A philosophical look at Super Mario Brothers, part I: Who has the power?
One cannot doubt Mario’s innate abilities. For a short stocky man with only a modest blue collar plumbing background, he harbors truly astounding athletic talents. First, he has the remarkable ability to jump several times his own height: from a flat standing position, he can jump about three times his height; with just a bit of a running start he can leap much higher and farther; and from a crouch can reach heights still more impressive. Further, he can easily maneuver himself in mid-air to alter his flight path. He can endure numerous physical injuries, including (but not limited to) numerous blows to the head, electrocution, falling onto spikes, animal bites, giant hammer blows, and squashings. He can hold his breath underwater for a few minutes, even while enjoying a vigorous swim (and can harvest meager air bubbles or even metabolize undersea coins to obtain more oxygen). He can carry thousands of star bits or coins the size of his head without any affect on his physical performance (one wonders, in fact, just where he keeps all of them, even with all the pockets a denim jumper affords; but this is another discussion). And most impressive, he can even reincarnate his physical being, instantaneously, upon actual physical death, provided only that he has an extra small green mushroom on hand (and even if he doesn’t, he can still be reincarnated, it just takes a bit longer and he might re-appear at another location). He can do all this while wearing a binding animal suit. He can do all of this without losing his hat.
All that said, and with all due reverence to this tiny, god-like man, the fact of the matter is that a large portion of his success must be due to the laughable incompetence of his principal adversary. Perhaps one of Mario’s greatest assets is the ability to pick his enemies, yes? For every one of Mario’s fantastic talents there is an equally terrible strategic decision made by Bowser.
Bowser boasts an intimidating physical presence and apparent vast wealth. He has castles upon castles, unchallenged leadership over a realm of minions, some terrific architects and engineers on staff, a large happy family, and an obvious flair for design. But rather than enjoy his privileged status, he is instead consumed by an irrational desire to control something he cannot have: the life of Princess Toadstool. Why this obsession burns within him is never clear. It cannot be for money. One could argue that he seeks only more power: the Mushroom Kingdom would be an impressive holding; however, Bowser seems to make few plays for it other than kidnapping its monarch and gloating over the accomplishment, rather than using the opportunity to institute any policy changes. No–I believe his motivation must be purely personal. His only goal seems to be symbolic. The Princess is always treated well. He makes no demands on the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom. He simply laughs at being able to kidnap her over and over again–it smacks of being a simple diversion for someone endlessly rich and bored.
Here we arrive at the first lamentable strategic decision made by Bowser. Rather than stash the Princess away and consider the feat a job well done, he cannot help but boast of his work. Even the act of kidnapping the Princess shows Bowser’s interest in being noticed. The most recent kidnappings have been earth-quaking demonstrations of largess calling grand attentions on his misdeeds. No quiet smuggling her away in the night with a threatening ransom note for Bowser. He wants everyone in the Mushroom Kingdom to know what he’s done and much evidence suggests that Bowser even encourages Mario to attempt a rescue.
This falls into line with the “for entertainment” theory. Should Mario shrug and say, “I’ve warned her repeatedly to beef up her personal security. I’ve lost too many lives pursuing her for reward no better than a slice of cake and a kiss on the cheek. This is someone else’s problem”, Bowser would undoubtedly find this infuriatingly out-of-bounds. Given that Bowser has it entirely within his power to assassinate the Princess or leverage her kidnapping to get something else, we must assume that he does all of this only to spur Mario into action, so the game can once again commence. For his part, Mario must take on this task yet again or risk real retribution from Bowser. He can’t simply leave her be, he must rescue her. Even though with his powers and Bowser’s strategic failings, he knows for certain he will succeed, yet he is still forced to go through with the task, like just another of life’s endless rote errands. But the point, from Bowser’s perspective, is that Mario has to do this. In this way, Bowser does indeed wield true power over a god.
*A detailed account of Bowser’s strategic failings
*Theories on Mario’s abilities