A Portrait of Mario
The videogame plumber as existential hero

September 1, 1991

By Scott Rosenberg

Mario runs. That's the main thing about him. Before you know anything else about who he is or where he comes from or what he might be doing hopping across the landscapes of the most-loved and most-purchased video games in history, you should know this.

Mario runs -- and, if pressed, Mario jumps, with a little blurp! sound, like the bark of a baby sea-lion.

Mario runs with his arms pumping by the sides of his red suspenders; he wears a red cap, and when he jumps, he touches it -- he's a gent. His leaps are buoyant, elated. When you start playing any of the Nintendo games that feature him, you may find yourself jumping for the sheer pleasure of the motion.

Yourself? Wait a minute -- that's Mario jumping on the TV screen, right?

Well, yes and no. For purposes of the game, Mario is a character, a dumpy fellow with a big mustache; but he is also your representation in the video universe. A certain confusion of pronouns is inevitable.

You can watch Mario Brothers cartoons or read Mario Brothers comic books, and they will tell you that Mario (he does not seem to have a surname) is a "lovable plumber from Brooklyn" who consumes prodigious amounts of pasta. But anyone who enters the world of Super Mario Bros. or its sequels will ultimately learn otherwise. At the moments of truth -- when you curse at the screen as Mario falls off the edge of a pit, or beam in triumph as he survives one of the game's deadly ordeals -- you are Mario.

You are not alone in the experience. There are, by Nintendo's count, 32 million Mario games in circulation in the U.S. When you buy a Nintendo system, a Super Mario Bros. game cartridge comes with the box.

There's an awful lot of Marios running around out there, without even factoring in all the Mario TV shows (missable), Mario videotapes (ditto), Mario thermoses (handy), Mario pencils (Dayglo) and Mario breakfast cereal (sweet). Nintendo maintains a "game counseling" service for players who get lost in Mario's world, and there are whole books of "unofficial" Mario advice available, too. If the governor of New York ever gets his act together to run for president, he will be crazy not to draft his Italian American namesake for some TV ads.

Mario is the first megastar of high-tech entertainment -- the first mass-market pop-culture hero to emerge from a computer-program design rather than a writer's imagination or a Hollywood lot. Nintendo's publicists say his "Q rating" (a measure of celebrity popularity) is now higher than that of Mickey Mouse. Even if that's a little hard to believe, the man, clearly, gets around.

This success is no coincidence, nor is it just a matter of smart marketing (as we shall see, it took Mario's creators a while to realize what they had on their hands). Mario's games have conquered America because, like any hit TV show or movie, they satisfy a cultural need -- one that may delight you or disgust you, but that's too big to ignore.

I want hobgoblins around me, for I am courageous.
--Friedrich Nietzsche
Mario carries no gun. The closest approach he makes to Rambo- hood is a sometime ability to shoot "fireballs" -- less-than-infernal projectiles that rebound with a hollow-coconut plop. Mostly he defeats his opponents by jumping on top of them, flattening them with a squishy bounce that's less violent than frisky.

Space-war scenarios dominated the video gamescape before Mario's advent in the early 1980s, but his world has little in common with them, and even less with the abstracted racquet-bars and balls of the primitive '70s Pong machines. His is a land of warrior turtles and enslaved mushrooms, of vines and fiery snakes and man-eating plants - - and he is a little guy sent forth on a quest to free a captive princess and set matters right. Joseph Campbell would approve.

Mario, in short, is a creature of myth, not science. It's significant, too, that he is a plumber rather than, say, a physicist. (There is a spin- off game called Dr. Mario, but it's not a true Mario adventure; it employs Mario, now improbably an MD, to preside over a geometric brainteaser resembling the popular Tetris game.) A scion of old- fashioned mechanics -- pipes and wrenches and drains -- Mario serves as an avatar of video consciousness. He leads us gently, with a spring in his step, into the microchip age.

Mario debuted in 1981 in a diverting little video-arcade attraction named Donkey Kong. In this game -- created by designer Shigeru Miyamoto and still available from Nintendo as an "Arcade Classic" -- a big gorilla roosts at the top of a surreal construction site, where he holds a woman named Pauline prisoner. As Mario tries to rescue Pauline, Kong keeps rolling barrels down at him -- though, inexplicably, he does not employ his simian might against the plumber. (There is no donkey.)

Donkey Kong's Mario -- ur-Mario -- was smaller, cruder than his descendants, and his leaps were puny. But the game, with its silent- film roots, vaudeville style and echoes of everything from Popeye the Sailor to Chutes and Ladders, caught the public's fancy. It helped Nintendo, which until the late '70s had been a playing-card manufacturer, elbow its way into an American video-game market then dominated by Atari and Coleco.

A sequel was inevitable. But Nintendo, apparently misunderstanding what turned people on about Donkey Kong, took a wrong turn. In Donkey Kong Jr., Mario became a villain, vindictively holding the big ape in a cage, and the player was cast as Kong's avenging-primate offspring -- which was alienating, if not insulting. In terms of Mario's evolution, the game was a blind alley, significant only for its abandonment of Donkey Kong's Victorian-industrial gloom for a lush, vegetative landscape.

