Who’s More Asian American… Mario or Link?
Our website constantly runs into the question: Are Asian Americans Adequately Represented? My personal mission as Gaming Editor is to spotlight the stories unseen in gaming in front of and behind the devkit. From the Intercom is here to answer a question that’s been in the back of our minds forever: Who is More Asian American, Mario or Link?
Having seen hundreds of hours of Asian American films, organized thousands of hours with Asian American communities, and played way more Nintendo games than is healthy for my age demographic, I have been through the radical highs and stereotypical lows of both the Asian American community and the gaming community. I am guilty of gaming while Asian, an intersection that makes me a uniquely qualified authority for this landmark debate.
In one corner we have Italian-Japanese(?)-American plumber Mario “Jumpman” Mario. In the other we have blonde haired, blue eyed, mosty silent elf-man Link. One might say race doesn’t matter, but they’re wrong. These characters are clearly emblematic of a tidal wave of Asian American representation in the media. Move over Shang-Chi, we are reclaiming these iconic video game titans for our own Asian American agenda and we’re not leaving until we conclusively determine which of these characters are Asian America’s Black Panther.
An Abstract: Asian America x Gaming
If you’re reading this, thank you for not scrolling all the way down to see who the winner is! You’re clearly a person interested in the journey rather than the destination. If this were a research paper, this part would be called the abstract! The purpose of this article is twofold: a) to primarily have some fun and also b) to open up discourse of Asian America outside the confines of what is obvious. There are plenty of discussions worth having in order to develop our own unique viewpoint on society and media, serious or otherwise.
Before we begin this frankly historic and completely relevant character analysis, we have to set some parameters. What does it mean to be Asian American? I’ll answer this ignorant and condescending question with one of my own. What doesn’t it mean to be Asian American? The term Asian American is mainly concerned with galvanizing the political power of people of Asian descent living in America, but at times, it can feel strict, reductive, and monolithic. There are, however, a variety of ways that Asian American-ness can be defined to include, but not limited to, tight-knit intergenerational family dynamics, Asian community spaces, and behavioral assimilation into the American mainstream.
Sure, there are dozens of socioeconomic, sociologic, ethnographic, and anthropological frameworks to evaluate two white passing Asian American titans, but we will develop our own metatextual Asian American media lens based on the games these characters have been featured in, the memetic attitudes each character signifies, and the reception and influence of these characters on the Asian American gaming public. Okay, cue the discourse.
Mario: Everything Everywhere All At Once… Again
Let’s take a look at Mario first. Where do we begin? Mario is gaming’s Barbie. He is the man who has done it all. When he’s not saving Peach, you might see him drifting in zero gravity in Mario Kart or putting the smack down on anime swordsfolk in Super Smash Bros. You might even see him playing golf and tennis, which are unquestionably some of Asian America’s most popular sports. His ambition is undoubtedly a product of his unseen immigrant parents. Speaking of, where is Mario from? “Mushroom Kingdom, it’s obvious,” you might say. But I retort with “Yeahhh, but where is he REALLY FROM???”
You might not know this but, Mario and his equally Asian American brother Luigi are actually from Brooklyn. According to the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Mario and Luigi were sucked down a drain and warped to Mushroom Kingdom. So you know what that means right? Mario is a refugee. He’s a real Asian American New Yorker every step of the way, fighting giant apes, stomping turtles in the underground sewers, and fighting tooth and nail to assimilate into an environment he is not accustomed to.
Mario is the stereotypically perfect role model that Asian parents want for their kids. Not only is he a humble working-class plumber, he is also a doctor (Dr. Mario), a professor (Mario Teaches Typing), and an astronaut (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2). Unfortunately, Mario’s seemingly endless talent is put on a pedestal in a way that evokes the worst of the model minority myth, where Asian Americans are propped up as a meritocratic cudgel to denigrate other working class minority groups. To be compared to Mario is to launch a shame spiral you may never escape from. I’ll never forget the day my mother booted up a pre-owned copy of New Super Mario Bros. U and looked at me with a shameful scowl. “Mario has a propeller hat that allows him to ascend into the air. Why can’t you be more like him?” It was November 27th, 2012. It rained that day. 🙁
But I saved the best for last. Not only is Mario unquestionably Asian American, I can tell you exactly what type of Asian American he is. And the evidence is in one of the most underrated, Mario-lore-significant games on the trusty purple lunch box called the GameCube. Yes, it’s Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix. In this game, Mario, Luigi, and unsurprisingly, Waluigi, breakdance to control the fate of the Mushroom Kingdom. It wasn’t until I saw him body this chilly rendition of Old Folks Home next to sentient penguins and snowmen where I was absolutely certain: Mario is Filipino.
