Insights and observations about Super Mario, what he means to video game culture and why he remains popular today.
Almost exactly 35 years ago, Super Mario Bros., the iconic video game from Nintendo, debuted — making a high-jumping plumber named Mario the Japanese video game company’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.
Back in 1985, Super Mario Bros. was revelatory. The game, which popularized Nintendo’s first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, played like a challenging, dreamlike cartoon that scrolled across a TV screen. Players controlled Mario, making him run, jump or sometimes swim through levels filled with giant mushrooms, menacing turtles and other strange obstacles. It was a tough game, but not too tough to discourage its avid players from giving it another try. And another. And another.
A sequel (which has its own fascinating history) followed. And another. And another.
The latest Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 35, which was released on Thursday for the Nintendo Switch, lets 35 people play the original Super Mario Bros. simultaneously, each vying to be the last Mario standing. It’s sort of Super Mario meets Fortnite.
Here are 35 things to consider about the overachieving plumber.
1. First, it is Super Mario Bros. that’s 35, not Mario. He’s 39. Mario debuted in 1981 in another famous Nintendo game, Donkey Kong, in which he runs up a series of girders, jumps over barrels and climbs ladders to rescue a woman kidnapped by a giant ape.
2. In the early years of video games, characters were defined less by who they were than by what they could do. Pac-Man gobbled dots and chased, or was chased by, ghosts. Sonic ran fast. Mario jumped. In fact, before the creators of Donkey Kong called him Mario, they called him “jumpman.”
3. Mario is so famous that even his brother, Luigi (who was playable in Super Mario Bros. in two-player mode), is a superstar. Luigi has more personality; he’s a nervous worrier and an underdog in the shadow of his famous sibling. Nintendo marketed 2013 as the Year Of Luigi. Did you celebrate?
4. It’s unclear what Mario’s last name is. Sometimes Nintendo officials have said it is Mario (hence Mario and Luigi being the “Mario Bros.”), which would make him Mario Mario. Other times they’ve said he doesn’t have one.
5. There’s also Wario, a sort of evil Mario, relation unknown. He has starred in over a dozen games, like Wario Land and WarioWare.
6. There’s even a Waluigi. He’s starred in nothing.
7. As modern games rely less on mascot characters, Mario stands out as a relic. Major video games are still popular because of what you do in them, but something like Fortnite doesn’t tie its core actions to a singular iconic character.
9. The Super Mario Bros. theme music, from the composer Koji Kondo, might be the most recognizable tune in gaming. Doo-doot-doo da-doot doo!
10. The essence of the entire Super Mario Bros. gaming experience can be understood through the arc of a jump: the ascent for discovery, the descent for conquest. The original game’s first delightful discovery comes in its opening seconds, when the player makes Mario jump and bonk his head into a floating block. A mushroom with the power to make Mario bigger pops out. And when Mario first encounters some waddling enemies, he can only defeat them by jumping onto them.
11. Mario’s reputation as an enthusiastic jumper has allowed Nintendo to morph him into an avatar of exuberance. He stars in a host of spinoff games, each with a cartoonish approach to its genre. Mario Kart is a racing game that lets you toss banana peels onto the track. Mario Tennis is supercharged tennis. You can guess how Super Mario Party goes.
12. There’s even a line of Mario games involving over-the-top takes on the Olympics. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, released in 2019, sees Mario and pals compete in exaggerated contests for an Olympics that was postponed as a result of the pandemic.
13. The colorful, happy vibe of Mario games has sometimes put Nintendo out of step with gaming trends. In 2003, the hottest gaming franchise was Grand Theft Auto, which gave players the ability to steal cars and kill just about anyone, including prostitutes. Cue George Harrison, a former executive at Nintendo, awkwardly defending his brand at a news conference: “Mario will never start shooting hookers.”
14. Mario’s cheerfulness remains irrepressible. These days, Mario and Grand Theft Auto can sit side-by-side in their popularity.
15. Mario’s superb strangeness also survives. The initial dreamlike quality of his game worlds extends to modern Mario sequels in which, say, he can toss his hat onto a dinosaur and possess it.
16. If you think this Mario stuff is bizarre, you’re in good company. In 2012, a New York Times copy editor asked me to clarify why Super Mario collects coins. To… get them? To score a free life after every 100th coin? Because the designers put the coins in the games to guide players through the levels?
17. The original Super Mario Bros. contains what might be the most famous video game shortcut: an intentional exploit in which Mario can break through the ceiling of the game’s first underground level and enter pipes that lead to later portions of the game. That shortcut epitomizes one of gaming’s core truths, whether you play God of War or Candy Crush: Players always seek ways to beat the system.
