For those new to the series, plural protagonism is based on this article I wrote for PopMatters. Plural protagonism occurs in a game when there is no individual main protagonist leading a group: the group itself becomes the hero. Each individual maintains their identity while contributing to the narrative in equal measure. Moreover, they are all controlled equally by the player and coordinate as a collective consciousness to overcome the challenges facing them. This narrative technique appears most prominently in JRPGs and this series investigates different JRPGs that feature plural protagonism in interesting ways.
The Super Mario RPG series is a bit of an odd duck among JRPGs. For one, like all Mario games, they only connect to one another by their lighthearted, comedic tone and by the presence of the eponymous plumber. Everything else—the plot, most of the cast and the actual landscape of the Mushroom Kingdom—changes from game to game. As this is the seventh essay I’ve dedicated to connecting JRPGs with collaborative mechanics and collectivist narratives, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the series uses elements of plural protagonism to champion cooperation. However, what’s interesting is that the Mario RPG series gradually becomes less of a JRPG and more of an action-platformer. Also, the later into the Mario RPG series, the less emphasis is put on plural protagonism as focus shifts to the individual’s journey.
The first of the series, 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, was one of the last titles for the Super NES and was one of the most technically demanding on the console. It was also the last collaboration between Square and Nintendo until Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released for the GameCube in 2003. Seven Stars was ambitious, fresh and the last of anything like it for some time. Though Square’s fingerprints can be seen all over it, Seven Stars is far more lighthearted than even the most whimsical of Final Fantasys and it was one of the most self-aware games before titles like Super Meat Boy, Breath of Death and DeathSpank inspired a wave of loving, retro parodies in the indie scene over a decade later. Seven Stars‘s bright colours, tight platforming controls and simple battle mechanics make it one of the most accessible JRPGs ever while its steady difficulty curve and plethora of optional content also make it as deep as any from its era. It’s clever, charming and quite funny.
It’s also heavily invested in the success of the group over the interests of the individual. As the player sees before the tutorial or even the title card, the world is invaded by the Smithy Gang, a gang of anthropomorphic weapons. As the Smithy Gang invades and subsequently occupies Boswer’s castle (which, hilariously, is right next to Mario’s house, implying that they are and have always been neighbours), they accidentally destroy the Star Road, a land in the sky that transforms wishes into shooting stars and sends them back to earth to be fulfilled. Thus the Star Road separates into the seven star-shaped MacGuffins that give the game its title. The premise immediately places value on the universal gain over individualism. Mario’s goal is to restore the mechanism that grants everyone’s wishes, even his rivals’ (Bowser himself joins up for the adventure), where the Smithy Gang are hording the seven stars to secure their occupation of Mario’s world.
The player represents the interests of the world and all the people in it while the antagonists represent a selfish, alien invader. It’s important to note that Smithy’s Gang, literal weapons on a mission of conquest, are alien and do not naturally belong in the Mushroom Kingdom. The equipment used by the heroes in battle is mostly non-military tools or instruments like hammers, cymbals or canes, along with thick clothing as armour: the weapons and armour aren’t even really weapons and armour. Also, it’s never clarified where Smithy’s gang comes from, only that now they have arrived and claim—in so many words—that they now “OWN this world!” Everything Mario’s party does is in pursuit of restoring the world’s egalitarian balance against Smithy’s self-interested militarism.
It’s further appropriate that the Smithy Gang is structured according to a loose military hierarchy given that it’s members are personified tools of war. The lowest level enemies are called flunkies or goons and bosses all privately muse about sucking up to their commanders while they abuse their subordinates. The Smithy Gang is organized in a rigid hierarchy where each member is literally mass-produced from a factory to fill a highly specific function. They are created to destroy or coopt in service of their leader. On the other hand, the people of the Mushroom Kingdom—and especially Mario’s party—are unique but coordinated individuals working toward a universal good. They are people joined in a community: they aren’t interchangeable parts of a military-industrial social order stomping over one another to climb higher in a social ladder the way that the Smithy gang is. They’re a group that succeeds or fails together.
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars is deeply invested in the success of the group. When introduced, Geno—who is, for all intents and purposes, an angel sent from heaven to restore the natural, benevolent order—rebuffs one of Smithy’s lieutenants by crying out “those stars belong to everyone.” To gain the peripheral support of Yoshi, the player’s Mario must race the local bully to strip him of his tyranny over the race track; upon winning, Yoshi reminds his community, “we don’t need a BOSS! Anyway, I just want to race!” The composer Toadofski’s masterpiece is built using town songs from all over the world, with the final movement composed by the player; in completing the melody, Toadofsky is pleased that “we can all take credit for it!” In each of these cases, characters value an accomplished task because it benefits the community, they aren’t concerned with who benefits most from it.
