It's a thought that's crossed my mind on several occasions. If Super Mario is an Italian plumber, then where in relation to the Mushroom Kingdom is Italy? If I took out a globe could you show me? Could you trace your finger between the two? From where this thumb-sized man battles dragons and ghosts to a small farm in Campania where a tiny nonna weeps and wonders where her boys have gone. On Thursday night, during the Switch presentation, Nintendo shattered my perception of who and what Mario is, and has left me shaken ever since.
While the game lineup for the Nintendo Switch's launch is a little slim, the year ahead is made up of some big swingers. A new, expansive Zelda, a swift follow-up to Splatoon, and a brand new Super Mario Odyssey. Odyssey will take Mario to worlds outside the Mushroom Kingdom, including a misty forest and a desert villa. But none are disturbing as "New Donk City," a Sesame Street style reduction of New York City. New Donk City, you see, is full of humans. Plain-clothed, everyday humans. And they look nothing like Mario. That is painfully clear when you see Mario walk next to them:
Clearly, the figure on the left is an anatomically modern human. The figure on the right, by contrast, is something else.
The invasion of Bowser and Mario into New Donk City seems like an interruption. There aren't googly eyed platforms and death traps scattered about the streets that are so common to Mario's challenging days. There are mortal obstacles like yellow cabs, open manholes, and the ultimate monsters: other people. Those other people all have regular faces, eyes of an average size, noses of an average size, and average heights. They appear to have various races and hair colors.
But those humans, those conventional humans, are a sharp contrast to Super Mario, who is a pudgy red firecracker of color who can't be bigger than a Cabbage Patch Doll and can stand comfortably atop a streetlight. Prior to this upsetting revelation, we were left to imagine what Mario's homeworld looked like based on evidence in the games. Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and other humanoid-seeming beings all share a certain body type, so one could assume that people from Italy, Brooklyn, or wherever Mario came from, looked approximately the same. We could assume their odd bodies were just a stylistic choice Nintendo made. Now it is clear that this is not the case. Mario and his better-looking brother Luigi are aberrations.
Is Mario an offshoot? A Mushroom Kingdom splinter of evolution? Are there detrimental side effects to living in the fantasy world for prolonged spans of time? Is his entire origin story a lie he told Princess Peach? And who is this royal lineage of humanoids making subjects out of the simple Toads, who can be found as messengers, servants, and shopkeepers (though recent endeavors into "archeology" promises there is at least some class mobility among the entire species).
Mario has had a human job (plumber) at least since since '83 in our timeline, though he attempted a multitude of other careers over the years. Mario has hair, as Odyssey shows us clearly. He certainly doesn't appear to be a fungus from the Mushroom Kingdom, like Toad, who's as rubbery and nude as a sphinx cat. In Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, players escorted an infant Mario, intercepted from the stork by the wizard Kamek, who was on his way to—we always assumed—Italy or America. The co-existence of Mario and Baby Mario in games like Mario Kart have suggested certain time paradoxes are possible, but I digress.
In other types of media, Mario has always been played by a human as a human. By the late, great Bob Hoskins in the 1993 cyberpunk fantasy thriller Super Mario Bros., and by the late, great Captain Lou Albano in 65 episodes of The Super Mario Super Show. In both cases, a main part of the plot was that the Mario brothers were looking for the way home, the green pipe that would return them to Brooklyn. Likewise, general appearances by the real world and anthropological history occur in adventures a little left of the Mario canon, such as Mario's Time Machine and Mario is Missing, where you mill about a quiet San Francisco or annoy Benjamin Franklin while he flies that kite. The Mario brothers have also participated, repeatedly, in the Olympic games, but they have always been joined by Sonic the Hedgehog and his moody friends, so it's fair to assume those games exist in a pocket of pure chaos.
I always assumed it was cartoon-land logic that excused Mario from some scientific principles. For example, Super Mario Galaxy showed us that Mario can breathe in the vacuum of space, but still succumb to suffocation underwater. Mario's main source of income and upgrades comes from smacking his soft head against metal boxes and piles of bricks, which would have turned the normal human's brains into mush through repeated concussion. Then again, Mario's only capable of stringing four words together at a time, though now it isn't clear if this is due to brain damage, or that this creature, whatever it is, simply can't wield complex language.
It's clear now, more than ever, that after a lifetime of Mario there's still a lot we don't know about
What's most distressing about this news is that if Mario is not of Italian descent, then what is that a-patronizing voice he's been a-subjecting us to for years? Mario is not human, and Mario is a-hiding something.
All that said, Super Mario Odyssey looks really fun and I want to play it as soon as possible.
We have reached out to Nintendo for comment, but it did not respond in time for publication.