My puzzlement with the Super Mario aesthetic is something I’ve been brewing for a while. I know this discussion sounds confrontational, but I think the Super Mario Odyssey announcement contains it nicely.
The aesthetic of the Mario franchise has always been curious to me. I’m sure Wikipedia would tell me which of Miyamoto’s neighbor’s mustaches gave him the idea while he was chomping into a portabella Panini before stepping on a turtle and so on. But I’m less concerned about how that stuff came about than the fact that Super Mario Odyssey seems at first to be a pretty radical departure from the good old Mushroom Kingdom.
Then the thought occurred to me that Odyssey might explain the whole thing. In a time when it’s common practice to rearrange the words “world” and “super” and release another pseudo-remake, Odyssey might actually be more like Mario for being deviant.
In other words, what if departure is the Mario aesthetic?
As a traditional platformer, Mario doesn’t have to be realistic. It also doesn’t have to adhere to a style related to the gameplay. But if I compare Sonic the Hedgehog directly to his main competitor, I have to notice that the hedgehog’s design is easier to explain. He’s usually doing speed-related things because he’s fast, or rolling into a ball because he’s a hedgehog. When I look at his character roster, I see a bunch of pseudo-Sonics. Even the goopy uber-baddie Chaos looks, with some adjustment, a lot like his archenemy.
The Mario-verse, on the other hand, is not so easily examined. Its characters all seem to inhabit their own design space. Mario and Peach could possibly be members of the same species, but they’d make an awkward wedding topper. The villains are King Kong and Godzilla-esque gents who want to sample Mario’s peach, but they aren’t related to his design. Toads don’t look like their queen and Yoshi doesn’t look like Bowser. Mario can turn into a ghost, a bee, a frog, a raccoon, but never anything related to Italians or plumbing.
All this makes a universe that seems like an artistic anarchy when you try to get it straight in your head. But I think the key to understanding it is to do what Nintendo does. Instead of questioning the anarchy, they roll with it.
Mario doesn’t just platform. He goes out for tennis, soccer, baseball, and board game parties. He stomps bad guys all week and then go-carts with them on weekends. They even bring along their weird scaly children that suspiciously call the princess “mommy.” None of this, at any point, makes any attempt to be internally consistent. Just one look at Odyssey made me think, like many people, that Mario in the real world is strange. But if he’s not restricted in his gameplay, why should he be restricted in his aesthetic?
An artist with no style, whose goal is simply to make any art he can, is free to spray-paint cars, sell balloon animals, and sculpt monuments without fear of being accused of betraying a style that doesn’t exist. So a video game designer can liberate himself from character, theme, and style in the pursuit of a platform that applies to all kinds of games. Mario is the perfect mascot not because his design lends itself well to his gameplay, but the reverse. Essentially, nothing is beneath him. He’ll stand on the roadside dressed like a cooking game or twirl signs for a new Mario Run app, if he’s told it’s for the good of the family.
This is the versatility that Sega has always craved for Sonic and which he lacks because, if there’s just one thing that can be said of him, he holds too tightly to his character traits. He tries to race and go out for sports, but the feeling of a desperate imitation is always close on his heels. I don’t see an outcry over Super Mario Odyssey the likes of what happened to Sonic ’06 when it tried something similar, incorporating Sonic into a world that included real people and cities. With Mario, for some reason, it just doesn’t matter.
I think it’s because that when it comes to character traits, Mario is like an artist that doesn’t want to be locked down. He’s not determined or loyal, steadfast or timid, romantic or brutish. There are moments when he displays emotion, but never character, never anything consistent enough to affect the design of his games. Only the Mario RPGs broaden his scope, but even then he’s more like the symbol of a character than a role with agency of his own. Mario has a style like trail-mix has a recipe. You’d think it has to be something specific, but you can honestly throw in whatever you like. As long as nothing gets too potent, the overall mix doesn’t really change.
Super Mario Odyssey seems to understand this—that really, there is no Mario style. From the trailer, Mario seems to cross dimensions from the realistic to the geometric and never ask them to relate to him or to make sense. This kind of freedom beyond character is an act of pure game design, a universe styled beyond itself, and is the most admirable thing I’ve seen come out of the company since Super Mario Galaxy. That game took the gameplay elements and put them in an environment as foreign to Mario as when Sega made Sonic run around a realistic Oceanside town. The difference is that since no particular personality or aesthetic ever held sway over the Mario-verse’s flavor, only the gameplay mattered. Pipes and mushrooms have as little to do with Mario, the core Mario, as go-karting does. I’m excited to play a game that seems to liberate Mario from himself, since that’s what he’s always been best at doing.
We all know they’ll ruin the ride with an obligatory Super Mario Odyssey 2, but the refreshing change should last us a little while before it becomes the norm again. Mario being deviant in his own world should make you happy. Even if I haven’t convinced you, don’t worry. I’m sure an even “newer” Super Mario Bros. will come out soon enough.