Mario's future was as hero, not jailer. But first, like so many heroes before him, he had to journey to the underworld. In the game Mario Bros., the first in which he received top billing, he and his green- overalled sibling Luigi were put to work cleaning a sewer of several species of vermin. (The game can still be found, embedded as a scenario in the Super Mario Bros. 3 game like a kind of information- laden artifact -- a high-tech pottery shard.)

That which does not kill me makes me stronger.
Having performed this Augean task, Mario was ready for his breakthrough. In Super Mario Bros. -- an arcade hit that Nintendo adapted as the first cartridge for its home system in 1985 -- he came into his own. Part Tolkienian quest, part psychedelic kaleidoscope, part Carrollian nonsense and part Kafka nightmare, Super Mario Bros. presents the quintessential Mario: It is Mario's locus classicus.

In the game's opening sequences, brick walls hang in the sky and abysses open at Mario's feet. Barriers of Hershey-bar-like squares sit in triangular piles, blocking Mario's path. Pipe-ends jut from the parched earth, some leading into underground coin rooms filled with booty, others hiding hungry "Piranha Plants." Boxes emblazoned with question marks give birth to magic mushrooms that transform dinky Mario into Super Mario -- twice the size, able to smash walls, and endowed with one "free" life.

Where the screens of its predecessors were static, Super Mario Bros. scrolls continuously from left to right, advancing Mario through eight worlds of escalating difficulty, each divided into four levels. Some are in bright sunshine, some black night; some proceed aloft on the heads of giant toadstools, some are oceanic, some burrow underground. Mario passes through fire, water, air and earth -- and everywhere he encounters his enemies, the Koopa, the turtles who invaded the Mushroom Kingdom and now patrol its precincts like zombie sentries.

The creators of Super Mario Bros. seem to have oscillated between the demands of devising a challenging game and impulses of pure whimsy. Why, for instance, is there a flagpole at the end of each level? Mario must jump on it to proceed; the higher he jumps, the more points he collects. It takes skill to land on its top for the highest reward. But why is the flag marked with a green peace sign? And why does it drop like a guillotine when Mario hits it? Then there's Mario's sibling-identity crisis: When he picks the Fire Flower that allows him to throw fireballs, he turns into his brother Luigi. (In a two-player game, wherein the second player plays Luigi, the flower transforms Luigi into Mario as well.) Is Mario his brother's keeper -- or his brother's double?

All this cryptic imagery is tantalizing; its internal logic relates to the "real" world, our world, just enough to suggest meanings without ever nailing them down. The game hangs barely beyond comprehensibility; like a catchy pop song whose lyrics you can never quite decipher, it gets you to play it over and over. And when you're playing at home, there is no change to run out, no discipline of the quarter.

Addiction to these games is inevitable. When your last life runs out, and Mario gets tossed off the bottom of the screen, the compulsion to press "start" again can be overwhelming, a physical need to accelerate the heart once more to video speed. You're driven to resume control of Mario -- to re-merge identities with him. The gaudy screen, with its infinitely looping "sample" game, taunts you to take up once more the challenge you just failed. You'll know you're hooked when you find yourself humming Mario's electronic-organ theme songs, fidgeting, waiting for the next chance to play.

The first game of the day is always the best.

The perfect clarity of all dream images, whose presupposition is an unconditional belief in their reality, recalls to us states of earlier mankind, in which hallucination was extraordinarily common and sometimes seized entire communities, entire peoples simultaneously.
-- Nietzsche
Any game that bandies about a phrase like "invisible blocks" begs for psychological analysis. But the Jungian angle became prosaically explicit in the first Mario sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2 -- which is set in "Subcon, the land of dreams." The game features many innovations: Players can choose to "be" Mario, Luigi, Toad (a squat mushroom- headed courtier) or the floating Princess herself (whom you presumably rescued at the end of the first game). Mario can actually pick up his enemies and toss them at other foes, many of whom now wear a kind of Kabuki gas-mask. Magic potions conjure doorways into dark, bounty-laden shadow-worlds.

But Super Mario Bros. 2 has a more overt kiddie aesthetic than Mario 1 -- its organ-grinder music is tinklier, its colors are more crib- like. And much of the game seems to be about pulling vegetables from the ground. This gets dull.

Mario 2 pales beside Super Mario Bros. 3, which brings back Mario 1's Koopa villains in a new extended family, based on celebrity and rock-star models (Roy Koopa wears Orbison glasses, Iggy Koopa's a punk). Mario 3 offers eight worlds, each with its own map to plot your progress and each filled with whole phyla of new enemies. Mario can now don a droll-looking raccoon skin, allowing him to fly, or a green frog-man outfit, or a Tanooki suit (a kind of teddy-bear number whose origins are lost in the game's misty Japanese past). There are bonus- granting slot-machine games and hidden throne-rooms, mummy-filled dungeons and cannon-laden ships.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in the U.S. in February, 1990, and has since sold 7 million copies, with gross sales of $427 million -- making it, Nintendo says, the best-selling video game of all time. Super Mario had become a superstar. TV shows followed, and Hollywood is next; Mario the film, with Danny DeVito as Mario, is planned for a summer '92 release.

