The year was August 1996. Dolly the sheep had just been successfully cloned and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze was in its dying days. Nintendo fans, on the other hand, eagerly anticipated the release of Tetris Attack, a puzzle-based video game developed by Intelligent Systems for SNES. Little did they know that this “new Mario game” was really, at its heart, an overwhelmingly girly title from Japan that was conveniently re-branded by NOA in order to appeal to a male-centric American crowd. After all, boys do love Yoshi.
Before I continue, we must first remember that the 1990s saw the inarguably fiercest battle in all of gaming history: Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis. Had the Big N released Panel de Pon as it was, Sega would have surely dropped an avalanche of smear ads, and Nintendo knew this well. I mean, if you weren’t there back in the day, take a look at some of the
propaganda commercials Sega would air during kids’ programming in order to derail its competition:
Message #1: Nintendo deals under the table to spread corny bigotry.
Message #2: Sonic is cool and has an attitude; Mario is lame and men who dress like women like him.
Message #3: Sega is a race car; Nintendo is an old jalopy.
Message #4: Genesis does what Nintendon’t.
Yikes. And we think political ads are nasty.
In retrospect, I find it quite difficult to grasp how Sega successfully managed to port itself as the mature choice for gamers simply because its mascot blue hedgehog “had attitude” and its port of Mortal Kombat featured red blips that somewhat resembled blood. But when I realize that this unbelievable style of clothing was also considered the coolest thing since hammer pants during the same time period, the picture slowly begins to come together as to how the western world so readily accepted what now seems laughably absurd.
Now, where was I? Ah yes – ranting about Panel de Pon.
The plot of Panel de Pon basically revolves around a fairy free-for-all. Turns out the evil Thanatos cast a spell over the world of Popples and triggered a melee amongst the pixies. Lip, however, is unaffected due to her trusty magic stick. She must then defeat each of her fairy friends in a puzzle contest and return them to their right minds so that they can all square off as one against Thanatos. Sounds fairly unique, I guess. So why was the cast replaced with characters from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island in the U.S. and then sequelized in 2000 for N64 with Ash Ketchum and the Pokémon cast? The answer is simple. It was because Mario and Pokémon were guaranteed to rake in the dough, and Nintendo wasn’t willing to risk damaging its then juvenile reputation any further with fluttery females. This may seem like a harsh statement, but it is nonetheless the cold, hard truth.
Ever since childhood, I’ve never had problems with girl products (I was the oddball who bought the April O’Neil toy and thought nothing of it) nor have I ever thought myself to be a male supremacist; and with such a balanced disposition, I wouldn’t have had a single problem with playing Panel de Pon as it was, granted it was a fun, entertaining experience. But Nintendo of America knew that most consumers would have passed it off as a sissy game, so it had the staff make whatever changes they felt necessary to repudiate this thought.
Behold, a classic switcheroo scenario!
But that wasn’t the end of the pixie cuts – the story of NOA’s negative relationship with Lip has gotten progressively worse with time. Ever since that first fateful day in August 1996, every single one of her appearances in other titles besides the Super Smash Bros. series has been either denied access to America (Captain Rainbow), silently cancelled (Nintendo Puzzle Collection) or outrageously clipped (Planet Puzzle League). These actions furthermore convince me that the Nintendo we know in the West is still embarrassed of Lip, now possibly viewing the damage it has committed to her over the years as too irreparable to even bother messing with. It may be too late for Lip to ever flower her way onto the western scene (we’ll keep our fingers crossed for a Smash Bros. fighter), but she will always remain the pioneer mascot of Nintendo’s core puzzle series, whether we know it, like it or not.