Posted by parish | November 13, 2007

Consider, if you will, the humble Goomba. In all of gaming's vast bestiary, the Goomba is perhaps the best-known enemy -- the first opponent who besets players in Super Mario Bros., which just happens to be the single best-selling video game in the history of human civilization. Few monsters are as iconic, few foes so immediately recognizable as the Goomba. Smiling slimes? Sure. Jaggy-jawed maze monsters? Maybe. But how many Goombas have been flattened by intrepid gamers? How many of these bizarre mushroom men have been toasted by flower-powered plumbers?

A whole damn lot, that's how many. And with Mario's latest exercise in Goombacide arriving in stores today, it's time to mark the memory of this odd but menacing creature that even now is being driven the brink of extinction by the predations of would-be "heroes."

Remember, folks: "heroes" is just a tiny typo away from being "herpes."

O.G. (The Original Goomba)

The Goomba first appeared in the original Super Mario Bros. Until then, Mario had only battled enemies in the abstract -- rolling barrels and picaresque balls of fire, followed by assorted vermin infesting the depths of the civic sewage system -- but the Goomba was the Mushroom Kingdom's surreal, non-abstract emissary. In short, it was a clear message: the comparative realism of angry apes and clogged pipes was right out in this realm.

Say goodbye to the familiar; now you had entered a world of rogue myconids, man-sized and deadly to the touch. Freakish beasts that fit right in with the eerie animistic hills and the smiling clouds that stared down at you with their haunting, soulless eyes. "The Mushroom Kingdom is a strange and frightening place," the Goomba said to us all. "Let us show you how strange."

The original Goomba's primary physical feature was its very bushy eyebrows. Like Joseph Stalin, this meant it was very evil. Like Michael Dukakis, this also meant it was a lightweight opponent and probably not to be taken seriously.

Super Mario Bros. was (and is!) a challenging game. The Goombas had nothing to do with that. They were but tiny speedbumps in a parking lot full of explosive deathtraps and laser-guided missiles, figuratively speaking. Their sole purpose was basically to remind the player that, Hey! I should use that jump button more often! Oh, and to walk along certain straightaways in a long, turtle-kick-friendly line to help rack up points for the occasional 1UP.

The Evolved Goomba

But the Goombas weren't happy to be lowly footsoldiers. Oh no. They took a few years off while Mario experienced a (presumably mushroom-fueled) fever dream to save his own mind from angry frogs with an aversion to healthy cuisine, buffing themselves up and studying countless self-improvement programs.

The results were, admittedly, less than impressive. Once Mario returned from Sub-con, his minor-est of foes still employed the brilliant tactic of meandering slowly toward him, presumably with the desperate hope of possibly bumping into his shins with lethal force. But this time, they bared their fangs -- undoubtedly something they had been led to believe was one of the seven habits of highly effective fungi.

Of greater interest is the fact that Mario's second adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom doubled as a journey of zoological (or rather, mycological) discovery as the heretofore unseen female Goomba made its first appearance while simultaneously revealing the secrets of Goomban reproduction.

The she-Goomba, it turns out, is capable of limited flight; and childbirth among these curious mushroom people is at once a live process and a vicious, violent process. The female Goomba takes to the air and delivers an entire litter at once, dropping several newborn fungi which waft slowly to the ground, clinging to any lifeform unfortunate enough to be in their path. (Those unfortunate enough not to make contact simply drift away, likely to die slow, unhappy deaths.) For humans, these clinging infants are simply an inconvenience, but scientists speculate that nature's true course is for a newborn Goomba to burrow into the flesh of a smaller animal or plant, further gestating inside its victim until it reaches maturity. At this point it would burst through its host's flesh, presumably fatally, to begin anew the cycle of life and death.

