It is astonishingly easy to take things for granted in terms of media and canon. There are certain “cultural touchstones” that we are expected to absorb even without seeking them out. Often, instead of talking about or critiquing these touchstones, we end up assuming the most important aspects are already exhaustively known and absorbed by everyone long ago through said cultural osmosis. This is especially true among nerds, where often the “price of entry” into subcultures was consuming specific media. But being aware or adjacent to these touchstones is not the same as actually engaging with them. Even absolutely ubiquitous icons are new to someone, and concepts of “canon” can be intimidating for outsiders. Why do a primer on Mario? Because while everyone is as familiar with the character as they are with Mickey Mouse or Snow White, not everyone has played the games or knows where to begin to find value in them beyond the commercial.
Why does Mario matter? The simplest answer is in Mario’s role in defining multiple genres and mechanics in games. Mario’s first appearance in Donkey Kong heralded the first videogame with a story told in cutscenes, and one of the first mainstream games with an actual narrative at all. Mario’s first NES game brought us the scrolling platform, and became the template for one of the most common and popular game genres. Super Mario 64 brought 3D platforming and videogames to the forefront. In addition, you also have Mario headlining spinoffs that have now become etremely common such as the kart racer and “party game.” But in some of those cases, Mario was not the first, just the most successful. There are also plenty of Mario games that are not “firsts” or forerunners to anything that were still successful or interesting. Was all of that success from Mario’s status as an cultural icon like Mickey Mouse or Citizen Kane? Or is there something specific to Mario games that matter and resonate beyond their status and history? Is there a specific thread between the myriad Mario games, despite their differences?
I’ve written about a single, specific instance of Mario design philosophy before, the Marrymore Suite in Super Mario RPG, and its role in surprising players who think they figured out everything and push against what they assume are the limits of the game. Mario games are infamous for moments like these, going all the way back to the first NES game where players can discover Warp Zones and infinite 1ups by pushing against what first appear to be the games’ boundaries. Mario’s designers have always spent a lot of time trying to imagine where their players will try to push back against, and then rewarded them for trying. Sometimes these rewards are nothing but a cosmetic nod, such as the trick to making fireworks appear when you beat a level, but the fact that they come from the player’s experiments and inventiveness helps them resonate.
Recently, Nintendo has described this design philosophy as “kishotenketsu” which is a literary term from classic Chinese and Japanese writing. The original kishontenketsu was a four line poem, but also came to describe a literary style for developing a story. The basic explanation is that you introduce an idea, develop the idea, twist the idea or introduce something seemingly unrelated, and then conclude it by tying the twist back to the original idea. An example by the Japanese poet Rai San’yo goes:
Daughters of Itoya in Motomachi in Osaka.
The elder daughter is sixteen, the younger daughter is fifteen.
Lords from many provinces kill you with arrows.
Itoya’s daughters kill you with their eyes.
The first line introduces the idea (ki) in this case that there is a man Itoya and he has daughters. The second line develops this further (sho), giving us more information about the women. The third line seemingly twists (ten) the poem by introducing a new and seemingly unrelated idea about how warriors kill people. The last line concludes and explains the connection (ketsu), connecting the daughters and their power of seduction to the power of the warriors.
Over time, this tradition has been applied to other mediums from longform narratives to philosophical debate and arguments (it is particularly popular as a format for developing gags for four panel comic strips). Its use in describing Nintendo’s design philosophy dates back at least to Mario Galaxy in 2007, but it is hard to know if it was an active part of the development process on earlier games or if it was merely a literary term that was adopted by designers to describe their process after-the-fact. But whether or not it was adopted later, it makes a useful tool for describing how ideas work in Mario games.
Applying kishotenketsu to an entire Mario game doesn’t tell us anything. Instead, it should be applied to each idea, mechanic or activity in a game. For example, let’s use it to analyze something as simple as the basic jumping mechanic in the original Super Mario Bros.
Ki: Mario can jump on enemies to defeat them.
