There’s a type of hyper-focus I can achieve with Mario games that’s not entirely dissimilar to Tetris. Under the right circumstances, running through a level with nothing but reflexes and feelings is like sight-reading music but with a plumber as the instrument. It’s the thing that separates those games from everything else out there, feeling less like there’s a middle-man of button presses between you and the game and more like a direct connection.
My partner does not feel that. She does not like this kind of Mario.
It is not like I didn’t know this. Her favorite Mario game is Super Mario Sunshine, a fact I can never cease my enjoyment in mocking. Her pokes-at and dalliances-with the various 2D Marios have led her to a pretty firm conclusion that it’s just not her jam. She wants to look around every corner for neat things and not be dragooned into moving forward by a time limit or all-too-insistent sped up music.
We figured, then, that we would give Super Mario 3D World a try together. While not quite splitting the difference between the different kinds of Mario games we like, it would be close enough that it would be an enjoyable co-op experience. After a few hours, she defeatedly apologized, saying “Sorry I’m not good at Mario.”
As my partner and I continued playing, she became more resolved to learning the game to not feel like a drag on progress. She reasoned that, if she sat down and really spent the time to get better, it would be no problem. Instead, she preferred to keep playing with me and just come to grips with the game over its natural course rather than “study” how to get better. So we kept playing, we kept dying, and we kept encouraging each other after multiple deaths, missed green stars, and game over screens.
Playing together was a lesson for me, as well. I had no idea how to onboard another player into a game beyond explaining the rules and mechanics. If I dashed through like I normally would, neither of us would really be having fun. Trying to plow ahead in a Mario game and leave your co-op partner behind is the equivalent of trying to communicate with someone speaking a foreign language by yelling louder.
And that is what Mario is, it’s a foreign language learned over decades. It is what makes the idea of Super Mario Maker work, an assumed fluency in the way he jumps and how Koopa Troopas react at the end of said jump. After 35 years, Mario’s biggest strength is not the creative level design or the iconic character, it’s that the games speak a language of their own that acts as a baseline to other experiences.
There are very few game series that are expected to both constantly reinvent itself and also remain true to what people expect. The way that Mario as a series makes sense to people is if they can put definitions to its mechanics and know what a game is going to feel like when they pick it up. Few other games can claim it, though I also doubt few other series would want those decades of built-up pressure to both consistently reinvent itself and also hew closely to established mechanics.
Mario has been around as long as I have, so it is difficult for me to imagine a world where the little red plumber isn’t bopping along Goomba heads on his way to a flagpole or a star. But it was not until recently that I realized how ingrained the language of these games is both ingrained in decades of games since and how important it is to make Mario feel like Mario. As the series evolves, our ability to analyze and understand the medium as a whole evolves in parallel, and it only increases my appreciation for the Mushroom Kingdom.