Please, please, please, let me get Waluigi

On the internet’s agony and ecstasy of loving the least lovable Nintendo character.

In the giant concrete parking structure abutting the Los Angeles Convention Center, nearly two hours before E3 began there on June 12, I held back in my car a little longer to watch the Nintendo Direct livestream where the company announced the details of upcoming releases. The presentation culminated in what’s sure to be the game of the holiday season, Super Smash Bros Ultimate. The game, the fifth in the long-running series, will feature every character that’s ever appeared in a Smash game, from icons like Mario to Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII (a game that has never been released on a Nintendo console). Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the series, also introduced a new character: Daisy, Peach’s brunette counterpart from Super Mario Land and, more prominently, the extended Mario sports/racing/party-fun-time universe. Then Sakurai presented a new aspect of the game: the non-player assist characters you can recruit in the game can now be damaged and KOed. This feature was demonstrated by Link, Master Sword in hand, slashing at a hapless character until he flew offscreen. Armed only with a tennis racket, that NPC never had a chance. In fact, he never has a chance, because that character was Waluigi.

This wasn’t just unsporting. It was the twist of the bayonet in Waluigi’s computer-animated chest after Daisy’s introduction. It was Nintendo telling the world that Waluigi didn’t deserve a chance at glory while a similarly minor character did. As a perspective article in the freaking Washington Post put it, “Waluigi was robbed and humiliated by Nintendo.” (What, was “Waluigi Dies in Darkness” too much?)

Of course, this miscarriage of justice was the lead topic of casual conversation on the E3 show floor. Well, this and the fact that Fortnite seemed to be playing on every screen in the LA Convention Center. In the line to play Smash demo, Nintendo fans complained about Waluigi’s absence. One teenager, once I told him I was going to write about Waluigi, smiled and introduced himself to me as Waluigi’s son, saying that the character “is wacky...he’s everything a Nintendo character should be.” The discontent in line turned into a frenzy when we all saw, less than twenty or so meters away, Reggie Fils-Aime and Bill Trinen, the two top executives and faces of Nintendo of America, playing a demo of Mario Tennis Aces. Though a life-sized Mario stood by them, Trinen picked Yoshi, and Reggie played as Waluigi.

Demonstrations of Waluigi love are even more apparent online. A fourth-grader wrote an award-winning poem about him. eAthlete ZeRo won the Super Smash Bros Invitational at E3 this year playing as Mario in his Waluigi colorway. Multiple people have made mods of Waluigi in various Smash games. Here he is singing the Westworld theme, and here he is as Sailor Uranus. My favorite Waluigi fan tribute is a “lofi chill beats” stream made by gaming outlet Polygon where you can work alongside the lanky purple man as he feebly studies for his classes in evil. In the public consciousness, Waluigi has grown from a gangly man with a gross pink nose and no purpose into a gangly man with a gross pink nose and a persistent, Rudy-esque heart. Given his status as a longtime fan favorite, the sympathetic memes were sure to flow in the wake of the press conference.

Of course, not everyone loves Waluigi. In a VICE article titled, “Counterpoint: Fuck Waluigi,” Matthew Gault presents Waluigi as a gross cipher with no canonical personality beyond crudeness. Gault claims that Wario is the “gluttonous greedy bastard we all love to hate,” but that “Waluigi has no goals beyond being annoying.” But if Wario is a bastard, then Waluigi is the bastard of a bastard, an ideological orphan with nothing more than a transactional relationship with a smelly mini-game addict who might not even be his real brother. Commenting about the response to his polemic, Gault tells me "I enjoy pointing out when the emperor has no clothes and Waluigi stands before his fans naked. They bestow meaning on what is, essentially, a crude corporate mascot that even the corporation detests. The hate has been modest, much less than I've received from writing about other things. I did get one crudely photoshopped image of Waluigi taking my Twitter avatar from behind in a fancy hotel room. Which, I think, speaks volumes about Waluigi and his fans."

To shed some official light on Waluigi’s journey from also-ran to icon, Nintendo of America responded to me with the following statement after 24 hours after initial back-and-forth of me stating and restating my query: “We have nothing to announce on this topic.”

“I honestly think there’s a bit of a disconnect between Nintendo and their fans, especially when it comes to individual characters,” says Hadeel al-Massari, research associate at strategic content agency Twofivesix. Waluigi is just too messy and strange of a character for Nintendo to latch on to. “Mario seems to be their ‘safest’ character because, besides being a plumber, he doesn’t really have this huge backstory.”

But even though they will not acknowledge him enough to center a game around him or explicitly give him some interiority, Nintendo loves to hint at the fact that Waluigi is their shameful lovechild who desperately wants the limelight but will never see it due to what feel like medieval rules of primogeniture. Sakurai puts down the pointy man as well, saying that “just because you try hard doesn’t mean you’ll make it into battle.” This bludgeoning happens so often that it feels like Nintendo gets a kick out of humiliating him — perhaps because the character isn’t really theirs.

Waluigi is the creation of Camelot Software Planning, a third-party developer to whom Nintendo outsourced the creation of the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis series. In line with their previous game for the Playstation, Everybody’s Golf, Camelot also put plenty of anime-inspired characters in the early installments of the those games, characters like Alex, Nina and Plum, all of whom fell off the face of the earth in successive games, perhaps because they could not fit in the Mario universe. One can assume that Waluigi was created to be a defensive counterpart to Wario during tennis doubles mode, since he first appears in 2000’s Mario Tennis. In an October 2000 fan question column, deputy planning manager for Camelot Yusuke Sugimoto describes the process of including characters for the game but sidesteps the creation of Waluigi. He does start the column by acknowledging Waluigi’s introduction, but ignores his origin story to speak about how Camelot needed characters with human bodies that could convincingly play sports, which the Mario series has surprisingly few of once you are done counting the top-tier characters. Birdo and Daisy were added to the game even later than Waluigi was; the team felt they were scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of recognizable characters. Sugimoto throws in Waluigi offhandedly, as if he was a given, when the team discussed the inclusion of an evil Peach character: “If there’s Wario for Mario and Waluigi for Luigi, then Peach would have Waru-Peach…” (my translation). The “Waru-Peach” idea, conjuring the image of a Wario in women’s clothing, was thrown out almost immediately as Nintendo had given Camelot a dictate of making the characters cute. How Waluigi, with his pink Groucho nose and Mac Tonight chin, passed Nintendo’s “cute” bar is not mentioned.

