This article marks my one year anniversary at Retroware, and since I already dedicated a post to the guy who convinced my to apply, I thought I’d dedicate this one to the guy who’s always believed in me – a friend who’s favorite SNES game was Super Mario World. As I replayed the game to gear up for this article (which was really hard to do with GTA V and Pokemon X/Y sitting in my room, taunting me), I remembered why I loved the game too. This was a simpler time, with little more to the game than pattern recognition. And in its own way, I’ve grown fond of the game because the thought process I approach with beating it is not far off from small lessons I’ve learned from basic Taoism, a religion/philosophy based on living in harmony with the world around you.
I should provide the disclaimer that this is obviously not a full or complete Taoist depiction at all, but rather an intro to encourage further reading. That said, let’s start with Mario.
Mario fits quite nicely with the image of what Taoism calls the P’u, or the Uncarved Block – a simple-minded, blank slate of a person that accomplishes things because he is simple-minded. Here, this is far from synonymous with stupid, but rather someone who just is. In real life, there are many that are something or do something to appear wise, gain status, atone for something, or sometimes just to have the satisfaction of complaining. But the Uncarved Block, simple beyond other intentions, simply does something for the sake of enjoying it, or is something because of basic nature. The Uncarved Block is able to enjoy and utilize the plain, embrace the quiet, and do things spontaneously in ways that just work for some reason. And all of these characteristics play a vital role in pattern recognition games like Super Mario, which require the patience to understand what’s going on, and a little spontaneity to get past unexpected obstacles – along with the simple enjoyment of learning as you go. Perfectionists and completionists will not quite finish the game as quickly, for obvious reasons, much less the abrasive ones that just want to complain about how difficult something is.
Which brings us to our next small analogy: the Tao itself. Tao literally translates to the “way” or “principle,” but in the context of Taoism it is the ineffable source and driving force of the universe; to define it would be to limit it, the same way a Christian would describe God (Often there’s an expression: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao”). While impossible to fully describe the full intentions of the Tao, most Taoists have the understanding that the Tao, like the Uncarved Block, simply is; things just happen the way they do, often at the right time. The easiest way for struggles of life to become insurmountable, frustrating, or discouraging is to resist circumstance, pitying oneself or convincing oneself that something isn’t the way life ought to be.
This is where Super Mario World becomes more relevant as a point of discussion than other Mario platformers, most notably newer versions like New Super Mario Bros. Wii. These games have simplified puzzles in certain areas in light of complaints over the years, and have also offers assistance that becomes available if you lose too many lives trying to get past a certain obstacle. But SNES games like Super Mario World often didn’t have these things. There was no way to change the game to make it easier if the levels were too difficult; there was no “this shouldn’t be this way” mentality that could influence anything. The only way to finish a given level was to simply keep going, work with circumstance, and learn from mistakes. Through the eyes of SNES Mario, there were no mistakes; only learning experiences. And this, in a sense, is a strong taoist ideal.
This sense of humility, the idea that one is not entitled for things to be easier but should rather work with circumstance, is one of the Three Treasures, the three virtues emphasized in most general schools of Taoism (in . Compassion, another of the Three Treasures, played a role previously unseen in Mario games: you could sacrifice your own lives to give the second player (or first player) extra lives. We can all remember a time when we played Super Mario World as a duo of one veteran gamer and one new player, and how great it felt to give the newer player (or receive as the new player) extra lives when in peril. Not only that, but the new player could work towards progress while the veteran farmed for lives or pursued ! block switches to open new pathways.
Frugality, the final of the Three Treasures, was never necessary but could certainly make circumstance easier. In Super Mario World, you could hold a limited stock of one item at any time, and use or dispose of said item at any time. More often than not most just let the game drop the item automatically when damaged to save health, but with practice one could play in such a way that conserved an item to take it to levels where the item would be more useful, often a level that doesn’t offer that item at all. Taking a feather to levels that didn’t offer one meant fewer well timed jumps and a little buffer of damage – but of course, not everyone played that way.
Mario, the Uncarved Block, the silent protagonist with usually only one blank minded face, makes the perfect protagonist in this game as a Taoist. We may complain that a level is too hard, or think twice before saving an item or handing over a few lives, but Mario doesn’t. If we, his driving force, tell him to save or spend, he does. If we tell him to risk his life leaping cliffs for Yoshi babies and Toadstool, he will. He never complains, or questions it. To him, that’s the way life is, and he embraces it.
And when we can as well, these games – among other things in life – become more tolerable, then doable, then even fun.