Saturday morning was never sacred. Product tie-ins and cartoons have always been one and the same, with varying degrees of quality, but as the video game renaissance of the late ‘80s began to take hold, the lines began to blur more and more. Nintendo was like an eight-bit atom bomb exploding in the living rooms of kids across the world, making Saturday morning as much about shooting ducks and punching Mike Tyson as pushing cereal products.
The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 is a result of this cross pollination: a cartoon advertising a game kids could play while not watching cartoons. The first two installments of the series cemented Mario, and to a lesser extent his brother, Luigi, as Nintendo’s flagship character, a role the Brooklyn plumber holds to this day, despite the rapid growth of the industry. The game also featured prominently in the Fred Savage film, The Wizard (along with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis), but embedded advertisements weren’t needed—the success of the game was a foregone conclusion. Even that early on, Mario was huge.
The Mario Bros. were previously featured in the Super Mario Bros. Super Show (also available from Shout! Factory), a combination live action / cartoon featuring a rap theme song and the WWF’s Captain Lou Albano, he of Cyndi Lauper video fame, as Mario. This series, which is only connected to its predecessor through the characters, essentially gives kids the chance to see the game played for them.
With sounds and music from the game, Mario, Luigi, the Princess and Toad do battle with King Koopa and the Koopa Kids, a squeaky bunch of varmints loyal to their reptilian pappy. Watching the show, one doesn’t feel entertained so much as branded, with Mario and Luigi going through the same motions as their eight-bit counterparts, giving names to the otherwise unknown creatures and worlds that inhabit the game. This sometimes even acts as a basic guidebook for viewers, as when Luigi warns Mario, who’s just procured a magic leaf that transformed him into a raccoon, “Don’t let a Koopa touch ya or you’ll lose ya power!”
As you may have guessed, this hardly makes for exciting television. The greatest thing about any of the Super Mario games is their universal appeal and apparent simplicity, but in the translation to cartoon form the series’ creators took the vibrant characters from the games and watered them down. Mario and Luigi embody every negative stereotype of Italians (except for a connection to the mafia) and the animation makes the worlds of the game look like Pixar by comparison.
Despite a general lack of enjoyment, watching this show does bring back fond memories of the games (which I’ll still play on occasion), the cereal, and any number of other knick-knacks associated with the characters’ marketing blitz. Still, memories, particularly those tinged with nostalgia, can be a betrayal. Did I love the products because I loved the characters or did I love the characters because I loved the products? And was that love a result of being a member of a key demographic or just a genuine connection to a couple of fictional plumbers made out of a bunch of ones and zeros?
But I shouldn’t feel betrayed, because as bad as this cartoon is, and was, it was not the first to get kids on board a product, and it won’t be the last. Besides, the game is still really fun.
A bonus disc of special features includes the series’ writers’ bible, containing all relevant information on the good guys, bad and random characters that populate the show and, of course, the game. Presented with bland narration and zero reflection on the game or the show’s popularity, this material is filler at best. More interesting is collection of concept drawings from the series, featuring lush color and detail that’s sadly missing from the finished product.
Though the series is hardly essential for even the most nostalgic among us, it is a valuable document in the history of video game marketing and culture. After all, the blurring of the line between cartoon and commerce continues with Pokemon, Yu-Gi Oh and the like. These days, Saturday morning no longer rules. Now, kids and adults alike can enjoy cartoons 24 hours a day, seven days a week, creating more memories for kids and giving advertisers a larger target to brand.