I’ve been wondering about how Princess Peach is regarded in different countries, and how much of that possible difference is due to Super Mario Bros 2. Growing up, I didn’t know a single kid who ever played that game as Mario or Luigi, instead it was always Toad or Peach. Peach’s gliding ability made her the obvious choice for both new players wanting a little extra help and for long time players wanting to use her abilities to explore the open levels in new ways. As a result, I feel like there is an understanding among Western Nintendo fans that Peach is far more capable than normally depicted and that ties into the frustration with her continually being denied a spot in the New Super Mario Bros series lineup in favor of an extra, nameless Toad. But as everyone is fond of pointing out, Super Mario Bros 2 was not originally a “true” Mario game, but instead a separate game that was reskinned for Western audiences. While both games were designed by Miyamoto, Peach being a capable, powerful adventurer in her own right feels more the result of a marketing decision than a conscious design by her creator.
I have a great admiration for Miyamoto as a designer. He is without a doubt one of the mediums’ most successful designers, and he has earned that distinction. He is always thinking about how to push forward the design of game-play and of play-spaces (or whatever the accepted academic term for that concept might be). But in regards to the narrative and themes behind the game-play and play-spaces, I think its fair to say he’s rather conservative. Miyamoto’s ideal Mario story is essentially the same as the first game. Peach is a stolen object, Bowser is evil and menacing, and Mario is cheerfully heroic. That wouldn’t be much of a problem except for the fact that it appears Miyamoto’s platonic ideal of Mario occasionally interferes with other teams’ work. Based on interviews it sounds like Miyamoto isn’t very happy with Mario games or stories that deviate from the simple iconic one, and in particular was instrumental with the most recent Paper Mario game moving backwards in terms of narrative even as it put forth really interesting game-play concepts. While Peach was still waiting to be rescued in the Paper Mario and Mario RPG games, she was also more active in aiding Mario and could be controlled by the player in her own segments. Mario himself was aided by a number of characters which broke the traditional mold: intelligent female goombas, heroic koopa troopas, transgendered ghosts and other variations on the typical, identical Mario bestiary. But while Sticker Star Story forced the player to rethink how they play an rpg and how they balance resources, it completely did away with any larger story themes in favor of a silent Peach and nameless evil hordes. Even Bowser suffered a thematic demotion. Bowser’s role in Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door was a delightful metatextual farce that found him not only parodying the original gameplay of Super Mario Bros, but also desperately trying to reassert himself into a narrative that saw no need for him. While Sticker Star Story saw him return to his role as prominent bad guy, it also saw him become far less interesting. I also find it telling that his traditional Paper Mario right-hand female magikoopa Kammy was replaced with a generic male magikoopa (I know his name is Kamek, but in Japan ALL the magikoopas are called Kamek so who knows if its even really an identity).
But I didn’t come here to bury Miyamoto, but to praise Peach. Super Princess Peach for the Nintendo DS is Peach’s only staring role. Its also not made by the normal Mario staff, instead made by TOSE, a developer that does lots of work for Nintendo on the Starfy games as well as various Dragon Quest spinoffs. Miyamoto is noticeably absent from the credits, and without his guiding canon Peach is free to defeat Bowser herself and rescue Mario. The game is a bit easier than most Mario games, but part of that comes from how Peach interacts with her environment more like Wario than Mario. You are not likely to die very often, but that is because the game is more about exploration and discovery than it is overcoming deadly platforming obstacles. The game has gotten some deserved flack for the fact that Peach is still heavily gendered in this game, particularly in her method of attacking enemies and exploring levels. Peach’s power come from her powerful emotions, and the implications of that should be obvious. However, the game is also a bit subversive in how it handles this extremely gendered stereotype. Peach is not the only character with powerful emotions, every single enemy and boss has a form where they are controlled by their rage, sadness or joy. Mario is unable to overcome the power of Bowser’s “Vibe Scepter” and even though Bowser and his army cannot control their emotions they are still able to overpower Mario and Luigi. Unlike her opponents, Peach is in complete control of her emotions at all times. She can transition between extreme states as she needs to in order to defeat them or solve minor environmental puzzles. So to recap: Bowser’s giant vibrating phallus of emotion is too strong for other men, but it leaves him irrational and emotive, allowing the collected, in-control female hero to defeat him with her logical use and understanding of her emotions. Intentional or not, thats a surprisingly feminist undercurrent.
I’ve never been very good at talking about my emotions or writing an article like this from a personal point of view. I still have emotions of course, and very strong ones, but dealing with them has always been more of a struggle for me than I’d like to admit. Recently I’ve become aware of how linked that is to my family history, and how my struggles are shared by my parents, sibling and extended family. I come from a family of survivors. One side were German, Czech and Romanian Jews who fled to the US to escape the Holocaust, and who left behind many family and friends who died in camps and war. The other side of my family is represented by an Irish woman who left Ireland during the worst of the famine (a famine largely caused and maintained by economic oppression) and who left behind family and friends who would starve to death for the chance to make money to send back to the survivors. Both sides of the family had a deep fear instilled in them; a fear that what horrors had befallen their relatives and friends could still fall upon them as well. There was a lot of guilt involved to which came from knowing other people had been unable to escape. This was internalized as a fear of emotions. Being open about feelings, especially negative feelings, meant being vulnerable. It meant sharing a weakness with a world that could not be trusted. It meant failing all of those who had died before you so that you could survive. I’m not claiming my family’s experiences are universal to all Jewish or Irish families, or to immigrant or survivor families in general. This is just how my own family internalized things, and it was passed on to my grandparents, my parents, and then to me.
Having tourettes syndrome hasn’t helped.While my tourettes is physical rather than verbal, and relatively minor, I still have occasional, uncontrollable twitches and tics. Unlike emotions, its a “weakness” I could never hide or ignore. I was always going to be vulnerable to the world and therefore weak or a failure, at least according to the template unintentionally distilled in me. I’m drawn to the Peach in Super Princess Peach because she is a hero who is has easy control over something I don’t. I identify with her because it is something I want to be able to do. We need more female Marios, black Links, gay Pokemon Trainers and more because players of all kinds like to have heroes that resemble them, and we also need to do away with the idea that players will ONLY identify with heroes who superficially resemble them. We need heroes that stand for what we wish we could overcome on our own, and if white, straight, cis men feel threatened by identifying with characters not superficially like them, than yes we need to challenge that status quo. We need heroes who will make us enact change outside the games and outside our comfort zones, such as attempting to bring personal experience into a game critique.