Why Mario Works: Super Mario as Transformative Icon for the Working Class

By Chris Williams and Brady Simenson

Abstract: Nintendo’s Mario has transcended the realm of character and sits firmly in the realm of icon. Despite his appearance as a simple working man, nevertheless, just as Mario takes different forms throughout his adventure series, he is also a pliable figure of transformation throughout culture in general. Mario is a transformative and easily adaptable figure in the lineage of silent film stars, but Mario echoes them even further as a specifically transformative hero of the working class, a group who greatly desire the freedom of form that he represents. Thus, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the 1980s, the era of Mario, would look for something of a solution to the problem of the working class or at least attempt to ameliorate their situation by adding a virtuous component to working hard in order to survive, a kind of heroics that comes along with hard work and economic struggle.

 Keywords: Mario, Nintendo, Super Mario Bros., working class, 1980s, transformation, plasmatic, icon, media representation

 

Super Mario is arguably the most famous video game character of all time, an icon for Nintendo akin to what Mickey Mouse is for Disney. Beyond his own series of adventure games, he has been inserted into a multitude of other games that represent a diversity of game genres, including Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros., Dr. Mario, and many more. His image is also used, like Mickey Mouse’s, to sell various non-gaming products like shirts, birthday cards, dishes, clocks, and most other kinds of merchandise that you can imagine. Mario has transcended the realm of character and sits firmly in the realm of icon. He can be placed into almost any pop culture environment, where he often does not merely adapt, but often thrives. Despite his appearance as a simple working man, nevertheless, Mario takes different forms throughout his adventure series—everything from Fire Mario to Metal Mario to Paper Mario—he is also a pliable figure of transformation throughout culture in general.

In his essay “Super Mario, the New Silent Clown,” Manuel Garin agrees that Mario’s tremendous and lasting appeal is tied closely to his aforementioned transformative ability. He too connects the appeal of Mario to the appeal of Mickey Mouse and even Charlie Chaplin. Garin writes, “[Mario] has become to video games what Chaplin was to silent film and Mickey Mouse to cartoon animation, a transcultural […] image that fosters intense cultural re-appropriation” (305). Garin should take this further, though. He mainly sticks to establishing Mario as “an icon of user-generated comedy in hundreds of YouTube parodies” (305). This idea ignores Mario’s pliability within and throughout his various incarnations in video games themselves. It also ignores how that pliability functions to add comedy and even pathos to the character. Most importantly, it ignores some of what defines Mario as an individual and what allows him his adaptability, roles that call for him to change who and what he is and make the best of difficult circumstances. As such, Mario as an icon is much more than a ripe source of parody. Mario is a working man. He is an immigrant.

Like Chaplin and Mickey Mouse before him, the character serves as a transformative figure for his prominent working-class background. Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, according to Kathy Merlock Jackson, “function as universal characters who can adapt to any situation,” and this observation could easily be made about Mario as well (440). Much as Mario transforms from a doctor to a tennis player to a painter, so too does Mickey Mouse become a steamboat captain or Chaplin adopt the role of a dictator. Again, Merlock Jackson offers insight as she notes, “Whether a bricklayer, window repairer, floorwalker, drunk, fiddler, minister, or gold prospector, Chaplin’s Tramp tries to be serious and dignified, to do the right thing; this provides the essence of his comedy. Mickey is equally determined and adaptable” (440). The last part, “determined and adaptable” is of particular interest, as this statement sums up just about everything that makes Mario great: hard work and transformation.

Preceding the decade of the creation of this working-class video game hero, American media of the 1970s would portray a more naturalistic image of the working man in the rough and gruff form of characters like Archie Bunker. Bunker was no hero, and instead struggled with coming to terms with a changing and more progressive American cultural landscape, representing a character that was hardly “adaptable.” The working-class man would continue to be presented as struggling in other ways in the lyrics of songs by musicians like Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s 1975 song “Born to Run” would open with a bleak vision of the prospects of the working American: “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American Dream/ And at night we ride through mansions of glory on suicide machines.” In “Whitman, Springsteen, and the American Working Class,” Greg Smith observes of these lines:

This is nothing less than a summation of the circumstances facing the working class in all of Springsteen’s music; taunted by images of an American Dream which is just out of reach but which they still must chase by way of day jobs out of economic and sometimes psychological necessity, these people are left to fantasize at nights in cars and on roads that go nowhere. (309)

