The Mario universe is so expansive, it truly feels like a universe all to itself. And I, Generation Xer, was there to see it all happen.
Picture this: 1980, Balboa Island Fun Zone, Newport Beach, California. I was in a pizza place there, munching an obligatory triangle of orange grease, and saw somebody playing a new arcade game that I’d never seen before. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a platformer, but it was the first platformer I’d seen with this much attention to detail, and this many cool gizmos in the environment. Hopping jackhammers, pies on conveyor belts, smashing hammers, a tower where you could pull out all the pins to collapse it, and – an innovation seen for the first time – the ability to jump!
Its name was Donkey Kong. I had no idea at the time as I dropped my first quarter that I’d be writing about it 40 years later.
The game looked easier to play than it did when you got your turn, because of the random behavior of the barrels. Sometimes you could get all the way to the top without hopping once, other times you got trapped on a ladder between two after frantically bouncing around all game dodging them.
You can get the original Donkey Kong arcade game for Nintendo Switch here. Sadly, Internet Archive doesn’t seem to host this one, although they do have one for DOSBox emulator.
Originally, Mario did not have a name. The instructions that came with the arcade cabinet referred to him as “jumpman.” He was also originally intended to be a carpenter, not a plumber. And the girl he was trying to rescue was named “Pauline.” Nothing in the game made logical sense or payed any attention to having a story, but we loved it anyway. The 1980s was the decade of surreal arcade games.
Things would get much more surreal…
Donkey Kong 3 arcade was about spraying bees
Donkey Kong Jr. (there was no #2) switched things up by having Mario be the antagonist while baby Donkey Kong got his revenge. But Donkey Kong 3 (1983) was a completely changed game. With a gardener guy named “Stanley” who uses bug spray to hit Donkey Kong right in the junk to drive him to climb up some poles and out of the level. You could tell it hurt him too, from the wacky faces he’d make. Meanwhile, Donkey Kong rattled a couple of beehives to send swarms of angry bees down upon you. You had a row of plants to protect from the bees, who’d try to carry off a plant.
This was a completely weird installment, which not only used a different character, but even changed the play style. I guess you could say it was innovative, and it was fun to play in its own way, but still too niche and bizarre for most arcade rats of the time. You have to give them credit, they did use this game to set up later expectations for things to get even weirder. Also available for Nintendo Switch, in all its junk-spraying glory.
The commercial for Yoshi’s Island was a Mr. Creosote homage
So, how do you advertise that your game is packed with cool stuff? How about a fat man gorging himself until he explodes? Perhaps this commercial for Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995) needs some explanation. The commercial is a homage to Mr. Creosote, a character from Monty Python’s film The Meaning of Life (1983). The character in the film is also an enormous glutton dining in a restaurant, but, ah, spoilers. Anyway, this gross-out commercial was Nintendo hard-selling to compete with Sega, in the infamous console wars of the 1990s. It wasn’t bad enough that SNES Yoshi’s Island changed the whole art style and forced us to listen to that gawdawful annoying crying Baby Mario, they had to throw this at us too.
The… Super Mario Brothers Movie
I’ll spare you the Nostalgia Critic screaming fits this time and let you relax in the scowling glow of Cinemassacre. Super Mario Bros. (1993), the movie, was painful torture in so many ways. It almost totaled Bob Hoskins’ career, and didn’t exactly put a gold star on Dennis Hopper’s resume either. Despite the overwhelming current trend to venerate all things ’90s for the nostalgia value, this movie still sits at an IMDB rating of 4.1. Super Mario Bros. was only the second time a video game had been adapted into a movie.
Did you read that correctly? It was the first live-action video-game feature-length film adaptation, yes. But not the first feature-length film adaptation of a video game. That was instead, the OTHER Mario film adaptation (deeeep breath), Super Mario Brothers: Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach (1986). I would snark on it here, but it’s actually not half-bad, especially after you see the live-action abomination. There’s a YouTube English dub bootleg here, but you didn’t hear it from me, OK?
Donkey Kong appeared in the blandest Nintendo cartoon ever made
Once again, I shall spare you the Nostalgia Critic’s falsetto squealing, but you have to deal with this VJ from Skiffy Channel instead. Captain N: The Game Master (1989) was a transparent marketing commercial for Nintendo games, and perhaps also for Ritalin because that’s what you needed to sit through it. It was as bland as a cardboard sandwich and painful to watch, unless you smoked something illegal and tuned in when the main villain Mother Brain was on. Then it was still painful. Mother Brain was voiced by Levi Stubbs, the same voice acting talent behind Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and unforgettable songs like “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space.” Sadly, they even wasted Levi Stubbs here.
This came out right before Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, banning blatant marketing in kids’ TV shows and ending the 1980s decade with the stroke of a pen.
In the latest installment of “What the hell is wrong with you people?”, the 4chan end of geek fandom took Mario’s villain Bowser, gender-flipped that into Bowsette, and made her sexy. There isn’t much more to say about this, except that it’s had an unusually strong-willed longevity. Bowsette just feels necessary to the world, like if you traveled back in time to head her off, she’d turn out to be the only common event in all timelines. What could possibly motivate Bowsette fandom except for the same cussedness that drove Bronies on for so very long?
Well, Nintendo has nobody to blame but themselves for this one, because they put the idea into their fans’ head in Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2014) for the Game Boy Advance and Wii U, where they merged Bowser with a female character to make Bowletta for a boss fight. Traumatized players probably repressed that memory until it came bubbling back out of their corrupted psyche a few years later during puberty and here you go.
There was a pinball game too
You’d never believe it if you didn’t see it, but there was an actual pinball game based in the Super Mario franchise. You can see a quick playthrough here, but there’s a far more detailed video with a hobbyist restoring one of these, an experience which he shares by showing you EVERY SINGLE circuit board. With that said, this isn’t bad for a pinball adaptation. Note the jazzed up version of the SNES Super Mario World music. And at about the 1:05 mark, you’ll recognize that flute sound not from any Mario game, but SNES’ Legend of Zelda : Ocarina of Time. This is allegedly because they were going to make a Legend of Zelda pinball, but made Mario instead and kept the sound file.
This is what you get when you build an entire franchise out of a plumber fighting a gorilla while existing entirely on a diet of mushrooms. Total insanity.