18. There are two major styles of Mario games. The so-called 2-D games feature a Mario who runs across the screen from left to right. The revolutionary 1996 game Super Mario 64 moved the series into three dimensions and brought much of the video game industry with it. (In Mario 64, players see Mario from behind as he runs ahead.) Nintendo’s big September release — Super Mario 3D All-Stars, for Switch — is a compilation of Mario 64 and two 3-D successors: Super Mario Sunshine, from 2002, and Super Mario Galaxy, from 2007.
19. Mario game designers rarely whiff. The closest to disaster they’ve come is Super Mario Sunshine, which saddles Mario with a backpack that shoots water. It’s OK.
20. Super Mario Galaxy is divine. Its main idea: setting Mario’s adventures on small, spherical worlds and letting Mario leap or fly from one to the next.
21. Mario popularized 3-D gaming but also repopularized 2-D gaming. In 2006, Nintendo broke a 16-year dry spell of 2-D Marios with the release of New Super Mario Bros. Its popularity defied the medium’s conventional wisdom that artistic progress should be synchronized with technological advances.
22. Three decades of Mario sequels exemplify how video games have generally gotten easier or how they’re now designed to better respect a player’s time. The early games severely limited Mario’s number of lives — or the number of chances players had to retry a level. Newer Mario releases make it easier to stock up on extra tries. Super Mario Odyssey, released in 2017, can’t even trigger a Game Over. That means that even when Mario loses all his lives, players can pick up where they left off, without a significant penalty.
23. Earlier, Super Mario Galaxy offered another innovation in game difficulty: a “co-star” mode that let a second player use a second controller to assist the main player.
24. Like nothing else in gaming, the Mario franchise embodies the tension between corporate ownership and fandom. Fans have created countless unofficial Mario games, many of them then stomped out of existence by Nintendo’s lawyers.
25. If you can’t sue them, sell them something. In 2015, Nintendo released Super Mario Maker, which lets players create — but not own — their own 2-D Mario levels.
26. Even Nintendo recreates classic Super Mario Bros. sequences. Their best riff might be a circular version of Super Mario Bros.’ first level, offered in WarioWare: Twisted, in 2004.
27. Mario games have helped popularize the grass-roots speedrunning scene, in which skilled players use every trick imaginable to complete games as quickly as possible. Super Mario Bros. runs done in under five minutes are dazzling sprints of near-death success. New records are set by the hundredth of a second.
28. Mario games have inspired the charming Super Mario Broth, a Twitter feed of Mario obscurities that recently revealed a detail about Mario’s irises.
29. Some super fans have proposed that all Mario games exist on one narrative timeline. It doesn’t quite work out.
30. Some Mario games are a little retrograde. The thin plots of all three Mario games in the new 3D All-Stars collection, for example, feature Mario rescuing a kidnapped Princess Peach.
31. Princess Peach has been a protagonist at times, with mixed results. She was a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2, in 1988,and in the soon-to-be-remadeSuper Mario 3D World. Nintendo gave her a starring role in 2005 in Super Princess Peach, in which she rescues a kidnapped Mario. Her powers in that game? Her mood swings. Players can make her angry in order to surround her in obstacle-clearing flames and make her cry in order to use her gushing tears to make plants grow.
32. Mario games highlight the industry’s preservation problems. Games run on hardware that often becomes obsolete in a decade, making it hard to play the classics. While fans and preservationists collect and share ripped copies, copyright holders wield the power on whether or not to ensure games remain accessible. When it comes to that original Super Mario Bros., Nintendo does the work to make sure it runs on its newest devices and enthusiastically sells it to each new generation of customers.
33. On the other hand, Nintendo first sold Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube, which ceased production in 2007. That game also ran on the Wii, which was retired around 2012. Since then, no new video game hardware could play Sunshine until this month’s 3D All-Stars collection on the Switch. If major Mario games can be so inaccessible, imagine how quickly lesser-known games disappear.
34. Nintendo is a popular company but also a weird one, known for being an engine of brilliant creativity and odd policies. Exhibit #1452 (probably): Nintendo says it will only sell its new collection of 3-D Mario games (as well as Super Mario Bros. 35) until March 31.
35. And finally: Mario’s best jump? I nominate the triple jump from Super Mario 64 — a trio of high-arc leaps, accompanied by three giddy yelps. That might be the best thing in gaming ever.