Video Game Theme Week: Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach

[The following is a guest review from one Kid Fenris, AKA Todd, AKA “that jack-off who writes Anime News Network’s videogame column.”]

If game-derived anime started anywhere, it started with Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach. It came way before the modern plague of anime based on dating simulators, predating even the 1990s outbreak of direct-to-video nonsense spawned by any fighting game more popular than Cyberbots. In that distant year of 1986, a profit-gorged Nintendo commissioned an hour-long movie about their biggest game, Super Mario Bros. Though the results were quickly swept aside and ignored for decades, The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach was nonetheless a harbinger of what was to follow.

As the first real attempt at giving the Mario Brothers personalities, The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach plays it safe: Mario is a steadfast, romantic princess-saver, while Luigi is more concerned with the simple pleasures of food, money, and mocking his brother’s heroism. The duo owns a grocery shop (not a plumbing business!), and, on one fateful night, a generic video game played by Mario suddenly becomes a portal to the Mushroom Kingdom. The shrieking, pink-clad Princess Peach pops out of the television, followed by a fleet of cycle-animated creatures and the intimidating King Koopa. Peach is snatched away from a clearly besotted Mario, and the two brothers set off to help her with the aid of a strange caterpillar-dog.

The original Super Mario Bros. had no real plot, of course — it barely had a premise. Yet, this wasn’t a creative death sentence, as Shigeru Miyamoto drew the game from carefully chosen inspirations, relying more on the energetic ideas of old Popeye shorts, Toei films, and other classic cartoons than the fad-driven realm of 1980s anime. In the right hands, a Super Mario Bros. animated movie could’ve been a brief, visually marvelous tribute to the game’s mix of warp pipes, mushroom-people, and hammer-throwing turtles.

Unfortunately, Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach landed in the hands of Masami Hata, a director who’s made a career of being perfectly, predictably banal. He’s best known as the guy who ended up directing a bland Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland movie after Hayao Miyazaki, Osamu Dezaki, and other superior directors ditched the project. His most notable work may be the 1981 film Sirius no Densetsu (Sea Prince and the Fire Child), and even that’s a tedious fairy tale beneath some remarkable animation.

The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach found Hata between his biggest projects of the 1980s, and it’s what you’d expect: competently dull. The brothers bumble through the Mushroom Kingdom’s true-to-the-game sights, with Mario fretting over Princess Peach and Luigi, inexplicably dressed in blue and yellow (not green or white), lusting after coins. The film’s few oddities are mild ones, including a lovelorn King Koopa shape-shifting to impress Peach, and a scene of Luigi getting high on laughing mushrooms. People were wringing vague drug humor from Super Mario Bros. even back then.

In Hata’s defense, he was likely under orders to make nothing more than a 60-minute comedy aimed at kids. The animation never rises above direct-to-video quality, and the soundtrack is a strange collection of gently forgettable pop songs and video game music. Yes, the actual game’s music is used as a score, sounding just like it did on the NES. Masami Hata needs no orchestras or 8-bit remixes.

For all of its inanities, The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach might interest the devoted Nintendo historian. This was the first time that Mario characters ventured into other media, and this perhaps helped Nintendo solidify many of its icons. Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and the Princess all look much like they do in later games and cartoons, and the film may have even inspired the Mario games in some small way. After all, Mario swings King Koopa around by the tail and steals Lakitu’s cloud, and both of those things happened in subsequent Mario titles! Right?

Of course, the film’s few additions to the official Nintendo-approved cast didn’t catch on. No one would ever again see the Mushroom Kingdom’s bearded, advice-dispensing hermit or the Flower Kingdom’s prince, who reveals himself at the film’s end to steal Peach away from a strangely-resigned Mario. Then again, The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach also has an exceptionally annoying version of Peach, who spends the whole film emitting helpless cries courtesy of pop star Mami Yamase.

In truth, it’s doubtful that The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach influenced much, as the film’s apathy spread to all involved with it. Nintendo and VAP released it as a rental tape back in the 1980s, but there’d be no retail version or follow-up DVD. The movie was innocuous enough for Nintendo of America to possibly foist on kids back in the 1980s, but the company preferred to finance other cheap Mario cartoons for the Western market, with licensed pop songs, a more capable Princess Peach (known as Toadstool to we heathens) and live-action sequences starring Captain Lou Albano.

The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach had a brief moment in the spotlight decades after its release. Several years ago, it was among the most sought-after ‘80s anime titles in the West, as the Nintendo generation, now grown and nostalgic for even the worst parts of Mario history, scoured eBay and Yahoo Japan for copies of the film. Most of them stopped caring after some kind soul uploaded a grainy version of the whole thing. Even Nintendo itself seems content to ignore the movie, not even bothering to yank it from YouTube. Unlike the Virtual Boy or the seal-clubbing in Ice Climber, The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach isn’t enough of a failure to embarrass the company. It is merely a tepid hour that, obscure or not, presaged all sorts of equally mediocre game-to-anime adaptations. So, when you next see some insufferable TV series inspired by a dating sim or a fourth-rate Final Fantasy rip-off, remember this: in some small way, it’s Nintendo’s fault.


  1. I forgot to point out that Masami Hata also directed Ringing Bell/Chirin no Suzu,
    a 1978 film that mixes adorable Sanrio-ish sheep characters with hellish, morbid imagery. Wouldn’t call it great, but it’s more interesting than his version of Super Mario Bros.

  2. Ringing Bell‘s characters aren’t Sanrio-ish — they actually are Sanrio designs. It makes the contrast with the bleak storyline all the more jarring. One of my favourite “Fuck you, kids, the world sucks” features.

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