On the surface, Nintendo’s mascot is just that: a corporate logo. So how can he still excite and endear after all these years?
By all logic, we should resent Mario by now. He is just as much a smiling face masking billion-dollar think-tanking as infinitely more suspect corporate mascots like Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, and he’s perhaps even more cynic-baitingly twee. No one doubts the innovation and rush of frantic creativity that power his main series of adventures, but shouldn’t his much more frequent appearances in quickie sports titles and on faux-vintage Hot Topic shirts have dulled the character’s magic?
And yet, we still undoubtedly love Mario. Even at Nintendo’s near-universally criticized E3 conference this year, industry insiders couldn’t help but clap and whistle at the sight of him bounding through what frankly looked like two second-verse-same-as-the-first entries in the New Super Mario Bros. spin-off franchise. During an internship at a movie studio, I attended several consumer product presentations where employees didn’t bat an eye at new offerings featuring equally beloved characters. Hell, even Mickey Mouse himself is a hard sell for kids these days. So, what is it about Mario? Can he have his cake and eat it, too, be both a corporate mascot and a character we actually care about? Why does he still resonate and inspire in an industry that in recent years has had little trust in cartoon shills?
I wanted to start this blog with a few words about the Mario series not only because I’ve actually played most of its games, but because it strikes me as an interesting anomaly: a flagship franchise deeply entrenched in the popular lexicon that maintains as much cultural goodwill now as it did at its height. Think of other universes as iconic and lucrative as Mario‘s; they tend to either fall victim to overstaying their welcome and poor creative decisions (Star Wars, The Simpsons), or have trouble reinventing themselves for a very different time than the one in which they were conceived (Looney Tunes, Superman). Properties that navigate these problems successfully, like Batman, tend toward complete overhauls that are so natural it feels like the franchise was always that way. And that’s what’s different about Mario: despite the advances in technology, he’s stayed more or less tonally consistent these past three decades. From Toad first informing us the princess is in another castle to the head-spinning physics of the Galaxy games, Mario has dealt in a very specific sort of whimsy, surreal but conceptually straightforward, good-humored but rarely laugh-out-loud funny.
To me, this consistency of tone contrasting with the medium’s technological innovations is actually the root of Mario’s continued resonance. It is also why despite having no backstory or canon (or even personality, really), Mario strikes us as more character than logo. Credit this at least partially to the underrated Charles Martinet, voice of Mario and perhaps the most adorable old-man voice actor outside of Wallace and Gromit’s Peter Sallis. Martinet does such a fine job on selling Mario’s exuberance through his nonverbal “Wahoo!”-ing that we immediately empathize with him as our avatar; he’s just as overwhelmingly excited and happy to be out on his adventures as we are to be playing them. (The sound design does just as good a job translating the game’s pure sense of fun, especially the bleeps and bloops in games before Martinet showed up.) Martinet performs Mario so he reacts to falling in lava with roughly the same amount of pain most people express when stubbing their toes. Thus, Mario is an eternal optimist, experiencing every moment to its fullest no matter how trivial; who cares if the Princess is kidnapped when you just pulled off a perfect triple jump? We’re used to cartoon characters using their chipper natures to peddle cliché life lessons and theme park tickets. Mario’s disarming positivity serves no such grander ambitions; it is fun entirely for its own sake.
I’ve heard the argument that gamers’ affection for Mario mainly comes from nostalgia, something Nintendo is keenly aware of and integrating more and more into the franchise. While this is certainly true (see: the aforementioned re-infatuation with sidescrollers), I do not think it’s the cheap nostalgia of rerunning Nickelodeon cartoons from the ‘90s or a washed-up band’s reunion tour no one was asking for. Nostalgia for simpler media and storytelling has always been intrinsic to Mario’s appeal. (I love that his major nemeses are take-offs of King Kong and Godzilla, perhaps the two most conceptually goofy and old-fashioned of all movie monsters.) For something as truly bizarre as Mario to become as popular as it has, it can’t be all stomping on evil mushrooms and shooting fireballs from flowers. The game’s weirdness is largely unquestioned because it bears such a strong tonal resemblance to American animated shorts from the 1920s and ‘30s, a form so old and culturally accepted that few consciously remember just how goddamn surreal it is. (Dali is famous for saying Disney was one of a handful of true American surrealists.) The music in the early titles suggests over-caffeinated (but still old-timey) Scott Joplin rags, and the Looney Tunes-esque iris out at the end of Super Mario World’s stages feels so conventionally cartoonish it normalizes much of the psychedelic gibberish that comprises the Mushroom Kingdom. For a franchise that ushered many neophytes into the brave new worlds of both 2D and 3D gaming, Mario can feel downright old-fashioned.
Super Mario 64’s release was gaming’s Dorothy-stepping-into-Oz moment, the clearest instance of the technical possibilities of a medium finally capturing the audience’s imagination in its entirety. Like all the great Nintendo titles, it was something you always knew video games were capable of, but had never seen executed with such grace and intuitiveness. And like all great virtual spaces, it was compelling in ways both brand new and subconsciously familiar, a place where the worst that could happen is you piss off the haunted piano. It’s a difficult feat in a genre as straightforward as the platformer to have so many moments of genuine discovery and awe as this series has had. Super Mario Bros. 3 famously opens by raising a curtain on the Mushroom Kingdom. Perhaps herein lies the secret to Mario’s continued relevancy: he is, first and foremost, an entertainer, a stage magician as enamored with his magic tricks as we are.