December 3, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Meme-ready cats meet the moment in an underplayed Mario game

As one of the world’s most invasive species, it was only a matter of time before cats found their way to the inhabitants of the Mushroom Kingdom.

And when they arrived in 2013’s “Super Mario 3D World,” cats, just as they did when they came as stowaways on boats to new worlds, immediately asserted their dominance among the members of the local population. It’s fitting, of course, that this vicious animal — cats, recent studies have estimated, are responsible for more than 1 billion bird deaths a year in America — would not simply be subservient to Mario, Luigi, Peach and other stars of the “Super Mario Bros.” games.

No, cats would bend the game to their will, resulting in one of the greatest but least played “Super Mario” games ever made. To date, Nintendo reports “Super Mario 3D World” has sold 5.86 million copies, a hearty amount for a normal video game, but disappointing for a key Nintendo brand, especially one starring Mario and Luigi. For comparison, the Nintendo Switch showcase “Super Mario Odyssey” has tallied more than 20 million in sales.

Cat details abound in this all-around cutesy addition to the “Super Mario Bros.” franchise. Mario villains are re-imagined with upright, triangular ears, and levels are meant to be climbed and pounced upon. This results in a design that’s as vertical as it is horizontal and is also peppered with plenty of cat-friendly nooks. While it’s delightful to see Mario and Peach don a cat suit — yes, they make cat noises — the game has always worked as well it has because its levels are designed as if they were elaborate cat trees.

Climb up, go right, now down — ooh, look, a hiding spot! Mario games, over the years, have increasingly become about exploration as much as running and jumping, and “3D World” celebrates the player’s tendency to ask questions: Can I run up here? Can I swat this? Can I go behind that? The answer here is almost always yes.

When “Super Mario 3D World” was released, it had quite a bit going against it. For one, it arrived on Nintendo’s poorly received and poor-selling Wi U console. Second, it came out around the same time as Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, so regardless of how a-meowz-ing (sorry) this “Super Mario” installment was, it was destined to be overlooked and underplayed.

Thankfully, the flourishing reissue market, which Nintendo has strategically exploited with “Mario,” “Zelda” and “Pikmin” rereleases, has restored one of “Super Mario 3D World‘s” nine lives (the cat puns are almost out of my system, I promise).

And now, in 2021, it comes exclusively to the Switch with even more to ponder, complete with a new, free-roaming kibble-size game in “Bowser’s Fury,” in which a giant, Godzilla-like Bowser rains lava on Mario and his unlikely partner, Bowser Jr. The latter is distraught at the existential anger suddenly coursing through his father and turns to Mario for help.

Bowser is in the midst of an existential, anger-driven crisis in “Bowser’s Fury.”

(Nintendo)

If you take a moment and think about it, that all starts to get a bit dark.

Little Bowser Jr. is clearly upset that pops has gone full-on abusive. Anger, in 2021, is easy to come by, and battling a paralyzing emotion feels more of-the-moment than probably anything in any prior Mario game to date. Mario immediately takes sympathy, and it all serves as a reminder that as Nintendo games have gotten longer, better looking and smarter, we’ve also started to get a peek into the philosophy of the “Super Mario Bros.” games.

“Super Mario 3D World” has long been my second favorite in the 35-year-old series, for reasons I’ll continue to unpack, behind only the Switch’s 2017 masterpiece “Super Mario Odyssey.” Through the help of a magic hat, “Odyssey” allowed Mario to become other characters and objects, and at long last he started to see himself as something more than an overachieving plumber locked in endless battles with Bowser.

Bowser, of course, has never really been a so-called “good” nemesis — his creepy fascination with Princess Peach furthered sexist, damsel-in-distress stereotypes. In recent years, however, he’s been more of a troll. In “Super Mario 3D World,” Bowser sets things off by kidnapping a bunch of colorful fairy-like princess creatures called Sprixies seemingly just because. (I can practically hear him holler, “If you think kidnapping one princess is offensive, wait till I kidnap a whole group of them!”)

To get academic for a moment, I’ve long considered “Super Mario 3D World” to be inspired by and a reply to the internet, specifically how it’s affecting our responses to the world around us. See, for instance, its use of online culture’s meme-beloved cats, or its overabundance of tubes, which send Mario and pals zipping from deserts to grassy plains to haunted houses to icy cliffs faster than a Google search. While Mario has long been able to transform into other animals via powerful suits, the raccoon-like tanooki suit never felt born of a trend in the same way.

Then there’s Bowser, back with his castle and his obnoxious vintage car, a grotesque thing that’s all purple and spikes and looks like an ice cream cone with exhaust pipes and candy corn. No one would drive this, but it would look neat in an Instagram photo. Bowser is basically just an online bully, harassing Mario and Co. simply for living differently. It’s easy to imagine he spends his non-kidnapping time reading Reddit, at least that’s my explanation for his irrational rages at everything in “Bowser’s Fury.”

In fact, “Bowser’s Fury” is a Mario game that seems perfectly suited to our anything-goes, short-attention-span world of social media chaos, where Mario and Bowser Jr. can be running up towers and sliding down grassy slopes with a bunch of pink, blue and green cats, only to be interrupted out of nowhere by Bowser’s silly tantrums. Bowser will eventually disappear — he’ll come back at random intervals — but ignore him all we might and he will aim fireball after after fireball at us until we’re forced to respond.

The bulk of the game is essentially Mario and Bowser Jr. trying to clean up Lake Lapcat (yes, that’s what the world is called), when suddenly Bowser arrives to get all up in their mentions with fireballs to ruin everyone’s day. But collect a few powerups and, faster than Mario can tweet “send me cute pet pics,” he’ll turn into a giant cat.

Cuteness abounds in "Super Mario 3D World."

Cuteness abounds in “Super Mario 3D World.”

(Nintendo)

This, while not only turning Mario into full-on internet cat maximalism, will allow him, with a few well-timed jumps, to begin to fight back against the oversize Bowser, all the while freeing up more of this cat paradise from Bowser’s grip (aside: Nintendo’s attention to detail in Lake Lapcat is lovely, as there are cat hieroglyphics dotted throughout to hint at a once-ancient feline civilization).

Compared to the core game of “Super Mario 3D World,” which, though on rails, manages to feel relatively free-form in its depiction of cozy running, pawing and pouncing, “Bowser’s Fury” is wide-open noise and action, an experiment in which we move at will among locales rather than enter in and out of levels. Combined, however, they show us that there’s one thing a bully and a troll can’t stand: adorability.

Cuteness wins, yes, but with “Bower’s Fury” taking the franchise into more emotional realms, let’s hope that some vulnerability, if not full-on therapy, is next for the ever-expanding world of “Super Mario Bros.”