Sho: Some enemies are covered in spikes, which defeat Mario if jumped on, forcing him to avoid them.
Ten: Bowser, the last enemey in a world, is covered in spikes but MUST be defeated.
Ketsu: If Mario can jump PAST Bowser and grab the axe, he can cut the bridge and drop Bowser into the lava.
In more recent games where the kishotenketsu idea was applied more directly to its development, it can show how new ideas or mechanics can be introduced and played with in a game without taking over or wearing out their welcome. Lets look at an example from one of the minigames in Super Mario Galaxy, where you use motion controls to roll a ball through an obstacle course.
Ki: Instead of a normal level’s gameplay, the player must balance the wiimote upright and move it as they wish the ball to move.
Sho: In the first of these levels, Rolling Green Galaxy, gives the player the chance to learn these new controls and how they work in the space within the game.
Ten: The second is part of an otherwise “normal level”, Melty Molten Galaxy, and requires the player to use the controls in a completely different set of environment expectations.
Ketsu: The last of these levels, Rolling Gizmo Galaxy, is once again an isolated, dedicated space, but is much more difficult. The player is required to have used and understood the different uses of those mechanics from the previous environment, and apply them to the more difficult version of the first level.
New mechanics, power-ups and minigames in later Mario games often use this format to keep them from overwhelming the rest of the game. The player has the chance to try something new, to use what they learned from that in a new setting, and then to demonstrate a mastery of the concept at the end. The various creatures and objects you can possess in the recent Mario Odyssey are a great example of this. There are many different forms you can take with their own unique moveset and mechanics, and many of them could easily have entire games built around them, but rarely will you use them in more than two or three worlds, including the extremely difficult post-game world which forces you to use almost all of those movesets in new or challenging ways.
In many cases, the “twist” is one that the developers have anticipated the player to bring themselves. For example, lets look at the previously mentioned secret warp zones of the original Super Mario Bros.
Ki: Mario moves left-to-right along a 2d plane and can jump on blocks.
Sho: The level is bordered by blocks, showing the limits of the level.
Ten: A skilled player may figure out how to jump in a way that lets them reach these borders and advance past the “normal” part of the level.
Ketsu: If the player is already this skilled, they probably do not need to play all of the earlier, easier levels, so we reward them with the ability of skipping past those levels to the next challenging part of the game.
It would be a mistake to look at kishotenketsu in this context as a strict formal, however. It is not to be mistaken with the kind of checklist one sees on TVTropes or over-eager film students who have just read Campbell for the first time. Rather, it is a way of thinking about how to build on ideas. What makes Mario games so appealing is in their ability to surprise while still building on logical, expected ideas. These ideas can reappear between games as well, and taking the time to learn the language of levels, mechanics, enemies and power-ups that build up this larger world can provide additional rewards.
Of course, while the series’ mechanical narratives are based around surprising twists and synthesis, the same can’t really be said for the stories. The basic premise of nearly every Mario game will ALWAYS be based around the classic Popeye cartoons Shigeru Miyamoto enjoyed while working on the the original games. Mario-Peach-Bowser mirrors Popeye-Olive Oyl-Bluto and always will. But even within that confined, unsurprising story, the Mario games have been able to apply the techniques of developing an idea, twisting it, and then bringing it back around to create something new. Instead of applying to the story, the Mario games can use those techniques to create compelling characters and personalities. The Paper Mario games introduced versions of familiar characters with their own surprising quirks. Despite being stuck in the simple, immutable world and story, they all have unique personalities and interactions. The formerly identical masses of creatures Mario fights or rescues revealed themselves to be surprisingly diverse and interesting. Super Mario Galaxy had the same “kidnapped princess” story as all the others, but it also posited a Mario world with multiple, sentient universes that grow, die and give birth to new versions of themselves based on the actions of those living within them, all watched over by the nigh-immortal daughter of Mario and Peach from another, long-dead universe!
