Nintendo has a mixed history when it comes to adapting its video game franchises to other media. The old Mario and Legend of Zelda cartoons are infamous these days; alongside the oft-criticized Super Mario Bros. live-action movie, of course. On the flipside, Nintendo has always done quite well for itself in anime & manga, particularly when it comes Zelda. Unbeknownst to me, however, there were also some incredibly long-running manga for Mario and Kirby. These have now been re-released under the Manga Mania label.
Super Mario-kun by Yukio Sawada first started publication in the early 90s and is still being made to this very day. Similarly, Hoshi no Kirby, written and illustrated by Hirokazu Hikawa, began life in 1996 and amassed 25(!) volumes before ending in 2006. Compared to the short-lived cartoons and handful of live-action movies we got in the West, that is a shocking amount of content.
The Manga Mania releases differ in purpose somewhat. Super Mario-kun’s re-release is a single volume compilation of the author’s favorite chapters from across the series’ lifespan. On the other hand, Kirby’s Manga Mania release is currently on its 6th volume. Even stylistically these two series are kept far apart; Kirby’s books are glossy and cute whereas Mario’s is goofy.
I first decided to read Super Mario-kun, which was… an experience.
There are many ways in which one could interpret Mario as a character—just look at the theorists who argue that he is secretly a psychopath—but Manga Mania goes in a very strange direction. The series adapts the plot of various Super Mario games, but reinterprets them as comedy adventures filled with the cheesiest of gags and plenty of meta humor. Mario and friends are reimagined as bumbling idiots who constantly argue and pull pranks on each other.
My first impression wasn’t the best. Gag comedy can be fine, but Super Mario-kun feels like an avalanche of jokes. Many of these gags felt very low-effort and forced, or just outright weird. The book even starts off on a note from the author admitting that he might have gone overboard with the poop jokes, followed by a chapter in which a fish urinates “energy drink” on Mario.
The gags themselves didn’t make me laugh, but where I commend Yukio Sawada is in his storytelling. He took the plot of a video games series that isn’t at all storydriven and somehow turned it into a sprawling adventure. Manga Mania shows off portions of everything from 3D platformers like Super Mario Sunshine to RPGs like Paper Mario. He even manages to squeeze a plot out of simple 2D titles like the New Super Mario Bros. games.
There is no denying that Mr. Sawada is extremely passionate about Mario. Even when tackling games with a plot, he goes out of his way to write extra context into missions. A simple bossfight where you hit a boss on the glowing weak-spot 3 times becomes a giant slapstick battle during which the boss’ backstory is explored. And it’s fun. Even if I didn’t always care for the jokes themselves, I greatly enjoyed the stories told through them. I wanted to read more of it, which isn’t what I expected to write when I first groaned at the painfully-obvious comedy routines.
The final chapter included is also baffling. In it, Mr. Sawada explores his experiences with depression and grief through Mario. Using the lovable plumber as a mouthpiece, the author shares how comedy helped him through the toughest moments of his life. It’s an uncharacteristically grim chapter, but also gripping, in a way. It put all the gags before it in a new perspective and gave me a lot of respect for Super Mario-kun.
Sadly, the same would not apply for Kirby Manga Mania. It follows a similar direction as its Mario counterpart, downplaying Kirby’s heroic side in favor of making them a total goofball. However, the Kirby manga isn’t based on any one game and instead offers random mini-stories. Chapters can be about Kirby ruining a picnic or destroying everyone’s effort to prepare for a typhoon.
Kirby comes of as a real jerk throughout all this. The first chapter even has him get drunk and harass all his friends, before inhaling all of them and beating up an innocent King Dedede. The stories aren’t particularly funny and I didn’t get the feeling that the author truly cared about the series. Art-wise it’s also sloppy, with King Dedede more resembling Stonetoss than the chubby penguin lord from the video games.
I read a ways into volume 2, but it’s just not interesting enough for me to carry on.