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  • Writer's pictureLuke Ramer

The Secret Behind Super Mario Bros.

Deconstructing the Nintendo Icon.

Super Mario action figure raising his hands, in dark lighting.

Super Mario Bros. follows just about the most basic story and structure in all of video games: Hero rescues Princess from Monster. In this case, a plumber tries to rescue a pink princess from a dragon-like enemy known as Bowser.

Simple Hero Becomes a Household Name

The original Super Mario game was released in the U.S. in 1985 and became the most iconic video game in history. This created a cultural phenomenon that spawned endless sequels (check out this complete list of Super Mario sequels). It also inspired countless copycats, creating an entire eco-system, a billion-dollar industry of platforming games that focused more on play mechanics and less on storyline. A simple story of a simple hero on a simple quest. But deconstructing this simple franchise reveals layers we haven’t always recognized. Looking deeper helps reveal a secret about Super Mario games…it's all an act, staged for our entertainment. Nothing that happens on screen is real, it's all a performance.

A realistic tiny Super Mario laying against a cell phone.
Is Mario in control of his own adventure?

Question Everything

We can start with a few questions and observations. First, how does Princess Peach manage to get herself kidnapped by Bowser repeatedly? Why are there no preventive techniques put into place to keep her safe from Bowser? Does she perhaps want to be kidnapped? Or is she simply an actress playing her role in the story? How exactly does Mario come back to life after every death? Does he feel pain? Or is he simply acting out these deaths for our entertainment?

Heroes Take the Stage, Screen, and Dreams:

We see the most obvious evidence that this is all an act in Super Mario Bros. 3, which opens with a curtain being drawn as if a stage play is about to begin and Mario and Luigi run on screen like characters at the theater. At the conclusion of the game, the curtains close, ending this theatrical structure.

Super Mario Bros. 3 stage play.
Mario and Luigi run out onto the "stage" at the start of Super Mario Bros. 3.

In Super Mario 64 there is a Lakitu, a small intelligent creature, flying around inside a tiny cloud, following Mario and filming him throughout the game. This implies that the entire adventure is staged for the camera and, presumably, the audience at home.

Lakitu films Super Mario 64
Lakitu films Mario's every move for the home audience.
Super Mario Bros. 2 ending sleep scene
Snoozing through Super Mario Bros. 2.

Even in Super Mario Bros. 2 (the U.S. version), which is completely different from the rest of the franchise, Mario is revealed to be dreaming the entire quest during the final cutscene, further lending to the fact that none of these adventures are real, at least in the sense that we think they are when we are playing. The character is never in any real peril, just in danger of messing up the scene/dream/shot.

Abilities and Powerups? Or Stunts and Special FX?

The fact Mario is an actor playing a role becomes even more apparent when we study some of Mario’s abilities, which vary from game to game for some reason. For example, Mario can breathe underwater in many games. However, in games like Super Mario Odyssey or Super Mario 64 his breath is limited, and he will quickly drown if the player is not careful. Sometimes Mario takes damage if he falls from too high, but in other games he doesn’t. This implies that it’s not a consistent individual, but an actor playing an ever-changing role. The "danger" Mario faces is simply staged for our excitement.

This can also be seen with all the different power-ups Mario encounters during his journeys. If you can't remember all the power-ups over the years, check out this awesome, comprehensive list of Mario’s power-ups. Why are these power-ups present in some games but mysteriously absent in others? Because they are simply stage-props for our hero. This is actually for the best. It would become increasingly boring if Mario had the same power-ups and abilities in every game. By changing his abilities and limitations in every game, it keeps the series simultaneously fresh and timeless.

Are You Trippin', Mario?

A giant magic mushroom leaning against the ground in a trippy forest.

And finally, let’s address the hallucinogenic elephant in the room. Mario must eat a mushroom to become “Super” or to gain an extra life. Regardless of all the changes to the franchise over the years, mushrooms remain a staple. The fact that mushrooms are a hallucinogenic substance raises further doubt about the authenticity of how we interpret these Mario adventures. Maybe this entire performance isn’t on a stage or a camera at all, maybe it’s all a hallucination in Mario’s mind that we are privy to. Perhaps the player is, in some sense, controlling Mario's hallucination.

Endless Possibilities

While the simple, structural meaning of the Super Mario games is for the hero to save the princess, a post-structuralist view sees the game as an endless number of possibilities that “never achieves closure — which literally means that its case can never be closed: there is no final meaning; the text remains a field of possibilities” (Bertens). This perfectly sums up the Super Mario games—while the structure is simple, within that structure remains an impossible number of outcomes, not only in the gameplay but also in the interpretation of the story. This is unlike anything else ever seen in art or literature before video games.

A Super Nintendo controller with a Nintendo controller in the background
Playing Super Mario Bros. is never the same exact experience.

And what role do we, as the players, take on in this video game performance? It is hard to call ourselves the “audience” since we have a direct impact on how the events unfold. Thus, video game players exist as something else entirely, outside the traditional structure of storytelling. We don’t typically get multiple chances in real life the way we do in Mario or other video games. We chase coins (money) and extra life (working out, health-conscious diets, etc.) while trying to reach the next “stage” or our lives. Super Mario lets us play out these instincts safely and simply with endless possibilities.

Gaming or Literary Icon? Why Not Both?

Super Mario is a shining example of the video game, a medium that is often understudied and deserves more literary-style analysis. To say that video games are not art or literature is extremely short-sighted. Gaming is a new way of interacting with fictional characters and stories. The fact that everything is a performance, that nothing is real, mixed with exceptional gameplay that involves us as an active part of the high adventure, is what makes the Super Mario Bros. franchise so groundbreaking, entertaining, and timeless.

What Do You Think?

Can you name some other examples of Super Mario’s varied abilities throughout the franchise? Do you know any other clues that prove Mario’s adventures aren’t “real”? Drop a comment down below and share your thoughts!

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory: The Basics. Available from: MBS Direct, (3rd Edition). Taylor & Francis, 2017.

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