Unfortunately, Miyamoto himself is notoriously skittish about going any further than that. After the second Paper Mario game, he handed down a mandate for future Paper Mario games that would mean no new characters and a much more uniform style. The sequel to Mario Galaxy dropped the entire concept of multiple universes like a hot potato, and Rosalina was demoted from breakout cult-favorite costar to a mere easter egg. Of course, Miyamoto’s mandates against these changes seem mostly to come from anything that may possibly interfere with the Popeye-esque dynamic of the stars, rather than the presence of anything unique itself. Mario Odyssey uses unique and alien environments and characters (at least, alien in terms of their connection to Mario) to create the same sense of surprise as his other games. The twist of seeing the cartoonish Mario in a “real” human city or alongside a Jurassic Park-style T-Rex first creates a sense of shock, but is then built upon and developed in a way that makes it feel natural and connected. There is still room to surprise, even within the extremely strict narrative confines.
Its also possible that the simplistic nature and design of the story itself is what has allowed fans to project a great deal of nuance and pathos of their own. Twitter’s fondness for reframing Bowser as a misunderstood, hunky, put-upon single father or Peach as both secretly endlessly-competent and endlessly-kinky are good examples. The combination of strong visual designs with strong, consistent mechanics often evoke interesting ideas for different players. As I’ve argued with other games, giving players the space and freedom to create their own ideas and narratives often makes them connect stronger to them, even if the game’s intended story is pretty barebones or jejune. The fact that Mario’s world is so mechanically meaningful means that the player is invested in inscribing it with their own literary meaning rather than abandoning that aspect entirely, and in that case Mario’s lack of anything beyond “hero/victim/brute” may work to its advantage.
Playing a good Mario game is like a conversation with the unseen developer. You put forth your own ideas and see how the game responds. Did they anticipate it? When those moments and ideas connect, and your idea was something the developers DID expect and respond to, it is a fascinating kind of communication that really can’t exist in any other commercial media.
Playlist: If you somehow are only able to play 5 Mario games ever, these are the ones that will best help you understand what a “Mario game” IS.
- Super Mario Brothers (NES, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Color, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Despite its age, it is remarkably fun and compelling still today. If nothing else, its first level is a master course on designing a level that teaches a new player what to expect and how to react to new information much later. Super Mario Bros is the rosetta stone for understanding the language of countless videogames.
- Super Mario Brothers 3 (NES, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): A huge, sprawling game that introduces new ideas or new applications of old ideas in virtually every level. It also hides many secrets ranging from shortcuts and hidden power-ups to the tiny easter eggs and challenges that would come to later define the appeal of the series.
- Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Super Mario 64 may be just as influence and important to the history of its medium as the original Super Mario Bros. Without it, we simply would not have the videogames we do today. While its camera controls can be frustrating, it has managed to remain fun and playable while many other early 3D games have not. Instead of completing levels in a linear order (warp zones aside) the player has to search the levels, and the large castle that serves as the game’s hub, and accomplish various tasks to earn Stars. This more open-ended approach to level design defines the series’ present state.
- Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo Wii): Super Mario Galaxy takes a dizzying concept of playing Mario among conflicting physics and geometries in outer space and makes it approachable. Most players may not even realize how wild things have gotten due to the skill in which it teaches them to play and react. It even introduces a tragically underused concept for asymmetrical multi-play where a second player can interact with the environment through the wiimote while the first player controls Mario normally. While not as open-ended as its predecessors, Mario Galaxy’s levels are tightly designed and full of interesting ideas. While its direct sequel is probably the better designed game, the first Galaxy is probably the more important in terms of its boldness and energy.
- Super Mario World 2 – Yoshi’s Island (Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance): While it would go on to spawn its own separate Yoshi franchise, here it was still very much a Mario game. Yoshi’s Island is a visual delight, pushing the limits of the Super Nintendo hardware to their ultimate limits and looking fabulous even today. More than that though, its immaculately designed levels perfectly showcase that kishotenketsu philosophy in action. No gimmick outstays its welcome and no level repeats itself needlessly. It is a playground of ideas and experiences ripe for exploration, with an innovative twist on managing both the player’s life and the time limit in a way that encourages both risk-taking by newcomers and high-level play by experts.
