Princess Peach Has Put in the Work

Princess Peach cuts an impressive figure — and we’re not just talking about the great tulip-shaped heft of her skirt. Nintendo’s leading lady, debuted in 1985, is one of video games’ oldest female characters, and she keeps a much higher profile than other pioneering girlies. (Sorry to 1982 Wabbit character Billie Sue, the first playable female character.) Her prestige is bolstered by her various accolades — she’s proficient in, among other things, go-karts, golfing, tennis, and movie stardom — but she’s surprisingly underutilized in her own franchise. Dress-up action-adventure game Princess Peach: Showtime!, out on Switch today, marks only the second time in nearly four decades that Peach leads her own game.

Other, less elegant Nintendo characters haven’t had this problem. The fratty Donkey Kong has 30 titles; sneering, mustard-colored Wario has more than 20; and Nintendo mascot Mario, with his unruly mustache (wrong for his bone structure) and easy-fit overalls (ugly), stars in at least 200 games. Peach, meanwhile, started out as a damsel in distress, and was rarely given much more to do than look pretty in pink and call for help. Nintendo has let her personality disappear and reappear over time, though we’ve recently been on a welcome upswing. To better understand the injustice of the character’s history — and how important Showtime! is for Peach — it’s worth chronicling the princess’s evolution. She wasn’t born wielding a Renaissance side sword, you know.

1985 platformer Super Mario Bros. introduced Princess Peach to the English-speaking world as Princess Toadstool, the grateful Mushroom Kingdom’s de facto leader. She replaced the franchise’s original damsel, Pauline (who was at first referred to as Lady or, for short, Beautiful Girl), after her debut in 1981’s Donkey Kong. Pauline was ultimately promoted to mayor of New Donk City in the 2017 game Super Mario Odyssey. Peach would go on to wait just as long for her freedom.

Toadstool appears in Super Mario Bros. like a dream, not a person, with rescued Toads informing the player that “our princess is in another castle!” more often than you see her. When you finish the game and rescue her, Toadstool drops a quick “thank you” and entreats you to play again. So looks alone formed the original substance of the character.

Like she is today, Toadstool was depicted as taller than her squat savior Mario. In Super Mario Bros., she pairs it with carrot-orange hair and a red-trimmed white ball gown, though some anime from around this time dips her in more recognizable bottle blonde. Either way, princessing provides a familiar and (by necessity of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s limited graphics capability) simple look — Toadstool feels like the product of someone watching Beauty and the Beast after staring at the sun for too long.

But she might be a bit rudimentary, even for the time period; though the ’80s were the dawn of home video-game systems, they did understand that women had opposable thumbs and all kinds of other muscles. 1986 Metroid protagonist Samus Aran, for example, wore full-body armor and could use the force of her body to blast away loose rocks. Turbo Girl was represented in her eponymous 1988 ZX Spectrum computer game as a sentient, chunky motorbike with a laser.

Within Super Mario Bros.’ gameplay, Toadstool was about as useful as a clasped purse. Research indicates that ’80s marketing pushed hard to make gaming a “boy thing,” which non-male gamers are still straining to prove wrong, so players were conditioned to be okay with Toadstool being a doormat. The only thing permanently tough about Peach was her tiara, Nintendo decided. Otherwise, she needed saving.

Although Peach was initially presented as a prize, Nintendo has vacillated over the years in deciding to what extent she’d stay put.

Super Mario Bros. 2 called her up from the sidelines. The 1988 platformer marks the first time Peach became a playable character. It experiments with women’s rights by giving Princess Toadstool a jumping superpower — her billowing skirt, now pink, enabled her to hover in the air — though also the lowest strength and speed stats of any protagonist. So, in Mario Bros. 2, cherry bunches help you become invincible and ladders lead to underground sand pits, but a woman having a normal human lifespan is too unbelievable.

Regardless, Toadstool’s floaty skirt made her an underrated character option, and people continue to honor her unique capability in retrospectives. But despite its half-hearted attempt to turn the princess into a person, Nintendo seemed to have a hard time accepting the whole “girl” thing. (Even in 2009, Mario creator and Nintendo game director Shigeru Miyamoto confusingly blamed Peach’s dress for why she’s rarely playable.) So, after ’88, Toadstool returned to being kidnapped in every Mario game until the new millennium.

The ’90s at least figured out her outfit and name. The 1993 light gun shooter Yoshi’s Safari swaps Toadstool’s English name for “Peach,” which is what she had always been known as in Japan. So Princess Peach as we know her — complete with tiara’d blonde head and flamingo-pink ball gown — is fully established by the time Super Mario World releases in 1991. Peach might have gotten neutered, but at least she looked good. Right?

Peach suffers from a predictable fate in 2000 role-playing game Paper Mario — she tries to enjoy single life in her castle, but then barbed-wire bad boy Bowser kidnaps her, as he had been doing for years at this point. But the 2004 follow-up RPG Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door reworked the formula.

In this Mario title, Peach is kidnapped by an intergalactic supervillain with an octopus-shaped head, Sir Grodus. But instead of flailing off-screen, as other Mario installments have had her do, Peach develops a strangely prescient romance with a computer, TEC-XX.

