This year, Nintendo’s short-but-sweet E3 Direct finished strong with a scrumptious new trailer for Super Mario Odyssey, showcasing fresh features like totally wholesome enemy takeovers and mustachioed tyrannosauruses. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the end, wherein Pauline from the original arcade Donkey Kong was revealed as the jazzy voice of the trailer’s theme tune.
Further footage suggests that Pauline has been awfully busy in the three decades since her last major Mario series appearance, becoming not only a talented vocalist but also the goddamn mayor of a major metropolis. This set my mind ablaze with questions. Did Pauline parlay the fame gained from her kidnapping into a lucrative political career? Was her campaign buoyed by support from blue-collar types like plumbers and carpenters? Does Mario have a fetish for women in power?
Admittedly, these questions are unlikely to be answered when the game releases in October; Mario games are almost always anemic when it comes to backstory and lore. But damned if it doesn’t feel refreshing for them to be on the table to begin with. Aside from easter eggs and general design elements, the series often goes out of its way to avoid direct references to past entries. Shigeru Miyamoto has even walked back older story elements, stripping the Koopalings of their status as Bowser’s children and preventing the RPG spin-offs from including original characters.
Mayor Pauline demonstrates a willingness for the series to break free from these pointless restrictions, and embrace the richness of its history. Moreover, her presence provides a golden opportunity for Nintendo to recontextualize the plumber’s early adventures outside of the Mushroom Kingdom. But there are some tricky waters they’ll need to navigate when tying this world into that of the early 80s classics.
While it’s obvious that the name New Donk City indicates a connection with Donkey Kong, which Donkey Kong this refers to is up in the air. As most of you undoubtedly know, the original Arcade DK is widely accepted to have become Cranky Kong from Rare’s Donkey Kong Country series. Less clear, though, is modern DK’s relation to his predecessor; some contend that they are father and son, while others place a generation between them. Yet another subset of fans chooses to discard the Rare canon entirely, considering Arcade DK and Modern DK to be one in the same.
While Nintendo is usually keen to turn a blind eye to these considerations, having Pauline in play seemingly forces them to make a decision. Will they simply sidestep this continuity snarl by having Arcade DK appear, using the ‘alternate dimensional’ quality of Odyssey’s world to handwave his incongruous appearance? For my money, it’s far more likely that they would use Modern DK, to avoid confusing young fans already familiar with the character. Passing references within the city to Rare-era characters like Rattly seem to support this. But if Nintendo picks this route, they’ll have to clarify who exactly Modern DK is in relation to Pauline and modern Mario.
If these characters treat him as a threat, it’s safe to assume that the company now considers the two DKs to be the same character. If they treat him as an ally that would be a bit more ambiguous, as it could indicate either that the two DKs are the same but the hatchet has been buried, or that they’ve forged an unlikely friendship with the (grand?) son of their enemy. Fortunately, the city is also replete with dialog-spouting NPCs, who are bound to have lines which further clarify the issues at hand.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the ramifications of New Donk City have the potential to alter the shared continuity of these franchises forever. With any luck, October will see Nintendo shed new light on one of gaming’s greatest mysteries. I personally have faith in them to stick the landing; light story elements like Rosalina’s storybook in Super Mario Galaxy show that the company’s writers can bring genuine pathos and even heart to the series, with minimal intrusion on its treasured-above-all-else gameplay (even though it was regrettably retconned out of existence by the sequel).
While they’re at it, I would love to see appearances from other early-era characters like Stanley the Bugman and Foreman Spike within the city. There will never be a better opportunity than this for Nintendo to fully integrate the wild, wacky history of their trademark franchise into its present. I, for one, welcome this new galaxy of possibilities.
Whitey Fox can be found on Twitter!