[It's time for another Monthly Musing -- the monthly community blog theme that provides readers with a chance to get their articles and discussions printed on the frontpage. -- CTZ]
Let's be honest. The characters of the Mario universe are not all that interesting. They have no backstory or any real motivation to speak of. Aside from Mario being a plumber (which I call into question given the myriad tasks he has performed over the years, none of which involved honest-to-God plumbing) or from Peach being a princess, what do we know about these people? They aren't characters as much as they are cardboard cutouts, yet that works in their favor for their roles as gaming avatars. You are more likely to relate to a nearly empty canvas into which you can read anything you imagine as opposed to someone far more developed yet less flexible. The Mario cast is popular because players, regardless of background, can easily identify with them.
Another benefit to being blank slates is that these characters can be inserted into any situation and easily fit right into that environment. Speaking of environment, pixelpunx recently brought up how it is the environment that exhibits the most character in any game. In addition to that, the world of Mario is like a multiverse with Mario and crew assuming different roles in each one. While pixelpunx seemed to focus on the spin-offs such as Mario Kart and Dr. Mario, I contend that we see this same inconstancy in the main series as well. Rather than expand upon the pre-existing universe, sequels in the core series re-imagine the look and feel of very familiar locales over and over again.
How often does Mario find himself traveling to a grassland, an underworld, a waterworld or a castle? Yet each adventure frames the world against a unique motif as though the games are part of a series of paintings each in a different style. They all contain the same basic elements such as a mustachioed protagonist and superpower-bestowing flora, but one is "painted" in the abstract style, another in impressionism, the next in surrealism, and so on. This works so well with the Mario universe because of the implausible nature established in the original Super Mario Bros. I don't know to what extent Shigeru Miyamoto was influenced by Lewis Carroll, but it's not difficult to see the parallels between Alice in Wonderland and the Mushroom Kingdom beyond fungi that make you grow taller.
Let's take a look at the other games in the main branch of the Mario franchise and how each individual experience is presented:
Super Mario Bros. 2 - "Dream a Little Dream of Me"
The first game sent you to Wonderland. The second sends you to Dreamland. Two games in and already established conventions are being flipped upside-down. In Subcon, you can't stomp on enemies but you can ride them, lift them above your head, then toss them. Coins and items don't appear suspended in the sky in boxes but planted firmly in the ground. Upon concluding your adventure, you wake up to discover that you never even left your bedroom. However, the reappearance of enemies from this game in future adventures demonstrated that with Mario around, dreams and reality are one and the same.
Super Mario Bros. 3 - "All the World's a Stage"
The entire world is a play and you are the lead actor. All the objects have been redesigned to look like elements of a stage production. When you turn on the game, the curtain rises. When you defeat Bowser, the curtain falls. Look at the solid-colored rectangular platforms with screws in the corners. Those are props bolted against the backdrop. And when you complete a level by running past the zigzag pattern that cuts off the background, you are actually exiting stage right to prepare for the next scene. You realize that playing a good game is like delivering a strong performance, one that spectators who never pick up the controller can easily enjoy.
Super Mario World - "Walk the Dinosaur"
This is the Land of the Lost. As if frozen in time, your next adventure takes you to a world populated by creatures long thought to have been extinct. Friendly dinos offer transportation while mean-spirited ones do all in their power to halt your progress. Even the music takes a prehistoric turn, such as in the underworld where you can hear a xylophone that was perhaps fashioned by a local caveman from the bones of fallen dinosaurs into a crude instrument. You get this feeling that if only you look hard enough, you too will discover wonders lost to time right in your neighborhood.
Super Mario 64 - "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
You've lived your dreams, entertained at the theater, and conquered Dinosaur World. Now you explore the world beyond the painting. Though you never leave the castle grounds, each portrait is a portal to a fantastic world brought to life by the magic of the paintbrush. If a picture is worth a thousand words then these worlds could fill a library. How much more now can you appreciate a work of art when you begin to believe that a living, breathing world exists past the canvas?
Super Mario Sunshine - "Hot Fun in the Summertime"
Even a simple island getaway can turn into a wild adventure. Smooth sands, tropical music, and clear waters, all elements of a typical family vacation. Whereas the lands of previous Mario games were wild and unreal, Isle Delfino doesn't look much different from the beaches that you visit during summer break. How close does this hit home for you? Adventure follows us no matter where we may go, even on those seemingly boring family excursions.
Super Mario Galaxy - "Fly Me to the Moon"
In Mario's latest quest, he takes to the stars and travels to planets that exist far beyond imagination. Blasting through space like a shooting star, literally hopping from planet to planet. It's an adventure that gathers all the conventions in Mario's history and tweaks them for a low-G environment. Who is to say such worlds don't exist out there in the vast expanse of space? The Mushroom Kingdom may be pure fantasy, but we don't know what secrets the stars hold. Maybe the world of Mario DOES exist, only it exists in some far off galaxy many light-years away.
Beyond the console adventures are the handheld Mario games that are no less variable in nature:
Super Mario Land - "Around the World"
This game takes a different approach by presenting Earth, OUR Earth, as it would exist according to Mario's rules. Sarasaland is split into four kingdoms influenced by very real locales. Birabuto with its pyramids and sphinxes is clearly Egypt, the moai statues of Easton recall Easter Island, and the decor and music of Chai harkens China or Japan. The second kingdom, Muda, doesn't appear to draw influence from any real location, but then you wonder ... aquatic ruins ... hmmm ... Atlantis perhaps? It could have very well existed at some point. It's ironic, however, that a game grounded close to the real world would feature an antagonist who is totally out of this world. The alien Tatanga seems a fitting final obstacle to an otherwise tame game by Mario standards.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins - "King of the World"
Mario is the ruler of his own land. Well, he was before Wario took over. He had a castle and everything. While the console games establish Mario as a subject of the Mushroom Kingdom, the handheld games make him out to be a king! Is he royalty? Is that one of his many other identities? Of all the Mario games, this one strikes me as the most odd because it completely screws with what little we thought we knew of Mario as a character. He truly is a Renaissance Man. He's whoever he needs to be, and that is why he is one of the most beloved characters in any medium.
New Super Mario Bros. - "Everything Old Is New Again"
We've come full circle. For a game that has "new" in the title, it doesn't present any unique quality to the degree that all previous Mario games did. Every Mario game has been "new" and fresh compared to the previous one, but this game seems to emulate the world of the original Super Mario Bros. It's a return to the first Mushroom Kingdom with some added tricks culled from all the adventures since then. How oddly appropriate that in the Mario world what's new is considered old and what's old is considered new.
With the exception of New Super Mario Bros., no two games exhibit the same emotions or themes. Even the spin-offs tend to follow this trend of inconsistency. The first Wario Land reflects Wario's greed through a land overrun by pirates, while Yoshi's Island reflects the Baby Mario's youth by rendering the world in crayon scrawls. While other game franchises are satisfied with incremental improvements and expansions, the Mario franchise shies away from presenting the same world and playing by the same rules twice. In this way, the games remain fresh no matter in which order you tackle them.
The Mario universe embraces inconstancy and as a result has become our generation's Alice in Wonderland. Each game dives into a new medium and shatters all expectations. Along the way, we learn to view our own world a little bit differently, to explore our passions, and to foster our imagination. Without this variable world, Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and the rest of the crew would have grown stale long ago. They are defined through our adventures in this universe. In that case, I guess you can say that it's really OUR universe.