The Mike Toole Show
Nintendo Power

by Mike Toole,

It's been a Nintendo kind of month for me. My brother surprised me with a Wii U for my birthday, but see, my birthday was in March. Being a perpetually distracted person, I let the damn console sit in the corner of my living room, unopened, for a good six weeks. But May is here, spring has sprung, and I'm celebrating the warm weather by staying inside and playing video games. Specifically, I'm playing the Mario game that shipped with the console, an exhilarating 3D platformer that reminds me of childhood vacations spent parked in front of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, playing the crap out of Super Mario Bros. 2. Like that game, this new one has the whole “select your character” deal, only with the added chaos of multiplayer.

Add to that the most welcome re-release of Shotaro Ishinomori's manga version of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and I've had Nintendo on the brain. But something occurred to me as I was guiding the portly plumber past yet another obstacle course, this one involving diabolical slides and waterfalls: why is there so little Nintendo anime? It seems like such an obvious marriage. After all, while Mario, Peach, Bowser and the rest of the gang were dreamed up by Shigeru Miyamoto, they were refined and perfected by an illustrator named Yoichi Kotabe—an old cohort of Miyazaki and Takahata.

The three of us sat together on the bench, hunched over a copy of Nintendo Power. My buddies and I were reading an article festooned with eye-popping illustrations of Link from Legend of Zelda, rendered in what appeared to be high-quality animation screenshots. We puzzled over this, because we'd never seen this stuff on the tube. Decades later, I'd discover that these screengrabs were from a series of TV commercials. But back then, one friend leaned closer and piped up. “You know, I got an uncle who works at at Nintendo, and he says that there's a Super Mario Brothers cartoon that never got released outside of Japan!”

Alright, that last bit didn't happen. I just wanted to make a “my uncle works for Nintendo” joke. Ha! Classic. But the thing is, it's a true fact: in 1986, Nintendo enlisted the aid of a tiny production house called Grouper to create an animated film for them. Released to theaters with the pretense of pushing exciting new products like Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Japanese one, not the American one) and directed by the great Masami Hata, Super Mario Bros: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach is a fascinating little movie that really makes it obvious why Nintendo essentially buried it after release and never let it get out of Japan. It's got a number of other weird details to it, as well—Princess Peach is voiced by a 17-year-old pop idol named Mami Yamase (who also sings an insert song), with other tunes penned by Pink Lady ghostwriter Toshiyuki Omori. (The theme song, “Doki-doki Do It!,” is very catchy. Naturally, there was a soundtrack LP released.)

We all know that Mario and his brother Luigi are plumbers. But for some reason, this film depicts them running a grocery store. They get sucked into video-game-land at the behest of the Mushroom Hermit, who looks weirdly like the redrawn version of Master Roshi from Dragon Power, the hilariously awkwardly-localized US release of the Nintendo Dragonball game.

One thing really impresses me about this film and much of the artwork in it: Mario, Bowser, and Peach all look essentially the same as they did in 1986. That's a remarkable feat of consistency from Nintendo! Of course, the movie key art (illustrated by Shigeru Miyamoto) looks a little different.

Heh heh, check out that bizarre Boswer! Here's where I can flog the Yoichi Kotabe connection. Kotabe had come to Nintendo after getting bored with animation (decades at Toei had left him feeling, in his own words, “like stagnant water”), and Miyamoto put him straight to work on both in-game and promotional images for the company's new offerings. You can see the iconic characters taking shake in the above image, but it was Kotabe who applied the finishing touches, defining the look of these iconic characters right up to the present day.

Let's get back to that movie. Mario and Luigi, intrepid grocery clerks, are off to rescue the princess. They're joined by this weird dog that looks kind of like Anpanman (and given that director Masami Hata is an old buddy of Anpanman creator Takashi Yanase, it's not out of the question to theorize that the character was drawn by Yanase or one of his assistants). Luigi celebrates his arrival in the mushroom kingdom by eating mood-altering mushrooms, as you do. Soon, the pair are greeted by a pretty girl wearing a big mushroom cap—yep, it's Toad. And in this version, Toad is a lady—a lady named Kinopio. That name (which is still used for Toad in the Japanese version) is actually a cute little portmanteau of “mushroom” and “Pinocchio,” but it's a pain in the ass to translate, so we're stuck with “Toad.” A series of surreal comic breaks and dream sequences provides lots of ideas for potential future power-ups.

