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Friday, December 8, 2023

Why Mario Is Still Nintendo's Most Important Character (Sorry, Link)

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Super Mario Odyssey came to Nintendo Switch on October 27, 2017. It's kind of hard to believe but because time is an immutable constant, that date was almost five and a half years ago. In spite of that half-decade gap, we haven't had a proper follow-up and Nintendo hasn't really needed to rush into a sequel or successor because Mario is such a powerful property. It operates like a massive steam boiler: Mario is well into a red-hot operating temperature and only needs a steady stream of fuel to remain fantastically efficient. Mario is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Nintendo's most important character, and I would argue nothing even comes close. No, not even Link, in spite of how excited we all are for Tears of the Kingdom.

What's interesting about Mario's importance to Nintendo is that originally, Mario was created because Nintendo couldn't get the license for Popeye. Think about that for a second: In the infinite possibilities of the universe, there exists a dimension where we're all anxiously waiting for the release of the Super Popeye Movie this year. Popeye's foil Bluto was replaced with an angry ape called Donkey Kong. Olive Oyl, the object of Popeye's affection and rivalry with Bluto, became "Lady," and Popeye was replaced with a mustachioed everyman named… Jumpman. Mario was never intended to be anything more than a recognizable side-character, someone who would pop into future Nintendo games as a thread of commonality for the company's works. And he did show up a lot in Nintendo's NES games: calling the fights in Punch-Out!! or hitting the links in Golf, among others.

While Mario's design is a result of the limitations of the hardware at the time, the mustache, red dungarees and cap that came about from those limitations now define Nintendo as a whole. Take any one part of that original design and show its modern equivalent to anyone with even a passing interest in gaming and they could put the pieces together. Mario's hat alone became a supporting character in Odyssey (will the next game focus on a sentient mustache? We can only hope).

No Nintendo character has as much merch as Mario. Yes, Pokemon is a massive brand with literal tons of merchandise, but there's no one single Pokemon that has the reach of Super Mario. It helps that Mario has such incredible range. Whether it's 2D or 3D, RPG or sports, kart racing or brother smashing, Mario fits in everywhere Nintendo puts him. Part of this is no doubt because, not in spite of, his humble roots as a replacement sprite for a licensing deal gone sour. Since Mario's character had so little in the way of backstory, it opened the character up for almost limitless possibilities. We have a "fiction" around Mario and his adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, but because there was no real reason for Mario to jump over barrels and flames to reach his goal, his only motivation in games was to achieve a goal.

Since Mario's character had so little in the way of backstory, it opened the character up for almost limitless possibilities.


Contrast that open endedness to another one of Ninteno's biggest characters, Link. Obviously we have Link in Super Smash and Mario Kart, but in all the Zelda games, Link is and remains a variation on the "Hero of Time." His is an incredible character with a level of openness allowing players to use him as a proxy for themselves, but he's bound by certain rules and tropes that make him less of an obvious fit for wildly experimental uses.

I would also argue the Super Mario series as a whole, with its easy to understand gameplay loop, gives Mario an edge over the rest of the Nintendo stable of characters. You know almost everything you need to know about the entire Super Mario Bros. game within the first 10 seconds, whereas the first Legend of Zelda game on the NES sets our hero into a world where the objectives aren't nearly as clear. You don't even have a weapon when you start, something we take for granted now, but to a first-time player who's not versed in the game's vocabulary, it seems like an impossibility to explore the world of Hyrule when you can't even defend yourself.

Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood: Sneak Preview of Mario-Themed Food, Surprises, and More

There's a reason Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios is Mario themed right now, and it's the same reason we're getting a Super Mario movie: no other character comes close to Mario's universal appeal and recognition, something Nintendo is acutely and shrewdly aware of. It's an interesting quirk of the English language and our date system that gives us "MAR10" Day, but now it's a whole event every year, with Nintendo offering discounts on the many available Mario games, as well as reflecting on the character. It's "May the Fourth" for video gamers, but less punny.

If you still don't believe Mario is Nintendo's most important character, I ask you this: Is there any other character in popular culture with so much appeal that Nintendo would end a Direct by telling you they've made a replica of his boots to show off? I don't think so.

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