The meaning of Mario

First published on First Drafts, a piece looking at the reasons behind Mario’s triumph as a cultural icon, character and far more.

Twenty-five years ago to the day, the videogame Super Mario Bros appeared. This epochal fact has been celebrated in some style already—the Guardian offers one fact for every year—happily ignoring the emergence of Mario himself as a character back in 1981. Why exactly is it, though, that the most influential and renowned fictional character of the last quarter century—arguably in any medium—is a plump Italian plumber known not for his wrench skills but for his inexhaustible, effort-free athleticism, and his unquenchable fondness for consuming fungi?

For a start, Mario isn’t really a character, not in the sense that Becky Sharpe or even Mickey Mouse are characters. He is a cypher: a Platonic little man in an Eden of a world whose gift to you is the journey you’re able to take in his shoes. Your motives are discovery, mastery and—almost incidentally—rescuing a woman who’s duly whisked away again at the end of every level, not to mention at the beginning of each new game.

This “plot” sounds trivial beyond banality, but it’s important. When games designer Shigeru Miyamoto first created Mario—then known simply as “jump man”—for the game Donkey Kong in 1981, one of its most radical structural features was a narrative element beyond “the aliens are coming, kill them!” Early graphical games had never done this before. Your job was to take a recognisably human character on a journey—and you did this without departing from activities rooted in the universal capabilities of every human body: jumping, running, walking, climbing. The result was a kind of nursery version of the infamous “hero’s journey“—a mythic archetype that’s influenced everyone from George Lucas to the writers of The Lion King.

To this day, Mario’s world and actions have remained scrupulously rooted in a child’s frame of reference. Even in the most sophisticated Mario games, the new powers our hero gains tend to be the result of dressing-up games or friendly animal helpers: he puts on a cape or a suit, he hops onto a nursery-wall dinosaur. Miyamoto has remained uncannily attuned to conjuring wonder and striving in their most unworldly form—not at all the same thing as saying he has created easy games, as the millions of players who’ve invested enough time to master one of his worlds will testify. Behind the cute pixels, Mario is a precision tool, his moves and control finely honed, his environments compiled with an architectural emphasis on coherence and many-layered complexity.

It’s this combination of the atavistically infantile and the mechanically hyper-sophisticated that makes Mario quite so beguiling. These games are a kind of childhood to which we can all keep returning—both unfallen and utterly absorbing. And the “character” this celebrates above all is not an unreal Italian plumber, much as we may claim to love him. It’s ourselves, as we would like to be: young, inquisitive, adventurous, untainted; children running through caves and woods, endlessly at play; getting better and better at the game in hand—and never a minute older.