B-Sides and Experiments: These games include interesting attempts at tacking the same problem as the previous games in different ways.
- Super Mario Brothers 2/Mario USA (Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): Often referred to as “not a true Mario game” because, frankly, it wasn’t originally a Mario game. It was a different game made by the same team, with Mario and friends conveniently slapped on for the American release. Make no mistake though, it is a more proper sequel to Super Mario Bros than the “Lost Levels” which was little more than a grueling, cruel “master version” of the original game. Instead of punishing hardcore players, THIS version of Mario Bros 2 introduced the concept of exploration and adventure to the franchise that would ironically go on to define the series more than the “true” Mario sequel. There’s a reason Shy Guys, Birdo, Bob-ombs and other creations of this game went on to appear again and again while Lost Levels’ Poison Mushrooms and windy chasms did not.
- Super Mario World (Super Nintendo, Gameboy Advance, Wii/Wii U/3DS Virtual Console): It was a tough call between this or Super Mario Bros 3 for the previous list, and while 3’s sheer inventiveness won out, World should not be ignored either. Aside from the addition of Yoshi, the charismatic rideable dinosaur everyone loves, World helped bridge the open exploration of Mario Bros 2 with the gimmicks and twists of Mario Bros 3. You cannot get from the NES Marios to Mario 64 without Mario World’s work in joining the competing philosophies.
- Super Mario Sunshine (Gamecube): Much maligned by people who never played it but read too many old game websites, Mario Sunshine may be the single most underappreciated game in the franchise. A sequel to Mario 64 that attempts to do a (very slightly) more complex story, it also moved Mario toward a true “open world” style game. The game takes place on a single location, Isle Delfino, and while it is still divided into multiple levels, it is always doing so within the context of this world it has created. Mario is given a complex new series of abilities with a combination jetpack/water gun and the first appearance of a rideable 3D Yoshi, but does not let this complexity overwhelm it. It also has a number of challenges based solely around Mario’s traditional jumping skills from Mario 64, and those are among the most tightly designed platform levels of their era. To be fair to its critics, it does have one huge glaring flaw: the post-game blue coin hunt is an abysmal, unfun chore that seems to be there only so the number of “Shine Sprites” to be collected can be identical to Super Mario 64’s Power Stars. But that alone does not warrant the scorn this otherwise inventive game receives.
- Super Mario Land 3 – Wario Land (Gameboy, 3DS Virtual Console): Like Yoshi’s Island, this game would go on to spawn its own franchise. But at this point in Wario’s life, his game still clearly stated MARIO Land on the box. Mario’s previous Gameboy outings were scaled down versions of his normal adventures, visually interesting and distinct but largely unsurprising in their design. Here, the development team began twisting expectations and creating something new. Instead of trying to be a hero, Wario is simply trying to get rich. The coins you collect no longer reward you with extra chances, but are the reward themselves. You replay levels and search for secrets not because it will help you do good deeds or save anyone, but in the pursuit of avarice, be it Wario’s for gold or the player’s for fun.
- Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS): The 3D World/Land series began as a response to ANOTHER Mario series, the “New Mario” games that took Mario back to his 2D platforming roots. Those games were usually competent, but unexciting. The 3D World/Land games, however, strove to find a balance between the different competing ideas of what a Mario game was. While 3D like Mario 64 and Galaxy, they are viewed from a fixed angle and are built with the “get from the start to the exit” formula of the 2D games rather than the semi-open exploration of the latter. The result are two Mario games that are significantly better at showcasing and evolving the “classic” feel than, ironically, the intentional throwback the “New Mario Bros” series represented. 3D Land, for the 3DS, slightly edges out World for the Wii U on this for the completely and utterly fair reason that is I never owned a Wii U.
