Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Dorkly.com in January 2018.
As long as there have been video games, there have been protagonists. And yet, these heroes cannot stand alone: without the obstacles which define them, they are little more than collections of pixels, imbued with neither bravery nor resolve. Much as New York is herself a player in classic film, the hurdles faced by our friends Mario, the Toad, and Donkey Kong are characters themselves, tailored to test our heroes’ specific skills.
We speak here not of the Goomba, the Met, the Octorok — these foes have already been rehabilitated to some degree, granted the legitimacy to appear in kart racing and sports spinoffs. No, today we examine obstacles — spikes, pits, molten lava, and so on — and give them their due as the devices which inspire our cherished champions to the heights of greatness.
Ah, the humble spike. Whether adorning a floor or descending from the ceiling, these acute accoutrements dot the worlds of nearly all classic video games. To some protagonists, they are a mere annoyance, while to others — most notably the so-called “blue bomber” Mega Man, they are the obstacle par excellence. Mega Man’s learned foe Dr. Wily deploys these deadly protuberances to great effect in his endless efforts to stymie the meddling of his nemesis.
But why these barbed booby traps in particular? The layman might point — pardon the pun — to the clearly hazardous silhouette of the spike. He might argue that the video games of yesteryear benefited from, and perhaps even required visual parsimony. That is, the ability to quickly convey information about the nature of the wondrous digital world the player found himself in. Alas, we cannot be satisfied with such obvious explanations. We must dig deeper.
We must ask: who is Mega Man? He is a robot, yes, a robot constructed for peace who finds himself thrust into battle. And what defines him? Unlike many heroes of the day — our Marios, our Bill Rizers — he is capable of weathering a great many blows from his enemies. And he wields a gun. Much like the archetypal Western hero, he is the master of his domain. And yet all of his endurance and skill with the Mega Buster cannot protect him against one thing: the humble sharpened spike, which instantly discorporates him.
It is precisely the fear of penetration which undoes Mega Man, who after all displays his proud masculinity in his very name. To Mario, a humble plumber secure in his sexual being, the spike is merely a spike. But to the Man named Mega, it represents an intrusion into the body, a loss of control, a relinquishing of power inextricably associated with the feminine that jeopardizes the integrity of the self. It cannot be conceived of. And so, Wily must be defeated and punished for daring to challenge the Mega Man. The normative family of Mega Man, Roll, and Dr. Light must prevail.
2. Bottomless Pits
Pits. Gaps. Holes. Are we to imagine that these lacunae are bottomless, dooming an unsteady hero to an eternal descent? Or else are our proagonists simply written off once having exited the field of the screen, a sly commentary on the viewer’s childlike lack of object permanence? Regardless, pits are one of the most iconic obstacles in classic video games.
To wit: shortly after the inaugural encounter with the Goomba in Super Mario Brothers the First, the player is confronted with a hole in the terrain. Where there was land, there is not. How mysterious! Should the player give in to his l’appel du vide, he will hear those tones — which will soon become all too familiar — indicating that he has slipped up, committed a foul. A life has been lost. Mario must begin again.
Who does not fear the hole in the world? Certainly all of our protagonists locked into a side-scrolling perspective do: the aforementioned plumber, the Kong, the Mega Man, the hedgehog, and so on. Even Link, the Hero of Hyrule, traditionally controlled from an aerial perspective, is not immune. The holes scattered throughout the many dungeons Link explores will sap his precious hearts just the same as any of his foes, should he find himself disappearing into their murky depths.
And yet. And yet. There is one hero who is immune to this hazard. Let us investigate the case of Samus Aran: a human, and yet a machine. Powerful, yet vulnerable. Appearing on the world historical stage, Samus upended the patriarchal associations between the heroic and the masculine. Perhaps then it is not surprising that she is among the few who does not fear the void. The worlds she explores may feature drops and unsteady ground, but beneath them: simply more world.
Why should this be? While far from unique in today’s digital landscape, consider the fact of Samus’s sex: woman. La femme. To Freud, it was natural that the woman should experience “penis envy,” a feeling stemming from a childhood realization of lack. Reversing this equation, later psychoanalysts such as Horney proposed that men experience “womb envy,” and in coping with this condition, denigrate the functions of reproduction and nurturing which they are unable to participate in.
If we accept this hypothesis, then the preponderance of pits and their marked absence from the Metroid series becomes simple to understand. Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, and yes, even the male-coded robot Mega Man all fear and envy the power of bodily reproduction. These protagonists covet this power for themselves even as they wish to return to the safety and oblivion of the womb, represented by the pit.
While Samus Aran’s sex was not disclosed at the outset of Metroid, subtle clues were placed throughout for the discerning player. Most notably, the absence of pitfalls would alert a keen psychoanalytic mind to the reality of the situation. Their avatar was not a robot at all, but something else, something more familiar and yet more alien: a representative of Beauvoir’s “second sex.”
The alarming countdown announcing Sonic the Hedgehog’s imminent death by drowning is undoubtedly familiar to all players. Mega Man cannot drown, as he is a robot. Donkey Kong, a creature in tune with his natural world, is similarly immune to this environmental hazard. And yet no number of golden rings can protect Sonic from a watery end should he hesitate a moment too long.
Sonic is a part of the natural world, yet removed from it. He is cursed with knowledge, forced to rescue the blissfully unaware Flickies from Eggman’s (née Robotnik) clutches again and again. His deepest, most secret wish is to return to this state — before the endless struggle, before life became complicated by the arrival of time-traveling hedgehogs and godlike entities inhabiting the core of his world.
Should Sonic not desire, then, to return to a time and place in which his world was small and safe, in which the burden of heroism was not yet placed upon his shoulders? To a place in which he was surrounded by the nurturing, liquid warmth of his mother’s body? I speak, of course, of the womb.
Alas, none of us can return to that blessed place. Sonic knows this, yet tempts fate in the waters of the Aquatic Ruin Zone. Allow him this reprieve, if only for a few short seconds.
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[laughs] The womb.
5. Contact Damage
As previously mentioned, here we are not considering the autonomous foes overcome by our protagonists. However, we must be permitted to discuss one phenomenon associated with them — that of “contact damage.” For those foes who do not spit projectiles or engage in other means of direct attack, their only opportunity to harm the hero lies in simple touch.
In some cases, we can easily comprehend why contact with the foe might be unpleasant. Perhaps they are adorned with spikes, or else they represent some form of animate magma. But what of those enemies whose forms do not display such obvious threats? What of the Koopa Troopa, the Motobug, not to mention Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde?
Again, the casual observer might point to the technical limitations of the day, arguing that to implement attack animations for each distinct foe was costly and inefficient at the time. But could it not be that something deeper is at play?
When Mario faces down the Goomba a the inception of World 1-1, he cannot touch it except to inflict harm, ending its tiny life with a stomp from the heavens. Why should this be? Perhaps Mario’s inability to make contact with the others inhabiting the Mushroom Kingdom represents a fear of difference — of the other.
Can we truly know the other? The phenomenologists tell us no, that your interiority must remain endlessly inaccessible to me and vice versa. Our attempts to know the other are rebuffed by the other’s ineffable otherness. Mario attempts to touch the Goomba and receives only the pain of disconnection in return. Perhaps when the Mushroom Kingdom is restored, we can return to a primordial state of oneness. More likely not.