Drug Use in Video Games

From Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda, you'd be surprised at which gaming heroes get high.

Paul Tamburroby Paul Tamburro

When I was but a wee naive lad I was too young to make the connection between the power-up mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. and the magic mushrooms in the backpacks of Glastonbury Festival attendees. Now that I'm older I of course acknowledge that Mario's adventures in the so-called "Mushroom Kingdom" are nothing more than the terrifying hallucinations of a down-on-his-luck Italian plumber; Bowser is a violent dealer and pimp, Princess Peach is his most profitable prostitute and Toad… well, the less said about Toad the better.

But like a true junkie, Mario doesn't admit to his problem: "These aren't a-hallucinogens!" he says in his Italian twang. "They're a-real a-mushrooms from the a-Mushroom Kingdom, helping me in my a-quest to find a-the evil a-Bowser!" He then proceeds to wander the streets of Italy, asking passers-by if they have seen a giant orange-haired turtle monster.

However, the Super Mario Bros. series' subtle take on drug use pales in comparison to that of controversial 1988 arcade game NARC. 

NARC doesn't require the player-character to ingest any drugs, but rather to apprehend junkies by any means necessary. You'll shoot through hundreds of the bastards with minimal mercy, stopping only on occasion to arrest one or two dealers who you decide to spare amongst all of your wanton slaughtering. If parents had actually played this game back in the '80s it's doubtful that they would have called for it to be banned as they did, such is the strength of it's anti-drugs message: "Hey, Timmy, you know that marijuana I found in your sock drawer? Well, if you keep smoking that stuff, a man wearing a helmet and a sleeveless blue shirt will come and shoot you right between your eyes. Now be a good boy for mama and stay away from that shit." 

Fast-forward a few years and our knowledge of drugs has become much more well-rounded: we know that the main perils of smoking weed are a bad case of dry mouth and the inexplicable urge to listen to Wolfmother; we can watch Ashton Kutcher eat hash brownies on Two and a Half Men without worrying that it's going to automatically make our kids become meth heads; we can even let our youngsters watch Yo Gabba Gabba!, knowing that the people in the costumes probably go backstage and snort cocaine off of each other's tits, and not let that knowledge dampen our viewing experience.

So in an era where everyone and his/her grandmother spends their lazy afternoons kicking back with a bowl, video games have also stopped demonising drug use. They are far from advocating their usage, of course (even the Grand Theft Auto series has yet to feature a protagonist who condones drug use, favouring the merciless murder of pedestrians to get their high rather than cannabis), but we are past the days where the "WINNERS DON'T USE DRUGS" slogan was required to be shown on all North American arcade machines.

But the truth is that video games have featured drugs ever since Pac-Man. While they weren't explicitly stated as such, what do you think those "power pellets" that made him feel invulnerable were? And what about the ZX Spectrum's Sabre Wulf, with the mysterious plants that you had to eat in order to increase your movement speed? And what about the various items which increase your health that have been prevalent in video games almost since their inception? What are they if not prescription drugs?

Looking through video game history it is clear to see that many of its heroes, from Link through to the Vault Hunters in Borderlands and their "insta-health vials", are nothing but incredibly high-functioning drug users, managing to balance their drug consumption healthily so that it doesn't impact upon their life. Except for Mario. That dude's fucked.

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