As fungi are generally asexual and reproduce via spores, the role and purpose of the male Goomba is currently unknown. The prevailing theory suggests that males are intended simply to be decoys, drawing the stompy wrath of predators while the female takes flight and drops a litter of embryonic spawn at the unsuspecting, would-be Goomba-killer -- transforming murderer into doomed incubator in a brutal reversal of roles.

The Goomba is believed to epitomize the grim underbelly of the Mushroom Kingdom, red in tooth and claw.

Special Weapons and Tactics

Feral and primitive as the Goomba may be, it's not without its resources -- even rudimentary forms of offensive technology, albeit technology of questionable usefulness.

The Goomba's greatest advancement came in the form of a shoe. Just a shoe, you ask? No, not just a shoe. A singularly deadly piece of footware, sporting a nigh-invincible sole and a powerful clockwork mechanism capable of leaping high into the air.

Here, then, is an impressive example of the Goomba's potential for adaptation: Kuribo's Shoe, an effort to use Mario's greatest ability against him. Too many Goombas had died a squashy death beneath the treads of his filthy plumber's boots, flattened into oblivion with casual disdain. Simple enough, they reasoned: let's return the favor.

Sadly, though Kuribo's Shoe was powerful and indeed quite deadly to the unsuspecting, it suffered a terrible flaw. It was still vulnerable from above. Which was Mario's preferred direction of assault to begin with. In an instant, he turned the tide against his attackers and commandeered a Shoe for himself. The resulting slaughter decimated the Goomba ranks.

Unfortunately, their follow-up strategy -- floating along in bubbles -- wasn't exactly an improvement. Seriously, floating along in bubbles? Come on. But at least their workouts began to pay off; the new, beefier Goomba could no longer be crushed with a single jump. Rumors persist of endoskeletal reinforcement, perhaps of a mechanical or cybernetic nature. But as science has yet to recover the corpse of a new-general Goomba intact (Mario having kicked his defeated Goombas foes off the edge of the stage and into the electronic void below), this must be regarded strictly as hearsay.

Social Hierarchy

Of course, the great mystery of the Goomba is where, precisely, it fits into the taxonomy of the Mushroom Kingdom. As mushroom-based creatures, one would assume that the Goomba is in fact the rightful heir to the kingdom. Yet the land is ruled by distinctly non-myconid royalty, the wholly human-looking Princess Peach. Even her name violates the logical order of things, a "peach" being not a fungus but in fact a member of the plant kingdom. Meanwhile, her loyal citizens are somewhere between mushroom and human, stumpy genderless man-children sporting large spotted caps and grating voices.

Meanwhile, the true mushrooms -- the Goombas -- are treated as outcasts and villains. They've even installed their own king-in-exile of sorts, a ragged (and clearly insane) elderly specimen who is clearly the Emperor Norton of their people.

But are the Goombas truly evil? Or are they simply victims of inequity, the Pluto to the Mushroom Retainers' Goofy -- same genus, different treatment? One suspects that "friendly" Goombas such as Goombario and Goombella have simply become sympathizers, turning their back on their heritage and cooperating with Peach's conquest of their kind for preferential treatment. Better housing, better rations, a little vodka to go with their hard black bread -- maybe even modern conveniences like toilet paper and light bulbs.

How utterly infuriating.

Caste systems have little place in the modern world, and to see the Goomba reduced to low status simply as a side-effect of birth -- and to play party to this discrimination by helping Mario uphold the cause of imperialism -- leaves one feeling ill at ease. Which is not to suggest that the alternative, Bowser's brutal fascism, is better; clearly the Koopa King has simply seized upon the Mushroom Kingdom's schism and is exploiting the Goomba race for his own nefarious ends.

Ultimately, the Goomba is but a victim -- segregated by hidebound racism, duped by villainous machinations, stomped into mushroom jelly by Mario. Next time you set off to rescue the Mushroom Kingdom, think about the grim fortunes of its true victims. And watch where you kick that turtle shell. Do so many innocents deserve to die simply so that you can live? I say thee nay.

Fight on, little Goomba. Fight on.