Further, Smith suggests that these fantasies serve as a mirage for Springsteen’s characters that leave them spinning their wheels on the way to nowhere, trapped as they are by the identity that working hand-to-mouth leaves them in: “It is often the idea, ‘mirage’ though it may be, that they will be able to escape their dead-end jobs that allows Springsteen’s characters, sadly and paradoxically, to continue working at them” (309-310). While Bunker’s response to a changing landscape in America was a reactionary desire to return to the “good old days,” as the show’s theme song “Those Were the Days” suggested, Springsteen’s characters sought hope and ultimately change in their economic condition and something transformative to affect their circumstances.

Thus, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the 1980s, the era of Mario, would look for a solution to the problem of the working class or at least attempt to ameliorate their situation by adding a virtuous component to working hard in order to survive, a kind of heroism that went along with economic struggle. Bon Jovi’s Tommy and Gina from “Livin’ on a Prayer” are struggling to survive, but they do so for the sake of something virtuous: love, making them into not just working-class individuals, but into working class heroes:
We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot
For love, we’ll give it a shot (“Living on a Prayer”)

Romanticizing the experience of being working class is indicative of the media of this period, again, the era of the first appearance of Mario, something much less common in the 21st century, as Diana Kendall notes in Framing Class: Media Representations of Wealth and Poverty in America: “Currently, the predominant messages we receive from the media regarding the working class are that this class does not exist at all or that it comprises people who are uninteresting other than as sources of labor” (175). Yet, in the 1980s, many of John Hughes films, like 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink valorized working-class characters and showed their ability to transform by attempting to elevate their position in a highly stratified society. Within the lyrics of “Livin’ on a Prayer” or the character of Andie in Pretty in Pink is a hope in some essential virtuous humanity that lies within these characters to become more than they are for the sake of another person, that these working poor characters can adapt and survive.

The ability for silent characters to adapt is explored particularly well by silent film director, Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote extensively about his theory of the plasmatic characters of his own earlier era, that is, characters who have “the ability to dynamically assume any form” and who appeal to audiences of the working class who reside “in a country and social order with such a mercilessly standardized and mechanically measured existence” (21). Eisenstein is speaking particularly about the animation of Walt Disney in the United States. However, his theory should be explored in depth to consider how it applies to silent film icons like Mickey Mouse and Chaplin and how Mario continues that tradition into today. Garin is correct to say that Mario is a transformative and easily adaptable figure in the lineage of silent film stars, but Mario echoes them further than Garin realizes as a specifically transformative hero of the working class, a group who greatly desire the freedom of form that he represents.

This freedom of form is obviously present, but it is also important to understand how Mario has such wide-ranging appeal. While Eisenstein writes that the plasmatic is a character who is able to be plugged into a variety of scenarios, his writing also confronts how this versatility is translated into a literal pliability of the bodily form. An example that he offers is Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies where Mickey Mouse’s “arms shoot up far beyond the limits of their normal representation […] repeated by the necks of ostriches, the tails of cows [… all] shot to meticulously coil to the tone and melody of the music” (10). He compares this to older stories such as Alice’s “episode of expanding and shrinking height” in Alice in Wonderland (11). This note on changing height may have already made you think of Mario. An essential gameplay mechanic in most Mario side-scrolling adventures is that Mario begins as a shorter version of himself, almost half a man so to speak, but when he gets a Super Mushroom, he appropriately becomes Super Mario, a taller and stronger version of himself capable of taking more damage and of smashing bricks. This image of Super Mario jumping up to break the bricks above him that were previously holding him down has a similarity to the “glass ceiling” metaphor often used for the oppression of women in the workplace. It is not a stretch to imagine Super Mario’s breaking of a ceiling as an overcoming of oppression either, given his obvious association with the working class.

Mario’s own creator Shigeru Miyamoto, while being interviewed by the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, acknowledges a relationship between Mario and Alice in Wonderland, though he denies being directly influenced in the sense of growing and shrinking. He says, “When you think about Wonderland, you think about mushrooms […] there has always somehow been a relationship between mushrooms and magical realms. That’s why I decided that Mario would need a mushroom to become Super Mario.” It may be the case that Miyamoto’s decision to make Mario grow and shrink was not a direct reference to Lewis Carroll’s novel, but the admission that Wonderland was on his mind in regards to the Mushroom Kingdom at least suggests the possibility of him making the decision subconsciously. This admission also suggests that the mushrooms and their effect on Mario is connected to fantasy, and what is fantasy if not wish fulfillment? Transformation is here connected to becoming better than who you were before.

