When you talk to gamers of my generation, when you ask them about the first video games they played, or the first video games they owned, you’re going to hear a couple names quite frequently. If you were to poll a hundred people born between 1980 and 1990 about some of the most memorably and influential video games of their childhood, I would be shocked if you didn’t hear Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES or Super Mario World for the SNES come up more than once. For a lot of people, when it comes to Nintendo’s Mascot, these are the gold standards of the franchise. For an entire segment of the population, these are the most played and most beloved video games, the one that they remember coming home from school to play.
My childhood was a little different.
Until I was about thirteen or so, we didn’t have any major gaming consoles in the house, meaning that I didn’t own an NES or SNES growing up. And while I got to play those games at friends’ and relatives’ homes, they weren’t the Mario games I played most often as a kid. You may be wondering, “Oh, how did you play Mario if you didn’t have video games?”
Hey, I said I didn’t own a major console. I didn’t say ANYTHING about video games. At some point, probably around 1990 since we had them as far back as I can remember, my grandparents got each of my siblings and me a Game Boy. So while many of my friends were off trying to rescue Princess Toadstool from the clutches of Bowser, and talking about this new game with this riding dinosaur and a cape power up, my siblings and I were trying to gather the Six Golden Coins with the Rabbit Ear power up, and battling the one we considered Mario’s True Archenemy, a villain by the name of Wario.
I remember when I was a kid, and my brother was given his copy of Super Mario Land 2, and I remember the ad campaign associated with the game. Wario came on the television screen attempting to hypnotize the viewer (with that spiral pattern we see all too often in cartoons involving hypnosis) into fighting Mario. I remember some of the cheesy dialogue, (“Obey Wario, DESTROY MARIO!”).
And I remember, as a five year old , thinking that Wario was the PERFECT nemesis for Mario.
Whereas Bowser, to me, was a generic fire breathing dragon (in turtle clothing), with Wario we had a character with all the same powers as Mario. But where Mario was driven by a sense of courage and compassion, with Wario we had someone driven by avarice and envy. Here was what Mario could have EASILY become without that drive to do the heroic thing. Here was Mario going down the left-handed path. Here was the Professor Zoom to Mario’s Flash, the Sinestro to his Green Lantern, the Venom to his Spider-Man. I was positive that Wario was going to become the new major villain to the franchise. What need had Mario for a giant turtle when he had his mirror image to do battle with?
So imagine my surprise, a year or so later, when Nintendo took things in a different direction. I think it was Christmas, and I was opening one of my presents. It was the first Game Boy game that was explicitly mine, and not belonging to one of my siblings. It seems to be a silly thing now, but it’s a big deal when you’re six or so, getting something that you don’t have to ask your big brother or sister to use. I unwrap the gift, and am greeted by a familiar face, the face of a villain, beating up on an assortment of cartoonish creatures.
The title on the box was Super Mario Land 3: Wario Land.
This blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game where you get to play as the bad guy. I mean, keep in mind, I was still on the “Wario is Mario’s archenemy” train here. And here was a game where you get to play as him? Really? And the plot. Wario is going to beat up a bunch of pirates, steal their treasure, and try to rescue a solid gold statue of the Princess. Is it out of some desire to do something heroic? Is it to try to make amends for his past misdeeds? Heck no! He was going to ransom that statue pack for a whopping wad of wonga, to buy a bigger castle than that jerk Mario would EVER have.
There was absolutely NO altruistic motivation in your actions whatsoever. In this game, you play as a character who exhibits five of the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust and Sloth are missing from this game, the former because it’s for children, the latter because it would be a REALLY boring game) and violently attack an entire island. All to please your own sense of greed.
And satisfying is the operative term. The game is a lot of fun, playing as kind of a twisted version of Six Golden Coins. The powers you get are a lot like souped-up versions of the abilities you get in Super Mario Land 2. Instead of gently flapping bunny ears, you get a jet powered helmet. Instead of shooting fireballs, you get a dragon-shaped flamethrower on your head. And instead of having to be afraid when the average enemy bumps into you, you shoulder check them out of the way with your immense girth. And when all is said and done, there is an immense sense of, “Awww yeah, I’m great,” when you get the best ending and wind up putting Wario’s face on the Moon (so that goody-two shoes Mario will have to look up every night and see just how awesome you really are).
In the ensuing twenty years, Mario and Wario appear to have softened on each other. You see them regularly playing tennis and golf together. And unlike a certain terrapin tyrant, Mario is more than willing to invite Wario to come along on a party. Wario has since moved on to numerous shady business dealings in the WarioWare series. But to me, Wario will always be Mario’s rival. He will always be the example of Mario without the conscience. And to me, his games will always be an excuse to indulge my darker side.