Mario, an Unchanging Force in an Ever-Changing World

How Super Mario remained relevant by staying the same.

The World’s Most Popular Plumber

Mario is one of the most popular fictional characters in video game culture — and perhaps all media — of the last century. The mere sight of a red cap with a big mustache under it has become as much of a symbol as the Mickey Mouse silhouette. 

Mario has been in many different worlds and sports across many different generations of video games. He has been around from humble beginnings in old arcades all the way up to the current platform, Nintendo Switch.

Through it all, he has worn many hats, not just the famous red one. He has been a doctor, a construction worker, a climate activist, an astronaut, a professional athlete, and, most importantly, a plumber.

Some Things Never Change

Despite all these different vocations — all of which require years of school and/or training — Mario has not grown much at all. The only advancements from the first game include minor dialogue (wa-hoo!) and the occasional facial expression. He doesn’t have a plan, or a life goal, or much of life motivation. 

Mario is only motivated by the tasks that other characters force him to do. Let’s take a classic game, Super Mario 64, as an example.

Mario unchanging symbol N64 Nintendo 64 Super Mario 64
Noa Kosanovic, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bowser kidnaps a princess. Then, he traps Mario in a castle. The only way to get out of the castle and save the princess is to jump into paintings and collect starts. So he does that, fights Bowser, and rescues the princess. But would he have done all of this without a reptilian monster forcing him to?

Another example is In Super Mario Sunshine. Here, our beloved Mario is on vacation. He doesn’t even have a moment to put sunscreen on his giant nose before trouble arises.

Shadow Mario (representing the shadow self), along with Bowser (the reptilian representation of Satan) are ruining the world with pollutive goop. Shadow Mario frames the real Mario in this pollution scandal.

Then the court of the Isle of Delfino declares that Mario is guilty. As punishment, he must clean up the world with his water pumping device (F.L.U.D.D.).

Mario unchanging symbol Nintendo Wii Nintendo Super Mario Sunshine
Mario and F.L.U.D.D. having a heart to heart. Screenshot from Super Mario Sunshine

He is rewarded for his court-ordered community service with stars. In the end, the work forced upon him leads him to the big bad villain. Then he, once again, saves the princess.

I Am a Product of My Environment

Mario simply reacts to the world around him. He only directs his attention to what is directly in front of him. His actions are dictated by his environment. But, that environment is constantly growing.

The ever-growing worlds in his video games is one reason Mario remains relevant through the generations. The worlds, game-play, and fun-factor are great enough that the generally younger audience doesn’t care about narrative depth or character development.

Mario, much like the players, only needs to react to what is in front of him. The players and the plumber just use familiar controls to navigate new worlds, always being mindful of their surroundings and the tasks at hand.

Meanwhile, that task happens to play a role in alleviating some deep existential crisis going on in the world. It could be a metaphor for the philosophy that if one is mindful and does the best they can to take care of the issues in their immediate control, it will gradually improve the large problems that are out of their control.

That being said, the franchise does not hinge on the narrative depth of either the main character or the world. It instead hinges on the experience it can grant users. 

Users experience fun by being exposed to exciting worlds in unexpected settings, and fluid and dynamic game-play. There are also constant rewards (coins, stars, etc.) for the players efforts. The games also have a built-in range of difficulty on different missions. The same worlds can be equally enjoyed by first-time gamers who can get to the final boss with 70 easy-to-collect starts, and seasoned veterans who triple-jump their way through difficult missions to all 120 stars.

Mario unchanging symbol Nintendo Super Mario Star
Mr.Yahoo!, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More Than a Game

Mario also remains relevant through transmedia. Blossoming from the long-running video game series have been multiple movies, a few TV shows, countless individuals making internet content about the plumber, endless video game spin-offs, and huge merchandising for toys, clothes, blankets, coffee mugs, and other Mario paraphernalia. There is even a growing world of online content based solely on the music used in Mario video-games.

The large-scale popularity of Mario comes from this transmediation. Even people who have never played a Mario game in their lives know the mustachioed plumber because they have seen him everywhere

Mario has become a symbol that long ago escaped the video-game reality and entered the cultural zeitgeist. He has done this by being an unchanging rock in an ever-changing world. No matter which title the omnipresent character appears in, you know what you’re getting.

Author: D.C. Gonk

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