Thank You, Mario, but Our Princess is in Another Castle

Buy Online:

The following is a sample work from Chicks Dig Gaming, the forthcoming essay book slated for release on November 11th. Print copies of Chicks Dig Gaming will be available through all mainstream retailers; click here to pre-order a copy from Amazon, or click here to pre-order one from Barnes and Noble. To pre-order an e-book of Chicks Dig Gaming, click here for Kindle, click here for Kobo or click here for iTunes.



Catherynne M. Valente is the author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, The Habitation of the Blessed, Deathless and Six Gun Snow White. Time magazine named her fantasy novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making, the first in Valente’s Fantasyland series, as among the Top 10 fiction books of 2012. She is the winner of the Tiptree Award, the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, the Lambda Award, the Rhysling Award and the Million Writers Award. She was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2007 and 2009, and the Locus and Hugo Awards in 2010. Indistinguishable from Magic, a collection of more than 60 of her essays, was published in 2014. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with her partner, two dogs and an enormous cat.


It is dark.

We are in the Pre-Incarnation Universe.

A body appears, the image of the illusory, temporary, yet carnal self, along with minimal information about our physical location in the Cosmos, and a number, revealing to us the duration of our stay in the current shape.

We are about to enter Samsara, the Wheel of Birth and Rebirth.

We are also about to play Super Mario Bros. on our dilapidated grey-and-black eight-bit console, the one we still blow into and jimmy the cartridge an even number of times in vain superstition that we can somehow convince the box to work one more time. For most folk of my age-group and particular intellectual persuasion, Mario is already an icon, one of our first bright, electronic avatars (remember that word, kiddies), teaching us how to project ourselves into that small grey box and become, well, a fat Italian plumber. Without waxing poetic about how much better things were when I was a kid, the simplicity of graphics, gameplay and story in those early Nintendo games allow for the kind of player-insertion and mythography that today’s perfectly rendered RPGs and FPSs cannot deliver. Is it nostalgia? Undoubtedly, yes. But anyone will tell you: God doesn’t live at St. Peter’s or at Nara or even floating down the Ganges, but in the cracks and crannies of pop culture.
And, since folklore is my stock in trade, I’m gonna wrangle that cartridge into cultural resonance for you, my fellow plumbers, and fill that console with Divine Breath.

With his portly belly and puffy cheeks, the resemblance of Mario to the Buddha is almost too obvious to mention. As Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu, Mario is an avatar of Buddha, but also of ourselves, the player, whose own journey through Samsara is reflected through the deceptively simple game. That we use the word “avatar,” a loaded religious term, speaks to the subconscious understanding of the possibilities inherent in gameplay-as-meditation.

Mario’s shadow-self, Luigi, is tall and slender, the Buddha-as-Siddartha, ascetic, the Buddha of the Lesser Wheel, where Mario is the more worldly image of Buddha, the one most familiar to the West, embraced by popular thought, and therefore ascendant in the West-marketed game. His three physical states (small, big, and fireball) align to the Three States of Conditioned Existence: anatta – the undisguisable, baseline essence of self unchanged by the vagaries of incarnation (small Mario); anicca – the state of change, vulnerability to constant mutability (big Mario); and dukkha – suffering, with which fireball Mario is consumed, and which he deals to others from his own hand. Of course, Mario also has a fourth state – the number four is constantly repeated within the construct of the game – a state reached either through injury (Suffering) or through a Star (revelatory Enlightenment), and this is his non-physical satori-self, a state of temporary and invisible nirvana in which the Mario-avatar cannot be harmed at all.

This Mario-Buddha ascends through eight worlds, corresponding roughly to the Eight-Fold Path, each divided into four levels, symbolizing the Four Noble Truths.

For example, in World 1 [Right Understanding], Mario beings to comprehend the world around him, the souls of the kingdom having been turned into mushrooms, representations of death and decay, just as the divine spark (atman) in humans is disguised and buried within a flawed, corporeal shell. In level 1-1 [Life is Suffering], Mario has his first experiences with pain, striving and the illusions of the Mushroom Kingdom. In level 1-2 [All Suffering stems from Desire], he plunges into the Underworld, the subterranean source of earthly desire, full of darkness and opportunities for descent and ascent. Importantly, it is on this level, should Mario understand that he is capable of “walking above” Desire even at this early stage, he can achieve a Warp Zone, and ascend furthest when he is in the furthest depths. In fact, in virtually all of the worlds, the second level is an Underworld level, either represented by water or sewers. In level 1-3 [Suffering can be overcome], he walks on high platforms, beset by the flying fish of earthly cares, tenuously threading through the fish in order to find the Middle Path. In level 1-4 [The way to overcome Suffering is through the Eightfold Path], Mario encounters for the first time the fortress which, repeated in increasing complexity, becomes his primary proving ground.

At the successful completion of each fortress-level, Mario encounters a False Princess. These may be seen as the daughters of Mara, the demon-king who tempted Siddartha to abandon his quest for Enlightenment under the fabled Bo Tree (not so coincidental, I think, is it that the symbol of Mara’s defeat is the sudden blooming of red flowers all around the Buddha – no player of Super Mario Bros. could miss the connection to the flowers which grant Mario his most powerful state). So too do these False Princesses tempt Mario to end his quest and seek succor with them, even though “our” Princess, the Real Princess, is perpetually “in another castle.” It is not enough that Mario rescue a princess, or defeat a fortress, he must rescue the correct princess, conquer the correct fortress, just as it is not enough to practice Thought, Action, Speech, but Right Thought, Action or Speech – the final fold of Mario’s path is not only Right Concentration, but Right Princess.

When Mario has achieved Right Fortress and is prepared to gain Right Princess, he must face Mara in the demon’s truest form – and indeed, most Buddhist art portrays Mara as a huge dragon or lizard, whose final attack against Siddartha is to throw flaming discs at his unprotected head. As a tableau invented in a Buddhist country, the resemblance cannot be coincidental.
If we construe Right Princess as Mario’s ultimate Unification with the World-Soul, of his plumber’s atman achieving nirvana, we are left with two possible interpretations of the game’s conclusion.

One: that Mario, as are we poor, flawed players, is ultimately unready to achieve this union, and must return, inevitably, to Samsara, to begin again his quest for self-awareness and Enlightenment. This return is encompassed by the Second Quest, in which the mushrooms are largely replaced by beetles, further symbols of death, rebirth and suffering, but also symbolic of the similarity of all cycles of incarnation: only the scenery changes.

Two: that Mario does achieve nirvana, and unifies with Princess Toadstool, the representation of the Source of Atman to which all incarnated beings long to return. If this is the case, Mario chooses to return to Samsara as a Bodhisattva, to show others (players) how to walk in his footsteps.

Either way, the wise and canny player may retain the knowledge from one incarnation to another by pressing start + A, just like the Dalai Lama does.