Saturday, May 13, 2017

Once Upon a Pixel: Folklore and Myth in Super Mario Bros.

Hey, everybody!  It’s been a little while.  Between work and other hobbies, folklore research and posting got waylaid a little bit.  Speaking of other hobbies, I have been on a huge retro gaming kick lately.  Now, rather than let that waylay me any further, I thought I’d try to use it.  Now, here in my seldom used column “Once Upon a Pixel”, I’m going to try and pinpoint some of the mythical and folkloric inspirations in video games.  And where better to start than with almost everyone’s favorite Nintendo icon: Super Mario?

Ah, good old Super Mario Bros.  It was a major staple of my gaming youth.  It’s also one of the most consistently replayable video games out there.  Mario wasn’t always the Mario we know today, though.  He first appeared as Jumpman in the game Donkey Kong, in which he was a carpenter who had to save his girlfriend Pauline from a giant ape.  He was then spun off into the game Mario Bros. in which he gained a brother named Luigi and was turned into a plumber to fit the underground world of the game.  However, it was when Super Mario Bros. launched in which Mario and Luigi were given their own fantasy world of the Mushroom Kingdom to play in that things took off and folklore influences came into play.  Almost every fantasy world has some basis in either the real world or mythology or both.  The Mushroom Kingdom is no different.

(Note, because I try to be careful about image copyrights and Nintendo is known to be fiercely protective of their copyrights, this post will not use any images from the games and will instead link to outside sources for that).

The Mushroom Kingdom, Pipes and Vines
One of the common things you’ll find in a lot of mythological sources is a tendency to move between worlds by either going up or going down.  Whether it’s moving among the branches of the world tree in Norse mythology, travelling up to the top of Olympus or down into the Underworld in Greco-Roman myth or just travelling to another world by going down into a well in the Brothers Grimm story “Mother Holle”.  And you will find very few games that utilize this idea quite as much as Super Mario Bros.

Now, when it comes to going down, it’s easy to point out how Mario does it.  With the Mushroom Kingdom’s ever present pipes.  The pipes here are our equivalent to the well from “Mother Holle” or the rabbit hole from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The connection is probably most easily seen when it’s used for the Warp Zone in Level 1-2.

But how do Mario and Luigi travel upward? 

That’s right, they do it with vines!  When I was young, I even had the tendency of referring to these as “beanstalks” because they reminded me of my favorite fairy tale.  And true to form, they often took Mario and Luigi to a place above the clouds.

That’s how it often plays out in the games, but the connection between the pipes and the rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland is probably best supported by the opening of the (non-canon) cartoon The Super Mario Bros. Super Show which shows the Mario Bros. travelling to the Mushroom Kingdom from the “Real World” (notably Brooklyn) via a shower drain.

(Yes, I know it’s cheesy)

The Koopa Clan
Since the Mario series was originally created in Japan, it seems pretty easy to assume that some Asian folklore would definitely have undercurrent in the series.  And the easiest place to see it is with the Koopa, the turtle-like enemies from the Mario Bros. series.

The Koopa first appeared in the game Mario Bros. as Shell Creepers (at least in America.  I’m not sure what they were called in Japan).  Now, having enemies that are evil turtles may seem a little strange.  However, Japanese folklore has a monster that frequently resembles a turtle.  That would be the kappa.  Kappas are creatures that have, beaks, webbed feet and turtle shells, as well as an indentation on their head that must always remain wet.  Their known for pulling pranks that range from the rude (looking up women’s skirts) to the sinister (drowning people).  They can be appeased by being offered cucumbers.  Now, other than resembling turtles and very frequently being up to no good, there doesn’t seem to be much similarity between the Koopa and the kappa.  However, the similarity between the two names doesn’t seem like something that was coincidental.  So, the question is this: Were the Koopa originally created to resemble kappa or did Nintendo notice after the fact and then decide to give them the name as a little nod to their homegrown folklore.
Now, while the Koopa Troopas may be modeled after the kappa, their king may be modeled after a Chinese celestial beast!

Despite often troubled history between the two nations, Chinese culture has always had a big impact on Japanese culture.  In Chinese culture, there are four celestial beasts that correspond with the four directions.  There is the Azure Dragon to the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger to the West and the Black Turtle of the North.  Many mythological beasts are combinations of these four animals.  One of them is the Longgui or dragon turtle.  The creature is often depicted as a beast with the body of a turtle and the head of a dragon.  This is a combination that, you have to admit, kind of looks like Bowser.
The thing is that the Longgui is usually depicted as a positive force that symbolizes courage, determination, longevity, fertility, power and success.  Bowser is usually not such a positive force.  Though, you could argue that he’s still associated with power (especially if you’ve played Super Smash Bros.).

The Tanooki Suit
This one’s kind of an obvious one, but at some point I had to mention the presence of flying, shape-shifting raccoons in Super Mario Bros. 3.

