Sunday, April 24, 2016

How Howard Phillips Gave Princess Peach to Little Gay Nerds

The TLDR version: My friend’s stepdad is responsible for Princess Peach being my gay nerd icon, because his actions resulted in her being a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2.


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.

In fact, I think I only came up with a reason relatively recently. When I was a kid, I had no idea I was gay. Looking back, me being gay helps explain a lot of things I did, and I think it might explain this. I knew I didn’t want to be a woman, but I something about playing as a female character in these games felt right because they represented an alternative to the overtly macho types that comprised the majority of the character select screen, especially in fighting games.

As a boy, I was expected to succeed at certain things that I was simply not cut out to do: sports, being handy with tools, exuding confidence, not crying at the drop of a hat and “boy play” with miniature cars or whatever the hell else is socially acceptable for male children to entertain themselves with. I failed constantly, and as a result, I felt like I was disappointing the people who had these expectations. The one stereotypically male pursuit I excelled at was video games, and something compelled me to do so as female characters because they could be every bit as successful as male characters, even if they didn’t look the part of a traditional hero.


Like Peach. Look at her. Farrah Fawcett flip, jewelry, a ball gown that’s wholly impractical for adventuring. She’s pink — so very pink — because there was a considerably long time in video games when most female characters were pink, just so there’d be no mistaking their gender. In short, Peach is kind of a big sissy, but so was I, in a lot of ways, and the fact that she was coded in this manner made her all the more attractive to me. While none of the other three heroes in Super Mario Bros. 2 were exactly Stud McBeefcake — come on, Toad is damn near genderless — there was no doubt from the first time I fired up that game that the princess would be my hero of choice. She still is.

Post-Lara Croft, post-Bayonetta, post-it becoming general knowledge that the dude from Metroid is actually a woman, Peach probably seems antiquated to a lot of gamers. She’s a vestige of an age in which female characters generally just yelled for help as the big bad carried them away. However, she’s also quite possibly the female character who’s been playable in the most games ever, and in my head, it makes her all the cooler than she can still be the best, on her own merits, neither because of or in spite of her unabashed girliness. Should you choose her to be, Peach can kill the monsters, win the race, score the winning shot and, in the case of Super Smash Bros., kick the stuffing out of everyone and anyone.

In case you’ve made it this far and don’t know, Smash Bros. features video game mascots fighting each other, and from the second game on, Peach has been a playable character. I’m ending on this note because it ties back to Howard Phillips and Super Mario Bros. 2. Each character fights using moves that originated in whatever game they’re representing, and Peach’s repertoire draws from Super Mario Bros. 2. She pulls turnips from the ground and tosses them at her opponents, for example, and she can float in midair, and both of these elements originated in my favorite game.


Now, even if Phillips hadn’t set into motion the chain of events that created the American Super Mario Bros. 2, it’s quite likely that Peach would have ended up playable in subsequent Mario games anyway. She’s the main female character, after all. But she wouldn’t have ended up the way she is now had it not been for Nintendo ultimately deciding to substitute Doki Doki Panic for the game released as Super Mario Bros. 2 outside Japan. Doki Doki Panic’s heroes, a jolly Arab family, were transformed into Mario characters.


Imajin, the main hero with the average stats, became Mario. Papa, the strong one, became Toad. Mama, who jumped high, became Luigi, and cute little sister Lina, who could hover in midair and who, yes, is clad in pink, became Peach. Lina and the rest of her family have since been relegated to footnotes in video game history, but every time someone plays as Peach in Smash Bros. and floats for a second in the air to trip up their opponent, they’re using Lina’s old move. Thanks to Phillips (and Nintendo (and Super Mario Bros. 2))), she’s not completely lost. She’s just hidden.

This is all a very roundabout history lesson, but it seemed important to me. It’s the little details that make given movie or TV show or whatever resonate with you for the rest of your life. I like that Princess Peach is a big, pink powderpuff of a character, and that she’ll probably always be that way. It clicked with me when I was a kid, and as strange as it might sound, I feel like it put me on a path to figuring myself out later in life, all in addition to shaping subsequent video games for decades to come. And it all happened because my friend’s stepdad made a decision. He would probably be surprised to know that it had any big effect on one little gay nerd in the middle of California, but I’m happy to put it out there.


Miscellaneous notes:
  • Earlier this month, I wrote did a post about Troop Beverly Hills and how Shelley Long’s character treats her femininity as an asset and not an obstacle. I would have seen Troop Beverly Hills at the height of my Super Mario Bros. 2 fixation, now that I think about it, and writing that piece probably resulted in this piece.
  • Nester did eventually make it outside the pages of Nintendo Power, even appearing in a few games. Most notably, he got his own game in 1996, the Virtual Boy title Nester’s Funky Bowling, where he appeared alongside not Howard but a girl version of him named Hester.
  • You may remember Katherine as the owner of the dog who fell victim to a hilarious skunkening last year. She currently hosts a delightful but suggestively named podcast about food history.
  • The history behind how the American Super Mario Bros. 2 came to exist is explained in beautiful detail in Jon Irwin’s 2014 book, and if you loved the game half as much as I did, you may also enjoy this deep dig into it. Game Historian also has a good video on the history of Mario 2.
  • Peach may be the most famous playable character in a Nintendo game, but she’s not the first. Metroid came out two years before, though many players wouldn’t have realized its hero, Samus, was female. Mach Rider, which came out a year before Metroid, might also have a female hero, and then there’s Bubbles, the anthropomorphic goldfish hero of Clu Clu Land, which came out in 1984, even before Mach Rider, though there’s hardly much about Bubbles to identify her even as a goldfish much less a female one.
  • Two unheralded NES-era with female protagonists: The Krion Conquest and Ghost Lion, one of which stars a girl who may or may not be Kathy Santoni from Full House.
  • Finally, my love for female heroes made me fall in love with Athena, a SNK game that was ported to the NES. It’s not great, I realize in retrospect. Bad play control and punishing difficulty, but the lead character is girly as hell, and at one point you could transform into a mermaid. I was hooked, in spite of it all.

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