TEC falls in love with Peach after witnessing her get naked and take a shower in her holding cell. (Peach has rarely demonstrated much of an instinct for self-preservation.) Later, in exchange for a slow dance and conversation, TEC helps Peach facilitate her own rescue. It’s a nuanced and emotional sub-plot for Peach, though her agency in it is tellingly dependent on another character’s attraction to her. At least she got to interrogate humanity’s fondness toward its technology before Spike Jonze.

It was also culturally relevant. Around this time — after Y2K failed to explode the universe, when all kinds of people started to experiment with the erupting World Wide Web — women established a stronger foothold in burgeoning technology, including in games. A 2000 study indicated that women made up the majority of online gamers, and they began more freely criticizing the needling gender issues in console gaming, too. Did Lara Croft really require a huge rack to operate heavy machinery? Even traditional forum lurkers wondered “Why does Bowser keep abducting Princess Peach?,” as one popular thread asked.

“I think he’s trying to turn her into gold or something,” guessed a commenter. Nintendo’s recycled plot was beginning to fracture.

Nintendo seemingly decided early on that Peach was, physically speaking, canonically delicate—but she had also survived numerous abductions without ever developing conspicuous post-traumatic stress disorder, so she must possess a staggering level of emotional fortitude. At least, that notion was the basis of 2005 Nintendo DS platformer Super Princess Peach, the first, and until 2024, only Peach-fronted game.

Super Princess Peach plays like most Mario platform games: stomp on Goombas and navigate structural challenges in a series of worlds — green, frozen, underwater, or sky-high in the clouds — while trying not to die. But Super Princess Peach also features a unique “emotion meter” that fueled Peach’s powers: Joy, Rage, Gloom, and Calm. (Yes, while Mario gets to turn into a raccoon boy and Luigi inherits a whole haunted mansion, Peach is forced into a #WomanMoment and runs purely on emotion.) Joy lets her soar into the air. Gloom makes her cry so violently that the deluge of salt extinguishes flames. “It’s like the designers just thought What do women do? and made a game out of it!” a player remarked in another 2005 thread.

In a sense, I appreciate Nintendo centering Peach’s feelings — as Inside Out taught us, emotions are the bedrock of personhood, and they’re more valuable than traditional gaming’s cold cruelty, Nazi shooters and poison gas. But, up until this point, Nintendo had barely spent any time developing Peach as more than a victim. What about her kingdom? Her power?

That debut game was an opportunity for audiences to get a sense of Peach as an individual, not as an object of desire. Instead, Nintendo made her even more of a stereotype: the volatile, whiny, weak woman. Audiences weren’t interested — Super Princess Peach was widely maligned for its childish mechanics (though, games marketed towards women are often unfairly criticized this way), and it remains one of the lowest-selling Mario titles.

Actually, that’s Mrs. Whiny, Weak Woman to you. In the 2007 Wii action RPG Super Paper Mario, Peach is hypnotized and explicitly forced to marry Bowser, after decades of games implying he’s in love with her. In a main Mario game, if Peach isn’t in her standard pink dress, she’s usually in a lacy cupcake wedding gown, sighing her way through a ceremony she hasn’t consented to.

This happens even a decade later in the 2017 Switch platformer Super Mario Odyssey, in which Mario and Bowser both compete to be Peach’s fiancé. In this game, Nintendo subjects Peach to the usual unwarranted drama — she’s out minding her business until a man decides she’s an object worth stealing, and then he steals her. But, this time, she’s empowered to trudge through it. Of her own volition, Peach rebuffs both Mario and Bowser, marking the fragile start to Peach’s long overdue self-assured streak.

By that point, feminists had long been praying for the character to have such agency. A 2007 blog expresses many of my current frustrations with Nintendo, always dangling Peach over her personhood without letting her touch it. “She’s got a ways to go before Nintendo can stop dragging her into the depths of the sewer of stereotypes,” the blog says. After so many thankless years, Peach might finally pull herself out of the mud.

In a high-water moment, Peach objectively kicks ass in 2018 crossover fighting game Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. More specifically, she kicks, punts, and floats high above ass using brute force and a strawberries-and-cream parasol.

That capable, self-assured, feminine Peach is the one who dominates the otherwise tedious 2023 blockbuster The Super Mario Bros. Movie. She’s depicted in the film as a fiercely compassionate, benevolent leader, able to tackle any threat with graceful composure. Video-game Peach had “stayed the ‘damsel in distress’ for a while,” Miyamoto told Variety in a 2023 interview. “We tried to push [our desires for a more in-control princess in] the movie, and I think it was one of our first conversations, to make her the strong, powerful princess she was always meant to be.”

Finally! And now that the Mario Bros. Movie has proven there is audience demand for a fully-formed Peach, Princess Peach: Showtime! brings her to the Switch. The game’s premise — that magic outfits let Peach turn into a true crimefighter — may have some of Super Princess Peach’s shadow on it. But, functionally, it’s more similar to the gender-agnostic, mystic transformations of other Nintendo characters such as Kirby, or raccoon Mario. Sure, the premise is still that Peach fights like a girl. But now the point it’s making is: What’s so bad about that?

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