But is growing taller or shorter enough to deem Mario a figure of the plasmatic as Eisenstein describes? There are a multitude of bodily transformations that occur to him even in his earliest games in the form of the flame-shooting Fire Mario, the flying raccoon Tanooki Mario, and the swimming Frog Mario, but the most clearly Eisenstein-like transformations occur in Super Mario 64 in which the player is offered a strange title screen on which he or she sees a large close-up of Mario’s face that the player is then allowed to tug and stretch to comical proportions. This opportunity has no connection to the actual game and only seems to exist to familiarize new gamers with Mario’s identity, those players drawn in by the Nintendo 64’s groundbreaking 3D graphics. It also suggests to those players the plasmatic qualities of Mario, that this is a man who can be shaped and reshaped and that doing so is a part of the pleasure of playing as him. The use of his first in-game dialogue “It’s a me, Mario!” is reason enough to view this game as an introduction of the character to the uninitiated. Mario’s true identity is underscored to them here as a pliable persona for the gamer to do with what they will. This concept is an interesting inversion of what was recently shown in 2015 in Super Mario Maker. In that game, Mario remains the same, while the world is what the player gets to play with. Either way, that player can understand that the series at its core is a clay of sorts, a transformative toy for the gamer to change him- or herself within and to change his or her surroundings.

Mario’s ability to transform holds allure for so many gamers because so many people desire the same ability to change their lot in life. Much of the available research on video games focuses on their role as a form of wish fulfillment. Sheila C. Murphy says the foundations of academic video game and digital culture research “triumphed the virtual as a realm where one could escape ‘lived’ reality and act ‘freely’ in the realm of the ‘technological sublime’—in a cyberspace that was untainted by the social realities and inequalities of class, race, and gender” (225). People on social media create new identities for themselves via cool user names, flattering profile pictures, and carefully crafted feeds, while video gamers do these things and more. Gamers control and embody their idealized selves. This is easy to see in games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Fallout 4 where players name their avatars, control their appearance, and even make personal decisions for them, but research shows players experiencing a sense of idealized self even through avatars who bear little resemblance to the player.

The wish fulfillment one experiences through an avatar like Mario takes place through the process of identification. Jonathan Cohen, whose theories on identification with media characters is drawn on heavily by video game scholars, says that, “While identifying with a character, an audience member imagines him- or herself being that character and replaces his or her personal identity and role as audience member with the identity and role of the character within the text’’ (250-51). The authors of “Identification with Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions” draw on Cohen’s research when they say:

While playing as a soldier, [gamers] would experience themselves as more courageous, brave, loyal, patriotic, and strong […] Playing a first-person shooter and identifying with such a game’s protagonist would change their self-perception in a way that they experience themselves to be more similar to how they want to be or to be exactly as assertive as they wished to be. (Klimmt, et al. 325)

Further, they believe that “[c]ontrolling a character or fulfilling a role while playing video games shapes players’ self-concept [….] Video games would, thus, appear as a self-transformation machine with which players can temporarily enter states that detach them from ‘normal’ self-perceptions” (335). So, players who control Mario put themselves in his perspective and identify with his attributes, including his transformative nature. This identification occurs even though Mario is not an exaggerated interpretation of the player’s self, as one may create when playing Skyrim or Fallout.

According to a study entitled “Player–Avatar Identification in Video Gaming: Concept and Measurement,” identification is not so much about embodying a character who is supposed to directly represent the player, but even more so about embodying a character who represents traits that a player aspires to. The study focuses on the theory that “people often wishfully identify with media characters who are more successful, more popular, or in other ways rewarding or positive” (Li, et al. 258). The research finds that “players are motivated to escape into games because of a narrowed gap between one’s actual self and ideal self during play […] identification is enjoyable for game players due to the reason that altered self-perceptions during game exposure reduce self-discrepancies” (261). An example of one of these discrepancies being altered when playing as Mario is that of a working-class individual with no perceived means of becoming anything else. This is what makes identifying with Mario so fulfilling for so many people in that situation.

