Mythic Patterns in Mario Games Pt 1: The Arcade Origins
The early Mario Games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Mario Brothers, present the basic mythological pattern which will later lay get developed in the history of video games. This is the first part of a two part series. In the next part, we will look at Super Mario Brothers and how it brings together the different symbolic meanings into one game.
Transcript of video
Originally created by visionary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario games have been one of most successful franchises in the video game medium, with titles still being made today and origins stretching back to the earliest arcade games. In the past few years, countless people have asked me to make a video on the symbolism of this or that video game, usually those with exhaustive mythologies like Warhammer or Elder Scrolls. However, by looking at the structure of the early Arcade Mario games and then moving to Super Mario Bros., we will be able to unlock the most basic elements of video game symbolism and how it connects to universal patterns. Hopefully, this will give all of you a few keys for looking into other games as well.
The best games endure through time because they are microcosms and ritualized versions of some basic pattern of reality. They permit us to engage with a structure of the world, whether it be hierarchy and upward and downward movement, like chutes and ladders, competition and war, like chess or team sports, or the excitement and surprise of fortune, like dice or card games. While in our lives, war is bloody, costly and destructive, chess and football provide a boiled-down, ritualized experience and practice of the same pattern (without the egregious consequences). In video games, we experience effort, perseverance, adversity and adventure in cycles, as worlds or levels begin and end. We are celebrated for our success, and death is most often the image of our losses.
There have been different iterations of Mario from the early beginnings, often marking the progression of video games through technical feats and content elaboration. For this reason, these games are some of the best for discovering a basic sense of video game symbolism. Of course, we mostly came to know Mario from the classic Super Mario Bros. But to understand how it all comes together, we need to start with Donkey Kong.
In Donkey Kong, a giant King Kong-like ape kidnaps your beloved and holds her at the top of a series of ladders and obstacles, which represent a kind of tower in construction. Playing as Jumpman, the pre-named Mario and a regular construction guy, you must ascend to the top of the level to be joined with her again. This reunion is short-lived, as when you reach the top, the Ape grabs her and ascends higher up on the tower. Each of these ascents leaves you at the bottom of the next level, where you must climb again to reach her once more. Arriving at the very top of the tower, the final level consists in removing the studs holding the tower together so that the Ape is cast down and you can finally be fully united with your beloved.
The first thing to notice in Donkey Kong is that it is arguably the first video game to integrate a clear progressive narrative of character arcs within the game dynamics themselves. Although some prior games had characters or simulation structures, Donkey Kong had clear character relationships and a story progression. It is one of the most simple yet mythic of story structures, ascending through levels and trials to save the girl. The idea of the unattainable feminine has been a narrative pattern and motivation for human improvement since the Medieval chivalric code. According to late Medieval thinking, desiring and reaching a worthy feminine character pulls the hero into an adventure that makes him a better version of himself. In this case, the muse or the heavenly feminine appears as a stand-in for the game itself and its resolution. As you master the game in order to win—that is, as you become a better player—the “ideal” of the game, just like your ideal feminine, keeps getting pulled higher and higher. The game gets harder, but the value of attaining your beloved increases. We can see that in a very crude form, by ascending a tower, Donkey Kong follows the same pattern as Dante’s ascent up the heavenly spheres in his Divine Comedy. There, his beloved Beatrice guides him up from the mountain as he escapes hell and purgatory. As Dante reaches the highest spheres, Beatrice is transformed into the highest feminine ideal, the very Mother of God, Mary.
All human efforts to attain a goal appear in two aspects, negative and positive, or a difficulty and a prize. The positive aspect, the prize, is the hitting of a mark or reaching the summit, as well as the coming together of multiple parts, whether it is writing a paper, delivering a project or making a cake. Success in attaining a goal requires the alignment of skill, resources, time, desires and intention. Reaching a goal is always a communion of prior disparate elements, and this is why it is most suitably represented by love and the union of the masculine and feminine. This is of course why a kiss or marriage so often accompanies the resolution of our popular stories. In Donkey Kong, this is mostly represented by the appearance of the heart as the form that unites opposites when Mario and his beloved come together. When they are separated, the heart is broken.
The negative aspect of the path to attaining a goal can take many forms, such as a puzzle to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome, confusion that needs to be made clear or chaos that needs to be organized. The negative aspect can also appear as an inward quest to master and order your activities, a honing of chaotic potential to accomplish a new skill. On an even more psychological level, the obstacle can be our disordered passion, lack of discipline or lack of focus that needs to be tamed in order to succeed in something.
