wario-coins

The ruthless capitalism of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3

This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.

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Why does Mario collect coins?

Despite being a certified plumbing professional, the rotund star of countless Nintendo platformers has never seemed especially motivated by gainful employment, or economic transactions of any kind. His are chiefly concerns of the heart—most often, saving a princess. And so while the coins are always there, hovering in the air or hiding inside question-marked boxes, the act of collecting them is little more than a circuitous way for Mario to earn more hearts—which, in his world, represent lives—and thereby more chances to be the hero. Every time he earns 99 coins the counter resets: there is no opportunity to hoard wealth. Even in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, the titular currencies interest Mario only insomuch as they unlock the magically sealed gates of his castle, which has been invaded by his newly emerged doppelganger, Wario.

Mario is Nintendo’s consummate protagonist, and so it is significant that he is disinterested in money, despite its abundance throughout his world. How does he keep up the payments on that castle of his? What keeps the lights on? Good deeds, Nintendo seems to suggest. Mario saves the day, and the rest takes care of itself.

It is no accident then that Wario—the inverted bizarro-Mario—stands in direct contrast to his ascetic counterpart. Earlier franchise villains such as Donkey Kong and Bowser are of a kind with Mario, if less virtuous: driven by passion (for princesses). There is a yin-and-yang balance to their games that, despite Mario’s Italian heritage, feels distinctly non-Western. As the characters are locked in eternal battle for the same prize, the macro view looks a lot like homeostasis; a self-sufficient ecosystem in which the only economy consists of bartering villainy for heroics in equal measure.

When Wario shows up for the first time in SML2, he is anathema to Mario Land. His first act of treachery, as mentioned, is not kidnapping but property theft. He shatters the romantic feudalism of the world through crass tactics straight out of Patrick Bateman’s Mergers & Acquisitions handbook. Was material ownership even a delineated concept before Wario arrived? Mario’s castle was Mario’s castle, presumably, because Mario lived there. He deserved it for his good works; no one ever asked to see proper documentation of title and deed.

he is anathema to Mario Land 

Wario’s aspirations may not mesh well with the extant principles of the Mushroom Kingdom, but they are terrifyingly familiar to the player. Wario is the indefatigable encroachment of Western values; he is free market greed and manifest destiny hubris. He wants to be rich, and his methods are ruthlessly capitalistic.

A year after SML2, Nintendo decided to give Wario his own Game Boy title, marking the publisher’s first foray into anti-heroics. After the events of the previous game, Wario had been banished from Mario Land, leaving him humiliated and penniless. Bearing the apt tagline, “Be the bad guy,” Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 might reasonably have centered its plot around the player helping Wario to acquire an army of henchmen, or artifacts of great power—or, to stick with the classics, a princess—in order to seek revenge on his double.

This is not the form of badness that Nintendo wanted to portray, however. Instead, the publisher opted to create an interactive anti-capitalist statement, a critique of Westernization from a preeminent Japanese company at the height of its country’s dual obsession with and infection by United States culture. The result is not sober or preachy, but farcical, in the vein of Wolf of Wall Street: rather than explicitly condemning greed and corporate bullying, Nintendo simply allows for Wario’s amoral values to play out to their natural, absurd conclusion.

The game opens with Wario discovering a magic lamp. A genie emerges, invites a wish, and Wario immediately declares his desire for one thing, and one thing only: a castle. This is basically his way of saying fuck you to Mario after the events of the previous game; revenge by keeping-up-with-the-Joneses. One might expect Mario to be the antagonist of a Wario game, but no, it’s still Wario, driven by a lust for wealth and status. The ubiquitous plumber, whose name is in the game’s title, does not even make a cameo appearance. Mario’s presence can only be inferred as an image in Wario’s mind, pushing him ever forward: An “M” hat thrown to the ground in frustration, a fist shaken enviously at the sky as Wario’s palace towers over the horizon. The player may ask, what does Mario care if Wario has a nicer castle than him? But to Wario, it’s everything.

an interactive anti-capitalist statement 

The genie cannot grant the wish outright, however. It seems Wario’s very presence in the Mario universe perverts the usual order of things, so nothing comes as easily to him as to his counterpart. Mario can hit a block with his head, hatch a friendly dinosaur, and jump on its back no questions asked, but Wario has opened a Pandora’s box of miserliness and vicious competition to which he, too, must be subjected. Everything has a price now.

To whit, the genie is stingy. He demands Wario give him money in order to pay for the magical creation of a castle. So the player spends the entire game collecting coins and treasure—to be converted to coins—in order to pay off the genie. Extra lives are now earned separately by collecting little hearts, so that the money can be stockpiled. The material and spiritual are cleaved apart, and there is no ambiguity to which side Wario favors: he wins the game by buying the best castle possible. But only a cynic would see this as a victory; self-esteem and inner peace are not so easily purchased.

Even the most incidental game mechanics are commerce-based: mid-level checkpoints and secret level exits require you to pony up coins in order to unlock them. This ponying up is achieved by pressing the Up and B buttons simultaneously; anytime this is done, Wario produces a large coin in his hand worth 10 single coins, which can be tossed like any other object. It’s a Wall Street simulator hidden within a Nintendo platformer, in which you can literally throw money away if you so choose.

After completing a level, you have the option of entering one of two mini-games. The first is a targeting range where you can earn more heart points, but (surprise, surprise) there is a hard cash entrance fee, and how much you pay directly relates to both the difficulty of the challenge and how many hearts you can win. Alternatively, you can choose the luck-of-the-draw mini-game in which you have a 50-50 chance to double your earnings from the level. The flipside, if luck’s not on your side, is a penalty that halves your haul. It’s an embodiment of the get-rich-quick sentiment that Wario represents, a world of gambler’s-logic where you can win big as quickly as lose everything, and none of it can be considered fair or merit-based.

a Wall Street simulator hidden within a Nintendo platformer 

Finally, once you have your finished gambling, you watch as your loot from the level is dumped into the total pile you have amassed thus far throughout the game. Wario looks on, arms folded and chuckling like some Shylockian caricature. He looks ridiculous, which is not lost on the developers: every effort is made by Nintendo to take sly digs at Wario and his unenlightened path. Whereas Mario famously consumes mushrooms to grow—evoking the psychedelics of Alice in Wonderland—Wario eats an entire bulb of garlic, which has both vampiric connotations as well as suggesting, more plainly, that Wario’s breath stinks all of the time. The first “enemies” Wario encounters in the game’s opening level are harmless marshmallow creatures; bumping into them causes them to flip onto their backs, helpless, which in turn allows Wario to pick them up and hock them at other, more threatening adversaries. Using incapacitated creatures as ammunition is the central combat mechanic in the game, literalizing the stereotypical capitalistic journey of a sinister opportunist ascending the corporate heap by tossing others aside.

Defeating the final boss prompts an end cutscene in which the genie tallies your earnings and attempts to fulfill your wish. Results range from a birdhouse (which sends Wario into an embarrassment-driven fugue state) to a stately castle flying the “W” flag. The ultimate reward, though—if you manage to find every secret treasure and end the game with 99,999 coins—is a planet with Wario’s face on the surface.

This what you really want, isn’t it? chides Nintendo at Wario, who prioritizes personal wealth over communal responsibility, who exploits rather than respects. Well, here you go. A whole planet for yourself. Now leave the rest of us alone.

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This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.