[4/7: Edited for historical accuracy.]|
The postmodern theorists may be purveyors of hokum, but they understand one crucial thing: Waluigi is the end product of a conceptual system that has its roots in Nintendo's first and most famous hero. Mario Mario casts a long shadow over his franchise, and it is only by understanding his essential symbolic purpose -- and the symbolic transpositions that manifest as first-order shadow-selves, Luigi and Wario -- that the ultimate semiotic mystery, Waluigi himself, may be approached.
It is easy to dismiss Mario as a bland everyman. Indeed, it is clear that Nintendo wishes you to perceive him in that light. From the first, he has been Player One, the Main Character, the repository of our consciousness within the game world: a pure first-person perspective seen through a third-person camera. "Mario is you," the games whisper, "and what more need be said?" But of course that only makes his personal traits all the more important -- for by the rules of the medium, Mario's traits are your traits, the attributes so basic and universal that they can be ascribed to the player without comment.
And Mario does have traits. Bland or not, he is a person within the context of his story. He is fearless, he is strong, he is determined. He is just, and moreover he is proactive in his pursuit of justice. He is forgiving of his enemies, to the point that he will play peaceful games with them so long as they refrain from outright villainy. When it comes to the woman he loves, he is both chivalrous and faithful, no matter how much trouble he must endure on her behalf. And for these things he is universally recognized within the Mushroom Kingdom as a perfect savior, a warrior-prince, despite being a short fat plumber with a silly mustache.
In other words, a Mario game of the old school is a fundamentally romantic and optimistic experience. The message could not be plainer. The everyman, the default identity, is a great-souled Galahad with the stuff of true heroism in him. You're basically a hero yourself -- never mind about your ordinary-seeming self or your ordinary-seeming life. If a dragon king stole away the princess, you could go rescue her yourself, with a jaunty hop and a "wa-hoo!". See? You just did.
The first Mario-like character in the franchise was Luigi, and it is telling how his character developed alongside his structural role. He is basically a weaker version of his brother: still noble, but awkward and fearful rather than bold and competent. (Even his jumping is slippery and confused, in contrast to Mario's confident solidity.) And, because he is good-hearted but weak, he spent much of his existence relegated to a supporting role in the hero's journey. He was Player Two, the tag-along. You could take on his role and look through his eyes, but that required a conscious acceptance of a non-standard (and often subordinate) game experience. All the while, his foibles and failures were being played for comedy.
But Luigi could not remain a mere Player Two forever; the world, in its demand for truth, would not allow it. For we as players know ourselves to be riddled with failure. Like Luigi, we are passive and we are afraid, and this cannot be hidden forever beneath the glittering promise of Mario's romantic vision. We are unable to prevent ourselves from identifying with the flawed tag-along. I cannot say whether Nintendo simply bowed to the zeitgeist, or whether it consciously chose to hold up a mirror to its playerbase, but one way or another it slowly gave Luigi more spotlight and more independence. Eventually he received his own games in which to star, and the perspective shift was complete. The everyman's vantage point was no longer so pure. You, the player, could be a fumbling coward. See? You just were. Doesn't that feel right?
Wario represents a different transformation of the Mario archetype. He is still strong and brave and proactive, but he is bad. While Mario uses his power to save the princess, Wario uses his power to sate his greed and his hunger for stinky food. And because badness is more frightening and foreign to the Mario ideal than weakness, in his first appearance, Wario was not granted even Luigi's status as a secondary perspective. He was nothing more than an antagonist, an obstacle, a bogeyman.
By now you see how the story goes. Just as we found it irresistibly easy to look at the world through Luigi's eyes, we could not prevent ourselves from seeing ourselves in Wario. And no surprise. Are we not driven by our selfish lusts and cravings? Are we not, so often, bad? The truth that we are Wario is even more obvious, even more inescapable, than the truth that we are Luigi. Thus it was that, soon after he first became known to us -- as early as the tail end of the Game Boy era -- Nintendo gave us a game in which we could stand fully within Wario's viewpoint. As soon as the option became available, we could not resist embracing the toxic greedy doppelganger as a self that we could inhabit.
So it is that we arrive, finally, at Waluigi.
Waluigi is, as acknowledged by the postmodernists, a double-twist on the Mario ideal. He has both the Luigi-nature and the Wario-nature, which compounds his distance from the romantic model of excellence. His is the breed of corruption that grows in weakness rather than strength. He is devious rather than aggressive, poisonously spiteful rather than straightforwardly choleric. Luigi has the heart of a hero beneath his flaws, and Wario at least has the strength-of-self to revel in the fulfillment of his base desires, but Waluigi has nothing beyond his impotence and his hate. His malevolence is built upon the foundation of his own essential emptiness.
And – horror that he is – he does not receive the privilege of serving as an identity for the player. Not truly, not yet. This is the important thing about him.
To be sure, he has stood amongst the playable crowd in a handful of games, where the difference between one character and another is largely a matter of statistics. But he has never been the star, the everyman's vantage point. He has never even been playable in a context where his identity as Waluigi would be meaningful, where the player's experience of Waluigi-ness would be noticeably distinguishable from the general experience of the game.
Which means that...in Nintendo's eyes, at least...we have not fallen all the way into the abyss. We do not see that vacant satanic cruelty within ourselves. Or at the very least, if we do, we are sufficiently ashamed of it that we refrain from demanding that it be represented in our heroic fantasy avatars. We are not always strong, and we are not always good, but we need some aspect of the untainted Mario ideal to color the lens through which we see the Mushroom Kingdom – whether that be Luigi's bumbling goodness, Wario's boisterous self-assurance, or the classical courtly excellence of Mario himself.
The day may come when Waluigi receives his own game. And on that day, Nintendo will have given up on us for good. ...but perhaps we should await that day with hope, and not with fear. Perhaps, when we see the world through Waluigi's eyes, it will feel like a final liberation. Perhaps it will be a glorious relief to acknowledge that we need possess no virtue whatsoever, neither morality nor strength, in order to be the heroes of our own stories. If in the deepest pits of ourselves, we are all indeed Waluigi, then perhaps it would be best simply to acknowledge it without dread or shame.
Mario Mario, of course, would tell us otherwise. But we have turned away from his demanding perspective before, more than once, and each time Nintendo gave us what we truly wanted. Once more, presumably, our fate lies in our own hands.
Inspired by these little bits of wonderfulness.