I saw a therapist in college who once described love to me as “unconditional acceptance.” It was an inadequate but useful simplification. In the Nintendo realm, Mario is unconditional acceptance, defined by the things he won’t do: He’ll never judge you, and he’ll never get in your way.
Nintendo views play with an almost spiritual reverence. For the studio’s most influential designers—most notably Shigeru Miyamoto—play is a separate state of mind, one where your inhibitions fall away and leave you vulnerable to new experiences. So the real genius of Miyamoto et al lies not just in their ability to create fantastical worlds but also in getting players to lower their guards in the first place.
Mario disarms players by detaching the consequences of failure from judgment. When you screw up in the real world, it tends to reflect on you (fairly or not). But you can fail a thousand times in a Mario game, and the hero won’t scold you. Your missteps still have consequences—you lose a life, you go back to the start, etc.—but those penalties are meted out by processes that Mario doesn’t care about or understand. Mario’s presence gives you tacit permission to mess up without the fear that your failure will somehow diminish yourself.
One of my favorite details of Super Mario 3D Land is the game-over screen, which depicts your characters keeled over from exhaustion until you choose to continue, at which point they spring up and run back into action as if nothing has happened. This blithe spirit has been at the core of the Nintendo aesthetic for decades—look at the pose Mario strikes when you’re killed in the original Super Mario Bros.: He throws up his hands in an exaggerated shrug as he falls off the screen into oblivion. Before his body even hits the ground, he’s letting you know that everything’s okay.
In Mario Kart 8—yes, I do remember which game we’re supposedly talking about here—Mario is average. It has always been thus in every Mario game with an ensemble cast. Mario is never extraordinary in any respect, but more importantly, he’s never deficient either. If you’re a novice player who wants to get a feel for Mario Kart 8, you choose Mario, because he’s not going to get in your way. He’s a conduit to the fundamental ideas of the game’s design.
Most of the other characters come with trade-offs. The kiddie characters are easy to maneuver, but they have a low top speed. Bowser can haul ass, but he handles his vehicle with as much grace you’d expect from a steroid-addled turtle-dinosaur riding a child’s go-kart. You have to decide if those imbalances are worth it for your style. Mario requires no such calculation—he offers every aspect of a Mario Kart character in moderation. He’s the North Star of the bunch, and everyone else is defined in terms of how far they fall from him in the Kart cast firmament.
About the only knock I can make on Mario is the way he shouts the name of the game when the title screen appears. Charles Martinet’s voice performance of the Nintendo mascot is fine for incidental yips and yaps, but beyond that it can get pretty patchy. Mario’s announcement of the title sounds like it came after he had been tortured for hours by Koopa Black Forces who demanded to know the name of the next Mario Kart game. As the electrified nipple clamps are applied one more time, Mario finally screeches, “Mario Kart… Eiiiiiight!”
For decades, Luigi served a forgettable role as the pitiable second banana obscured by Mario’s fame. On the few occasions that Luigi has been granted the lead role, like in the Luigi’s Mansion games, his quest has always been to rescue Mario, further solidifying his reputation as the lily-livered schmuck who only needs to suit up for action when his fatter, better brother is unavailable.
But in the Year Of Luigi, Nintendo tweaked Luigi’s image to make him more than a perennial understudy. He’s less pathetic and more mischievous now, having grown from low-key Luigi into Loki Luigi. His 8-bit incarnation pops up throughout Super Mario 3D World in silly blink-and-you-miss-it cameos. He ambles into certain levels of the NES Remix games like the director’s idiot son screwing around on a movie set. (YOU’RE IN THE SHOT, LUIGI.) He apparently spray-painted the cover of New Super Luigi U to make clear that his brother was not involved.
In this light, the “Luigi Death Stare” phenomenon was less of an aberration than a culmination of a year-long makeover for the character. Rather than being an empty sad-sack, Luigi has become the personified answer to the question, “What if Mario were kind of an asshole?” And this is awesome. The new Luigi does not want your pity. He strikes you down with a red shell and then peers over his bulbous nose to watch you suffer. Now that he’s finally given up on the glory of being king, he’s realized that the role of rogue prince is more fun anyway. I mean, do you want to join Mario for tea and light sandwiches at Princess Peach’s place, or do you want to snort a couple lines with Luigi and spend a weekend trashing the Mushroom Kingdom? I hope Luigi’s acting-out phase never ends.
After Luigi’s subtle but significant evolution, Princess Peach is the prime candidate for a refresh. She’s a blond princess. Her favorite color is pink. Her favorite emotion is being a princess.