The authors of “The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be” found similar results in their research, claiming that, “Video-game players can act in ways that are congruent with idealized views of the self and can experience abilities and satisfactions that are difficult to access in everyday life,” and they later conclude that “results indicate that players who experienced a wide discrepancy between their ideal self and actual self in their day-to-day lives were the players most motivated by games that provided them with opportunities to embody their ideal characteristics” (Przybylski, et al. 70, 73). If this discrepancy between ideal self and actual self is so powerful, then it makes sense for those with the least ability to socially transform in their actual lives to most idealize Mario’s ability to do so.

Mario’s appearance, ethnicity, and occupation are no coincidence in this regard. Mario is an Italian plumber from Brooklyn. Can there possibly be a group more desiring of the ability to transform, to have social and financial mobility, than working class immigrants? Jeff Ryan compares Mario to another Italian hero of popular culture when he says, “[Mario is] as perpetual an underdog as that undertall Italian boxer from Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa. [Mario is] a world-beloved character with roots across three continents: Asian invention, American setting, European name […] A hero who is at once us, more than us, and so much less than us” (5). At first glance, Mario, like Rocky, is an unremarkable working stiff from a family of immigrants, but his understated charm and determination toward greatness make him so endlessly easy to root for. The player can relate to the drive of both characters, and that player can also relate to their struggles.

Mario, as a cartoon character, may seem like a much less serious figure than the struggling prize-fighter Rocky. Yet, both the medium of the cartoon and the genre of comedy in general abound in such heroes. Comedy is a place in which traditional heroism might be reversed, where the pauper, not the prince, might become a hero by transforming his station in life through his own actions, sometimes actions that are ennobling, sometimes actions that are foolish. As noted earlier, Chaplin is a figure much like this one, such as when he portrays himself as his Tramp, whose activities elevate him as an individual with a persona that defies his station in life. This idea provides the audience, especially a working class or working poor audience, the idea that one can become so much more than they are if the avatar that that they assume reflects themselves and has the pliability to allow for enlarged and greater forms. As Paul Flaig observes in “Life Driven by Death: Animation Aesthetics and the Comic Uncanny,” such an audience, specifically the audience of the cartoon, seeks the idea of an avatar that creates such a transformative figuration:

The heroes of these [cartoon] films are humorous avatars for the audience’s mimetic embrace, their adventures defined less by continuous plot than by the discontinuity between representation as ‘a set of lines, and as the image that arises from them,’ the pulsation of forms gagging across levels of sense and nonsense, the referential and ridiculous. (13)

Such referential qualities are found in cartoons but also in video games in which the player takes on the role of working through these gags and discontinuities through their own embodiment of heroic figures. In video games, the players are the ones who struggle and strive to achieve greatness despite their own limitations.

Struggling, yet striving, is also an unfortunate hallmark of the working class. G. Christopher Williams ties Mario’s working-class appeal to this very thing. Williams writes, “If Mario is heroic as a hard worker […] it is in a kind of Faulknerian sense—because he ‘endures’ through his persistent labor.” It may seem like an afterthought that Mario’s appearance happens to mark him as working class. Indeed, Ryan mentions that Mario’s appearance was determined more by practical limitations, such as his appearance in the original game being “limited to three colors,” and the need to distinguish between his clothing and physical features within that limitation more than anything else (25). For example, “Miyamoto gave [Mario] a bushy mustache, mostly so players could tell where the nose ended and the mouth began,” and similar concerns led to him having his hat and overalls. So even though Mario’s classic design is more about practicality than a specific desire on the part of his designers to make him working class, the imagery was used to define much of that game’s setting and its premise, placing Pauline and her abductor on a construction site, for example. Additionally, Williams goes on to discuss Mario’s collecting of coins throughout the series as it relates to Mario’s connection to working class imagery and the personal struggle for Mario that the need for such collection implies. He writes, “Working to acquire money for the sake of survival becomes a persistent theme in the adventures of Mario through this mechanic of money being used to purchase life […] 100 coins always translates into an extra life […] The working man is always working hand to mouth. With every nickel and dime, Mario ekes out a continued existence.”