Thus, each screen, level of the game and ultimately the game itself appear as obstacles, puzzles to be solved, and skills to be mastered, while also containing the boon or satisfaction that comes from attaining the goal and solving the problem. The game continues to cycle you through each screen of the game until you master it. That is why the top of each screen represents both the obstacle, a kind of barrier or guardian —what in video game jargon will later be called the level boss— and the prize, which is the escape or liberation from the current level and the reaching of a higher level of the game, a level closer to the resolution of the entire pattern. You die over and over again, fail over and over again until you escape the level you are in, like a kind of micro-Samsara. You go through all the screens until you transcend the whole pattern with the fall of Donkey Kong.
In this manner, Donkey Kong, a monstrous giant, appears as the guardian of a mystery, the union with the beloved, but also simply the mystery of the next level of the game and the possibility of going higher. Donkey Kong even taunts you about how high you will get in a little cutscene. We see this pattern in so many of the ancient stories, from trolls blocking bridges and the giant in Jack and Beanstalk who guards the gold and singing harp, t to even more ancient stories, like the Sphinx who blocks the road and whose riddle must be solved so it does not devour us. The ultimate example in our culture is the Cherub guarding the Garden of Eden or guarding the Holy of Holies in the Temple. It is also the image of the ascent of a spiritual ladder that appears in much religious imagery—the attaining of virtues or higher states of being as a ladder whose levels can be represented by the duality of dark and light figures, a demon and an angel, a way to ascend and a way to descend. But we do not have to get so esoteric to see the pattern. It is also the pattern of going to school, where your grade is a level that must be finished by mastering skills, accumulating points and beating a test so that you do not have to be held back and repeat your year, but rather ascend to the next grade where the problems become harder and the prestige of succeeding increases. As I said, the video game is a highly ritualized participation in cosmic patterns.
I talked a bit earlier about a kind of micro-Samsara in this game. It is significant that even once you finish the basic narrative pattern of the game that ends with the fall of Donkey Kong, the game starts over faster and harder at another level, making each narrative cycle more prestigious to finish. This fractal pattern of four screens within one level, which then repeats as the number of levels increases, could have continued indefinitely if it was not for a glitch in the game programming. Known as the Donkey Kong Kill Screen, this glitch stops you from going further and causes Mario to die after four seconds. Glitches are actually extremely important in understanding the meta-symbolism of video games, but we will look at them in our next video.
Because Donkey Kong is a love story, within the narrative of Donkey Kong we also find an example and counterexample of the proper union of disparate elements in love. Donkey Kong represents the brutish, beastly aspect of the person, maybe the dark aspect of Mario himself. He is the hairy garment of skin, the Dyionisian embodiment of wild strength and abandon to desire. The reference to the donkey or ass is supposed to mark Donkey Kong as a stubborn brute. Like Mario, Donkey Kong also desires the beloved, but his animal abandon makes him take her by force, guard her jealously, and unleash destructive power on the structures of civilization. He makes things crooked, throws barrels, unleashes flames and other obstacles. Mario is the Apollonian builder or fixer, who in mastering the game and overcoming Donkey Kong’s attacks demonstrates directed desire worked out with method and honed skill. As I said, by mastering the game, Mario and the player are making themselves worthy of receiving the boon and being united with the beloved. Once the final level has been reached, the monster falls all the way down the tower, landing on his head. If he were the devil, we would say he has been cast into hell, and the final union of the bride and bridegroom can occur at the very top of the tower.
The relationship between the wild Dyonisian character and the Apollonian builder can also take on a different aspect. While in Donkey Kong, Mario must master skills and the monster to win the girl, in the sequel, Donkey Kong Jr.,the tables are flipped. In this game, the image of Mario as civilization builder emphasizes the negative side of order, with Mario appearing as a tyrant who has caged the wild animal. In this version, the son of Donkey Kong must find a number of keys to open the cage holding his father and free the wild aspect from hyper-order. Instead of barrels and oil drums, which are prone to bursting into flames, the enemies Mario unleashes are mechanical automatons and birds, emphasizing this excess of order. The game is also in a way a funny version of the descent into the underworld to save your father, as Kong’s cage is said to be hidden in Mario’s hideout somewhere far away.
