Even after 40 years, Mario still has a way of eliciting some of the more absurd hoopla in the gaming biz. Nintendo was back at it again this week when, in the midst of announcing the release of new titles, as well as dropping new trailers and retro offerings to their digital marketplace, the Japanese gaming company presented the cast of a brand new animated Mario movie hitting theaters next year. Much to the chagrin of Italian-Americans everywhere, Chris Pratt, aka Hillsong Church’s most steady soldier, will be taking on the role of the pudgy plumber, while Charlie Day is set to play his squeamish sibling Luigi and Anya Taylor-Joy his damsel in distress, Princess Peach. The spicy white community was in shambles as claims of anti-Italian discrimination, many of them in jest, filled the timelines.
Most of the online criticism, of course, came from the casting of Pratt, a rumored right-winger, in the titular role; but to be fair, it’s been quite a while since Mario himself felt like a chill hang. He’s shifty, doesn’t even do the job he’s most known for (never seen that dude install so much as a bidet in four decades), stomps out the natural wildlife of the Mushroom Kingdom and has a white-savior complex the size of Mega Bowser’s shell. That’s why it came as a shock to see absolutely no mention, gesture, or allusion to Mario and Luigi’s more excitable, devious, hardworking and fun doppelgangers: Wario and Waluigi. This erasure felt like even more of a slight against our Italian brothers and sisters than whatever ridiculous accent Pratt’s gonna stumble his way through in this loony cash-grab.
But to avoid falling into the nationality-projection trap, ethical journalism requires a fact-check on whether Wario and Waluigi are actually Italian at all. Little did I know, that question has a multitude of answers that have caused controversy in the global gaming community for more than a decade.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: The Daily Beast reached out to Nintendo for comment but maybe they were just too busy ignoring the complaints of their customers over glitchy controllers or over-charging gamers for very old games to hear us out. So we probed the community itself for answers. And wow, there are a lot of them.
If we’re just thinking of doppelgängers, it’s fair to assume Wario and Waluigi are both Italian—or at the very least fit snugly within an unintentional New Jersey-Italian stereotype. Wario and Waluigi aren’t just copies (evil copies at that, as Wario and Waluigi are portmanteaus— “warui” in Japanese means “bad,” so their names are a play on “bad Mario” and “bad Luigi”), they are opposites, and it’s just a matter of global truth that the opposite of Italy is South Africa, but none of us have heard either of them speaking Xhosa.
Some would say that because Wario and Waluigi have Italian accents they are as Italian as their counterparts. But there is a ton of evidence suggesting that they could be a bevy of nationalities including German, British, Japanese, Greek, Alienic, or simply residents of the Mushroom Kingdom. These characters have been around for a long time so it’s also very possible that their origins have changed significantly since their debuts. Nintendo has been mum on an official nationality but Wario, specifically, has prompted questions around a nationality change. Five years ago, the OG voice actor for Wario, Thomas Spindler, shook the gaming world when he commented on a YouTube video that the yellow beast was originally German: “The concept behind Wario was that of a German character and those responsible for the voice-overs at Nintendo back then intended him to speak German.” The evidence backs him up, as we can hear in 1996’s Mario Kart 64 and Mario Party 1 & 2 Wario saying, “So ein Mist!”—or “Aw, darn!”—when things didn’t go his way.
The problem is, Wario also said things like “Mama Mia” in the same game, making his nationality pretty confusing in the canon. Stirring the pot even more, Elon Musk of all people showed up in a Wario outfit on Saturday Night Live (his ex, Grimes, showed up as Princess Peach) earlier this year in a skit with Andrew Cuomo where the villain is on trial for killing Mario, that would lead the four people who watch that show to believe he might be Japanese.
“I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood,” Musk says while chomping on garlic, “and some of the anti-Italian hatred in this courtroom is disgusting.” The skit, which managed to piss off the National Italian American Foundation, concludes with Gov. Cuomo standing in solidarity with the corrupt cartoon, mentioning that he and Wario face a ton of anti-Italian hate with Wario replying, “Actually, I’m Japanese.” Not sure what the joke was there, but nevertheless, it threw the question of Wario’s nationality back into the mainstream conversation. Plus, both of those dudes lie, like, all the time, so the fact that they’d mislead viewers is par for the course.
Waluigi is even more up in the air given how infrequently he shows up in the games (we’re still waiting for his inclusion in Super Smash Bros, Nintendo). While it’s assumed that, like Wario, Waluigi is most likely Italian, the lithe purple villain’s nationality has been shrouded in mystery. Most recently, fans of Mario Kart—specifically the mobile, augmented-reality Mario Kart Tour series that’s jamming up city blocks around the world—might get the sense that Waluigi is actually British. Two years ago, with the release of a new London update, Waluigi’s outfit, which consists of a red plaid flat cap with matching trousers, suspenders and yellow tie, gave us the sense that he might just be a bloke after all. Plus, Waluigi can also be seen driving a double-decker bus. One might wonder, “Doesn’t a London expansion necessitate British clothing?” But as one user on the resetera gaming forums pointed out, none of the other characters were given especially English redesigns—Koopa just dons a backwards red cap and Daisy’s fit is more Christmas-themed than anything else. Another user remembered that Waluigi was designed by Camelot—the gaming company that created many of the Mario Sports spinoffs that feature the diabolical duo—making note that Camelot is indeed an English legend. The dots are starting to connect.
Another important detail that may shed light on his origins is the “upside down L” on Waluigi’s hat, which isn’t an upside down L at all. It’s actually the sign for gamma, the third letter in the Greek alphabet. “In probability,” according to a Screenrant article on the character, “gamma is used to denote the chance of events happening at certain intervals—it is essentially a measure of uncertainty and volatility. This uncertainty and volatility actually describes Waluigi’s character and the way he lives his life.” Style choices don’t always equate to one’s personal history but Waluigi wearing a Greek letter on his head every single day does, at least, show that he has an outsized affinity for the country.
The safest bet for both evil foils (and Nintendo) is to source their origin to the Mushroom Kingdom. These fellas are just two self-effacing sad boys with a bone to pick with their protagonist-syndromic colleagues, and over the course of their existence they’ve truly held their own. They’ll probably never get their own movie—Waluigi hasn’t even appeared in his own solo game and was created solely to play doubles tennis alongside Wario in the original Mario Tennis—but as beloved citizens of the world (?), the desire to know their origins will only grow with time. Until we get the standalone biopic—hopefully with Danny DeVito as Wario, and, as one Twitter user suggested to me yesterday, Michael Shannon as Luigi—the 40-year mystery trudges on in the hearts and minds of Nintendo gamers everywhere.