Williams is correct here to tie the collecting of coins with “survival” and “working hand to mouth.” However, seeking financial stability should be seen as more than “Mario ek[ing] out a continued existence.” This idea frames gaining an extra life in a practical way, in other words, having more lives helps Mario survive the game, but this also implies that Mario gains a new life, that is, as an alternative to the one he already has. This works in the same way as any other working stiff who dreams of working hard enough and making enough money for a chance at another life, a fresh start. This prophecy is also fulfilled throughout Mario’s video game career: he gets more lives as a doctor, a golfer, a go-kart driver, and more still.

While Williams certainly does acknowledge Mario’s ambition, he does not address this idea of collecting lives. What he addresses in particular is Mario’s dogged persistence in rescuing Princess Peach, a figure of wealth and class beyond his station. Williams says, “Mario is not merely relatable as a regular Joe, but his progress from the labor class to a man capable of mixing with the elite is a familiar claim of the American dream of upward mobility. With a lot of hard work and elbow grease, not only can one merely survive, but the individual can eventually land the princess and everything that she represents.” Beyond this, it should also be noted that the villain that Mario is most often rescuing this princess from is also royalty, King Koopa, more popularly known as Bowser. Not only is Mario a lower-class man able to mix with the elite, but he also proves himself superior to one of their ilk. Bowser, too, is a fire-breathing half-dragon, framing Mario then in the mythic tradition of monster-slayers whose valorous deeds earn them a position of royalty, in the tradition of Theseus or Perseus and their respective beasts.

In his first appearance in Donkey Kong, Mario doesn’t save a princess, but Pauline’s presence may still speak to the idea of saving a damsel in distress, as this notion may relate to social climbing. Pauline appears that she may be working class, special to Mario, a pretty girl in a dress, but not necessarily nobility. She may be from a higher class than Mario, however, as the appearance of her fancy hat, parasol, and handbag might indicate on later levels. However, if one assumes that the premise of Donkey Kong is much inspired by the plot of the 1933 film King Kong in its borrowing of the love triangle between man, woman, and ape, then Pauline’s similarity to the Anne Darrow character played by Fay Wray may also suggest a lower-class background for Pauline as well. In the film, the character Carl Denham, a filmmaker, is seeking an actress in New York City. He finds an impoverished Darrow and offers her the part that will eventually take them all to Skull Island, the home of Kong. Once again, if there is a parallel between these characters, this indicates that Pauline and Darrow, like Mario, are working class, people who have to strive to endure as Mario must. Mario then is working to save someone of his own station or of a slightly higher class, not a princess, but, nevertheless, one way or the other, he is “rising” in order to do so. Thinking about Pauline’s social status is interesting as it is somewhat debatable in Donkey Kong, but in Mario’s most recent game Super Mario Odyssey, she is more distinctly upper class. In a Polygon article, Julia Alexander quotes one of the game’s producers who says, “We knew that players know Pauline so we of course wanted to make her the mayor of New Donk City. It’s important to note that though they are called Kingdoms, they do not necessarily have royalty, and that’s why she’s the mayor.” Regardless of Pauline’s current social positioning, though, in Donkey Kong, Mario’s pursuit and salvation of the character points towards consummation and potential marriage within the context of the altogether common “saving the girl” narrative premise of video games. Marriage itself traditionally represents an act of socioeconomic betterment, and Mario, by enacting this seemingly traditional act of chivalry, ends up saving the girl in order to establish a potential relationship or in order to maintain one. Thus, he is striving towards marriage as one possible means of gaining upward mobility for he and Pauline or at least for himself.

Mario then can especially be accepted in his latter incarnations as a savior of princesses and as a form of our vicariously held dream of transforming from peasant to king, but more is needed to place him firmly in the tradition of what silent icons like Chaplin and Mickey Mouse were doing. To further support this, consider once again Eisenstein’s focus on the plasmatic, or in other words, on how transformative bodies can represent social transformation. Using the body to tell stories is ingrained both in silent film and in early video games. In his article, “Silent Film,” Manuel Garin says, “the absence of synchronized dialogue and the supremacy of visual attractions pushed creators—both early filmmakers and game designers—toward truly imaginative ways of relating the moving image to its audiences” (576). With this in mind, Eisenstein’s notions, pardon the pun, may seem like less of a stretch. Imagine how mimes use their over-the-top bodily movement to express not only stories, but emotions. When words are limited, the physical must be used as creatively as possible. Garin goes into greater detail in this link between the silent film movement and early video games when he says:

The development of sight gags—based on the creation, repetition, and variation of a kinetic pattern through time—resembles the way game designers conceive certain interactions between a moving figure and the surrounding spaces. As in […] early Super Mario […] slapstick reels captured a screen trajectory by reconstructing the trace of a character’s action (jump, chase, pie in the face) and its physical interactions (platform, rotor, slide, cliff, pendulum, pulley, seesaw, zip-line, lever). (576)

So if early Mario lacked the benefit of cut scenes and voice actors, it stands to reason that the way that he interacts with his world, the way that he grows and shrinks, the way that he transforms to progress, all have genuine meaning connected to what Nintendo wants the player to think of him. This non-verbal storytelling is apparently so significant that Mario and many of Nintendo’s other oldest characters, like Link, Donkey Kong, and Kirby. remain mostly silent to this day.

Nintendo’s preference for physical storytelling over verbal storytelling is apparent in their games, but also in their marketing, showing its audience that bodily movement and transformation are more than functions of gameplay, but also part of Nintendo’s intentionally constructed narrative. In their launch trailer for the original Nintendo Wii, “Wii Trailer 1,” customers are sold on one of the bestselling consoles of all time not just by the strength of a game lineup, but even more so by the way that the Nintendo Wii promised to make them move. The advertisement shows the actual games only in brief flashes, focusing the majority of its time on the cartoonish way that players swing their bodies around to become the characters on their screens. Players are shown taking on multiple roles just like Chaplin, Mickey Mouse, and, of course, Mario have done. The movement of the player makes them swing a racket like a tennis star, fly a plane like a pilot, wave a baton like a classical conductor, and even move like Mario himself. When a woman flicks her wrist with the Wii Remote, this image is instantly followed by an image of Mario flicking his own wrist to send a fireball at his enemy. Just as Mario is a figure who aspires to other lives, represented by his varied roles, so too do players aspire to other lives, including Mario’s own.

This isn’t the first time that Nintendo has used an advertisement to emphasize how players want to be Mario, but also in particular, how they want to move like Mario. In a commercial titled “Nintendo School’s Out,” the audience sees a classroom full of elementary school students who are bored with their humdrum daily life. They watch the clock desperately, and the audience later finds out that it is so that they can rush to the nearest store to purchase a new Mario game. The catch, though, is that during this rush to the store, all of these children have the miraculous ability to run and jump like Mario himself. They jump from the top of one building to the next or from the top of one subway train car to another, just like Mario does while jumping from platform to platform in his games. They do this throughout Hong Kong until they finally reach the store, and when they do, all of them are suddenly wearing Mario masks, completing their transformation and victory over everyday life. The words “Who are you?” appear on the screen, letting us know that Nintendo wants us to think of ourselves as Mario, to transform as we play. To play as Mario, to move and transform like Mario, is to become Mario.

The point of the advertisement is to take the focus off of who Mario is because he is a vessel for you. Instead the focus is on what you, and in turn Mario, do. And what does Mario do? As has been mentioned many times: he changes. He changes his body by using power-ups to either become big or become half-raccoon or to even become a two-dimensional being in the Paper Mario series. Notice how Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door works on the basis of changing and manipulating Mario’s body as an essential element of progression. You can fold Mario’s body into a paper airplane to fly over gaps. You can turn him sideways to fall or to walk through cracks. You can even roll him into a tube so that he can then roll himself under obstacles.

Like Paper Mario, Mario’s other RPG titles are particularly notable for using bodily manipulation to advance. In Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario and his brother Luigi are shown teaming together to perform special abilities that allow them to reach previously inaccessible areas or to perform powerful attacks. These abilities show them working together in an almost slapstick fashion resembling the work of vaudevillian tumblers. One such technique is called “Splash Bros” where Mario jumps on Luigi’s back and springboards off of him, Luigi then jumps as well so that Mario, still in mid-air, catches him, and both spin like a falling corkscrew onto an enemy. Another move involves Luigi smashing Mario with a hammer so that Mario can walk under certain doors in his newly squished form.

