Let’s start off with a test for all you Nintendo-loving johnnies out there. Mario has existed since 1981 and has been in dozens of games, which should allow ample time for minimal character development. So let’s all count down the five most interesting aspects of Mario’s personality together! This should be fun.
First of all, he’s heroic and brave. We can agree on that… Though we have no idea of the motivation behind it. Secondly, uh, he’s nice? I guess? Thirdly, it’s easy to see that he’s, um…
Well, this is awkward. Shouldn’t there be more to him than this?
It suddenly struck me how little we know about this massive multimedia icon, when I was recently playing the Mario and Luigi games, namely Partners In Time and Bowser’s Inside Story. I really like it as a series so far, they eschew the traditional platforming for a highly involving take on turn-based combat that works well and develops nicely as it progresses.
But I also like the fact that there’s an emphasis on plot. The last entry I played before these was New Super Mario Bros 2, a game that took to originality like Nazi Germany took to ethnic diversity – pretty damn unfavourably. But the Mario and Luigi series has always leaned towards a focus on linear story telling and characterisation, which is pretty cool for a franchise that has always resented any plot more complex than “squash the goomba.”
But the weird thing is that there’s only one person in these games who doesn’t get a personality – Mario himself. Everybody else is filled with charm and charisma, particularly Luigi and Bowser. In fact, it becomes kind of weird to see Mario just standing there like a brick, whilst his brother in particular acts very dynamically and constantly shows aspects of himself in cutscenes, all through visuals alone. Luigi is lazy, nervous, clumsy, a little vain, but good-natured with a fondness for children. He cares about what people think of him and enjoys food perhaps more than he should, and always reacts with genuine delight at every victory in the game, doing little dances or bragging proudly.
And Mario? It’s difficult to say anything about him, there’s not much to work with. Oh, he likes Peach? At least, I assume he does. He certainly puts in the effort to rescue her, but when he finally gets her back he just stares at her like she’s a “Where’s Wally?” book. I can’t even tell if they’re meant to be going out. I think that used to be the case, but at some point it was quietly forgotten about and now they’re just good friends. Yep, they’re innovating the canonical relationships by making them increasingly boring.
I’d be happy to see Mario get put on the backburner from now on, because he’s just a place-filler for anybody more interesting. I even enjoyed playing as Bowser more, for Mario just comes across as weird, especially in games that are selling themselves on personable heroes and characters. It would be like watching a Punch and Judy show, with the addition of one character who was just a mute piece of wood standing right in the middle of everybody. It’s unnerving, it’s awkward. You keep wishing he’d have the sense to politely leave.
That said, it’s not hard to see why Nintendo have resorted to this methodology. If there’s nothing tangible to Mario, there’s nothing that’s going to be inoffensive or polarising. It’s nice and safe, but then again so’s a glass of water, and there’s not much flavour there either.
But for all my quibbling, I can’t actually think of what I’d like Mario to be like. He’s been so bland and so generic for so long, that it’s hard to imagine him showing any genuine complexity. It would seem unreal and forced. Maybe if he grew into a personality over multiple games, it would be interesting to observe, but it does seem unlikely. They’ll just keep making 2D platformers and putting a Mario template over the top, ignoring any chance of evolution. Is a charismatic hero really so dangerous? Everybody loves Luigi, and he’s the one that’s taken all the risks. Doesn’t Nintendo see the value in trying that out again?
Mario has always announced himself with the rather self-congratulatory cry, “Its’a me!” A phrase to which everybody should now reply: “so what?”