Yeah, this is actually a fairly entertaining little kids' cartoon, it's just loaded with ideas and images that completely smash up the Mario canon as we know it now. I will point out that Peach, upon being imprisoned in the Koopa castle, immediately tries to free herself from Bowser by tricking him into turning into a mouse—shades of Puss n' Boots! So right from the start, she wasn't exactly a shrinking violet. The characters take frequent breaks to tout real-life Mario tie-in food products (Mario Ramen! Mario Sprinkles for your rice!), and Mario himself is voiced by Tohru Furuya, who sounds exactly like Amuro Ray and makes no attempt to cartoon his voice up. It's actually really peculiar-sounding when you weigh it against the goofy falsetto that we all know Mario for today, and it's interesting to note that Furuya would voice the character in several more productions and commercials.

One of these productions was called Amada Anime Series: Super Mario Bros. This bedeviled me for a while, because I immediately tried to find the other titles in the Amada Anime Series. It appears that there aren't any. This is probably for the best, as this particular Mario is one of those cartoons that's so un-animated it feels more like a motion comic. It was a tie-in with the release of Super Mario Bros. 3, and it has some incredibly weird production artwork that looks nothing like the games.

“It's dangerous to go alone,” says a wise old man to Mario Momotaro, “take this!” Then he hands him a gun, which, to my disappointment, Mario never actually uses. He's accompanied not by a dog, a bird, and a monkey, like the Momotaro of legend, but by a Buzzy, a Boomerang Brother, and a Spike. There's also an adaptation of Snow White (Bowser, in drag, plays the jealous queen, which is honestly a nice break from his usual “kidnap Peach and force her to marry me” angle) and Inch-High Samurai. The Anime Encyclopedia had me thinking it was a version of Rumplestiltskin for years, but nope—it's Inch-High Samurai.

That Super Mario Bros. film, long lost to us except as Youtube rips of old rental VHS tapes, was the very first video game tie-in anime created, launching a genre that would plague the medium with wave after wave of generally terrible, weird stuff like Tekken and Fire Emblem and Star Ocean. The thing is, though, that the film was joined at the starting line by an OVA released the very same day in 1986: Running Boy: The Secret of Star Soldier, which I spent a merry decade mis-identifying as an animated version of Square's 3D World-Runner, before our own Todd Ciolek finally corrected my silly ass. Anyway, Running Boy hit video shelves courtesy of software-making rivals Hudson Soft.

Hudson are diminished today—they were subsumed by Konami in 2012-- but in '86, they were both a friendly competitor and a valued partner to Nintendo, releasing classics for the NES such as Bomberman, Adventure Island, and Milon's Secret Castle. Some years later they tried like hell to play kingmaker for the TurboGrafx16, the US version of the PC Engine, but failed in that endeavor. But first, there was this OVA, which takes the complete opposite tack to Super Mario. Where the Mario movie fills in some additional details for the game series, Running Boy is essentially a story of how awesome it is to play Star Soldier.

See, even back in the day, Star Soldier had this weird lifestyle angle to it, with rolling tournaments taking place all across Japan. The game's most interesting player, a gregarious twentysomething in a baseball cap named Toshiyuki Takahashi, became one of the first video game celebrities in Japan by exhibiting his astonishing ability to tap the fire button as many as sixteen times per second in Star Soldier's predecessor, Tecmo's Star Force. He was soon scooped up by Hudson, to serve as both spokesman and developer/tester. “I'm not that good at video games,” he'd wryly remark, “I'm just good at making them look fun.” Along with titular hero Gendai Sasayama, he's one of the main characters of the Running Boy anime. Here he is.

Despite being a blatant pitch for the game, even going as far as having game footage featured with the animation, Running Boy is surprisingly easy to watch, with solid production design, cute character designs and animation by Crayon Shin-chan lifer Daiji Suzuki, and a charmingly outlandish story about how Gendai gets to visit Hudson, where he discovers that they test their racing and flight games on real-life racecar drivers and WWII flying aces, and gets to team up with his hero Takahashi Meijin (literally “the famous Takahashi”) to try an advanced version of the game. We get treated to a lot of this stuff.