Spin-offs, Rivals and Descendants: More than maybe any other franchise, the Mario series has had more spin-offs, copy-cats and direct responses to it than almost any other. Here are the most interesting examples, that either take the lessons from the main series and apply it to a new medium or that rebelled and created something new and shocking in response.
- Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis and, frankly, almost every modern platform you can think of): Sonic was the original “Mario-killer.” He was fast, cool and extreme while Mario was “classic”, methodical and safe. Mario levels were designed to be explored and mastered, while Sonic’s were designed to be raced through. Mario shrinks to small size when hit, and dies if small, forcing the player to be deliberate in their choices and strategies. Sonic can suffer near endless disaster as long he has at least one ring, which are as common as Mario’s coins. He even has a chance to recollect rings that he drops when hit. This difference encourages players to be a little less deliberate and embrace the free-wheeling nature of Sonic’s world. While it is all but unquestionable that, in the long run, Mario has won their competition, Sonic’s original adventures are extremely interesting and valuable to examine in how the encourage different kinds of play, or reward the same styles of play differently.
- Super Mario RPG (Super Nintendo, Wii/Wii U Virtual Console): A joint venture between Nintendo and RPG wonder-company Squaresoft, this was the first game to look at Mario’s platform world from the perspective of a Role Playing Game. Despite the very different mechanics, it is a game that embodies the same ideas of developing and then twisting ideas, as well as anticipating clever players. Mario RPG’s world is delightfully packed full of secrets and rewards to uncover and experience, and showcases how even vastly different game genres can learn from each other.
- Wario Land II (Gameboy, 3DS Virtual Console): Wario’s first outing without his rival’s name on the box takes his adventure to its logical conclusion. While superficially the same as any other Mario platformer, it completely drops the idea of “lives”, “game overs” or the very idea of a losing state. Wario is invulnerable now. If the player messes up, they merely lose a few coins but can continue as normal. This still rewards high-level play, because it allows skilled players to amass huge amounts of wealth faster, but it also allows newer players more of a buffer. But the game pushes that idea of invulnerability further. Some problems can only be accomplished by using enemies or environmental dangers to change Wario in some way. A Wario flattened by a weight can glide like a paper airplane, a Wario set-alight by a flame can burn barriers, a Wario turned into a zombie can collapse into a pile of bones and fall through certain floors. Wario Land II embraces the best of previous Mario games’ exploration and focuses on developing those ideas to their limit.
- Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (Gamecube): CAN you do a Mario game with a compelling story? The basic story begins the same as any other, Mario is off to rescue the Princess, and the twists that come up in regard to that are not TOO twisted. However, what is really compelling about this game’s story is its characters. Mario is still a friendly-but-blank cipher for the most part, but his companions and foes are all unique individuals with their own stories, hopes and challenges. Even random background characters have personalities and surprising developments. The humor comes from the strong personalities of the characters, and the natural interactions and emotions that emerge from placing them in different situations. The story is merely a vehicle for exploring the characters and interactions of this world. All that AND it manages to still utilize the classic Mario design philosophy in its mechanics and level design.
- Legend of Zelda (Any and all Nintendo system ever): Legend of Zelda is Nintendo’s sibling franchise to Mario, and while it represents an entirely different kind of game and story, it also focuses strongly on the kishotenketsu idea of design. The best Zelda games are remembered not for their fantasy stories, but for the worlds and challenges that build on Link’s tools and environment in the same way Mario’s do. Playing favorite or classic Zelda games with this in mind can be a rewarding experience.
Super Mario Odyssey: I’ve intentionally avoided putting the newest Mario game on any of these lists as it is still VERY recent and we all need time to best process and understand its place alongside its predecessors before making any, even entirely subjective, pronouncement about where it fits the rest. However, it is still an excellent game and a great example of the design philosophy I’ve described. It could easily be played either to get an understanding of what makes a classic Mario game work well OR as an example of how classic Mario ideas and designs can be applied in new, exciting ways.