I’d wager it’s strange for anyone to live in Los Angeles, but it’s especially weird when you were that certain type of lonely kid who used pop culture to relate to the world around you, just because this dumb city happens to be where a lot of that stuff originated. Stay here long enough, and you may end up bumping into one of the people responsible for some movie or TV show that hit you on a personal level. So far, I’ve had a few interactions with people where I had to temporarily dump journalistic pretense and say, “By the way, thank you — that thing you did helped me feel less broken.”
Back at the 2012 Indiecade in Culver City, I met Howard Phillips, a guy who shaped the childhoods of many young video game nerds by being the Nintendo’s first American employee and its unofficial ambassador to the U.S. I originally knew him from Howard & Nester, the Nintendo Power comic that had a cartoon version of him alongside Nester, the magazine’s mascot and a character Phillips himself created.
|via the howard & nester comics archive|
At Indiecade, the non-cartoon Howard Phillips was meeting and greeting a lot of people who, like me, grew up playing Nintendo games and realized that he helped shape their experiences. And I got to talk to him a little more than the average fan because I’m friends with his stepdaughter Katherine. She and I worked together at the time, and she had once bragged that her stepdad was the Game Master. I initially assumed she meant Captain N: The Game Master and that she was crazy, but she explained that “the Game Master” was one of Phillips’ monikers during his Nintendo heyday and that she therefore grew up having a level of access to Nintendo products that would have made my head explode. When I got a few extra minutes to speak with Phillips as Indiecade, the conversation veered into Super Mario Bros. 2, which was my favorite game — a fact that should already be known to you if you read my blog.
Phillips happens to be the person who informed Nintendo of Japan execs that the “true” sequel to the original Super Mario Bros. was too difficult for American players. And while there was a lot of doing on the part of Nintendo’s Japanese developers to transform a game called Doki Doki Panic into something that starred Mario and Luigi, the impetus, as I’ve understood the story, was this single decision my friend’s stepdad. When I spoke to him, I’m not sure I truly grasped that had it not been for him, this weird game with vegetable-plucking, magic carpets and a curious preponderance of masks probably wouldn’t have become part of my life. But more than just that, Super Mario Bros. 2 is important because it was the first game in the series that let you play as Princess Peach.
Back then, Peach was still known as Princess Toadstool, but she was otherwise the same character we have today: blond and wearing a tiara but nonetheless able to fight the bad guys as effectively as Mario and Luigi could. She was a captive in the first Super Mario Bros. and again in Super Mario Bros. 3 — and in fact when news of that later game came trickling out in the pages of Nintendo Power, I remember thinking, “It’s weird how they’re only showing screens with Mario and Luigi,” because why the hell would Nintendo ditch one of the best parts of the previous game with this new fancy sequel? But that’s exactly what Nintendo did. It would take until the Super Nintendo to see Peach playable again — but only in spinoffs like Super Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2007’s Super Paper Mario that she would be allowed into the side-scrolling, hop-and-bop action of the original titles, and it wouldn’t be until 2013’s Super Mario 3D World, which is in many ways a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 2, that you could play as her in a “real,” non-spinoff Mario game.
(EDIT: It’s been pointed out that I forgot to mention 2005’s Super Princess Peach, the game that had the princess using her rapidly changing emotions as weapons — angry fire, pouring water for sad tears, etc. It’s possible I just wanted to forget it.)
In Super Mario Bros. 2, you could select which character you wanted to venture through each level, and on many occasions I’d play the whole thing through as Peach, just because I could and especially because I didn’t have to play as a male character if I didn’t want to. As time went on, I’d default to the female character in any game that gave the option. In Street Fighter II, I was Chun-Li. In Mortal Kombat, I was Sonya. In Donkey Kong County 2, I would routinely pick Dixie Kong and her whirling helicopter ponytail over Diddy Kong, the male counterpart who had no magic ponytail.
Growing up in a more rural, more conservative town, this was well and good for home console gaming but slightly awkward in public at arcades. I can remember going to a pizza parlor birthday party and bouncing from Darkstalkers (where I played as Felicia, the oversexualized cat-girl) to Tekken (where I played as Anna, a brassy female fatale who fights in an evening gown). This prompted one of the other kids to ask, “Why do you always play as the girl?” That was a scary question. I felt like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have, and I think I weaseled out of answering by lying about these characters being the best ones per all those video game magazines I read. But I honestly didn’t know what the motivation was at the time. I liked playing as female characters but couldn’t explain why.