“You know, you could put Mario in just about anything, and it would be awesome.”
That statement, made by ScrewAttack.com’s Craig Skistimas, might not be far from the truth. Take a look at the numbers: Appearing in over 200 games to date, Mario has gone above and beyond his roots as a turtle-stompin’ plumber tearing through the Mushroom Kingdom. Since his arcade debut in 1981, Mario has played tennis, soccer and baseball; baked cookies and cured diseases; worked a demolition crew; snowboarded; and taught children how to type. He’s been a lasting mainstay of the industry for 25 years, and while the industry around him has changed dramatically, the character has remained largely the same.
The debates over Mario’s appeal and market viability often return to the same core argument, nostalgia vs. gameplay, and which of the two keep gamers coming back. Within these discussions lies another question: How would Mario fare if he were introduced in 2007? Super Mario Bros. was certainly fantastic, as evidenced by the leagues of imitators it spawned and the standards it set for platformers. How accepting would audiences be of the character and the surrounding universe if the primer – Super Mario Bros. and its successors – weren’t woven into the very fabric of gaming history?
Let’s assume Super Mario Galaxy would be the first Mario game on the market. There’d be questions, and lots of ’em, from the media and the public alike; the sort of questions you expect to be asked when a new property is in development. What’s with the overalls? Why the fascination with stars, coins? Where does he come from, and what is his reason for hopping around planets and kicking the crap out of this league of ne’er-do-wells? What’s with the exaggerated, cartoonish and stereotypical Italian accent? You got something against Italians? Wake thy lawyers, it’s on!
It’s no easy task to pick apart such a character. As an icon, Mario is inseparable from the medium he represents, a name practically synonymous with the pastime, and like other creations brought about in gaming’s infancy, absolutely absurd. Stare too long and you realize he’s an overweight, mustachioed Italian stereotype who battles sentient turtles and grows to immense proportions when he comes in contact with mushrooms. But these are conventions of a universe that we’ve had over 20 years to become familiar with. Why does the mushroom make Mario big? Because it’s a super mushroom. Duh.
Mario’s early rise to stardom drew a lot of notice, but nobody took it to heart quite like Sega. Having lost some fiercely contended market share to Nintendo, their response was Sonic the Hedgehog – an edgier, faster spin on Mario that, paired with the proper marketing campaign, would position the Genesis as the edgier, faster alternative to Nintendo’s Super NES. It worked, and despite the league of half-baked imitations spawned in the aftermath – Bubsy and Aero the Acro-Bat, for example – the competition for this pair of rival mascots remained largely nonexistent for years.
But if recent console generations are any indication, securing a foothold in the early years of gaming’s history isn’t enough to guarantee a receptive audience. A rapidly expanding industry and a maturing demographic with lots of cash to burn created a space for the hardcore gamer, one that likes guns and blowin’ stuff up and has little time for the “kiddy” experiences once commonly available. By the advent of sixth-generation consoles, one might notice a commonality throughout the most commercially successful games: a gritty sort of realism complemented by characters with a developed back story and a sense of context. Marcus Fenix needed a history and was therefore created as a soldier tossed in prison for dereliction of duty, his characteristics and context shaped by the world that surrounded him. This is something Mario and his progeny fundamentally lack.
The choice for developers of many beloved franchises seemed simple: adapt or risk irrelevance in an evolving industry. Series reboots aimed at bringing characters up to speed, however, didn’t always fare well; one need only mutter aloud “Bomberman: Act Zero“ or “Sonic 360” to incite a riot among fans of either franchise. Undoubtedly awful gameplay notwithstanding, a common criticism of both of these games was aimed at the complications of surrounding characters with more “mature” worlds. Sonic kissing a human princess just seems weird.
Nintendo has handled Mario differently. The franchise hasn’t so much changed as it has expanded; Mario’s universe has become progressively more detailed with every new game, especially by those that take creative liberties with narrative and character design, like Paper Mario or Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Though the stories in these games are substantially more detailed and even occasionally dark, it’s never without the comic relief and self-referential humor to remind the user what he’s playing.
Plenty of games are released with no central story or unifying theme, but they rarely feature franchise characters, if any characters at all. Mario’s best hope for a 21st century debut would require a radical alteration of his world and the characters around him; not so much that it would be unrecognizable, but enough that the series would be stripped of its magic. Mario’s universe is a wonderful place, full of colorful characters, fantastic and bizarre landscapes, and plenty of freedom to head off in just about any direction imaginable. In Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, the bulk of the game takes place in the neighboring BeanBean Kingdom, a setting entirely unique to the game and rife with possibility for new friends, foes and situations. The BeanBean Kingdom was introduced as though it had been there all along, and why not? There are no rules, no restrictions but for the limits of the developers’ imaginations and the player’s ability to rationalize the gaps in logic for themselves. But this freedom would prove stigmatic if it were new today.
Without the established history of the character, Nintendo would be hard pressed to find the same degree of success if Mario was launched in the modern era. But those same elements of Mario’s design that would limit him commercially as a new IP are what sustain him as an existing character; his evolution, unlike Sonic’s, has been about lateral expansion. And while nostalgia plays a big role in maintaining his relevance, it’s the creative license and quality gameplay that cement the character as an irreplaceable piece of modern gaming.
Mario is a creation that was absolutely in the right place at the right time. Having firmly cemented the character in the minds of gamers around the world, Nintendo’s got a blank check to run wild with the universe without worrying about focus groups, gray-brown palettes or creating the next Master Chief. In an industry in which satisfying consumer expectations has become paramount, those characters wrought in creative mania are bound to become few and far between.
Aaron Linde, reviews editor for Destructoid, can’t pry Mario’s cheery freakin’ voice from his head. Share your sympathies with him at email@example.com.