I understood why. Old video games use simplified and cartoonish foes, and some look wide-eyed and precious even when they're deadly. I could see how my mother might sympathize with the little Boos in Super Mario World or the capering viruses in Dr. Mario.
Yet her mercies went far beyond conventional cuteness. She felt sorry for the giant-octopus boss in StarTropics, the ferocious lizards in Final Fantasy, and even some Castlevania horrors. One evening I showed her how easily I could defeat Mega Man 3's Hard Man, a robot master who repeatedly rams his head into the ground.
"The poor thing," she said after Hard Man exploded into light particles. "It didn't look very smart."
This was nothing new for my mother, who often made my sister and I feel bad for villains across movies, books, and television. She’d point out that the bully humiliated at the end of an Arthur story was clearly friendless and poor, or perhaps she’d wonder aloud what the mothers of all the German soldiers in a World War II movie would say when they learned that Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood had killed their sons. Video games were just another sharpening block for her cilice spikes of pure Catholic guilt.
When so criticized, I would remind her that these beguiling critters were enemies desiring my destruction and failure. If I was particularly annoyed, I would sacrifice a life or a power-up to show my mother that the flying bugs in Little Nemo would, in fact, kill me if given the chance. She might be placated for a time, but she’d be back to condemn the next game I tackled.
Before long my sister converted to this new faith. When my mother was unavailable, she’d be on hand to remark “But it’s CUTE!” if she spied me encountering a monster in an RPG or trouncing some pastel-colored boss in a platformer. At least she played many of the same games and learned how deadly Koopas and Needlehogs can be.
Their compassion even held firm for the last boss of Final Fantasy IV. I should’ve expected it, but I thought no one would sympathize with Zeromus, the huge eldritch aberration that awaits the heroes in his lunar confines. So I called everyone in the house to come watch as I finished the game.
And my mother and sister felt sorry for warty, abominable Zeromus as he crumbled from sight. Yes, my mom congratulated me with the same supportive, uncomprehending humor you show a child who’s found a new pet earthworm after the rain, but her sympathies lay with the screen-filling nightmare I’d just slain. To make things worse, I could see her point. If you interpret the topmost blue orb as an eye, then Zeromus, this avatar of ancient corruption and monstrous evil, looks pained, weary, and more than a little pathetic.
By the time Secret of Mana came about, I knew that I shouldn’t attack the game’s adorable rabites if my mother or sister might be watching. Yet even in their absence, I often spared the sharp-toothed yellow blobs. Most of Secret of Mana’s monsters are of typical 16-bit anime appeal, but the rabites, much like actual rabbits, appear to have evolved their penetrating cuteness as a survival mechanism.
So I became a video-game pacifist in spirit but seldom in action. When games like Tactics Ogre and Drakengard 3 openly try to make me feel bad about slaying enemy soldiers, I know where they're going. I've been there since Mega Man 3.
It's all part of a plan the game industry calibrated when Pac-Man first ran from ghosts both abstractly precious and clearly threatening. If the player’s going to face dozens of enemies over the course of the game, why not make them cute and marketable? Such strategy works with the Waddle Dees of Kirby games, the Mets of Mega Man titles, and just about every Super Mario Bros. enemy. And if the grinning slimes of Dragon Quest seem childish next to allegedly more serious RPGs of that era, remember that no one made keychains, plush toys, or novelty controllers out of the hobgoblins and spiders from The Bard’s Tale.
Adorable enemies also tie into a recently classified phenomenon: cute aggression. It’s a force that perhaps inexplicably motivates us to hug and pinch precious animals and other charming things to the point of imitating the worst character from Tiny Toons. Some theories have it that cute aggression stems from a mix-up in dopamine, the chemical released by relaxed pleasures as well as bursts of aggression. Others cast it as a defensive mechanism, as something extremely cute overwhelms our brain, confusedly sparking hostility toward a puppy, a kitten, or, indeed a little trudging pixel-beetle just too darling not to pester. So when you blast that googly-eyed robot frog or stalk a Final Fantasy mandragora, its little arms flapping like it wants to fly, feel free to blame your neurons.
Square Enix recently brought I Am Setsuna to the PlayStation 4. It’s a deliberate throwback among RPGs, seeking the hallowed grounds of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and other 16-bit games that now command ridiculous sums on eBay. So it includes throngs of enemies a little too cute for their station. I Am Setsuna’s heroes encounter capering penguins, pom-pom rabbits, and a breed of big-eyed walrus that looks like it should be cheering for a hockey team or shilling canned tuna. Yet the game has us believe that these creatures are threatening humanity to the sacrifice-demanding brink of decimation.
I am Setsuna also imitates Chrono Trigger’s method of staging battles. Enemies are carefully placed and usually visible well in advance. If you’re cautious, you can avoid any creatures you don’t want to fight.