In terms of the game itself, the pattern of freeing the enslaved passionate creature also manifests one of the reasons for the video game itself. In contrast to the builder and civiliser Mario, it is a reaffirmation that we are not robots, that our transformation is meant to bring joy, and that the playing of a game is also meant to be fun and pleasurable, not only the winning of coins and conquering of levels. This is of course true of any endeavor—the image of the football dad comes to mind here. If we hyper focus on any goal, we run the risk of destroying the wilder and more particular aspects of life, as well as the spice that makes us relatable and human. Donkey Kong Jr. balances out Donkey Kong in the end and acts as a warning not to accept only one side of the story.
Returning to Donkey Kong, I want to say one more thing about the big hairy monster. We often imagine monsters or giants as marginal figures—the beasts on the edge of society—but when we understand the world of phenomena as organized in hierarchies, we can see why monsters both invade from the outside and eat you in the forest while also guarding treasures and princesses. In an ancient city, there are guards on the outer walls to stop foreign armies from invading, but there are also guards at the gate of the castle to stop you from simply waltzing into the throne room. Both series of guards play a similar role by preventing outsiders from illicit access to what is inside. It is just that in this schema, you are also an outsider to a higher royal reality. In Donkey Kong, we mostly see the monster as a guardian and obstacle to the higher reality.
However, if we consider monsters from a more primordial perspective, we often understand them as dark things hidden in corners or coming out of the watery depths. They can be big monsters, but then can also be pests or critters that need to be taken care of. Indeed, many traditional monsters, like goblins, imps and dwarves, are little critters that come up from earth. They are akin to a rising chaos that comes from below. In this image, instead of picturing the monster above as an obstacle, like in Donkey Kong, we need to think of the monsters below or outside, which build up like mosquitoes or black flies. They can be the accumulation of little problems in your life that bubble up and take over, similar to that small line of ants you see on your floor that you will one day find eating up the very walls that hold up your house if you do not get rid of them. If you don’t take care of a leak, you will soon find your house flooded. The same thing will happen to you on a personal level if you ignore your bills or forget your appointments. It is this structure that is taken up in the Mario Bros. arcade game. This original Mario Bros. game is a bit less known, but there are many elements that will be taken into the future Mario games. In this game, Mario and his brother Luigi are reframed as plumbers instead of carpenters. As plumbers, instead of going up a tower to save a girl, they are now called to go down into the sewers to deal with pests that are taking over. As a result, in this game, they encounter turtles, crabs and other monsters that pop out of the pipes, and they must clean each level in order to attain the next one. Through the plumber reference, the pests are in a way related to a leak that must be stopped. The accumulation of pests as a rising chaos is also intuitively related to a flood. And so, in this game structure we discover the “clean your room” scenario made famous by Jordan Peterson. This manifests another aspect of order and civilization; instead of the ascension of a hierarchy, the stabilizing and “making square” of identities is emphasized by making clean that which is dirty, making straight that which is crooked, or removing that which could be a distraction, an infection or an infestation. Whether you are running your antivirus on your computer, mowing your lawn or getting rid of bad habits, it is the basic prerequisite to later ascending the hierarchy.
When we look at Donkey Kong and these other games, there is a crudeness to both the design, the gameplay and the narrative. These crude tropes, like monsters, sexy girls, cages with keys or pests in sewers, might all appear simplistic and lacking subtlety. But like other early video games or early comic books, they manifest a very powerful pattern through a type of innocence. The ramifications of the patterns they engaged with might have been unknown even to their creators at the time, yet their simple expression appears in a form that is immediately accessible to anyone, from four-year-olds to adults, giving them a kind of universal reach. Donkey Kong and other early games are formed at the proper level of innocence and simplicity to be an origin for a world, and these original patterns were then unpacked slowly but inevitably throughout the history of video games. Although many recent games have reached unheard of levels of sophistication, when we scratch below the surface, we can often find the same patterns reoccurring: a hierarchy of levels, an elimination of enemies, bosses, prizes and a triumphant end.
What is most fascinating is that while Donkey Kong and the early Mario games explore cosmic patterns from many angles, the next game in the series, Super Mario Bros., often hailed as one of the most successful, groundbreaking and best video games of all time, is able to pull many of these symbolic elements together. It does so while also encompassing other aspects that create a more complete microcosm, including the notion of the secret and even the ambiguous but important narrative pattern of the mistake or glitch. I hope you will join me in discovering the world of Super Mario Bros. in the next video.