What thoughts come into your head when you consider Mario? A cheery chap with a winsome moustache? The giddy, vaguely racist stereotype representing the most inventive and family-friendly company in games? Well forget all of that. He's a psychopath.
It all seemed fairly normal--in video game terms-- to start with. He was a plucky platform hero. He was out to save a princess. But since then, as Mario's prominence and ego have ballooned, things have changed for the worse. He dominates life in the Mushroom Kingdom. Every event and activity is themed and named after him. There's not an element of kingdom life that he isn't all over, not a single job or service that he doesn't seem to have a hand in. In the real world, people would see that as a dictatorship, and him as a tyrant. It's worrying stuff, so I started looking into it, and discovered when you go back far enough into Mario's history his current behaviour becomes all too disturbingly explainable. Join me for a journey into the heart of darkness.
The seeds of Mario's mental instabilities were perhaps sown, as they often are, during early childhood. While it's impossible to say exactly how much of his unhealthy world-view comes from innate personality disorders and how much from the psychological conditioning of his upbringing, in retrospect, a bit of pop-psychology can't help but flag up some worrying early alarm bells.
His desertion as a baby quite probably riddled Mario with deep-seated abandonment issues, which would fuel his later insecurities and compensatory obsession with control. Consider his means of rescue from that early plight. An entire people--nay, species--of Yoshis rallied around, risking, and often losing, their very lives for his benefit. The act came from a place of benevolence, but unfortunately it taught Mario a terrible behavioural lesson. It put him at the absolute centre of his own psychological world, implanting the idea that others exist merely in his servitude. As you'll see, the repercussions of these events would resonate far and wide.
Fast-forward to adulthood, when Mario is about to start exhibiting the first symptoms of his damaged upbringing. One of the earliest signs of burgeoning psychopathic behaviour, as any psychologist will tell you, is animal cruelty. The psychopaths lack of emotional empathy will often first externalise itself through the physical mistreatment of pets and small wild animals, before it extends to humankind. Thats what we have in Mario Bros. The dark harbinger of a decades-long legacy of malice.
Mario and Luigi are bog-standard, real-world plumbers at this point. Theyre sent into New Yorks sewers to investigate some problems with the pipeline. What occurs down there is no mere maintenance job. Its the birth of a monster. The sewers are lightly infested with wayward, no-doubt lost and distressed, wildlife. Marios response? Does he maybe call the relevant animal welfare authority? No. He kills it. He kills it all. Probably driven by his innate sense of grandeur, Marios ego finds itself unable to cope with being allocated a job in the citys dingy rivers of shit. Its instinctive response is to lash out and dominate its environment. The event is a perfect storm of circumstances and psychology, bringing the plumbers latent psychopathic tendencies to the surface for the first time. It would only get worse from here.
The birth of a sadistic grudge
Marios first run-in with Donkey Kong, occurring just before The Sewer Incident, seemed innocent enough on the surface. Heroic even. But consider not the mans actions, but the reasons for those actions. Was Mario acting solely out of a desire to rescue the innocent Pauline, or was he also, on some level, acting out of rage at the affront imparted by the ape? Was he really rescuing his first love, or taking back his property? In light of his later actions, this episode could well be seen as Marios first assertion of what he clearly now sees as his right to aggressively own his environment.
Consider his follow-up actions. Donkey Kongs sequel reveals him to have hunted, captured, and imprisoned the ape, seemingly only for his own amusement. And while absent from Donkey Kong 3, Mario appears in Game & Watch pseudo-sequel Donkey Kong Circus in the role of cruel puppet-master. He has put the hapless ape to work in his circus, forcing the beast to perform in a macabre cabaret of pain. The exact choreography of this vile dance of humiliation? Kong must balance on a barrel--clearly a malicious subversion of DKs chosen method of defence in the first game--juggling pineapples, while avoiding a rain of fire. Marios reaction to Kongs injuries? Laughter, and the encouragement of the audience to do the same.
Return to the Mushroom Kingdom: Birth of a tyrant
However worrying Marios behaviour was during his formative years, it was a mere foreshock to what would eventually be unleashed. Before we get onto that fateful day though, lets recap what were already dealing with. A man infused with an innate delusion of superiority, fuelled by the insecurity wrought by his childhood abandonment. A rampant sense of entitlement, resulting from the servitude of those around him at an early age. Probable life-long frustration at a string of unsatisfying, blue-collar jobs. Vengeful rages, prone to dealing out wildly disproportionate punishment when triggered by the merest hint of an affront. Repeated test-runs of psychopathic externalisation by way of violence against animals. A total lack of respect or empathy for those around him. A simmering, pent-up fury at all that would restrict, abandon, or belittle him.
Now imagine the response of that psychological powderkeg upon exposure to a whole new world, in which Mario has no prescribed rank within any social structure. A world populated primarily by sentient non-humans, and whose inhabitants are entirely unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Got all that? Right, now lets look at Super Mario Bros.
The initial rampage
Think of the classic image of Super Mario Bros. The sight of Mario merrily run-skip-jumping his way through a colourful landscape, headbutting coin-blocks, eating Super Mushrooms, and head-stomping villainous turtles and Goombas in the aim of rescuing a princess. Nice, yes? But it wasnt really like that at all.