According to official Nintendo lore, Princess Daisy is a “tomboy.” I’m not sure how this boyishness manifests itself in the character design—her choice of an unflattering yellow dress, maybe? But this “tomboy” stuff is euphemistic nonsense, anyway. I imagine Daisy is a closeted lesbian, plucked from the socially liberal dream world of Super Mario Land’s Sarasaland and forced to mold her identity to the Mushroom Kingdom’s rigid gender roles. She steals furtive glances at Toadette and posts Orange Is The New Black GIFs to her Tumblr. I imagine these things. But really, she’s Princess Peach with brown hair.
(I’m only saying this so people don’t complain: A plot detail from late in Super Mario 3D World lies ahead.)
Rosalina is the best Mario Kart 8 character. First off, she has style. Those peek-a-boo bangs—more like one big bang, befitting her Super Mario Galaxy origins—lend her an air of mystery. Compare that striking visage to Daisy, who lifted her hairdo from an Aqua Net ad in a 1978 issue of Better Homes And Gardens.
Rosalina has sex appeal, too. All of the princess characters don jumpsuits in Mario Kart 8 when they’re riding motorbikes or ATVs, but there is a difference between wearing the jumpsuit look and owning it. This is wearing it:
This is owning it:
I’ll go so far as to say that Rosalina is the only sexy character of the bunch. (Okay, Bowser’s sort of hot, but that’s it.)
Most importantly, Rosalina has attitude. I first noticed it last year while playing Super Mario 3D World, in which Rosalina is an unlockable character. At the end of each level, 3D World totals up everybody’s points (assuming you’re playing multiplayer), and the character who earned the most points lets out a little shout of victory. If you’re playing as Toad and you racked up the highest score, Toad shouts, “I won!” It’s cute.
Anyway, I noticed that Peach and Rosalina treat their victories quite differently. If Peach ends up at the top of the heap, she says, “Well, I’ll be!” You know, the same way Malibu Stacy might say, “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!” (Peach’s exact words are tough to make out, but it seems like “Well, I’ll be!” and she sounds surprised in any case.) Then I unlocked Rosalina. Whenever she’s crowned level champion, she simply declares, “That’s right.” I love that. You work that spotlight, sister. It belongs to you.
Mario Kart 8 likewise sets Rosalina apart from her supposed peers with subtle details. When you’re on the Mario Kart 8 character selection screen, for instance, try moving the cursor back and forth between Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina. Peach and Daisy are the same size, but Rosalina’s character model is markedly bigger. (She belongs to a higher weight class.) My takeaway: Peach and Daisy are girls. Rosalina is a woman.
I don’t know about you, but I find a confident, hard-edged woman a hell of a lot more exciting than two chirpy girls with all the verve of a theme-park Cinderella.
6-7. Metal Mario and Pink Gold Peach
Metal Mario is a heavier version of Mario with a higher top speed. He’s mostly there for accomplished Mario Kart players who want the speed advantage of the clumsier-handling heftier characters but still want to play as their beloved Mario. His voice makes him sound like a drowning robot, which is an appealingly odd touch in an otherwise forgettable character.
Pink Gold Peach is new for Mario Kart 8 and has even less reason to exist than Metal Mario, who has unassailable Super Mario 64 origins. Her pointlessness only makes her better. Instead of being a half-assed reference to an old game, she’s a half-assed reference to nothing at all. Yet I end up playing as PGP more often than I care to admit, despite almost never choosing the “real” Peach. The difference is that while Peach is demure and dainty and perfect and dull, Pink Gold Peach is a straightforward avatar of pure vice, a character so obsessed with the trappings of royalty that she has turned her very body into an outlandish luxury item. PGP is Peach’s id revealed at long last. She’s also the most honestly designed character: She exists to be shiny, so she is shiny.
Yoshi is Jar-Jar Binks done right. Adding a cute dinosaur to the Mario world could have been a debacle, but Super Mario World, Yoshi’s debut, was very good. Yoshi didn’t destroy any childhood memories; he didn’t incite Nintendo fans to take up their pitchforks against the creative indiscretions of Shigeru Miyamoto. After that initial success, Yoshi just stuck around forever, the ultimate example of a B-lister parlaying one good gig into a career. He’s the perennial guest star. Oh, sure, he’s starred in a few decent projects of his own—vanity stuff, because his agent said it was a good idea—but mostly he shows up to make the kids happy, collects his paycheck, and then goes home to gorge on berries. Yoshi has been coasting for years.
Then again, if I’ve reached the point where I’m essentially telling an imbecilic make-believe brontosaurus to get a real job, I may be taking these reviews too seriously. In any case, I’ve never found Yoshi to be an especially appealing member of the Mario ensemble, but I haven’t been a 6-year-old boy for a while, either.
The version of Yoshi in Mario Kart 8 always looks a little stoned to me, so he and Jar-Jar have that in common.
