One of the greatest aspects of Retroware TV is the nostalgic catharsis of looking backwards — in addition to fond memories, we also experience the game anew because of new perspectives gained over time. But even with our favorites, the ones we play in sickness and in health, it’s hard not to apply some of the more critical thought processes we gain as we grow. In my most recent playthrough of Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, I questioned something that I had never considered as a child playing this game: how sexist is Mario RPG? Could some of the moments in this game have passed censors in this day and age? In light of these musings, I’d like to start discussion with an article critiquing Mario RPG from a feminist perspective: in short, the portrayal of female characters in this game is ahead of the game compared to other Mario iterations, but ultimately still leaving a little to be desired.
Compared to other Super Mario games, the game is years ahead of its time in some relevant elements, most notably the fact that Princess Toadstool’s primary purpose is not to sit there, kidnapped and waiting for Mario to save her again (granted, this happens, but it’s not quite the endgame as much as it is a callback joke and catalyst for the plot). This happens in virtually every other Mario game — and the only other exception to this trope of the Mario universe, Super Princess Peach, is laughably just as insulting if not more, given Toadstool’s entire arsenal involves using tears, rage, or other emotions as her source for powerups. Additionally, the game is stupidly simple compared to other platformers, bombarding the player with hints along the way just in case the game was still too difficult. Despite the intention behind the role reversal, they shot themselves in the foot by making the game marketed to girls so offensive; in just one game, the developers managed to imply girl gamers were bad at platformers, and comically emotional to a fault.
In Mario RPG, however, the Princess battles on the front lines alongside Mario. Upon initial observation, she most obviously plays the role of the healer — a problematic stereotype perpetuating the implication that the woman must play a supporting role. Though the game does try to mitigate this implication slightly; Mallow and Geno both can provide supporting roles through healing or stat-boosting, and Toadstool does offer offensive potential as well, dealing as much damage with her final weapon as Bowser or Geno. Admittedly, this weapon is a Frying Pan, so the developers can only really take so much credit in calling this progressive. Not only that, but her penultimate weapons include the Slap Glove, the War Fan, and the Parasol, which also kind of feed preconceived gender roles and stereotypes. And despite being so powerful, she still gets kidnapped twice in the game, waiting for Mario to save her each time rather than taking any action of her own. Her real potential as a fighting partner, ally, or even remotely intelligent human being doesn’t really show until after the second rescue.
As a character within the party, Toadstool is a bit more of a go-getter than her usual kidnapped self. When the Chancellor tells her that Mario’s quest is too dangerous for her, she pretends to comply and then sneaks out a the first available opportunity — a complete “Take that” to the Chancellor (one that makes you wonder why she didn’t do that with Booster or Bowser). She’s also known to have moments for lecturing Mario/the player for irrationally stupid or inconsiderate actions, like running off to Star Hill instead of immediately reporting to the Chancellor once her initial rescue is completed.
The game also gets points for making stereotypically female characterizations noticeable in the male characters as well — a subtle yet crucial distinction between “Ha, females do this,” and “Ha, people do this.” Bowser and Mallow, both adult male characters and eventual allies to the team, cry and become emotional just as much if not more than Toadstool — and as mentioned before, Geno and Mallow both play supporting roles in battle as well as offensive roles. Not only that, but other characters besides Toadstool become kidnapping fodder throughout the game, including the King and Queen of Nimbus Land and a few members of Bowser’s Koopa Troop.
But to really analyze this game, we need to look at characters besides Toadstool. Anyone looking for a quick Bechdel Test affirmation of this game will immediately look to Valentina as the other prominent female character — an antagonist taking over Mallow’s hometown using a fake fiance named Dodo as a face for her political agenda. Valentina gets points for being an independent driving force in spite of the male dominated world, but loses points in aesthetics; the powerful high positioned woman is quickly overshadowed by just how much her breasts jiggle (and considering jiggle physics with more recent games, I can’t imagine how much effort the programmers must have put into this SNES game to make this remotely possible).
Queen Nimbus comes to mind as another semi-memorable named female character, if only for the fact that her recurring gag is being the obvious brains of the operation between the royal couple. The stereotype “Behind every great man is a greater woman rolling her eyes” is perpetuated in this game with interactions between King and Queen Nimbus, Valentina and Dodo, Booster and Toadstool, and to a certain extent Bowser and Toadstool. Stupid males kind of run amok in this game, actually, with exception to Geno.
With other feminist game bloggers, the positive attributes are credited to Square, who typically has a better track record with strong female protagonists. Final Fantasy VI, for example, has several strong female characters in the main party, none of which are noticeably defined by their relationships with men in the party or elsewhere. Parasite Eve, a game based on the Japanese novel and film, was another game by Square which featured multiple female characters, none of which defined by stereotypes or relations to men. Each Eve had unique personalities and powers, which were the driving force of the game. Compared to Nintendo games, Square was a bit ahead of the game, which adds some credibility to claims that Nintendo’s track record leaves a bit to be desired even with the positive gender portrayals of Mario RPG.
So in general, the game has its moments both ways. Valentina is an obvious sexual object, and Toadstool retains a few negative stereotypes, but the game also features many female characters with more active, independent attributes and male characters with passive, less macho aspects. Not only that, but the game gives off the vibe that the females of the Mario universe are obviously more intelligent than the males. As it is, the game had a few minor tweaks in later Virtual Console versions, and as much as I love this game for its ahead-of-its-time gameplay, I wouldn’t mind a few minor changes to make the game less offensive in future iterations. It’s hard to ask a classic to change its ways, but even works like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory even had to take the pygmies out of the book at some point — despite how purists can be up in arms about change, eventually the changes are forgotten (seriously, who remembers the Oompa Loompas as pygmies?). And updating a timeless game to make it less gender biased would only make it that much more timeless, throwing away dated sexism for a modern audience.