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The Accidental Death of a Plumber

As Mario's popularity has grown, have Nintendo turned their greatest icon from an anarchist into a bank manager?

Super Mario Galaxy 2 has been getting a push this week and while it looks as fabulous as a sequel to one of this generation's most accomplished games ought to, the sight of Yoshi catching Bullet Bills proved revelatory for reasons other than the no-doubt sterling gameplay.
It struck me that, armed with the knowledge that the little green dinosaur is something of a fan favourite, Nintendo seem to have been deploying the character with surprisingly strategic, some might say cynical, timing. Considering the past six 'main series' Mario games, Yoshi has appeared like clockwork in every second release. He was non-playable in Super Mario 64, before allowing Mario to take the saddle in Super Mario Sunshine.
On the DS, New Super Mario Bros was entirely dino-free, while his appearance in the Wii sequel was heavily publicised. The same goes for Super Mario Galaxy and its forthcoming sequel, where Yoshi's involvement has been at the heart of much of the game's publicity. It's also worth noting that both Sunshine and NSMB Wii used him sparingly and unlike his Super Mario World debut, where a number of levels were very Yoshi-centric, there seems to have been little reason to include him other than as a more fan-friendly power-up.

It doesn't particularly bother me that Nintendo are using Yoshi more as a promotional tool than an integral part of a new title's gameplay. If true, it is unquestionably cynical and a shame that they no longer seem interesting in thinking about new ways for Yoshi to alter the traditional Mario play mechanics (Galaxy 2 seems better on this front, but given how increasingly outlandish the new power-ups are becoming, it's rather too easy to become blasé) but is not entirely surprising.
It's not as though Nintendo haven't always been conscious of the value of their assets. What I do find interesting is how it demonstrates how the role of Mario and his games, in a creative rather than artistic sense, has evolved over the course of his and Nintendo's inextricably shared histories.

It's often said that we remember the best parts of our childhood through rose-tinted lenses. While I don't quite agree with this (just because our tastes have evolved that we can find fault in things now we couldn't as children, doesn't mean those things weren't honestly enjoyed at the time and perfect for either the time in which we happened to meet them or in some cases hold up now), it is true that when things remind us of things we've loved in times gone by, that nostalgia can be enough to shroud faults that we might otherwise have judged more harshly.
The more I think about, the more strongly Nintendo seem to depend on this in their big franchise games. I don't think this will be much of a revelation for many, but it startles me to think of quite how much of Super Mario Galaxy was recycled, from enemies and power-ups to the usual world themes (ice, haunted-house, battleships, volcanoes etc) and how much of my enjoyment was down to the fact that I grew up surrounded by many of these icons.
The game is undeniably hugely polished and puts an ingenious twist on the traditional platformer, which Mario has more or less monopolised at this point, with its spherical worlds and gravity tricks, but I also had a number of issues with the game, chiefly its linearity and not taking advantage of the many potential applications for its big idea. Would another game, free of the Mario branding and iconography, have been received with such adoration and had these issues so readily ignored?

Like Mickey Mouse, who is similarly iconic for the animation industry as Mario is for gaming, the character's modern use as a safety net of sorts, a symbol for good, reliable old nanny Nintendo, seems entirely at odds with what made him popular at his conception. Mickey Mouse, as Warren Spector has been reminding us, used to be mischievous and even controversial, accused of encouraging misbehaviour from young viewers. Nowadays he's all smiles and sweetness, more important as an image with nostalgic connotations than as a character.
Mario, whether jumping into blocks, go-karting, playing baseball or golf or self-satirising in RPGs (fabulous humour for long-time fans yet incoherent to newcomers), is increasingly less of a character than an embodiment of Nintendo in values and formula. But Mario, perhaps even moreso than Mickey, founded his reputation on destroying formula, on a subversive streak of anarchism and free spirit that bucked the trend of a videogame industry drowning under a deluge of identikit, horribly made shovelware.

When Mario famously jumped on top of the screen in the second level of Super Mario Bros, it wasn't just a thrilling piece of postmodernist design, it was a declaration of intent and characterisation, Nintendo giving the world a character who was ready to break all established forms of thinking and embrace gaming as a world where anything was possible.
In that first game, when you expected a character to run along the screen, Mario ran above it. In the third game, where most characters were still running from left to right, Mario was going backwards and upwards, playing not just a level but an overworld as well. With Super Mario World, probably the height of Mario's anarchism, in an almost Baudrillardian turnaround, the overworld became the game. The aim was no longer to play through the levels, but rather to discover exits to new ones concealed across the vast map.
Then there was that 'flying under the finishing post' moment, as perfect a piece of lateral thinking as running along the top of the screen. While Super Mario 64 relied on a lot of familiar images from the series, it used them to make players feel safe in a world where everything else, from the purpose of playing (collect stars rather than reach a goal; explore rather than progress) to the two extra dimensions, required brand new ways of playing and thinking.

Compare those games to the likes of New Super Mario Bros and its console sequel, both of which devolved the 2D series back to a state before the advancements of even Super Mario 3 in the aim of providing entertainment through nostalgia rather than gameplay. NSMB Wii's four player mode was cleverly balanced and showed Nintendo's experience in giving players opportunities to indulge their own naughty streaks, yet gave no such freedom to Mario himself, stuck running through a mobius strip of the same old levels and sights.
Perhaps it was a sign that Nintendo were conscious that the Mario's impact and the glorious surreality of his world (observed objectively, the Mushroom Kingdom makes Lewis Carroll's imagination look like an accounting sheet) were dulled by familiarity and it was more important that players were able to make their own subversions than have Mario do it for them.
Yet as someone who has grown up with Mario, loving every moment that he ate mushrooms to grow big and turned into a raccoon to fly, it's hard not to look at the recent iterations in the franchise and even amidst all the fun, wish that some hint of the old plumber's subversive streak would spark up behind those flat eyes and show me one of those unexpected, brilliant, deranged sights that we used to share together.
Like the well-timed appearances of a certain dinosaur steed, Mario and his games will be forever welcome on my television but it's becoming harder to suppress the feeling that Nintendo see them more as commodities than canvases for experimentation and fun. I still break out in a childish grin at the appearance of each goomba, koopa, boo and bullet, but my greatest nostalgia is for the days when my companion on those adventures was an anarchist rather than a bank manager.

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