Mario. No, Super Mario.
The biggest videogame icon to ever grace our world, with over 50 different videogames in which he is the main protagonist. He is even more known to children than Mickey Mouse.
But, know what? For such a popular videogame hero, he’s seen more gameplay changes and redesigns than any other character out there. He’s been stomping on goombas, throwing turnips at enemies, organizing kart races, parties and even football games.
You know, you’d think that some consistency would exist between games, but other than “Mario is in every game and he jumps" little else has stayed the same between games.
Not even the princess she’s supposed to rescue. During all these years since his first appearance in Donkey Kong in 1981 he’s been rescuing Princess Peach (previously known in the US and Europe as Princess Toadstool), Daisy and even his girlfriend Pauline. (Wait, Mario has a girlfriend? She must be crazy mad that he’s been goofing around saving Peach instead…)
The Mario games haven’t exactly been known for a lack of princesses and damsels in distress
From left to right: Pauline, Princess Daisy, Princess Peach and Rosalina
Yes, it hasn’t always been Princess Peach who needed saving.
And it hasn’t only been the damsel in distress the character that has changed. His nemesis, Bowser, the King of Koopas, has also been through dozens of representations.
We’ve seen him both as an evil, intelligent mastermind and cruel dictator (Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy for example) and as a goofy character who keeps making stupid mistakes and is only looking to marry Princess Peach (Paper Mario and Super Mario Sunshine among others).
Even more, we’ve even seen him as a playable character (Super Mario RPG and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story).
If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the problem of his children. In some games he’s got 7 children called the Koopalings, and in others it appears as if his only son was Bowser Jr. At least in New Super Mario Bros. Wii it finally seemed to be explained that they are all Bowser’s children, but Bowser Jr. is simply his favorite one, and heir to the throne.
Heck, even Mario himself hasn’t always been the same. His clothing has had some really interesting variations. Talk about inconsistencies…
You just have to check the color of his overalls throughout the ages to see the differences. Red over blue? Red over brown? Black over red?
Funnily enough the design that has finally stuck for the Mario tradition seems to have appeared first in the least Mario-esque game out there. I’m talking, of course, about Super Mario Bros. 2.
Whereas in the first game Mario could simply jump on top of most of the enemies to defeat them, enemies in Super Mario Bros. 2 were much harder to kill. In fact, Mario had to pick items up like vegetables or other enemies and throw those against them. The flower power-up to throw fireballs is gone, and pretty much none of the enemies from before appear.
Want even more quirky moments? Mario has also been the bad guy. In Donkey Kong Junior you played as Donkey Kong’s son, where you had to make your way through to the end of each level to save his dad. Evil, evil Mario…
Ah, and there is of course the mystery of the dozens of power-ups that Mario as had throughout the ages.
While the mushroom has pretty much done the same in every single game it has been in (being that Mario grows bigger), the rest of the power-ups haven’t had the same luck.
How about the star? That item that used to make Mario become invincible for a while? In the bigger adventure games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy these stars are collectibles needed to reach the end of the game. Invincibility is given by other items like hats or rainbow stars.
The most striking difference for me though is the way Mario can fly. There’s been carrots, leaves, feathers, balloons, hats and stars. And I haven’t even mentioned all of them!
And while I mentioned the mushroom just before, it’s worth mentioning that not all the Mario games make use of it. While the common gameplay is that Mario grows big when he gets a mushroom and turns small when hit, the bigger adventure games rely instead on a health bar that gets depleted with each hit, and replenished by collecting coins. The new Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS seems to be the first fully 3D Mario game in which the old gameplay idea stays.
I could mention many more inconsistencies, like the different ways each Mario game has made use of a world map or a hub world, or how Wario started as a Mario boss and then became his own star in games that take place in an absolutely different universe.
But the question remains: why does Nintendo keep making all these changes?
Some of them are easy to understand. Nintendo has always gone out of its way to try out new ideas and game mechanics even for its most established franchises to keep them fresh (and history has proven that to be successful). But as these games had to cope with both technical limitations and pacing issues to fit different consoles and handhelds as well as the latest new game mechanic, Nintendo has adapted Mario in order to keep it fun for everyone.
The rest can only be explained by Nintendo’s slow timing to gather a consistent Mario universe (and of course due to Super Mario Bros 2’s origins as a different game from Japan).
I want to end by saying that if you, for some reason, haven’t played a Mario game yet, I strongly recommend you give one a try. The Mario formula, as much as it has changed, still stands true to it’s core element: all the games are fun to play. Mario is a symbol of quality, which is surprising seeing how much Nintendo has milked the franchise without making any major mistake.
But then again if you read through all this text you probably already thought so, right?