Furthermore, the importance of the group shows up in the mechanics of the game as well. As with most JRPGs, control of the team is spread evenly across all members during battle. And while Mario is the only sprite that the player controls outside of combat, he is the proxy for his party. His team is seen walking in and out of his body during cutscenes or they speak from within him. As with many RPGs, the protagonist is merely the body for numerous individuals. They are separate people with separate abilities and personalities, but they are coordinated by the one consciousness of the player and occupy the one body of the player-character. Interestingly, Mario RPG furthers the idea of one body being the vessel for multiple personalities in its especially theatrical expository scenes.
Mario displays a (delightfully) unexplained and never recurring ability to shape-shift and perform a one-man re-enaction of what he’s seen and done. He uses this ability instead of speaking. Mario communicates by becoming others and recreating their behaviour; he transforms into Bowser or Toadstool when he’s telling a story that involves them. When others join his party, they pantomime other roles in the miniature performance to provide NPCs and the player with exposition. This shows that the personalities, while separate, are fluid and can blend into one another. Not only is Mario able to contain other individuals, he is able to briefly become them as a substitute for language. The best mode of communication in the Mushroom Kingdom, is to act—to become—others.
There are other elements of plural protagonism such the communal pool of mana points that the party must share to cast magic or the finale that has all the games’ characters march in a celebratory parade after Smithy is repelled. In any case, the instances of plural protagonism are spread far thinner in Mario RPG‘s spiritual successors. As the series strips its cooperative mechanics and focuses less on the group journey, the “RPG” of the Mario RPGs becomes more of a misnomer.
After the success of Seven Stars, Nintendo tried to recreate the magic with two separate spinoff series, Mario & Luigi and Paper Mario, which are respectively handheld and main console projects that have roots in Seven Stars. Both of these spinoffs concentrate less on universal gain and more on Mario’s individual journey. More and more, these games are about Mario and his pursuit of a personal goal (read: that one girl he knows) over achieving something on behalf of the group. Furthermore, as Mario becomes the greater focus of attention, JRPG mechanics become less pronounced.
All four games in the Mario & Luigi series to this point have been developed by AlphaDream, a company made up of several Square’s alumni. Given the staff, it’s unsurprising that Mario & Luigi is closer to Seven Stars in spirit, genre and plural protagonism than Paper Mario. As the title would suggest, the Mario & Luigi series follows the Mario Bros. on their joint adventures, usually to rescue a damsel.
In the Mario & Luigi series, the player controls both of the Mario Bros. at once, using a different button to make one or the other act separately. Though they act one at a time, they move in unison and progress depends on their combined effort. Furthermore, each has access to different tools and abilities that augment the way they move—shrinking the bro in the lead, one hopping on the other’s head for a boost, twirling to extend the length of a jump—that help explore or solve puzzles. In much the same way that different characters use different tools in the Wild Arms series, notably the third (Filipowich, Mark. “Plural Protagonism Part 2: Wild Arms 3.” bigtallwords. Apr 11 2013.), the bros. are both necessary to manoeuvre the world. The player controls both in unison to accomplish their shared goal and most of their interactions are miniature collaborations.
Similarly, the bros.’ special abilities in battle are coordinated tag team attacks. Their most effective moves are those that have them team up. If one bro falls than special attacks become unavailable and avoiding incoming attacks becomes far more difficult. Finally, while the third (and best, in case you want my opinion) in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story, includes long segments where the player controls Bowser in his lone journey across the Mushroom Kingdom. The Bros., however, are often within Bowser, tightening his muscles or inflating his lungs as he works his way through his own obstacles. Meanwhile, Bowser’s interactions with the world change the bros.’ environment by opening pathways within him or otherwise changing his inner biology so Mario and Luigi. can Osmosis Jones their way through his body. The two separate but interdependent parties rely on a symbiosis to overcome their respective connected obstacles. Bowser is unknowingly a part of the collective: he contributes to the bros.’ objective and depends on them as much as they contribute to and depend on him.