We Filipino Americans have an unparalleled sonar for each other and one of the major tells is how one dances. Mario is unmistakably the drunk Tito at the end of the night who talks about what life was like in the Philippines while singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for the sixteenth time in between bites of garlic peanuts and Red Horse.
Unfortunately for Mario, another aspect that grades well on the Asian American report card is close family relationships and there just isn’t enough evidence to suggest that he is very close with any family members, even his only brother Luigi. Luigi has always been there for him at his parties, sporting events, and universe ending brawls, but we have damning footage of how Mario really treats his brother from Mario Power Tennis.
HyperLink: Does Link Click for Asian America?
So that’s Mario, and now we turn our discerning minds to the Hero of Time himself, Link. How does he fare on the Asian American scale?
By himself, Link is a pretty difficult deku nut to crack. What of his personality, motives, and identity can we draw from? He is known to all as the definitive silent protagonist, but in that there is a useful, yet stereotypical trait to parse out. Another undesirable facet of the model minority myth is that Asian Americans are subservient and assimilable to a whitebread American lifestyle that doesn’t rebel or cause trouble. But while Link may be silent, he is by no means a pushover.
With a sword, slingshot, bow, boomerang, bombs, and grappling hooks in tow, Link is a walking multitool against the fascism of evil god kings that would prefer if everyone would just passively accepted their daily dose of crisis. As such, Link represents the very best of Asian Americans–the indomitable spirit of countless individuals whose actions have spoken louder than their words. Now if only Link would address the monarchy of Hyrule itself.
When you think about the land of Hyrule, you think of geographical influences from the Middle Ages in Europe or feudal Japan. It seems unlikely that we would find anything of Asian American interest there. However, there isn’t just one iteration of Link and Hyrule we can investigate. There’s Young Links, Adult Links, Shadow Links, Links with different hats, and even Links who ride motorbike horses. There’s only one Mario, but there’s a lot of Links for all of us to graft our identities and experiences onto. If we shift our focus from the more realistic interpretations of Link (Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, etc.) to the cel-shaded Toon Link of Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, there is a wealth of Asian American-osity!
For instance, the seafaring and highly expressive world of The Wind Waker is vast and evocative of the countless Asian civilizations dotting the Pacific Ocean. Toon Link becomes our latchkey avatar who joins a band of pirates, battles giant monsters, and sets sail to save the world. Underneath this epic adventure is a sweeter story about a big brother, his little sister, and his adorable grandmother. Unlike the plumber man, this version of Link does the absolute most for his little family, and that’s just about as Asian American as it gets.
But wait, there’s more! One underrated and overlooked feature of The Wind Waker is being able to visit your dear old gram gram and fill your empty bottles with Elixir Soup, one of the single most potent potables lovingly ladled into the Zelda universe. As the game states:
You got Elixir Soup!
This healthy soup your grandmother makes replenishes all of your life energy and magic power! Your attack power also doubles until the first time you take damage! Now THAT is one hearty soup! And your kind old grandmother filled your bottle so full that there’s two helpings inside! Isn’t she the sweetest?
It’s not a secret how food has been a healing balm on trauma in the Asian American community. The handmade, ancestral love that are our family recipes are too strong for any tupperware to contain. Witnessing this act of gratitude in the game is heartwarming and familiar to Asian Americans. And the fact that the soup helps you so much in the game proves how much it means to Link. I don’t think I can make it through this paragraph without… uh… oh no… ;__;
So now we are at the end of this completely necessary analysis. Mario and Link have proven time and again to embody aspects of Asian America that are complex and in progress. But who reigns supreme? Drumroll please.
From the Intercom formally declares that the most Asian American is…
Here’s the rub. While Mario does a lot of things Asian Americans can do, Link’s actions better represent who Asian Americans really are: revolutionary, loving, confident people who continue to fight adversity through the ages.
Asian America is a complicated web of things, but moving the needle forward means seeing the nuance in what everyone sees to be as uniform. Mario is the Asian hustle bro that doesn’t see race and definitely needs to do some more personal work. Link is the quiet guy that shows up to your potluck and blows everyone away with his grandma’s soup. In the big picture of things, Mario represents where the Asian American ceiling used to be and Link is the unapologetic Asian American present. We’re hoping that in the future Mario becomes more like Link, but for now, Link’s actions, diversity, and love for his family are what crown him as more Asian American.