floor-by-floor open-world adventure through Peach’s Castle. Our new princess game could be an explicitly retro adventure in that mold, with Peach trying to clear out her own house from a Bowser infestation. (Tell me you wouldn’t play Super Princess 64.)
Or Nintendo could go Wicked-level, and create a whole alternate-history vision of the first 30 years of Mario history, with Princess Peach revealing that Mario only knew half of the story. Every Mario adventure could get its correlative princess adventure. The first level would set an NES-era Peach on a side-scrolling 2D adventure; by the fourth level, she’s in Nintendo 64-era 3-D; by the final level, she’s Galaxy-hopping, teaming up with fellow lady-sprites like Rosalina.
Again, I’m not necessarily saying Nintendo needs to do this to, like, strike a blow for gender equality. (Although surely we should live in a world where it’s understood that a female videogame character can have the same moves as the male characters.) I think Nintendo should do this because they’re leaving money on the table. The princess is an unexplored central fact of the Mario franchise. Focusing on her could push the Super Mario franchise into a bold new direction. If nothing else, we could all use a return trip to Vibe Island.
The 10 best Mario games: an entirely subjective and utterly definitive list
10. Mario Tennis 64
9. Super Mario 3D Land
8. Super Smash Bros. (any system, it’s all the same, beautifully the same, and someday the whole world will be Super Smash Bros.)
7. Super Mario Bros. 3 (just for the warp whistle)
6. Super Mario Land (aka Super Mario Bros. on lithium)
5. Super Mario RPG (aka Super Mario Bros. on peyote)
4. Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka Super Mario Bros. on ambien)
3. MarioKart 64
2. Super Mario Land 3: WarioLand (aka Super Mario Bros. remixed with The Wolf of Wall Street)
1. Super Mario 64
Thoughts on Mario? Want to pitch your own princess game? Email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s edition of the Geekly Mailbag.