As everybody knows, the internet was invented to give people a chance to argue endlessly about subjects that don’t really matter. A while back, a stumbled onto one of these.
Below is a screenshot of a beta version of Mario Kart 64. If you’ve actually played the game, you might notice that it looks different than what eventually arrived on the Nintendo 64. The character models look different, a little more cartoony, and Donkey Kong isn’t there. In his place is a Magikoopa — one of those wizard turtles who occasionally show up in Mario games. I found it here, and people using this message board couldn’t agree whether this character was just a generic Magikoopa or a specific one — Kamek, a character introduced as a bad guy in the game Yoshi’s Island.
I know, I know — God bless the internet. It’s like bickering over whether Greedo shot first, only without the widespread interest. That’s what I get for wandering onto the official Nintendo message boards.
The argument, however stupid, raises a point about translation differences in video games and the Japanese sense of the self. The latter is a concept that doesn’t readily translate to the American brain. A person or a creature can simultaneously be an individual and all members of its group. A little heady for something that grew out of an message board argument about Mario Kart, but it’s true.
Think about Pokémon, if you happen to have been exposed enough to it. It’s mascot is Pikachu, who is an individual character, but Pikachu is also a race of characters, who looks exactly like Pikachu and are all called Pikachu. It doesn’t jive with the American notion of celebrated individuality — “I’m the best me there is!” — but it’s nonetheless accurate.
The answer to the Mario Kart argument is that the would-be kart-driving turtle is both Kamek and a generic Magikoopa. (“Stop, you’re all right. And you’re all losers.”) Kamek is an unique character in the west, for sure, but in his home country, he’s known as Kamekku, but so are all the generic, non-talking, quickly stomped Magikoopas. In short, the Japanese make no distinction.
Since the above beta screenshot is the closest Kamek or any of his generic counterparts got to being playable in Mario Kart, most casual video game players probably have no idea who is, but the self-as-all concept applies to some of the better known Mario characters as well.
For example, Yoshi is Yoshi, the sticky-tongued, green dinosaur buddy who has followed Mario around since Super Mario World. But at the same time, a Yoshi is also the entire race of dinosaur characters that look just like Yoshi, except when they’re colors other than green. And even when they’re other colors, they’re still called Yoshi. It’s very strange, when you think about it.
Maybe Yoshi isn’t the best example. Take Birdo. She’s the pink dinosaur — though Yoshi can be pink sometimes, so don’t get them confused. (This is the least of the identity problems these two bipedal lizards share.) Birdo herself isn’t even always pink, however; she shows up in other games in all manner of shades and sometimes even shows up onscreen in multiples. They’re all Birdo, even if none of them happen to be the Birdo.
Likewise again with Toad. Little generic Toads showed up as far back as the original Super Mario Bros., but only with Super Mario Bros. 2 did he get the name “Toad.” They’re everywhere now, but they’re not always necessarily the Toad, except when they are. All Toads look the same, to a degree. At the very least, there’s a ton with blue vests and red mushroom spots. This last one is further complicated by the fact that latter-day Mario games now feature the old man version of Toad, Toadsworth, and a girl version of Toad, Toadette. They don’t appear in multiples, however, so it seems like they exist as are unique characters. That is, all female Toads aren’t called Toadettes and all old man Toads aren’t Toadsworths.
At least we can all rest easy knowing that there’s only one Mario — except when you’re playing something like Smash Bros. and there are multiples of him on screen, but that’s a different logical snag.