I have believed for a long time that one of the greatest influences on American Gen X/Y culture is an older Japanese man by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto. His name may be unfamiliar to the majority of the people that he’s influenced, but his fingerprints are everywhere in American culture. Most of us know his creations far better than we the man himself: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad and Bowser. You might also know Donkey Kong, Link, Zelda and Yoshi. Miyamoto-san is the creator of Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, Legenda of Zelda and their many, many sequels.
The influence of these games on the imaginations of the world is hard to underestimate. The amount of fan generated material in response to Mario and his various iterations is stunning, not just in its amount, but in the quality, effort and detail that’s been put into them. Just logging into YouTube to find the examples for this piece I was caught by an entire YouTube channel called The Warp Zone, whose logo is a series of green pipes sprouting out from the words, a highly recognizable reference to various warp zones in the Mario Brothers franchise.
What’s most intriguing to me about the influence of Miyamoto and his oeuvre is just how simple it is. Like Woody Allen, Miyamoto’s greatest successes use the same story over and over again: the bad guy takes the girl and the good guy gets her back. In Donkey Kong, where Miyamoto first introduces us to Donkey Kong and his owner Mario, the gorilla steals Mario’s girlfriend and Mario gets her back. In Super Mario Brothers the plot is the same, though the roles have shifted: a dragon called Bowser steals a princess and Mario has to get her back. In The Legend of Zelda the villain Ganon steals princess Zelda and Link must fight to return her. It is a credit to Miyamoto’s ability to craft such fun and engaging games around such simple, straightforward situations since the hallmark of his games isn’t their surprising plot lines, but their enjoyable and easy to appreciate gameplay.
While that gameplay has been endlessly copied, given the timeless nature and simplicity of Miyamoto’s plot lines and their influences (Miyamoto cites Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oil as well as, obviously, King Kong) it would be incredibly difficult to accuse anyone of copying his stories, since they’re not even stories, but scenarios that play very differently in game after game. That said, I think one of the great beneficiaries of Miyamoto’s brilliance, intentionally or not, has been the Cartoon Network show Adventure Time created by Pendleton Ward. The show is based around two friends, Jake the Dog and Finn the Human who adventure together in the far off land of Ooo.
As the plot develops over the first season we find our hero Finn is infatuated with the Princess of Ooo named Bubblegum, that the land of Ooo is filled with tiny happy candy people, and that Finn’s nemesis, the Ice King, is generally scheming to kidnap Princess Bubblegum (or really any of the princesses in the kingdom). This note more than the others, that the Ice King is crazy about kidnapping royalty, is what shifts the show from similar to Mario to hommage a Mario for me. The Ice King’s predilection for princesses is highly reminiscent of the now infamous line from Super Mario Brothers: Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle! Bowser, it would appear, has a fetish highly reminiscent of the Ice King’s. In Super Mario Brothers alone Bowser kidnapped at least 8 different princesses and stashed them in his various castles all over the Mushroom Kingdom in the same way that the Ice King can’t stop himself from abducting the princesses of the Land of Ooo.
Adventure Time might be the most brilliant Mario homage that’s been created, since it’s so visually dissimilar to anything that Miyamoto’s created and to anime and manga entirely, but embodies everything the game has come to represent: adventure, bravery, danger and fun. It also emulates the Miyamoto style in that the show is immediately accessible to a new audience since the plots are simple, but the world is filled with visually fascinating reinventions of old themes (pirates, robots, vampires, video games, demons, unicorns) in the same way that the Super Mario Brothers was easy to pick up and learn. The combination of simple, imaginative visuals, absurd non-sequitir plots based around the simple, flexible scenario of bad guy takes girl are traits of both Miyamoto’s games and Adventure Time. What’s more, both effortlessly channel the spirit of fun throughout their various manifestations.
But to claim that Adventure Time is only a Mario homage would do disservice to the brilliance of the show in its own right. Ward has taken Miyamoto model and infused it with a Western tang, threading it through with layers of cool that the master may never have dreamed of. Finn and Jake’s easygoing banter, Marceline’s cooler-than-though exterior, the Korean speaking Lady Rainicorn all add layers of depth and character that the Mario Games (and certainly the Mario Brothers cartoon) can only dream of. Without this layer of effortless sophistication over the structure that Miyamoto made famous, Adventure Time would fail, being remembered only as a vague articulation of Gen Y cultural stereotypes; an awkward melange of post-D&D fantasy, video games and electronic music. But Ward’s brilliance lies in his ability to infuse all of those elements into the basic structure without ever losing touch with the simplicity of his Quixote-esque adventurer.
Clearly no one can argue that Pendleton Ward owes Miyamoto any royalties, but in terms of thematic content and entertaining intent Adventure Time has not merely benefited from the world which Miyamoto helped create, but is clearly the bearer of its banner for a new generation of cartoon and video game fans. Combining the whimsy, ironic innocence and visual simplicity of shows like The Misadventures of Flapjack with a hipster sense of adventure and ennui and mixing in the timeless ease of a love triangle made ubiquitous by Miyamoto, Adventure Time is clearly the beneficiary of and champion for the culture that Miyamoto, however unintentionally, helped to bring about. Every time Finn and Jake rescue a princess abducted by the Ice King they’re also furthering the journey the little Mario began when his angry ape absconded with his girlfriend and whisked her away to the top of an unfinished skyscraper.