When it comes to iconic women in video games, few can top the visibility of the pink clad matriarch from the Super Mario Bros. franchise, Princess Peach. Arguably one of the most recognizable women in gaming today, Peach has long been chastised for being a poor role model for young girls, and an archaic and sexist representation of the “damsel in distress” character archetype. I can’t say that I disagree with either of those points. But, my own personal belief is that the Princess is a victim of a rapidly aging plot device, which in reality speaks less about her character and more about the culture from which she originated and in which she continues to exist.
Recently, Nintendo did a press release in celebration of Women’s History Month. I wasn’t too surprised that Peach was conspicuously left out of the feature, but I think it was unfair to quietly classify her as someone who doesn’t deserve recognition. In my opinion, the plucky Princess is a tough cookie in her own right, and while a little airy and flighty at times, she carries herself with a prim, proper, and playfully regal demeanor, while remaining unfalteringly kind and generous to all of her subjects. None of these traits equate to weakness, in my mind. To be sure, Peach has come a long way since her first appearance as the object of Mario’s affection back in the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES. She quickly moved into a starring role in Super Mario Bros. 2, but was relegated back to damsel status in Super Mario Bros. 3. Since then – at least in the main Super Mario Bros. series – she’s unfortunately been cast (because of aforementioned bad plot devices) as a perpetual supporting character kidnapped by some villain (usually Bowser), and hasn’t been playable until the very recent Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.
This is not to say she hasn’t dabbled in other pursuits, however. In nearly every spin off of the Super Mario Bros. series, Peach has been a prominent playable character. She’s been a staple in the Mario Kart franchise since the very beginning, and has been included in Mario Party since its inception. She had a major role in the SNES classic, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, as a member of the main party that saves the Mushroom Kingdom from Smithy, wielding umbrellas, frying pans, bombs, and support spells. She also keeps up with the boys in a variety of Nintendo’s sports entries, including Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, Mario Superstar Baseball, Mario Supper Sluggers, Super Mario Strikers, Mario Strikers Charged, Mario Hoops 3-on-3, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, and Mario Sports Mix.
In all of these entries, she leaves her famous frilly pink dress back in her wardrobe and dons more event appropriate attire; a refreshing stimulant to her standard portrayal. Of course, we can’t forget about her induction into the Super Smash Bros. roster, starting with Super Smash Bros. Melee, where she shows the world that she can take on Nintendo’s best (including Bowser) with her own playful fighting style, all without Mario’s help – thank you very much. Lastly, we can’t forget her first starring role in the somewhat controversial Super Princess Peach. While Mario, Luigi, and Toad are kidnapped by Bowser, Peach is left to rescue them on her own. Her portrayal could have been stronger and less stereotypical, and fans criticized the type of weaponry she used along with the major game play mechanic being based on her emotional state. But hey, I bet the Mario Bros. have emotions too, you know!
Despite her past, I believe Princess Peach has the potential to shine brightly in Nintendo’s future as the leading lady of the Super Mario Bros. franchise. In a world where powerful women are finally being acknowledged and given the proper recognition and respect that they deserve (look at Bayonetta, for example), Nintendo needs to nurture the image of their iconic Princess and bring her into this fold, lest she be left behind and become offensive or irrelevant (or both). I’m not saying that Nintendo needs to change her character as a whole – part of her appeal and personality includes her bright pink attire and bubbly, carefree personality. To me, it rightly shows that “girly” or “feminine” women can still be strong, intelligent, and independent, despite outward appearances and behaviors. What does need to change are the weak, tired, and – quite frankly – sexist premises that Nintendo uses to build the main entries in the Super Mario Bros. series. Why should Mario always be running off to save a damsel?
The Super Mario Galaxy games marked a nice change to the standard formula. While Bowser is still the main antagonist (another crutch that I feel Nintendo should let go of from time to time), we’re introduced to Princess Rosalina, a powerful and cosmic being that guides Mario on his quest to defeat his nemesis. Super Mario 3D World continued on this path, allowing Peach the opportunity to show off her skills in the fight against the mighty Koopa King. It’s a trend that gives me hope for my favorite Nintendo Princess (don’t worry Zelda, you’re a very close second).
While I’m not a game designer, I’ve played and enjoyed various types of games throughout my 31 years on this planet, and I have some thoughts about what Princess Peach should do next. I want another adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom, similar to Super Mario RPG or the Paper Mario series, where Peach can lend her wisdom and talents to exploring the world and defeating the evil that threatens her kingdom. I want Nintendo to continue the inclusion of Peach as a playable character in their platformers, allowing her to exact revenge on Bowser for all the kidnappings over the years. I want to see Peach continue to do everything that her costars can, from racing around in go karts, to playing sports and stomping goombas and koopa troopas, all while maintaining her iconic, instantly recognizable style. There’s no reason to change her image; Princess Peach is simply Princess Peach, and she always should be. The stories and games that are built around her, however, should appropriately change in accordance with our more enlightened times, catapulting her into stardom, keeping her relevant, and inspiring both little girls and women alike. This enlightened perspective would show that no matter who you are, you can do whatever you set your mind to and can achieve anything you can dream of.
Who knows: perhaps one day Princess Peach will take the next step and crown herself queen. You’d think that would be somewhere on her agenda for the future, right? It’s not like there are any other reigning monarchs in the Mushroom Kingdom (and sorry Bowser, as much as I love you, you don’t count).