These next three are the “just happy to be here!” characters. Toad is more of an established character than the other two. He debuted as a playable character in 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 2. So he’s been around the block a few times. Yet he’s never forgotten those primordial years as the “But our princess is in another castle!” guy—the guy nobody wanted to see after killing Bowser for the seventh goddamn time. Everyone hated proto-Toad. Since then, though, he’s been set free from his prison and allowed to do meaningful stuff. He remains eternally grateful, and over time Nintendo has made him progressively more chipper to the point that he’s pure enthusiasm. And when your scalp looks like a huge marshmallow with bright red polka dots, “pure enthusiasm” is a good look. If I need to be cheered up, I play as Toad.
10. Koopa Troopa
Koopa Troopa is a cheerful sort, too, but his happiness is rendered as an empty gaze of contentment. That figures: He must know that he’s one of the lucky Troopas, presumably chosen by Bowser to represent the glorious Koopa race on the field of novelty-vehicle-based battle. How many of his compatriots has he seen skinned alive by one well-placed hop from Mario—or, worse, forced into their shells and made to bounce violently between two blocks for all of eternity? Koopa Troopa has the look of a creature who just wants to keep his head down and hold onto this job as long as he can, because he could have ended up in a different game like the poor bastard in this torture-porn art that Nintendo distributed to promote Super Mario 3D World:
Good God, that is a sad Koopa. So yeah, Mario Kart 8’s Koopa Troopa is happy to hold down this kart-racing gig. He doesn’t even care that they make him throw Koopa shells—i.e., the empty husks of his fallen brethren. Why isn’t Mario forced to hurl an anonymous human skull when he wants to take someone down? Koopa Troopa doesn’t know, but he isn’t going to make a stink about it as long you please don’t send him to the front lines, please. Please.
11. Shy Guy
Shy Guy is adorable—look at those stubby appendages trying to grasp that steering wheel!—and he easily could have been offputting. I mean, he’s a guy wearing a hooded costume with a dead-eyed mask, which is a tough starting point for family-friendly character design. The Shy Guy template can easily go wrong, as seen in this screenshot from The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!:
Now, that’s a bit of an unfair comparison, because every character looked creepy on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, but still.
Shy Guy is a fun character to race because he doesn’t look like he should be able to drive a go-kart—again, I call your attention to his super-cute lack of hands—meaning that every win is also a victory against the hegemony of handed culture.
Lakitu is a bastard. In the Super Mario games, he zips around the sky raining spiky harbingers of death from the safe, lofty perch of his cloud. There is nothing more pleasing in a Mario platformer than to time a jump by dumb luck—it’s always luck—so that you land on Lakitu, murdering him and taking his infernal cloud contraption for yourself.
In Mario Kart, Lakitu is the referee and the guy who swoops down to rescue you when you fall off the track. He charges three coins a pop for this latter service, so he’s the equivalent of the rake in a casino poker room: He gets rich no matter who wins. But Caesars Palace doesn’t get to deal itself in for a couple hands, so what the hell is Lakitu doing down on the racetrack? It’s an enormous conflict of interest. So I don’t play as Lakitu out of principle, and also because he looks like a fat old grandpa with safety glasses and a cowlick.
What are those pigtails made of? They look like two chains of pink racquetballs. Are they bouncy? Fibrous? Edible? I want to touch Toadette’s dangly things for myself, and I feel just as uncomfortable experiencing that urge as you did reading about it just now.
Introduced alongside a cavalcade of exclamation points in Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Toadette upset the previously assumed androgyny of Toad society upon her arrival, creating a huge Smurfette problem for this corner of the Mario universe. But that’s not her fault—blame the apparent misogyny of Toad culture, which keeps its women carefully hidden behind the oversized treasure chests that serve as furniture in Toad houses.
I choose to believe that Toadette’s pigtail balls are made of cake.
14-18. Baby Mario, Baby Luigi, Baby Peach, Baby Daisy, and Baby Rosalina
If you’re going to create infantilized versions of characters that the public already loves, you’re going to be measured against the gold standard of that subgenre, Muppet Babies. Mario Kart 8 suffers for the comparison. Muppet Babies managed to create adorable versions of the Muppets while preserving the essential charm of each one. Mario Kart 8’s Baby Mario and Luigi, however, don’t even appear to hail from the same aesthetic universe as the other characters. And rather than cartoon babies, they look like cartoon versions of kids who have just reached that age where they aren’t inherently cute anymore.
The girls, meanwhile, have pacifiers to ensure that their baby-ness is not in dispute. The two princesses are dull and predictable, but Baby Rosalina, seen above, looks like she’s ready to cut someone, and she frightens me.
Okay, I was half-kidding about Baby Rosalina scaring me, but Nintendo used to design truly scary characters. Thanks to the NES’ limited visual capabilities, the original 8-bit incarnation of Bowser in Super Mario Bros. is a disquieting sight to behold. His spikes look all mangled, he appears to be clutching his hands for some reason, and his face is locked in a rictus grin of snaggletoothed evil.
