It’s Super Mario Bros. Week here on Gameological! In honor of the series’ 30th anniversary, we’re paying tribute the best way we know how: a week of essays and articles devoted to all things Super Mario Bros.
For our Mario Week Q&A, contributor Anthony John Agnello suggested we look back at some of the series’ more bizarre moments. He asks: What’s your favorite “WTF” moment in Mario history?
Anthony John Agnello
Mario games always grew in the rich soil of surrealism. This is, after all, the story of an Italian stereotype murdering cloud-riding turtles and Doc Martens-wearing mushrooms as part of a never-ending quest to rescue women from mohawked dragons. The cartoon theatrics of previous games feel even weirder in Super Mario 64, partially because it’s so much more open and uncrowded. There’s just not that much going on in Princess Peach’s castle or its weird paintings full of stars. Most of the time, you’re walking around on your own, listening to the snappy tunes and Mario’s feet falling in the empty castle halls. That dreamy absence of activity and other characters was likely a result of technological limitations rather than an attempt to freak people out, but it certainly worked to the latter effect when you run into the Loch Ness Monster at the bottom of a dank, industrial pit. One second, you’re diving into a pool of liquid metal and running around what looks like a construction site inside a cave. Then, you tumble down a hill and see a big, blue dinosaur swimming around a tiny island. Is that thing going to eat me? Why the hell is it down here? Is it trapped? Turns out the monster’s pretty amiable, and you can ride its back to reach a golden star, but like so many things in the Mario series, the first glimpse causes some serious existential consternation.
I once found an article on the internet (where everything is possible) that tried to put all the main Mario games into a single timeline. It was a clever, if largely pointless, exercise in narrative manipulation, but one explanation stood out for me: the idea of Super Mario Bros. 3 as a “theatrical performance,” instead of an actual adventure like original game. Super Mario Bros. 3 has several theatrical trappings, like a title sequence that begins with a raising curtain, and my favorite—and the bit that blew my mind when I first read about it—is the trick that lets you run behind the scenery if you crouch on a white hill for more than five seconds. It’s a bizarre, utterly inexplicable secret, and it changes what would otherwise be a straightforward (if impeccably designed and glorious) platformer into something far more mysterious and potent. Which, really, is one of the keys to great theater: suggesting thousands of possibilities, even if you only deliver on a few.
I was an abnormality, a mutant strain that owned an NES, but was terrible at Super Mario Bros. All my friends had a casual mastery of this game that was still a formidable puzzle to me. Maybe that’s why I still remember so clearly when a friend first showed me the trick of jumping on a koopa shell to get infinite lives. If you manage to trap the koopa against a wall, just so, you create a chain of bounces that eventually rewards 1-ups. As long as you can sustain the jumping pattern, you’ll keep accruing lives until the timer runs down. This display was amazing enough to me, but my friend was even more exited to show me what happens when you gather so many lives. When he returned to the menu screen, the lives counter was a series of symbols—a crown and a heart. He literally had lives beyond number. It was like Neo seeing the Matrix for the first time. My friend was so good at Super Mario Bros., he had lifted the surface to show me the startled ones and zeroes scuttling beneath. I didn’t know a player could exert that kind of control over a game. I didn’t know they could be beaten by rules other than the ones the game presented. Of course, they were still rules Super Mario Bros. had set, but to me, it was like Tron rendered in an Italian plumber’s mustache instead of glowing neon.
By the time I’d first played Super Mario Bros., everyone already knew about the trick in World 1-2, running up to the top of the screen and bypassing large chunks of the level and finding “secret” warp pipes that took you to distant worlds. It was the kind of urban legend that bonded kids on the playground as members of the same secret society, a school yard shibboleth. When Super Mario Bros. 3 came along, I started looking for similar tricks, so when I noticed an opportunity to fly above the ceiling in the first castle, I went for it. Sure enough, there was another room hiding behind the rest of the level and… a whistle? Not really sure what to do, the whistle rested in my inventory for a couple more levels until I lazily decided to give it a toot and then—woosh—a freakin’ tornado whisked Mario right off the map and dropped him off on an entire island of warp pipes! There were areas I could see but not access, which I determined meant there must be more warp whistles. Not only had the game revealed its remarkable breadth and unforeseen playfulness with the warp island, but now I was on a quest. No longer was I simply rescuing a princess, now I was hunting for hidden treasures.
