Considering the Super Mario Canon

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., a small group of games are solidifying into a Mario canon.

I recently visited Nintendo’s website commemorating the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. to see how the company was publicly celebrating the milestone. It was reassuring to see Nintendo upholding and embracing the unapologetic quirkiness of its signature franchise. The growing collection of retrospective videos, speed runs, secret techniques, and glitches convey a nice sense of nostalgia while illustrating the series’s long tradition of challenging the player while encouraging experimentation and exploration.

While the site is a nice trip down memory lane, I think the most interesting aspect is the information that Nintendo has chosen not to include. Seeing as how Super Mario is perhaps the most prolific video game character ever, the relatively small number of games showcased as part of the anniversary is striking. By selectively including only certain Super Mario games to as part of the retrospective, Nintendo seems to be fashioning a canon of core titles.

The history video and the companion wallpaper quickly summarize the short list of games that Nintendo has chosen as representative of the franchise. While largely identical, the U.S. and Japanese versions differ slightly due to the odd case of Super Mario Bros. 2. The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, dubbed The Lost Levels in the U.S., lives up to its name: it is nowhere to be found on the English anniversary site. Instead, the Mario-skinned Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic continues to carry the official title of Super Mario Bros. 2.

Mario: The American Canon

In the eyes of the company, this version of Super Mario Bros. 2 deserves to be a part of their elite lineup despite its drastically different mechanics and strange history. Its status as canonical has been implied for some time now, as characters like Birdo and Shy Guy have made subsequent appearances in other Mario games, but the Japanese 25th anniversary site makes it official. Ensconced somewhat awkwardly between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64, Super Mario USA (as it was called in Japan) enjoys a spot among the elect.

Conspicuously absent from these chosen titles are the two Super Mario Land games for the Game Boy. With their absence, New Super Mario Bros. for the DS is the lone handheld game in a list dominated by console titles. While it is understandable that a game like Wario Land would be excluded, it is strange that two games, both possessing the “Super Mario” moniker and both unique adventures, fail to make the cut. Perhaps they are seen as too far removed from Mario-creator Shigeru Miyamoto? According to the credits, he was not as heavily involved in these titles as in others. One would hope that the unfortunate fate of the Virtual Boy is still not haunting producer Gunpei Yokoi’s legacy. Putting corporate politics aside, Super Mario Land’s exclusion might point to an artistic requirement for truly great Mario games: color. Mario is characterized by vibrancy, both in action and in artistic style: The red hat, green 1-Up mushrooms, and blue sky were impossible to reproduce on the Game Boy.

Mario: The Japanese Canon

Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island is a more understandable omission, as Mario’s role in the game is limited to sitting in a bubble and crying. However, leaving it out means skipping over a turning point in Yoshi’s gradual evolution. Going back to the line up on the 25th anniversary image, the Yoshi of Super Mario World and the Yoshi of Super Mario Galaxy 2 are noticeably different. Yoshi started out as a creature significantly larger than Mario, but today the two are much closer in size. Yoshi has become increasingly stylized. His head has become larger in proportion to his body, his eyes are displayed prominently, and his hands are much more expressive than the small mitts that he boasted in Super Mario World. When he was introduced, Yoshi was both an outsider and a novelty to the Super Mario universe. On the cover of Super Mario World, he looks back at Mario’s enthusiastic exclamation with a knowing, almost paternalistic grin, like someone watching a child play through an imaginary adventure. With Super Mario World 2, he is made a part of the Mario team and by the time Super Mario Galaxy 2 comes around, Yoshi’s expression is as focused and joyful as Mario’s. The condensed timeline Nintendo has created leaves this transformation unexplored.

Also unrecognized are the myriad of spin-off games and ancillary material in the Super Mario Bros. universe. Mario’s career as a kart racer, doctor, tennis player, and a dozen other vocations are all tied to the success of the original Super Mario Bros., but the games showcased as part of the 25th anniversary are treated as if they exist in a vacuum. Nintendo’s official celebration is also (and most would say, thankfully) divorced from the larger Mario transmedia experience. The website is solely dedicated to a small number of games and simply ignores the existence of cartoons, movies, Happy Meal toys, and all manner of other junk that spawned from the Mario empire.

This limited view does not offer a comprehensive picture of the Super Mario Bros. series, but rather seeks to clarify and safeguard its core identity. These few games form a pantheon that sets the most exalted titles apart from the crowd as heirs to the original masterpiece. Without a continuous storyline to adhere to, Nintendo is free to select the games that it feels represent the colorful, experimental, and innovative tradition of Super Mario Bros. by forming a canon of top-tier entries. The selective inclusion and exclusion of titles not only separates the concept of Super Mario from the messy, crowded franchise that has grown around it, it also elevates certain games over others. When it comes to Super Mario, platformers are elevated above all else. Even then, only some of these games are granted the unique privilege of being a part of Nintendo’s official history of Super Mario Bros.

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