What do you think of Mario 64 from the perspective of 2020? Great game, huh?
It sure is!
Mario 64 still sits atop the entire Mario heap for a good many Mario fans. It's a respectable choice, too. Unquestionably revolutionary in 1996, Mario 64 confidently burst with innovation, including codifying analog control for 3D gaming. (Don't believe me? Just remember that Tomb Raider had you controlling Lara Croft with a D-pad on an invisible grid. Holy crap other developers were not ready for the polygonal future!)
I was a lapsed gamer by this point, a teenaged SEGA fan interested more in girls than any of these new-fangled 64-bit game consoles. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Playstation and a 3DO in 1996. But I did get the opportunity to play Mario 64 at my cousin’s house one summer and it blew my Sonic speed shoes off. It was absolutely a classic from start to finish.
Well... about that. Maybe it wasn't exactly a classic from the very, very start. Because the moment we fired it up, I remember the complete rage I felt when I heard this for the first time:
To this day it's the most famous thing Mario has ever said. You can probably go to any city in the world wearing a red cap and say “It’s-a me…” and most people will have an idea what you’re going on about.
Too bad it completely sucks.
I can already hear the gasps. “But Kris, this is the main character of your favorite game series ever! You don’t just love Mario games, you love Mario himself!” And that’s all true.
But we need to recognize the voice in Mario 64 for what it is: A retcon.
Because I do love Mario. But I fell in love with him 12 years earlier when I played Donkey Kong for the first time. And sure, back then it wasn’t possible to give Mario a voice in a video game (well, talk to Sinistar about that, but you get my point). You had to hear his voice somewhere else.
My first concept of who Mario actually was came from “Saturday Supercade”, an early 80s cartoon that's oddly little discussed and little watched by Nintendo fans. But this was the first place where a kid could watch Mario in action, running around with Pauline trying to catch Donkey Kong. This was my favorite show when I was 5 years old and I rooted for Mario every week. It set my personal concept of Mario in stone: Mario is a working class guy from Brooklyn with Italian roots.
Damn, he strong too!
That characterization continued in subsequent Mario games. While he’s associated mostly with plumbing, Nintendo fans know he’s worked many different manual labor jobs - jobs that don’t come with a lot of glory (plumbing, demolition, construction… uh, boxing referee). He was fundamentally a working class hero - just another hard working schlub like millions of ‘em out there doing jobs like this right now.
His status as a working class hero wasn’t questioned for over a decade. The later Super Mario Super Show and its spin-offs continued that characterization with Captain Lou Albano. When the property was brought to the big screen, Bob Hoskins played him similarly. While I wouldn’t consider any of these great examples of entertainment, the characterization of Mario was consistent.
So while you can argue that Mario never had his voice in a game before, it’s dishonest to pretend the characterization in Mario 64 was consistent with how he’d been presented up until that point. It was a retcon, plain and simple.
I should say right now that I don’t blame voice actor Charles Martinet. The decision to use his characterization goes above his head. He’s also supremely talented, funny, enthusiastic and by all accounts a friendly guy who loves to interact with Mario fans young and old. If I feel any consolation at the existence of his take on Mario, it’s that at least the voice comes out of the throat of a person as cool as Martinet.
But the voice itself still sucks. It fundamentally changes Mario from a working stiff into an air-headed, unknowable cipher. He’s a pure cartoon character, now. He seems to have no inner life at all. He just seems to hang out in a castle with a couple of princesses, eating cakes and riding go karts until some adventure sweeps him up. That’s a far cry from the plumber’s life he used to lead.
Oddly enough Mario’s arc reminds me of the character whose voice he most sounds like: Mickey Mouse. In fact, I call the Martinet performance “Mickey Mario” to distinguish it from “Brooklyn Mario” the one I grew up with.
Both Mickey and Mario started out as working-class characters. Mickey lived in a farmhouse and played xylophone on a cow’s teeth. Mario worked all those blue collar jobs. Both were early icons of a new entertainment technology - animation (especially sound animation) and video games. Both were also good-hearted rascals. Mickey got into all kinds of rough and tumble trouble in his black and white cartoons and Mario was famously a villain in Donkey Kong, Jr.
Pictured: Relatable Working Class Heroism
What’s interesting is that both characters spent the first decade or so of their lives with these particular quirks but they were gradually sanded down until both could function as bland corporate mascots. I consider both instances a form of working class erasure. They just had the personality sucked right out of them.
Want proof? How many times have you heard people on this board say they don’t like Mario all that much? That he’s a bit of a prick? That they prefer Luigi? How many times have we had to listen to console warriors argue that he’s a bad Italian stereotype? That accusation is probably not fair, but it didn’t come from nowhere. He was definitely always Italian, but he didn’t used to go around using broken English or shouting ‘Mamma Mia’ for no damned reason.
It’s interesting to me to consider the ridiculous number of hours most of us have spent playing Mario games and yet some of us still feel like Mario is more distant than characters we’ve spent less time with. I haven’t played nearly as many hours of Metroid, but I think I’ve got a better handle on who Samus Aran is compared to Mickey Mario. And she barely says a word at all.
It's no secret I’ve been looking back at Sonic the Hedgehog games lately. To my bones I believe the Mario series is significantly better. But I came across a Sonic fan the other day who had an interesting take: Mario fans love the Mario games because they’re great games full of great gameplay. Sonic fans love the Sonic games because they love Sonic himself. As a partisan for Mario, that’s a gut punch. Do we love Mario games in spite of Mario? When I go to Sonic forums, they’re full of fan drawings of the Sonic cast. I mean, it's just crappy drawings of Sonic as far as the eyes can see. I’ve even had a go myself and drawn Sonic and Tails a few times, recently. By contrast, I’ve been hanging out with Nintendo fans online since 2005. People don’t consistently put pencil to paper and draw Mario. It makes you wonder.
Hanging it on the fridge like an absolute child, too!
Is this because he was lobotomized back in Mario 64? I’m not willing to say that for certain. But I can say that, like Mickey before him, he was certainly more interesting to me when was more of a regular guy.
It took several decades, but eventually Disney seemed to realize what they’d done to Mickey. About 10 years ago they released the Epic Mickey games, which tried to reconnect the character to his rascally past. Recently they released a series of Mickey shorts that drew inspiration from more radical forms of animation, like Ren and Stimpy (to mixed results, I might add. But you gotta consider that progress. I can’t imagine the Disney company I grew up with in the 80s doing anything that radical with Mickey).
My hope is that Nintendo eventually realizes their original concept of Mario wasn’t broken and that they lost something when they turned him into more of a cartoony brand. I don’t require that they get rid of Mickey Mario altogether - I want Charles Martinet to still eat - but I would like to see Brooklyn Mario reappear in some form or other. Maybe he could star in a series based on the original Donkey Kong. Maybe they could revive his working class roots with new takes on Wrecking Crew or Mario Bros. I'm not sure exactly how they could use him, but I'd be there day one.