Celebrating the Weirdos

From Birdo to Error, we talk about the impact of the various Nintendo oddballs over the years.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/08/2014 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

I love Shy Guys. Their small stature, inscrutable masks, and indistinct, garbled murmuring all coalesce into what is easily one of Nintendo’s most iconically oddball characters. What are they? Who are they? Does it even matter? From Super Mario Bros. 2 to Yoshi’s New Island, Shy Guys have been a longtime staple of Mario’s and Yoshi’s adventures. Characters like Link and Samus are iconic representatives of the Nintendo pantheon, but I think that Shy Guys and Deku Scrubs are the unsung champions of the company’s quirky, fun-loving nature. Without them, Nintendo wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

Nintendo, for better and worse, walks its own path. Trends, what’s popular, are seemingly meaningless to the Japanese developer. Sure, Nintendo will acquiesce to fan outcry here and there, but overall the company rarely conforms. People can say what they want about sales numbers for software and hardware, but there’s generally universal consensus from fans and critics alike that Nintendo knows how to make some great games. Yet, when one looks at the titles that the company produces, it’s hard to peg them into any particular categories. Nothing quite feels or looks the same as the games that come out of Kyoto, and part of that’s due in no uncertain terms to the diverse characters in almost every title.

Amongst Nintendo’s lead characters, there’s an overweight plumber, an athletic elven warrior, a woman clad in armor, anthropomorphic animal mercenaries, a trio of singing merrymakers in suits, a minute, circular pink glutton, little boys and girls who befriend and train animals for tournament fighting, and on, and on. It’s almost impossible to come up with analogues for the company’s various leading ladies and men. In an industry glutted with virtually interchangeable male and female protagonists, characters like Kirby, Fox, and Yoshi are as uncommon as it gets outside of licensed kids games. For Nintendo, no character is too unusual for the spotlight.

Growing up, I always knew I was different from most of the kids I went to school with. I’m a Mexican-American, with a quarter Italian floating in my veins for good measure. I don’t speak Spanish or Italian, and my family has been here in the US for generations. To be a minority who only speaks English and has deep roots in this country, in my experience, makes it hard to fit in with any particular group. I never felt like an outcast, certainly, but rather someone who marched to his own rhythm. That being the case, when I first began discovering Super Mario and Donkey Kong, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship to Nintendo’s consortium of characters. They weren’t like any others, and I wasn’t like most anyone else.

Yoshi and Birdo

Diversity is something that the video game industry has been struggling with for years, whether it’s the characters in the games or the people playing them. Yet there was Nintendo, refusing to pander to any particular demographic from day one. It’s pretty awesome to look at a mainstream video game company like Nintendo and realize just how incredibly inclusive, content-wise, its games are. There’s essentially nothing barring players from attaching themselves to the company’s unique cast. Still, as cool as Fox and Link are, as I pointed out above, what’s really special are the weirdos and goofballs in Nintendo’s ranks.

It’s hard to identify what it says about Nintendo that it can get away with not only putting someone like Fawful into one of its games, but make fans love him, to boot. By all accounts, characters like Goombas and Waddle Dees don’t play that big of a role (if any) in the Titanfalls and Dead Spaces of the world. It’s almost overwhelmingly the norm for developers to go for muscles, buzz cuts, and scowls to make a game sell, yet Nintendo consistently defies the odds when it makes fans adore a Koopa Troopa or an Oddish. They just shouldn’t work, yet unarguably do.

I think it speaks volumes about Nintendo that it can craft characters who touch on the sorts of personalities and people we all know in real life (and sometimes even see in ourselves) without resorting to stereotypes or tired copies. Characters like Makar, who’s small, brave, and honest, are unapologetically themselves without reservations and never try to be the flavor of the month, and as a result are unforgettable. Where would Zelda games be if there were no Errors or King Zoras? Where would Donkey Kong games be without Cranky Kong? The experiences in all these great series are amplified because Nintendo always makes the effort to embrace the unusual, or the unpopular. Shy Guys might not be cool in a traditional sense, but they have a quality that not enough of today’s characters do: heart.

Magikoopa, Psyduck, King Dedede, Birdo, and Makar. Ravio, Monty Mole, Funky Kong, and Toadsworth. All slightly weird, all that much more special and lovable because of it. Nintendo doesn’t just make it feel safe to be different, it makes it feel fun. Countless players everywhere find refuge in the games and worlds that Nintendo builds, because there’s no grandstanding to get in the way. Shy Guys, aimless baddies though they are, are what video games need more of: unique characters filled with spirit. Some game companies are content with playing safe over and over, but Nintendo isn’t one of them.

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