Remember kids, if you want to be good at Star Soldier, you better get the custom-branded Hudson NES controller! Just look at Takahashi lovingly caressing it. That same Takahashi Meijin, incidentally, was enough of a big name to become the hero of his own game series, Adventure Island. Kids on this side of the pond called him Master Higgins, but there's no mistaking that huge grin and baseball cap.

But wait—is this a picture from video game promo art, or from a commercial? Nope, there was actually a 51-episode Adventure Island cartoon—well, sort of. The cartoon, called Bug tte Honey, does star Takahashi, as well as Hudson mascot Honey Bee (in cute girl form, obviously), but it's actually weirdly similar to the American Captain N cartoon, with our video-game sidekicks assisting a team of heroes, led by a pompadour-wearing goofball named 1UP (seriously, his name is Wanappu) in their crusade to fight evil. Conveniently, this fight involves lots and lots of references to hot new games from Hudson, like Super Lode Runner, Bomberman Special, and Challenger.

If the artwork looks familiar to you, it's because it's from the same guy who was drawing Dragonball characters over at Toei. No, not Akira Toriyama, but Minoru Maeda. Interestingly, while most of the titles mentioned in this column never made it past the 80s, in terms of video release, you can get a great-looking Bug tte Honey DVD set—studio TMS kept it in great shape. They really oughta put this show on Hulu, is what they oughta do.

Hudson eventually got eaten by Konami—but what of Konami in the 80s? They gave us hits like Contra and Double Dribble for the NES, as well as a rad, legendary series of shoot-em-up games called Gradius. One of the best-remembered games of this era was a Gradius spinoff, a game you might remember under the title Life Force. In Japan, they called it Salamander, and they made an anime version of it.

You might be wondering how they took a game where the only real plot is “evil planet attacking, must attack and defeat planet with cool spaceships” and spun that out into three 45-minute OVAs. The answer is: not very well. There are some surprisingly big names behind the Salamander OVA—peep those Haruhiko Mikimoto character designs, for example—but the end result is a show that feels like 80 percent standing around and talking, and maybe twenty percent flying and doing cool stuff. Here, vague names and references from the game get turned into characters with lines and backstories, like heroic pilot Stephanie and her comrade, Lord British. No, I'm not talking about the guy from Ultima, that's a totally different Lord British. This one kinda looks like Char Aznable by way of Robert Plant.

Almost the entire first episode of this dud is dedicated to Lord British standing in his throne room, complaining about the invaders and their weird planet. The show does look pretty sumptuous, and there are some great scenes of mass destruction, but it labors really hard to fill in the blanks in a game that is almost entirely blanks. This turkey actually got released on VHS in Britian, with a purportedly terrible subtitle job. Unlike Mario, it's easy to see why Salamander is still slumbering in the depths.

I'll wrap up this look at the Nintendo era of video game anime the best way possible: with ninjas. I recently made passing reference to Ninja Gaiden in my ongoing survey of Ninja Slayer from Animation. The game is remembered as being both challenging and rewarding, filled out with a nutty storyline featuring some of the first bona-fide interstitial cutscenes in video gaming. Ninja hero Ryu Hayabusa comes to America, where he has to deal with dead dad problems and stop a megalomaniac from resurrecting a demon. But what about the one-shot Ninja Gaiden (or Ninja Ryukenden, if you're being pedantic)?

All of that stuff from the first game is tossed out the window in favor of a yarn concerning human experimentation, wild car chases, gory beheadings, and the immortal blood of the dragon, which, coincidentally, flows through Ryu's veins. Ninja Gaiden II sidekick Robert T. Sturgeon shows up as a hard-boiled P.I., superbly voiced by Norio Wakamoto. The best parts of Ninja Gaiden, however, are weird throwaway bits, such as its depiction of Broadway in New York City as a single theater playing Les Miz.

In other words, here's another example of an adaptation that just throws its hands up and goes for broke. Released in 1991, Ninja Gaiden is the last of the great Nintendo Entertainment System games to get an animated spinoff. I'm still holding out hope for a cartoon version of Clu Clu Land, though!

Have you seen the Super Mario Bros anime, or were you limited to that weird Bob Hoskins movie and the cartoon where Captain Lou Albano “does the Mario” over the ending credits and stumbles awkwardly at the end, only DIC just didn't give a crap so they left it in there? Do you just love the Mario video games? Do you think the right studio could make a Super Mario anime as good as the games? Power up in the comments!

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