Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Who Put the “P” in the P-Wing?

Like many kids, I played Super Mario Bros. 3 until my fingers hurt. During all that time spent in front of a television sent, fingers a-twiddling, I had an opportunity to think. One of the things that has bugged me about that game is a very special item called the P-Wing that allowed Mario to fly over a given stage, avoiding injury and the certain death that bottomless pits bring. But why was it called P-Wing? What does that “P” stand for?

These are questions that seemed quite pressing to a child. Now, as a 27-year-old, I’ve finally gotten the answer. (Though I kind of forgot I was looking for this answer for roughly seventeen years. So there’s that.) has a regular feature called Iwata Asks, in which Nintendo president Satoru Iwata talks to the people who develop Nintendo games and has them walk him through the history of a given franchise or staple video game element. It’s basically as close to director’s commentary as video games can get. The release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii last month prompted a discussion on the history of the Mario franchise that yielded some cool tidbits, including that Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, initially wanted to call him Mr. Video and that the Goombas — those ambulatory mushrooms, quietly villainous and so easily stomped — are, in fact, shitakes. (That latter bit might be kind of a “no duh” to anyone with eyes and a basic understanding of what mushrooms look like, but the Japanese name for the critter translates more or less to “chestnut people,” leading some to think they were chestnuts with legs. Chestnuts with legs! The insanity of it!)

I might not have even had a look at these interviews had I not seen a tip-off at game blog Destructoid, which noted that the P-Wing was to Super Mario Bros. 3 what a new function called the Super Guide is to New Super Mario Bros. Wii: a means of helping unskilled players clear difficult levels and proceeding with the game. For the former, it allowed them to flit right over the hard parts. For the latter, it allows the computer to play through the level, demonstrating how to clear obstacles.

Destructoid didn’t note it, but the article also answered how the P-Wing, this item for baby players with clumsy little starfish hands got its name. Nintendo veteran Toshihiko Nakago is explaining the physics of flying in Super Mario Bros. 3 — which, by the way, involves a raccoon tail and ears, just like we now use today — and how normally Mario would need to get a good running start before he could take off.

I’m not sure who came up with the name, but we all referred to this as “the runway.” So at that point, we looked again at the maps and completely reworked the levels so that Mario would have places where he could take off from. In the end, we made it so that if you got an item called the P-Wing, which was the Koopa Paratroopa’s wing, you could fly through the whole level.
So there you go. The item — a wing with an otherwise mysterious “P” on it — comes from the Paratroopa enemy, hence the initial. The Koopa Paratroopa — a winged turtle whose name is a pretty obvious pun on paratrooper — has been airborne ever since the original Super Mario Bros., and it’s his wing that makes the P-Wing-powered Mario so ready for flight… even though he’s still flying with raccoon parts.

The funny thing about the “P” behind the P-Wing is that it’s probably a coincidence that this explanation of its name ended up working out sensibly in English. In Japan, the Paratroopa is called Patapata, which comes from the Japanese onomatopoeia for a pattering noise — usually of feet but apparently in this case for the flapping of wings. It just so happens, then, that the Japanese and English names for this thing happen to start with the same letter. The rest of the characters’ Japanese and English names don’t, by the way, and those translating the original game clearly didn’t take initial letters into account when they dreamed up English-friendly names for the characters.

Regardless, that settles that about that “P.” Eight-year-old me would be so satisfied. Current me: slightly less so, I suppose, but happy nonetheless.

So… What, then, does the “P” on the balloon power-up in Super Mario World stand for?

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