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What is “Super Mario Bros.” about, really?

I want to tell you about a conspiracy that’s been going on right under our noses for almost 40 years and has bled into the upper echelons of society.

You see, the most famous video game franchise in history is absolute bullshit. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s the classic knight-saves-princess-from-dragon story, except the knight is a plumber, the dragon is also kind of a turtle and the princess is the only human in a kingdom of mushrooms. Also, the plumber is Italian and there’s current-day construction materials everywhere. None of this has anything to do with what actually happens in the game.

This is bad writing. There’s no way around it. “The Legend of Zelda” (1986) and “Final Fantasy” (1987) traffic in undiluted high-fantasy tropes, while “Sonic the Hedgehog” (1991)’s animal-vs-mad-scientist conflict is rooted in environmentalism. Even the worst and weirdest games at least explain how things got the way they are. It’s only Mario that rides dinosaurs, participates in Olympic events and goes to space — sometimes within the same game — all without even giving us lowly paisanos a hint as to where he came from.

Yet no one I’ve ever met has asked what, exactly, Super Mario’s horrendously disjointed story is about — even though we collectively bought 776,000,000 copies of it like the sheeple we are. My goal today is to answer that question. The ideas behind Mario’s world, as it turns out, are just as disjointed as they look. However, “Super Mario Bros.” does have meaning — and it’s a meaning that stretches beyond the Mushroom Kingdom’s horizon and challenges the implications of art itself. 

So, uh, let’s-a-go?

The story of Mario, the character, actually begins with Popeye the Sailor Man. Shigeru Miyamoto, then a recent hire at Nintendo, wanted to make an arcade game about the spinach-loving cartoon character but couldn’t get the rights. So, he made the sailor into a carpenter and replaced the villain with a giant ape. The carpenter had a hat and mustache because it was easier to animate; he was eventually named “Mario” after Nintendo’s mustachioed landlord. And thus was born 1981’s “Donkey Kong,” in which players scale a construction site to rescue Mario’s girlfriend Pauline from the aforementioned ape. Numerous sequels followed, including “Mario Bros.” (1983), which saw Mario running around the New York City sewers fighting turtles who use pipes to move around the stage; This is where his current occupation as a plumber comes from.

Imagine a director throwing together a play from scratch with only a vague notion of the plot and whatever set pieces were left backstage. That’s essentially how “Super Mario Bros.” (1985) was developed. All Miyamoto’s team knew was that they wanted a game about clearing a variety of themed obstacle courses. It wasn’t until after development began that Mario was made the protagonist due to his high sales, and what followed was what I can only describe as a series of “why not?” moments as the developers populated the obstacle courses they’d sketched out.

The team needed objects to interact with, so they brought back the urban paraphernalia from the last few games. They needed a reward for exploration, so they added glittering coins that made a nice “cha-ching” sound and boxes with intriguing “?” marks. They needed something to power Mario up, so they settled on the magic mushrooms of Japanese folklore. They needed a setting, so they named the entire world after the mushrooms. They needed enemies, so the turtles returned. (After Mario Bros., in which jumping on the turtles hurt you, Miyamoto swore that the next Mario game would feature more realistic turtle physics.) And finally, they needed a reason for Mario to keep running the obstacle course in the first place. And *that* is why Princess Peach gets kidnapped.

So there we have it, right? “Super Mario Bros.” looks like a bunch of disparate elements cobbled together … and aesthetically, it’s exactly that. But mechanically, there’s a method to Mario’s madness. You see, since the start of his career, Miyamoto’s not-so-secret agenda was to create what he called “athletic games.” Most video games at the time were never-ending— you’d face similar challenges over and over with the goal of getting a high score (think “Pac-Man” or “Galaga”). But as a former industrial designer with no programming experience, Miyamoto saw no reason to follow industry trends. He instead sought to invite players into worlds they could interact with and progress through by pulling off athletic moves of their own design. This way, Miyamoto told Vox in 2017, “you … have a sense that you have done something … that you’ve become a hero, you’ve become brave, even if you’re actually crying.”

If you approach “Super Mario Bros.” from that angle, it’s quite clear that the game’s elements, bizarre as they might be, are constantly conveying messages. Take the very first level of “Super Mario Bros.” You’re thrown directly into the world with nowhere to go but right, which puts you directly into the path of a mean-looking enemy. Dealing with that enemy means learning to jump, and you’ll use that knowledge immediately afterward to hit a shiny block. A mushroom comes out and makes you big when you collect it, which gives you the height you need to get over a series of pits and pipes. And just like that, within 30 seconds, you’ve learned how to play, what you have to do, what helps you and what doesn’t. You could take every object in the game and swap it with something else, and you’d still feel just as satisfied when you clear the level, because you didn’t just have fun doing an obstacle course — you did so using a set of strategies you learned yourself.

So, what’s Mario about? Mario is about you. We’re never going to learn how Mario wound up in the Mushroom Kingdom, why flowers make you shoot fire or how you travel through pipes, because video games are the only art form that doesn’t demand an explanation for any of that. The real story is the one we create by finding our way through each level. Once we know how to do that, everything else makes perfect sense.

If you ask me, it’s that level of interactivity that makes video games a distinctive art form. It’s not the story or the visuals or the music — we already have art forms for those. A good game, however, is less of a monologue and more of a conversation. It’s a conversation you’ll be able to walk away from with the satisfaction that you held up your end. So the next time you and your friends are having a late-night “Mario Kart” session, take a moment and think about what the game is really saying to you.

Or maybe don’t do that, because then you’ll get hit with three banana peels, a squid and an exploding turtle shell. Man — maybe these games ARE too weird.

One Comment

  1. Gemma Rose Gemma Rose January 23, 2023

    Really cool article, I like this especially: “So, what’s Mario about? Mario is about you. We’re never going to learn how Mario wound up in the Mushroom Kingdom, why flowers make you shoot fire or how you travel through pipes, because video games are the only art form that doesn’t demand an explanation for any of that. The real story is the one we create by finding our way through each level. Once we know how to do that, everything else makes perfect sense.” It’s refreshing to read engaging content about games.

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