As performed by Charles Martinet, the man who voices all the other be-overalled Mario characters, Waluigi was introduced in Mario Tennis as a minor antagonist alongside Wario in the introduction before they are convinced to join the rest of the cast in congenial competition. In succeeding games, the Wa Pair are the central characters of these introductions: getting tortured, exploded (many, many times), and beaten up. They are the only ones that go through any amount of drama or pain; if you knew nothing about the series, you’d assume they were the games’ hapless protagonists.

But if you look more closely at his less-canonical appearances, Waluigi is graceful and precise. In the Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games series (yes, those are real), he has the highest skill rating among all characters in most of the games, making him good at events like archery and figure skating. “Despite his seemingly lackadaisical attitude,” the Rio 2016 edition describes, “he actually trains quite hard behind the scenes.” He’s also a dancer, showing off his incongruous grace ever since Mario Golf Toadstool Tour in 2003. Over the past ten years or so, he’s gained a penchant for pirouettes and roses in his moves and taunts. In Mario Tennis Aces, released last week, he performs balletic spins and poses as he enters the court and performs his special move: Waluigi’s Showtime. (With his long arms and considerable speed, he’s also one of the best characters in the game.) He’s given his most vibrant characterization as a main antagonist in, of all things, Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix from 2005, where he steals some magic orbs so that he can “hypnotize the rhythmless masses with my moves! And rise to power!” At his greatest moments, this gangly misfit finds the spotlight upon him, and suddenly everything is right.


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But all this canon history doesn’t define the character in fans’ minds. People find resonance in Waluigi whether they know all that backstory or not. al-Massari says that it is part of a “phenomenon where people tend to latch onto very minor side characters, even going so far as to project characteristics onto these characters [as a way] for fans to see themselves in their favorite games.” She identifies the character Matt Holt from the Voltron Netflix series as another case where fans take extreme hold over a bit character. However, Waluigi’s otherness and distance from the spotlight, ingrained in the character’s both diegetically and in his relationship with Nintendo, is also a way for people to identify with him. Writer Jaime Green has had an entirely personal relationship with Waluigi, which is to say she met him while playing Mario Kart Double Dash with her friends in college. “We all loved him, I think, for his effeteness. I don’t know if everyone sees him that way? But I’ve always felt sure he’s gay. Maybe it’s that in such a round, cheery world, he’s long and sharp… I only knew him as part of the Mario Kart team.” Waluigi has an otherness to him that is, if not relatable, deeply empathetic. Specifically, people have latched onto him as a queer or asexual character. (Or at least a queer-adjacent one: though it seems like a bad idea, searching “Waluigi queer” on Twitter is a delight, revealing a host of independent, kind fans wanting to see him happy.

As recently as Monday, Charles Martinet himself weighed in on whether he thought Waluigi was gay, saying “You know I can honestly tell you I have never thought about it… well he is most certainly living a very happy life!” Though there is of course no canon decision on Waluigi’s sexuality, he is said to have a crush on Daisy while she does not return the favor; in the Mario Party games, their team name is “Awkward Date.” Frankly, however, no one cares for this weak bit of trivia. It doesn’t reflect anyone’s experience of Waluigi. They see a skinny man with a fun moustache living his life without care for anyone else’s judgment, unless they are a shiny haunted tennis racket. When you bring Nintendo itself into the conversation, there is something darkly poignant about an effete, expressive man doing his absolute best to be proud of himself while his distant parents are still refusing to truly accept him.

Perhaps, unlike a famous tumblr post from The Empty Page that jokily attempts to throw some first-semester semiotics on top of the character and more like the fan-made secret history of what happened to Donkey Kong’s dad, Waluigi is recognizable because of the fact that he is an extensively deprecated cipher. Mario, the ultimate video game mascot, has no more characterization than Mickey Mouse does: he’s pleasant, capable, plucky, and not much else. Waluigi is two or three steps removed from him and thus possesses the symbolic freedom that comes from being so far from the height of iconography. Individual fans can feel that they are giving substance to a character that deserves substance in their relationship to him. He is on our level. He is our Prince Hal — or maybe our Edgar — a dubious royal destined for greatness who is with us in the depths, a hero for our times. We will take care of him until he is ready.

If anyone can understand the Waluigi phenomenon, it should be Nintendo executive Reggie Fils-Aime, who could be seen at E3 playing Mario Tennis as Waluigi. He himself has been imbued with some of the same fan energy that enlivens the character. Since he came to Nintendo as this lovable giant who invented the Bigfoot Pizza while he was a senior marketing director at Pizza Hut, he has been memed and memed and memed. Nintendo fans see in him the kind of perfect, gentle father figure that will play games with them. You could see it in our reaction watching him play the Mario Tennis demo, this wonderful dad implicitly accepting Waluigi by playing as him — and, by extension, accepting us. We screamed for him to notice us, which he of course did not. He walked away, flanked by Bill Trinen and someone bopping along in an official Mario costume. None of us cared about Mario.