These sorts of moves exist throughout the whole Mario & Luigi franchise. The physical comedy and showmanship of those titles is so similar to vaudeville that it is easy to connect them with the sight gags discussed by Garin and how those sight gags contribute to the telling of a story and the development of character in that context. This fluidity of form made available to him as a working-class hero has never really left him since his birth over 30 years ago as Jumpman in Donkey Kong. As previously noted, Mario first appeared in the 1980s, an era known for romanticizing the working stiff in popular culture as heard in Bruce Springsteen’s music or in demonizing capitalism as seen in the character of Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street. This tendency to romanticize the lower class in particular is not far off from the tendencies of the cultural era of silent film to do so as well. Within those films resides a reflection of the struggles of people who experienced the Great Depression. Popular culture is shaped to appeal to those who consume it, and Mario’s various incarnations are no different.

The most recent iteration of Mario suggests an even greater versatility in our hero. Consider the use of Mario’s hat shown in the most recent Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey. Mario uses his hat this time around to possess the bodies of other creatures. At one point, he even transforms into a T-Rex, but the player is assured that this larger than life monster is still the player’s Mario because the beast is wearing that signature red cap. If the T-Rex had Mickey’s ears or Chaplin’s bowler, the audience could be similarly assured of his true identity. This provides comfort because people want to know that their heroes will stay the same at heart despite those heroes’ transformations. This proposition convinces us that we too will stay the same good, down-to-earth people no matter how much we change, as we learn new things and take on our own new identities. The myth critic Joseph Campbell was so sure that readers crave sameness in their heroes that he essentially believed that all heroes are the same figure, a “hero with a thousand faces,” as the title of his famous book proclaimed. In Super Mario Odyssey, such a subtitle would seem equally appropriate. Mario is a modern myth in the Campbellian tradition. Mario transforms endlessly, but always into an identity that can be loved and related to, a hero with a thousand faces, but only one hat. Of course, Odyssey inverts this as well by having Mario wear the hats of others, sombreros, explorer hats, and the like. With this, Mario’s body stays the same while he takes on the characteristics of others instead. Perhaps Mario can relate his identity to others while others can also relate their identity to him. As in the “Nintendo School’s Out” commercial, Mario is everyone, and everyone is Mario.

Odyssey seems to suggest this recursive identity building through its gameplay. As noted, Mario’s ability to transform has now literally allowed him the ability to take on the roles belonging to others by becoming one with enemies and some objects in his world and gaining their skills. Also as noted, these transformed individuals are marked by his hat as he assimilates with the form of these others. Likewise, Mario, acting purely as himself, can adopt a variety of personas in the game by collecting outfits that reflect a variety of occupations or cultural identities, from building inspector to explorer to a guise reflective of Mexican culture, complete with sombrero and serape. Adopting these personas and allowing others to reflect his identity allows the audience to see Mario’s plasticity and his ability to transform and to adapt to whatever role is necessary for him to succeed in Odyssey’s game world. This plasticity frees us to understand the hero in ways that we understand or that we can see in ourselves. A man, for instance, might view himself through his occupation, through his familial role as father or brother, or through his role as husband. Likewise, a woman may see herself through what she does for a living, through her role as mother or sister, or through her role as a wife. Everyone, then is capable of wearing different hats, Mario just seems more capable of wearing one that represents a nearly endless set of possible roles, which makes him into a hero as well as into an everyman.

Scholars like Garin, Ryan, and Williams explain many valuable things about Mario and his aforementioned appeal, while Merlock, Jackson, and Eisenstein explain important things about figures from the silent era so that it becomes clear how the legacy of those figures continues through Mario. Thus, their arguments become the significant dots that must be connected in order to understand the greater picture that makes up who Mario is to so many people. The silent film era lacked dialogue and relied on bodily movement and transformation to tell stories. This same lack of dialogue in early games meant that the same methods were used to translate Mario’s working-class appeal to a 1980s audience that was hungry for it. With Odyssey, Mario’s has evolved from a simple plasmatic figure to an even more complicated symbol of adaptability and versatility. Audiences of the 80s were hungry for a determined, hard worker just like themselves. They remain hungry to see someone from the bottom who is able to leap his way all the way to the top. Perhaps most of all, audiences were and still are simply hungry for someone who represents a chance to change, a chance to have a new life. This is what Mario gave to them. This is what Mario still gives to people. This is what truly makes Mario so super.

 

 

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