Korman: ‘Super Mario’ franchise patently offensive to shelled community

By Ben Korman

The celebrated Nintendo video game series “Super Mario Bros.” features a set of antagonists that look like turtles but are labeled by the developer as Koopas.

They’re amphibious green little buggers with shells, four extremities and pointed beaks — all the hallmarks of true turtlehood. The playful branding of these enemies is semantic at best. As my taxidermist grandfather used to say, “If it walks like a turtle, swims like a turtle and has a shell that looks like it would make a terrific gift for your grandmother, then it’s a turtle.”

These games, first and foremost, graphically depict innocent, healthy turtles being slaughtered by the hundreds at the hands of human characters. The main character, Super Mario, is consistently rewarded for these atrocities.

Players are compensated for murdering these slow-moving, virtually harmless creatures with gold coins, which are exchangeable for extra lives. (Note that humans in the game are, in fact, capable of collecting additional “lives” — meaning, when they die, they’re not really dead. In contrast, when the Koopas die, they really die.)

To add to the horrid events depicted in this so-called “game,” the remaining lifeless shells can then be used by the “protagonists” as projectiles, which can be used to harm more innocent creatures or even fellow players.

In the popular spin-off series “Mario Kart,” players can even fire said shells at opponents, causing them to veer off track.

Encouraging players to cause automobile accidents in this fashion is extremely insensitive to the throngs of casualties of turtle-vehicle collisions in the past century.

Perhaps most disturbing is the forgoing of proper burial rites to the deceased. Just because an animal’s exoskeleton happens to be perfectly engineered for stunningly accurate flinging and kicking doesn’t mean that proper respects to the remains need not be paid.

The game is even physically inaccurate. Koopa shells are far too round for the job — sea turtle shells would actually be more aerodynamic, as they’re flatter to improve swimming ability.

Of the millions of species on Earth, why turtles? While their shells are certainly formidable weapons, the same can be said with respect to the remains of many animals. You could use the horn of a dead rhinoceros as a truncheon. You could use a deceased lobster’s claw as a death clamp or a scorpion’s tail as a poison syringe.

Why, even the longest feather of a fallen dove could tickle someone to death.

Are we really to believe that shelled amphibians were simply chosen arbitrarily as the series’ most pervasive antagonists? Was Bowser, the chief nemesis in the series, portrayed as a belligerent power-tripping-maniac-turtle-thing with no specific message in mind? Is the shelled community simply a capricious victim here?

If the portrayals typical in the media and popular culture are any indication — hardly.

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles taught our generation that engaging in hand-to-hand combat in public areas is an acceptable thing to do. The Slowsky’s, a family of turtles depicted in a series of Comcast Broadband commercials, portray the species as arcane, culturally trapped and lethargic.

Filburt Shellbache of the mid-90s Nickelodeon cartoon “Rocko’s Modern Life” is depicted as bothersome, neurotic, perpetually nauseous and incapable of financially supporting himself.

The Mario franchise tiptoed around this hot-button issue with 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” movie, in which they decided that Koopas would be much cooler if they were scary dinosaurs. “Turtles are boring,” they probably thought. “Not gonna put the fannies in the seats.”

In 2003, Disney took an encouraging step forward in fictional turtle-human relations when a turtle helped a lost young clownfish reunite with his father in “Finding Nemo.”

“Finding Nemo” should have been a landmark moment in terms of fair portrayal of turtles. Instead, persistent negative media portrayals continue to spawn a culture so contemptuous that socially uncomfortable situations are noted by a joint “awkward turtle” remark and accompanying gesture.

More than 2,500 years ago, Aesop told us the story of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise’s victory was a triumph for millennia, and today, it is one of the few remaining cultural references we have of shelled amphibians as virtuous creatures.

They might not be able to talk back, but they just might snap.

E-mail Ben at [email protected]