Y'ever start out trying to respond to a simple message board topic and you wind up typing a freaking essay? I just did that over at 1up.com, on a thread about the relevance (or lack thereof) of the Super Mario Bros. game franchise. Came out (I think) decently enough that I figured I'd re-post it here, since the blog could use some lightening up here and there.
This would be the link:
And this would be the actual text:
What's important about Mario, and why he/it still matters absent the nostalgia factor, is that he's the "leader" of the ever-shrinking number of viable gaming icons who are unique unto gaming itself, and not a tweaked appropriation of some other trend or archetype. More and more, the "iconic" characters of gaming are simply re-appropriations of movie, TV or pop-culture "in" fixtures: Bad-ass super-soldiers, hip-hop infused ghetto warriors, and so on and so forth. And that's just the ones who can still charitably be called "characters;" let's not even go near the ones for whom "character" is beside the point: Does it really matter, in the scheme of things, that Master Chief is a near-total cypher when for 90% of "his" games "he" is just a hand holding a gun? (Hey, now there's an idea... an FPS where the "hero" is literally just a disembodied hand! Tre-META!!!!)
It's important, I think, that Mario is more than just an unofficial video game "version" of some other movie or TV hero. That his very LOOK is still defined in terms originally created because he was a game: The hat instead of hair, the mustache (to define the face) the overalls (to define the arms) all existed initially to allow him to be discerned in the limited graphical terms at the very genesis of the medium. As a character-model, he is gaming, born-of gaming; as opposed to gaming, born-of "Starship Troopers" (looking at YOU, Halo) or gaming, born-of whatever subgenre of crime movies Rockstar is riffing on this time (looking at YOU, GTA.)
In addition, I think there is a reason beyond pure nostalgia and "tradition" (and the fact that Miyamoto IS the greatest designer that will ever be and HIS Mario titles have remained consistently popular and re-port-able) that this particular character and franchise have endured. Think about it: It's 2006. We're on (at least) the third generation of post-SMB gamers, and Mario is still popular. Were the only "heat" coming from the aging members of Generation-NES, Mario and company would've been supplanted "g'bye Alex Kidd hello Sonic"-style years ago by Pokemon as Nintendo's benchmark franchise. But when Nintendo needs a set of characters to build a party-game or goof-off sports-spoof title around, well... It's not called "Pikachu Party." There's no "Squirtle Superstar Baseball."
I think there's a reason, perhaps not always fully realized why this figure still defines "game hero" for so many. Look at him: He's not ripped, in fact he's a bit of chub. He wears what are universally recognized as ordinary blue-collar work clothes, and a puffy hat that was out of style even before his silly mustache was. Even if you don't still take "accidentally-warped Italian plumber from Brooklyn" as canon, everything about him says "this is an ordinary guy." "This is an average man." "This is an everyman." But yet he gets to travel to strange worlds where he is not just a hero, but a super-hero - literally, a "strange visitor from another world with powers and abilities far beyond that of normal me.. er.. mushrooms." And I'd argue that there's something about THAT characterization, the unspectacular-spectacular man, that touches on something deep and all-important about WHY we play video games in the first place: A regular person becoming a hero in a strange new world sort-of defines the very act of engrossing oneself in a game, no?
Could it be that this, above all else, is what keeps drawing gamers to Mario? That the simple setup.. average-joe-as-dragonslayer.. serves as a kind of hyperrealized vision of the experience we hope to derive from the most satisfying of times spent gaming? The "fantasy" of the Super Mario Bros. franchise is, when you get down to it, that the ordinary man can be the Super Man. That a short, pudgy, blue-collar guy can travel to a new world, use magical powers, fight the monsters, save the day, become the hero and (especially) bed the hot Anime princess. Does that fantasy not, to a degree, encapsulate why gamers game? Most of us are average people. Most of us will never play in the NFL, fight the terrorists, go to space, fight the monsters OR, sadly, bed the hot Anime princess (though if you're the guy with the "sweet" hotel room at E3 or ComicCon, you can increase you're chances of bedding someone dressed just like one.) A good deal of us, I'll wager (myself included) are even shaped a little bit like Mario, too.
And when we game, we can be like Mario. We can be heroes, we can see and use magic, we can slay the dragon and sometimes we can even save the princess. That's what it comes down to, I think. Mario is all about what gaming is all about.
Lots of characters are in Video Games. Mario is Video Games.