Over three decades ago she was stuck sitting atop steel beams waiting for “the plumber” to rescue her, but in 2017, Pauline has risen to the highest public office of New Donk City, the fictional urban backdrop for Super Mario Odyssey.
Looking back at the Donkey Kong arcade game from 1981, it’s hard not to see the premise as a combination of King Kong and Popeye, the latter of which had made its cinematic debut a year earlier with Robin Williams playing the titular protagonist. The game’s apparent villain (the idea of Mario as the hero seems to rely mostly on the fact that you play as him) is infatuated with a beautiful woman despite being a giant ape, and a small working class man in red overalls collects spinach-like power-ups in order to save her.
Mimicking the love triangle of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto, Pauline appeared to exist merely as a trophy to be won or lost by Donkey Kong’s sparring male characters. The arcade game introduced a woman not as a re-skinned, iterative upgrade a la Ms. Pac-Man but a piece of narrative scenery only acknowledged at the beginning and end of a level. It proved one of the earliest examples of the “damsel in distress” trope that would haunt games for decades to come as narrative shortcuts became a crutch for more interesting and varied storylines.