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In Defense of Super Mario Bros. – Faithful ‘Til the Bitter End

humble hopes for Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, I have to say I was still quite disappointed when I finally caught a viewing of it last week. It wasn’t the ham-fisted acting I disliked, nor the sloppy direction. Ultimately it’s the fact that the movie shares nothing in common with its source material that turned me against it.

I wondered: is faithfulness what sets the so-bad-they’re-good video game flicks apart from the so-bad-they’re-bad ones? The first adaptation I ever saw was Super Mario Bros. (1993). Referred to as a “nightmare” by star Bob Hoskins, the $48 million would-be blockbuster was critically slaughtered upon release and failed to make back even half its budget. As one of the first true video-game-to-film adaptations, it spoke poorly of the interactive medium’s crossover potential. It is as widely reviled by moviegoers as it is amongst most fans of the original games.

And yet, for me, Super Mario Bros. remains a satisfying movie experience to this day — not because it tells a particularly good story (it most assuredly does not), but because it is shockingly, hilariously faithful to the game. Not that everyone agrees with me on this point: “Luigi should have a mustache,” younger gamers cried, presumably while shaking their Cheeto-stained fists and wheezing heavily. But trust me when I say those gamers know not of what they speak.

Dennis Hopper as King Koopa
Postmodern interpretations of King Koopa, the reptile villain of the Mario series, tend to paint him in a more favorable light than what may have been originally intended. Rather than being an evil, lecherous warlord, today’s gamers argue that perhaps Koopa is merely a benevolent and confused despot whose own stupidity dooms him more than anything else.

If this intepretation is to be believed, then Dennis Hopper’s portrayal of Koopa in the movie is nothing short of perfect. Hopper shambles around the screen, confused and visibly irritated, in what he would later explain as a role he took “so [my son] could have shoes.” Only barely hiding a layer of unrepentant loathing for every line he’s forced to utter, Hopper is the very personification of bumbling confusion. He is the embodiment of every deconstructionist theory of King Koopa in the last decade by the sheer force of his own bewilderment.

When Hopper told his son why he took the role, his son echoed the complaints of the movie’s detractors, stating simply, “I don’t need shoes that badly.”

More References Than You Can Shake a Cliché at
Though the movie works in references to its source material in remarkably strange and roundabout ways, those references nonetheless exist: Snifits, the gas mask-wearing enemies from Mario 2, appear as garbage collectors; Yoshi, Bob-Ombs, and Bullet Bills all make brief but important cameo appearances; even Big Bertha, the all-consuming fish from Mario 3, makes an appearance: She’s the large black woman with jet boots and a spiky red costume.

Like I said — strange and roundabout ways.

A Single Contribution to Canon
For all the weird liberties the movie takes, one scene in particular still managed to change the Mario universe forever. After being arrested by Koopa’s police, the brothers divulge their full names: Mario Mario and Luigi Mario. That’s right — their last names are “Mario,” too.

Suddenly, everything makes sense: Why would a pair of siblings be labeled by one brother’s first name? The actual meaning of the phrase “Mario Brothers” had been staring gamers in the face for decades, yet it took a John Leguizamo movie to bring its true significance to the forefront. While gamers may have ignored everything else about the picture in the intervening years, this one addition to canon has endured due to its sheer, simple logic.

But Don’t Take My Word for It…
Even the creator of the original game series, Shigeru Miyamoto, has this to say about the flick:

“The one thing that I still have some regrets about is that the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself.”

Allow me to translate: The movie is crap, but it’s crap because it’s so faithful to the game. As far as insults go, that’s not too bad. But go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong.

Anthony Burch is the features editor for and the co-writer and director of the video series, “Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’?” He’s also working on his first artgame, which should be done sooner or later. Probably later.

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