My biggest “oh hell no” moment in the world of Mario comes from Mario Power Tennis, and the scene where I first realized Mario was secretly a giant asshole. When you win a tournament trophy, every character gets a short celebration scene, usually involving a goofy pratfall or gentle joke of some kind. But if you win as Luigi, you apparently trigger some sort of horrifying emotional response in Mario, because what happens next is a real dick move. As Luigi hoists his trophy and celebrates his win, Mario appears, applauding from the side of the stage. He comes over and slaps his brother on the back, and all seems to be well. However, the camera suddenly pans down, and you realize Mario is stomping on Luigi’s foot, and grinding his heel back and forth into the bone of his victorious sibling. Luigi, to his credit, has exactly the right reaction: He stares at Mario with a horrified, “What the fuck?” expression. And then the scene ends. All along, it seems, Mario has been a jerk—but I didn’t know it until that very moment.
I don’t know what was going on at Nintendo HQ during the development of Super Mario Bros. 3, but I imagine it was a lot like that Key & Peele sketch about Gremlins 2. I mean, there’s a reason that game keeps popping up in our answers here, right? My favorite ridiculous thing from the entire series is Kuribo’s Shoe, the goofy Super Mario Bros. 3 power-up that makes Mario invincible from the neck down and can only be found in a single level. The Kuribo’s Shoe (or “Goomba’s Shoe” if you prefer things in English) is a giant green boot with the key from a wind-up toy stuck into the back, and though goombas ride in them, they’re too big to be the actual shoe of a goomba—not to mention that goombas have brown shoes. So, basically, nothing about it makes sense, which makes the fact that it’s so uncommon even more confusing. Why did Nintendo design this weird thing and then barely let you use it? Because it’s fun, that’s why. Nintendo has never needed any reason deeper than that.
Things in the Mario universe got even weirder when the main series took a two-game diversion into (relatively) more narrative-heavy territory with Sunshine and Galaxy. While I’ll never tire of Sunshine’s bizarre opening, in which Mario is tried in some sort of pitch-black nightmare courtroom and thrown in jail, it’s the ending of Super Mario Galaxy that takes my WTF cake. Here’s the gist: Mario defeats Bowser at his cosmic HQ and causes the death and rebirth of all matter in the universe. Eventually, he wakes up back in the Mushroom Kingdom, but it’s been reconstructed and slightly remixed. “The cycle of life continues,” Rosalina explains, “but the cycle never repeats itself in quite the same way.” It’s all the existential mystery and trippy astrological visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey writ in minimalist Mario language. Is it a commentary on the iterative nature of Mario games, where each is only slightly different from the last? Is it foreshadowing that exact trend in Super Mario Galaxy 2? Was it just pure, pseudo poetic nonsense? Whatever the case, Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t happy with Galaxy’s storytelling attempts and explicitly banned such indulgences for future Mario games.
“Death” in the Mario games is a pretty lighthearted affair. Mario and Luigi crush enemies’ heads, feed them to their rideable black hole, Yoshi, and even assault them with the corpses of their own dead friends, but it’s always treated with a “We’ll get ’em next time!” sort of charm. (The brothers’ own myriad deaths, meanwhile, never seem to leave them with more than a few Game Over screen bruises.) It’s what makes the end of World 1 of the DS’s New Super Mario Bros. so disturbing. You do what Mario players do, leaping over Bowser’s head and slamming the big red button to drop the bridge out from under the Koopa King… and he dies. Not just “falls off the screen” dies, but an actual, cartoonishly horrific death scene. At first, it’s not so bad; he just writhes around angrily in the lava for a bit. But then he rises up again, and this time he’s a skeleton, still clearly in pain from, y’know, having all of his skin melted off. The shock of the moment is compounded by the fact that Bowser stays “dead” for the rest of the game, not reappearing until the final world, when his animated skeleton (now known as “Dry Bowser”) shows up to take revenge on you for brutally murdering him seven worlds prior.
Most of the phenomena you encounter in Mario games, however odd, tend to have an explanation. Those mushroom monsters are Bowser’s minions. Mario can travel through pipes because he’s a plumber, and we all know that’s how plumbing works. Even after it first terrified me 20 years ago, I can find no such explanation for the time the sun decided it needed to murder Mario. By now, this twist in World 2 of Super Mario Bros. 3 is a classic moment, but think about how inexplicable this is. You’re running through a desert, minding your Mario business, going to save the world, when suddenly the source of your world’s heat and light decides it’s had enough and turns the rest of the level into a frantic chase scene with a chubby Italian guy on one end and the frickin’ sun on the other. Why? Did Mario curse the sun god Ra when he got up that morning? What ill hath you wrought, Plumber?