However, though Mario & Luigi shows many elements of plural protagonism, it does depart from it in significant ways. For one, each game is centred on a search for the missing princess. Where Seven Stars follows Mario in an adventure to restore the Star Road, a mechanism that benefits everybody, Mario & Luigi is about two people rescuing one damsel. Peach doesn’t represent a universal good and she isn’t significant to a whole world’s people, she just justifies the games’ existence. Even when the plot hints at more catastrophic consequences, such as in the second, Partners in Time, it’s only after Peach’s capture and is still solved by her rescue: it conflates global goals with Mario’s typical, self-interested damsel recovery. Moreover, NPCs rarely meaningfully assist the player in the way that townies in Seven Stars give equipment, open a mine cart rides, help Mario’s team scale cliffs or ferry them on a cloud to the next world. The people in Seven Stars contribute to Mario’s journey and everyone has a place in the parade during the credits. Everybody participates in saving the world however they can. Mario and Luigi, in their own series, act as heroes because that’s their job and everyone else is just waiting for them to complete it. They’re fulfilling an independent duty.
This is also where JRPG conventions begin dropping. As the series progresses, it becomes more of a puzzle platformer instead of a JRPG. Towns spread out and are more sparse; turn-based combat remains a staple but more weight is placed on timing button presses than selecting commands and the pomp and grandeur that typifies JRPGs diminishes into the classic platformer’s princess tracking. And while one type of game is not inherently any better than the other, it is interesting to see that the quiet evaporation of JRPG mechanics and tropes mirrors the de-emphasis of group dynamics and universal benefit.
But if Seven Stars is one extreme of this series than the Paper Mario series is certainly the other. The Mario & Luigi reduces community to a partnership but the game is still rooted how the bros. cooperate. Paper Mario is, again, based on Mario’s search for the princess, only now the adventure belongs exclusively to Mario. While Mario does recruit a number of allies in the first Paper Mario, they are there to help him in his journey, the relationship is not mutual. In Mario & Luigi, both bros. are mutually invested in their objectives, but more importantly they combine their abilities. One does not serve the other, they work together. In Paper Mario, Parakarry flies Mario over gaps, Watt lights up rooms, Sushie helps Mario swim. Mario does not help them, they help Mario. Notice how even their names hint to their function: they are more tools for Mario to use than partners for him to collaborate with.
Similarly, Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door, while closer to a JRPG in combat mechanics than the rest of the Paper Mario series, still places Mario above the rest of the team. Combat involves Mario and a single partner against the enemy. However, the player is defeated if Mario falls, even if his partner remains. Mario is the centre of the journey, without him there is no game even if he has a friend nearby to help him. Even Bowser’s player-controlled presence in Thousand Year Old door is a platforming excursion in which his own individual journey is paralleled with Mario’s. Unlike Bowser’s Inside Story, where the Koopa King is unwittingly a key member of a group’s collaborative mission or Seven Stars, where he is an active participant in a group endeavour, Bowser here is just an independent agent who impacts another independent agent. Similarly, the player encounters rumours and letters about Luigi that mistake his own mundane or cowardly actions as heroic. The joke is that while Mario is doing all the real hero work, Luigi is getting credit for it. However, it still positions Luigi, Mario’s only actual family, as a distinct individual on an individual journey parallel to his own.
Furthermore, the central gimmick of the Paper Mario games is the 2D “paper” aesthetic. While many engagements somehow make use of the paper mechanics, mostly the game’s design puts a spin on puzzle-solving and platforming. The JRPG mechanics are secondary to navigating levels and solving puzzles. Again, this is not to play favourites with genre, nor is it to suggest that JRPGs are exclusively capable of plural protagonism, it isn’t even to suggest that JRPGs necessarily display plural protagonism, but it is telling that the more the series strays from group dynamics, the less it resembles a JRPG.
Nintendo aren’t exactly high-rollers, even among triple A developers, but Mario RPG is distinct in the company’s standard platformer and action game release routine. Though accessible to a younger audience, the original Seven Stars is abundant with material to investigate even many years after its release, particularly in what it has to say about collectivism versus individualism. Furthermore, the trajectory of two spinoff series provides a useful resource to analyze how plural protagonism operates in and outside of Japanese RPGs.
Further reading: Gile, Chris. “Same problem different solutions: Super Mario RPG vs Final Fantasy 6.” Guileless Monk. Sep 4 2012.
Auxier, Tom. “Spoiled Novelty: Mechanical Spoilers.” Nightmare Mode. July 12 2011.
AppleShy, Johnny. “The Mario RPG Analysis Collection.” Growth. Oct 6 2013.