by Roy Biv
The world (or worlds) of the Mario franchise make for a familiar sight to almost everyone familiar with the titular characters. Brick platforms, mushrooms, turtle-like koopas, and green pipes are all instantly recognizable staples to the series. Even Peach’s castle, usually only ever featured once or twice at the very beginning or very end of each game, is a sight people only vaguely familiar with the games can recall. The worlds of Mario all have a very distinctive aesthetic compared to most games of similar genre.
As the anniversary for the franchise’s initial debut draws near and many players around the world revisit the old titles, Mario has been getting more and more attention. More people are stomping on goombas and scarfing down mushrooms as the game’s titular protagonist. After so many years of Mario games being accepted and almost “canonized” into the game’s wider series, it’s easy to raise the question of how the stories of each of them tie together. Many of the games don’t appear to be related at all. Some repeat the same storylines, some have wildly different storylines, some have directly contradicting storylines to other Mario games, and some don’t even appear to be set in the same world! Several discussions have been had and video essays made on how exactly the Mario “timelines” act and which games feature what could be considered the main storyline for the series. The games themselves, of course, are so widely disparate that it is difficult to draw parallels between. The “worlds” themselves which the games are set in appear similarly different, some being set underwater, some being set in space, so much so that no two realms even within the same game look alike. The player as Mario is sometimes traveling a world, sometimes traveling between realities, and sometimes traveling between planets. And, of course, all bets are off on where he might end up whenever he or his brother slip down a pipe.
Though the worlds themselves are rarely similar when it comes to style or theme, there is a common trend throughout them: their mechanics. Despite the fact that Mario is sometimes in a downtown urban city and sometimes rescuing baby stars from giant flying pirate ships in deep space, eating a red flower will always give him the ability to throw fireballs. Regardless of whether the player is swimming effortlessly through lava or being killed by a gentle breeze from an angry looking cloud, eating a mushroom will always make their character taller. In fact, there are certain world mechanics that appear to be present in almost every single Mario game whether those games take place on an exotic raceway or inside a fish tank. It’s very remarkable that, given the disparate environments, these things stay the same.
What are the world mechanics, then, of the Mario franchise—the trends that stay the same no matter where the games are set? By examining them, one can get a feel for what sort of laws of nature exist in Mario’s ever-changing and ever-expanding universe and thereby know what to expect in each game. Fans of the series can probably already picture the first and most obvious commonality: the powerups. Mario games tend to feature certain consumables the player can find which grant extra abilities or even extra lives, enabling the player to progress through each level safer, faster, and more effectively. Most commonly identifiable are the fireflower (and other variants such as the iceflower and stormflower) granting Mario the power to cast projectiles of the corresponding element endlessly until he is next wounded. And of course, nobody can forget the mushroom—famous staple of the franchise that makes people bigger, animals tougher, and go-karts faster when devoured. Curiously, these powerups are almost always hidden in golden boxes bearing a question mark that sometimes also hold coins instead. This begs the question: who put them there? Did Princess Peach, knowing she would most likely be kidnapped, preset the road to Bowser’s Castle with useful combat items to make her rescue easier? Did Bowser, wanting to give Mario a sporting chance against his turtle hordes, lay them there like water stations along a marathon?
Mentioning those two characters brings up another commonality between games and worlds that is always present: toads versus turtles. Princess Peach is the ruler apparent of a “Mushroom Kingdom” populated by toads, curious human-like creatures that greatly resemble mushrooms. She usually appears the same and is usually captured by Bowser during the events of the game in one way or another, but her toads are always on the side of the heroic Mario—if not actively aiding him then being rescued by him alongside their princess or at the least being treated like allies, with the occasional friend thrown in the mix. Similarly, the koopas (bipedal enemy turtles) are without fail on the side of Bowser, Mario’s great enemy. Bowser himself looks to be a cross between turtle and dragon, and he is often crowned and referred to as King of the Koopas. Though toads and koopas are almost never shown directly fighting, there is an implied war between them given that the two factions are always at odds as a result of Bowser’s repeated kidnapping of their princess.
Though Mario’s enemies vary greatly in terms of size, species, and motivation, the majority of them seem to share a common weakness. When not equipped with the ability to fling fireballs or bulldoze through them, Mario’s most timeless and reliable combat ability is the strategic use of gravity to deliver concussive blows to the head. He jumps on things to kill them. Curiously, only a scarce handful of the multitude of Mario games with their plethora of a thousand enemies apiece feature an enemy trying to do the same thing to Mario, and even then it is usually the shockwave that deals damage rather than a strike itself. Mario isn’t the only one who knows how to jump, but he does seem to be the only one who continually knows how to use his plumber boots as lethal weapons.
Finally, no Mario game would feel like a Mario game without the presence of at least one green pipe. Usually acting as portals for either the protagonist or antagonist, or as dispensers for endless legions of disposable enemies, these pipes feature properties that appear to be magical. Sometimes they’re a shortcut to an area a short walk away, and other times they are portals to distant planets. Every time one sees them, however, they are usually worth checking out.
So far over forty most likely more – games in the Mario franchise have painted a picture of two factions at war in which consumable plants are the keys to magic power. To say that pipes are portals and turtles are bad guys holds true regardless of whether a particular adventure takes place in deep snowy wilderness or on a spaceship orbiting the sun. The presence of continuous world mechanics throughout the ever shifting backdrop is just enough of a teaser to whet the appetite of an audience looking to find connections between each of the wildly different games and puzzle out a timeline and congruence between them. If interested in theories on how they might all connect together, check out some YouTube videos on the subject to whittle away the remaining time until this newest anniversary title’s launch.