“Don’t bother me! I’m playing Mario!”
It was a bittersweet moment the first time my four-year-old son Franky shouted that at me. As a father, I’m no fan of rudeness or open defiance, but as a gamer? Same, bro. I could care less about orange juice or apple juice with dinner too.
Seeing him engrossed in “Mario” (Super Mario 3D World to be specific) stirred up nostalgic feelings akin to what Disney folks must feel when their kids hit the theme parks for the first time. But it also did something I didn’t expect: it made me appreciate Mario’s game design on a whole other level. And, in the process, drew me back into a franchise I had long ignored.
In a 2015 interview with Vox, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto acknowledged Mario’s waning popularity, especially among adult gamers. “We ask ourselves: Why have people stopped playing Mario?” he said.
I was one of those people. I’d pick up a Mario game here or there, but it wasn’t on my radar in quite the same way as something like The Last of Us Part II or Halo Infinite. A lot has changed for Nintendo since 2015. That’s in large part due to the enormous success of the Switch, which has sold more than 103 million units worldwide as of February 2022.
Mario is certainly in no danger of fading into obscurity — he appears in 10 of the top 20 Switch games. However, he doesn’t evoke the breathless fawning heaped upon games like Elden Ring or Breath of the Wild. This is a mistake.
Mario’s design is every bit as elegant. It's like The Beatles. You have to consciously take a moment to acknowledge that this ubiquitous little plumber influenced damn near everything for decades. You don’t appreciate it as an adult because you’ve lived through it, because it’s been appropriated by games for decades, and, crucially, because you can read. It’s easy for devs to teach you game mechanics through tutorials. But a four-year-old can’t jump into Soulsbornes and make any meaningful progress.
Franky isn’t some prodigy, either. He’s a typical “Gen C” kid who started gaming by watching his mom play Animal Crossing: New Horizons and occasionally used the controller to roam around. He’d never seemed interested in Mario until the YouTube algorithm decided to put it into his feed. When we were all stuck at home together for two weeks in late December, I let Franky run around in Super Mario 3D World instead of Animal Crossing on a whim. I didn’t think it would amount to much.
I was wrong. I watched in real time as the genius of Miyamoto’s game design philosophies bore fruit. Franky’s first day was just a lot of running Mario off the edge. He thought the sounds and faces Mario made as he fell into the abyss were funny.
Everything changed when he accidentally ran into a coin.
Franky doesn’t understand currency. He doesn’t understand 100 coins give you an extra life, or that true completionists endeavor to find every coin in the game. He understands aesthetics because he lives life like most preschoolers, a sensory-first existence dictated by the biology of his rapidly changing body and mind.
So, to him, coin goes “ding!” Ding is fun. Coin is fun. More coin. More fun.
Coins lead to mystery boxes, a marvel of tantalizing visual design. A glowing gold box with a question mark is irresistible, even to tiny humans who don’t know punctuation. Mystery boxes teach jumping.
Jump into box. Coin goes ding. Box is empty. Find new box.
Within four days he was finishing levels on his own, often aided by another great piece of design — the invincible tanooki suit Super Mario 3D World unlocks if you struggle to clear a certain level. Then he realized that the tanooki suit won’t let you wear the cat suit bestowed by the game’s unique Super Bell. “Kitty Mario,” as he calls him, proved irresistible.
He upped his game. Soon he was beating levels left and right, often assisted by watching the Let’s Play videos YouTube kept feeding him.
I noticed he was on World 5 and asked my wife, “How many of those levels did you do for him?” She looked stunned. “I thought you were doing those,” she said.
Franky also drew me back into a love affair with Mario. He still hands me the Switch from time to time when snagging a particular moon is too tricky (he’s onto Super Mario Odyssey now), or a boss is too daunting. But in my limited free time, I find myself playing Odyssey too, or revisiting my childhood favorite Super Mario World.
Horizon: Forbidden West is gathering dust and I haven’t even bought Elden Ring yet. Why would I? In my house, every day is Mario day.