No, in reality what youre looking at in Super Mario Bros. is a newly unleashed wild animal, deliriously rampaging through a world without restrictions, looting its wealth, devouring its natural resources in pursuit of power, and stamping its own authority along every step of its path by killing every sentient creature it sees. Theres a common behavioural syndrome we most often see in post-apocalyptic--and to a lesser degree wild west--fiction, whereby suddenly unrestrained by the traditional rules and conventions of civilised society, human beings are freed to unleash their true nature. Manners and morality go out of the window as the self-serving id, and whatever psychological malfunctions might be driving it, are able to run free for better or worse. Marios introduction to the Mushroom Kingdom triggered exactly this syndrome. Things would never be the same again.
Princess Peach: The endless power-struggle
But at least he rescues the princess, right? Well consider this: Since he arrived in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario has been playing a perpetual game of Princess Peach ping-pong with Bowser. One of them snatches her, the other travels across the kingdom and snatches her back. Rinse. Repeat. For decades. One might wonder when it will end, but a more important question is, when did it really begin? Weve never seen the kingdoms pre-Mario status quo, but given how tenacious Bowsers princess-grabbing has been since the plumbers arrival, if Bowser really is the antagonist, is it really likely that the start of that behaviour just happened to coincide with Marios first appearance?
Or is it more plausible that, upon seeing her realm beset by attack from an unknown madman, the authorities hid Peach away in the most fortified location in the kingdom and upped security for her own protection. After all, the layout of Bowsers castles makes no sense as a home. Those places are clearly designed with security in mind. Is Bowser really stealing Peach at the start of each game, or is he stealing her back after another Mario-instigated kidnapping? Those Mushroom Retainers, with their familiar shes in another castle schtick are just elaborate diversions. Marios motivation? Once again, control and childhood abandonment. Because who in the Mushroom Kingdom is more maternal than Princess Peach? Theres all kinds of Freudian horror going on there.
Of course, the hapless, helpless, cheery folk of the Mushroom Kingdom tried to reason with the interloper. They tried to bargain with him, befriend him, and naturalise him into their society. But while Mario has, over the years, taken up a superficially integrated role within the Mushroom Kingdom, you need only look at his ongoing behaviour to see that he hasnt changed to fit in with his surroundings, but rather has changed his surroundings to service him. And the inhabitants of those surroundings? Theyre going along with it all simply in the name of survival.
Oh yes, on the surface of theyre all friends, hanging out together and enjoying themselves by way of a madly eclectic, slightly incongruous roster of social and sporting events, But think about the names and branding of those events. Mario Kart. Mario Tennis. Mario Golf. Mario Strikers. Mario Hoops. Whole islands, regions and sporting facilities are named after someone who wasnt even a resident three decades ago. Every party is a Mario Party. You see where Im going with this one, right? Pure, escalating megalomania, sowing propaganda wherever it goes. And whats more, its now creating very real health risks country-wide.
Mario's carnival of danger
Ive discussed before Marios worrying jack-of-all-trades predilection with involving himself in every imaginable job and discipline. Its an obvious side-effect of his insecure need to over-compensate, and a trait which understandably exploded once the Mushroom Kingdom gave him a blank canvas upon which to reinvent himself. But how much danger can one person put his friends in, in the name of self-aggrandisement? His instatement of himself as champion and overseer of all sporting events is of course an egregious bid for control over his social group, and one packed with potential for injury given his lack of qualification in any of them. Motor racing? Really? Mario Kart is nothing but a vengeful death-race.
A death-race with weapons. A death-race whose tracks have become increasingly, outlandishly risky as the years have gone on and Marios troubled psyche has spiralled out of control. A death-race which now includes flying machines, tenuously cobbled-together anti-gravity tech, and the very real risk of drowning. All to fuel Marios ego. All to make him feel like the boss of his adopted country. And thats before we even get into Smash Bros. Can. Of. Worms. And when the inevitable does happen, who do the broken and bleeding have to turn to? Oh yes
Dr. Mario: Public health risk #1
Hes a plumber. A plumber whos been occupied with plumbing, questing, and the steady dismantling of an entire nations happy infrastructure for the last 30 years. Therefore, one who has not had the time to complete the required decade of training to become a qualified medical practitioner. For some reason he seems to think he can do it. For some reason he seems to think that fixing pipes with a spanner is the same as fixing human physiology with medicine and surgical tools. It isnt. That way leads only to sickness and horror. Yet hes the only doctor we know of in the Mushroom Kingdom. By now we shouldnt be surprised.
Do you see? Do you see how bad his mania has become? Hes the Colonel Kurtz of the Mushroom Kingdom. People have got to be dying out there now.
Seriously, fear him
So that's the dark truth about Mario. Change the way you see things in that supposedly cheery kingdom? Do Nintendo games now have that hard, gritty edge you always thought they lacked? Let me know in the comments.
And while you're here, check out some of our other alternate spins on video game mythology. The Top 7 Most disturbing things about the Pokemon universe (opens in new tab) would be a good start. And for a radically different, possible future of Metal Gear Solid, check out Solid Snake doing mundane, unexciting jobs. (opens in new tab)