The shows run a gamut from silly-cute to terrible. The cartoons on the "Super Mario Bros. Super Show" videotapes, for instance, are flanked by five-minute live-action scenes of feeble slapstick featuring pro-wrestling manager "Captain" Lou Albano as Mario, visited by guest stars like Magic Johnson. It is here, rather than in the games themselves, that the Italian stereotype-mongering comes to the fore; pizza figures prominently, and most of the creative energy in the animation seems to have gone into devising pasta-related slurs ("I'll get you, you little lasagna-lovers," "you two-bit tortellini-taster").

Yet even if these Mario spin-offs had been crafted by a Walt Disney or a Jim Henson, they would miss out on the essential appeal of the games' Mario -- which has less to do with what he is than with what he is not. Mario is a vessel for each player's personality to fill; the last thing you want is to watch him on your TV screen and not be able to control him.

Nintendo's literature sometimes talks of Mario as an Everyman figure, but he is in truth more of an Anyman. His traits depend on how you play; he is what you make him. Running and jumping are the only constants -- everything else is up for grabs.

You can play greedy Mario -- collect as many coins and points as possible. Or explorer Mario -- investigate every side-track and cranny. Revolutionary Mario -- smash down walls and free the mushroom proletariat! Or nonviolent Mario -- don't destroy your foes, just dodge them. Manic Mario moves fast in lots of directions; depressive Mario moves only when in danger; catatonic Mario won't move at all.

Mario contains multitudes. Most likely, though, you'll settle into one personality as you play. And the more you play, the more prone you will be to develop habits --always go for this coin box, always bypass that wall. Habits make you efficient in covering old, familiar ground, as you seek to push farther into the game world; they also prevent you from discovering spectacular secrets and hidden marvels you may have bypassed the first time around.

Mistakes can become habits, too. You can learn much about the nature of human folly by watching yourself repeat the same dumb moves -- drop off the same cliff, leap into the waiting jaws of the same hungry Venus Fly Trap -- long after you first realized that they were not healthy choices. Therapy is not nearly as cost-effective.

By one translation, Nintendo's name is Japanese for, "Work hard, but in the end it is in God's hands" --sound advice for Mario novices. These games are difficult, at least for those of us over the drinking age. You may feel you have achieved something by, say, making it to the end of the First World, through the castle's dungeon, past considerable obstacles (rotating blades of fire, a dragon-like Bowser). But when you get there, the screen lights up: "Thank you, Mario, but our princess is in another castle."

Back to the trenches. Seven more times.

Formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal...
Defending its products from parental complaint, Nintendo quotes an approving psychologist: "Children learn early in life that technology can be mastered and controlled." They also learn that, unless you study the rules and remember the lay of the land, you get stomped on.

Nintendo calls its game boxes "interactive entertainment systems," positioning them in direct competition to the decidedly non-interactive stuff that normally occupies your TV screen. But no TV show insists that you pass a quiz or an eye-hand coordination test before it shows you its finale. As entertainment goes, the Mario games are -- in their own frivolous way -- decidedly didactic, even moralistic. You have to get good at them before you can find out how their stories end. And as you improve, advancing through levels and worlds like a plugged-in martial-arts adept, you are rewarded with visions of new wonders.

"Man," wrote Nietzsche, who might well have become a Mario addict had he had the chance, "is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman -- a rope over an abyss." Anyone who has played Mario will understand what he meant: You must evolve, advancing Mario to higher levels of power and yourself to higher levels of skill, or eventually fall into the depths. Many modern adventure tales share this vision, to be sure, from Japan's Zatoichi films to America's Lucas- Spielberg epics; but Mario allows for a more visceral participation in it.

The closer you examine him, the more Mario -- for all his buffoonish exterior -- looks like the classic existential hero. The origin of his quest is ultimately hidden; all we're told is that he has "heard about the Mushroom People's plight." (How news travels from the Mushroom Kingdom to Brooklyn, one can only speculate.) The source of his summons is hidden from view, and even if he completes his mission, he is, like Camus' Sisyphus, doomed to repeat it -- each time you press "start."

And yet Mario's world is not that of the existentialist philosophers, random, absurd and unfathomable. It has principles that can be divined, laws that it will not arbitrarily break. It lacks all caprice, except what you introduce yourself. The only variable is Mario.

He is -- you are -- the one mutable factor in an otherwise fixed system, the one free will in an otherwise predetermined cosmos. The worlds through which he passes may run like well-oiled machines; Mario runs exuberantly, unpredictably -- like a human being.

If millions of children and adults have melded with Mario, and now anxiously await the release of Super Mario Bros. 4, it may not be simply a matter of our shortening attention spans, our craving for novelty or our susceptibility to expensive ad campaigns. It may be that, in Mario's fate -- stuck in a world not of his own choosing, charged with a nearly impossible mission, doomed to perish sooner or later, yet free while he lives to grow, learn, slay demons and stop to smell the Fire Flowers -- people are catching a crude, bright, hypnotic reflection of their own lives.

0 Back to Prehistory Index