This creature looks like he just should not be, and since he always shows up at the end of a grueling castle level, 8-bit Bowser is a vision of fear.
The modern Bowser is gorgeous, but now that he can be rendered in crisp 3D, we no longer see a distorted accident of nature. Instead, we see a guy who hosts a reality show about the most kickass burgers in the Mushroom Kingdom. A guy who dealt with weight issues as a kid but is now comfortable with himself. A guy whose Scruff profile indicates he’s into the leather scene.
20. Donkey Kong
I don’t know why anybody would play as Donkey Kong when the far more stylish and cool Bowser is right next door. Donkey Kong’s design story is the opposite story of Bowser: He looks less ugly in his original, more pixelated rendition for the Donkey Kong arcade game. Today’s Donkey Kong is an ugly Homer Simpson with more body hair.
21-22. Wario and Waluigi
The name “Wario” came about when Nintendo combined the Japanese word for “bad”—warui—with Mario’s name. So in Japanese, it essentially means “bad Mario,” and in English, it looks like “war Mario,” which still sort of makes sense. Wario isn’t especially warlike—he’s more of a mischief-maker—but it’s a serviceable pun. Nintendo’s designers had to be pleased that they were able to come up with wordplay that worked across both languages.
Then came Waluigi. To English speakers, the name of this character (who was created for Mario Tennis, of all things) comes off as a clumsy extension of the Wario theme. But in Japanese, “Waluigi” is pronounced waruiji, which makes for an even better pun. The entire word for “bad” is right in the guy’s name! Those years of Japanese study were certainly worth it to understand this joke, I tell myself.
Wordplay aside, Waluigi is still terrible. Let’s not get carried away.
23-29. The Koopalings
At some point in Mario Kart 8’s development, it dawned on Nintendo’s designers that, holy crap, 30 characters is a lot of characters. And right now, I know how they felt. So thank Koopa-God for the Koopalings, a septet of largely forgettable Bowser-likes from Super Mario Bros. 3 who can juice the character count on any big ensemble game. On the character selection screen, the Koopalings are Nintendo’s way of saying, “…and so on.”
Of all the Koopalings, I’m fondest of Morton Koopa Jr., because he represents a crack in Nintendo’s prim facade. Bizarrely, Morton’s name is a reference to the deranged talk show host Morton Downey Jr., whose brief moment of stardom coincided with the development of Super Mario Bros. 3. Nintendo hardly ever makes pop-culture references, so it’s truly strange that they would choose this one. If you’re not familiar with the Downey’s body of work, here are some snippets from his Wikipedia bio.
Downey’s signature phrases “pablum puking liberal” (in reference to left-liberals) and “zip it!” briefly enjoyed some popularity in the contemporary vernacular.
Using a large silver bowl for an ashtray, he would chain smoke during the show and blow smoke in his guests’ faces.
In late April 1989, he was involved in an incident in a San Francisco International Airport restroom in which he claimed to have been attacked by neo-Nazis who painted a swastika on his face and attempted to shave his head. Some inconsistencies in Downey’s account (e.g., the swastika was painted in reverse, suggesting that Downey had drawn it himself in a mirror) … led many to suspect the incident was a hoax and a plea for attention.
And here’s a video of Downey promoting his brand of enlightened racial discourse:
To recap, Nintendo named a character after this man.
30. Mii (You)
Using the camera on the Wii U gamepad, you can photograph yourself and have the console create a Mii avatar based on your photo. It’s a fun feature because it works terribly. You carefully take a picture of yourself, line up the Gamepad just right, snap it, and then the Wii U assembles this awful homunculus that looks nothing like you. I don’t know if it even uses the photo—this could just be a placebo to keep you occupied while the software chooses physical traits at random.
My cretinous auto-generated Mii is named Dorp. In Mario Kart 8, I heard Dorp speak for the first time. This was upsetting. Dorp utters these hollow moans and yelps that sound like he’s in unending pain. But it fits. I couldn’t have picked a more suitable voice for this Frankenstein’s monster born from a mess of broken technology.
As it turns out, though, Dorp only speaks that way because at some point, I decided he likes yellow. Mario Kart 8 sets the voice of your Mii according to the “favorite color” you chose while making the avatar, with eight voices (four male, four female) available in total. I know this only because obsessive fans figured it out and made a ridiculously thorough YouTube video to document it:
Why go to all the trouble of researching Mii voices? It could be a testament to the insanity of video game fan communities, but I don’t think the fans are so crazy. No, that painstakingly researched video is a testament to Nintendo’s own craftsmanship. The company has gone through its creatively fallow periods, sure. But at its best, Nintendo has a penchant for creating games that make people care. It’s one of the great joys of the best Nintendo games—they’re filled with secrets you wouldn’t even think to look for. Nintendo’s designers sweat the details so that you can, too.