35 years on, Princess Peach’s lot is somehow still primarily about being kidnapped and rescued. But is there hope on the horizon? And might it have taken the introduction of—gasp—a second female regular into the cast to bring in the changes?
Super Mario’s World is a look at the characters that turned the Mario franchise into a household name for 35 years.
Princess “Peach” Toadstool exists to keep players grounded. Everything in the original Super Mario Bros. was revolutionary or unprecedented in one way or another. From its graphics, to the side-scrolling platforming (goodbye, single-screen gameplay!), to the music, to the central concept of playing as a human man with a 20-foot vertical leap and a blood feud with an army of turtles, the Mario game that started it all was unfamiliar in every way.
Not that Shigeru Miyamoto and his team of developers didn’t use ingenious game design to teach generations of players how things would work from now on. World 1-1 is literally studied as a perfect example of how to introduce new ideas in an organic, intuitive way. But the most familiar element is introduced once you clear your first world, four levels later.
After navigating a pitch-black castle and throwing a fire-breathing lion-turtle (??) into a lava bath, a vest-clad mushroom person gives the player their motivation: “Thank you Mario! But our Princess is in another castle!”
There it was. A universal touchstone: the damsel in distress. From outer space to the Mario-world equivalent of Sandals Jamaica, every single mainline Mario game finds the titular plumber saving a damsel in distress. And (almost) every time, that damsel is Princess Peach.
Except, Princess “Peach” Toadstool wouldn’t get her first name outside of Japan for another 11 years, finally appearing with her voice-acted letter in the opening moments of Super Mario 64. (She was always called Princess Peach in Japan. “Toadstool” was a change made in the original game’s localization, in order to better tie her character to the identity of the Mushroom Kingdom.) Peach, like too many fictional women in pop culture, exists as someone whose stature in her world often outshines her plot agency. Much like Princess Leia from Star Wars, the most interesting things about Peach seem to be what happens offscreen between kidnappings. Why does a human woman reign uncontested over a kingdom of intelligent fungi? What’s the deal with her and Mario, anyway? Is she elected, or is Bowser a low-key antifascist hero?
I thought about her a lot as a kid for one simple reason: She was my favorite character to play as in Super Mario Bros. 2.
It’s a tale as old as time by this point: Nintendo of America, believing that the Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros. was too difficult for Western audiences, requested an easier version of the game to sell. Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, a promotional video game Nintendo had developed for a 1987 Japanese media-technology expo, had its four (vaguely Middle Eastern) main characters and a handful of other game assets repurposed with a Mario facelift. The resulting title was released abroad as Super Mario Bros. 2.
Like many gamers too young to catch the NES wave, I first played SMB2 as part of Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES, and it quickly became my favorite title in the collection. The birdos, the joyful saloon piano soundtrack, the light sense of Alice in Wonderland-style menace that hung over everything. Most of all, I loved controlling Princess Toadstool! She could hover, she was tall, she wasn’t just Mario all over again. I wanted more, and assumed it was coming.
It wasn’t. Since then, Peach has been a main playable character in precisely one mainline Mario platformer (we’ll get to that). And for anyone who had the pleasure of finishing Super Mario Bros. 2, the closing credits pull off another classic plot twist: The entire game was just a dream! Now, Mario canon is unwieldy and borderline nonexistent, which makes sense for a franchise that has stretched across the majority of video game history itself. But if you grew up in North America, Princess Peach/Toadstool was renamed 11 years after her debut, and was only actually playable in a dream sequence.
In sports titles and party games, Peach is everywhere. She even starred in her own Nintendo DS platformer, Super Princess Peach, where her main power was affecting the world around her with her powerful, volatile emotions. (Just gonna leave that there and move on.) But when Mario needed to go on another of his adventures, she was relegated to her original, grounding role: being the prize at the end of his quest.
That was, until 2007, when Super Mario Galaxy introduced Rosalina to the world. Make no mistake: Galaxy still starts with Peach kidnapped, and it still ends with her safe return/the end of all…