It was always a bit of a puzzler when I was a kid (though we didn’t dwell on it if the game was fun).  In Super Mario Bros. 3, there were three power-ups that gave you a raccoon ears and tail and the ability to fly.  There was the Super Leaf, which gave you the ears and tail of a raccoon and let you fly if you got a running start.  There was the P-Wing, which gave you the ears and tail and let you fly regardless of hum much you ran.  Then there was the Tanooki Suit which dressed you head-to-toe like a raccoon, still required you to run for flight but also allowed you to turn into a statue.

You see, those raccoons weren’t raccoons.  They were tanuki, or raccoon dogs (the name “Tanooki Suit” was only a giveaway if you knew the language).  Raccoon dogs are animals native to Japan.  However, in Japanese folklore, they (as well as foxes and cats) are often given supernatural powers.  The tanuki in Japanese folklore is often depicted as a mischevious trickster.  It’s also depicted as a creature capable of any number of magical feats, one of which is shape-shifting.  One of the ways that the tanuki is shown to shape-shift is by placing a magic leaf on its head (like the Super Leaf in Super Mario Bros. 3).  Though the more supernatural tanuki started as a mischevious monster, he has since evolved in Japanese culture to a creature that’s sometimes shows good traits like paying back debts and encouraging generosity.
One major difference between the Super Mario Bros. 3 tanuki and the tanuki from Japanese folklore is that the power in the Super Mario 3 version seems to be particularly concentrated in the tail.  The power in the Japanese tanuki is mainly concentrated in . . . well . . . in the scrotum.  It’s complicated and actually has more to do with being a symbol of financial prosperity than fertility like you might think.  I’m just going to provide a link for future reading.

Thwomps, Thwimps and Whomps
This is another yokai one, as well as one associated with different enemy characters.  Starting in Super Mario Bros. 3, there was an enemy called the Thwomp which resembled a great block that would fall from the ceiling.  This villain would be used to either crush Mario or block his path.  In later games, they added Thwimps which were much, much smaller and would move in an arc to stop Mario.  Then, Super Mario 64, the Whomps were added.  These creatures were like walls that would block Mario and then try to fall on him.  They could only be defeated by being struck on one specific spot on their back.

All three of these baddies, especially the Whomps, have their prototype in a Japanese mythical creature called the nurikabe.  The nurikabe is a monster that takes the form of a wall to block or misdirect travelers.  Going around a nurikabe is supposed to be pointless because it can extend itself indefinitely.  The only way to get past the nurikabe is to strike it on a specific spot, just like the Whomps.
That’s all I’ve got for now, but before I end this I thought I’d point out one of the sources that was indispensible in writing this post.  They’re the videos of a youtuber called Gaijin Goombah.  He makes all sorts of videos about video games and culture.  Look, here’s one about the folklore connections to the coin ship from Super Mario Bros. 3.

Until next time, keep chasing that happily ever after.


  1. Ah Yōkai! (yo-kai, youkai 妖怪 ie "mystic apparition" or "mysterious calamity" - love that definition). Gotta love 'em. My son blames them for many incidents around our house!

    Loved your bit about moving between worlds - up and down. So true. The new Yo-kai Watch games play a lot with dimension and time too. It's an essential skill/method to complete the game, meet/collect all the various Yo-kai, and it seems they even expand on this idea of up and down - making it clearer to kids who play it. Interesting that kids are taught about inter-dimensional travel and parallel worlds as the order of things. Works well for discussions of folklore and fairy tales.

    You didn't mention Princess Peach being held by big baddie Bowser (sort of dragon-ish as you mentioned) in a castle and needing to be rescued, and how the typical fairy tale helpless princess narrative has changed a little but it's there - some games more than others - and it's interesting to see how this is changing with new iterations too.

    Fun and useful post for education too -thanks!

    1. Interesting to note, the Japanese use "Yokai" to mean any supernatural monster. So, vampires, werewolves and zombies are yokai to them.

      I didn't mention the captive princess thing because, honestly I didn't think of it. I actually associate it more with video games than with fairy tales. Though, I do see where you're coming from. I know it's present in at least one Appalachian Jack tale. Though, consider this. In both the original Super Mario Bros. and in many of the Legend of Zelda games, the reason that the princess has to be rescued is because they're the key to saving the kingdom and the people therein. The game manual for Super Mario Bros. says that Peach is the key to changing back Mushroom People who had been transformed by an evil spell. So, they do have power. It's just that before they use that power, either Mario or Link must free them. We can read into that a number of ways. Maybe as less a physical power and more of a spiritual one. Some have even theorized that Peach is more powerful than she looks and that she lets herself get captured for her own reasons (check out Gaijin Goombah's videos, you'll find it in there).

    2. What an awesome resource you are! Looks like Peach could use her own post. ;) There are a number of tales where the plight of the kingdom is directly entwined with the fate of the princess... (Such a fun rabbit hole to explore. I look forward to your post on Plants vs Zombies. ;)