After going more than a quarter of the way through this project, maybe it’s time we talked about its star.
But oh, where to begin? Let’s face it: Unlike some of the characters in Super Mario Bros. 2, it’s not as though Mario hasn’t really done anything before or since. For that reason, maybe it’s best to just focus on his appearance in this game and what bearing it might have had on future appearances. (The usual, in other words.)
Mario is, of course, the main character in the game, and in an interesting (yet perhaps very Japanese) way, he’s the most average of the four heroes. In one way, this positions him as the standard bearer, but in another, it typically seems him overshadowed by his ensemble: Luigi can jump higher, Toad can pluck enemies and items faster, and the Princess can float for a moment.
I’m one of those apparent few who traditionally uses Mario as his main character throughout the game, as his average-ness not only makes him inferior in some respects, but also balances out the weaknesses of his allies. He can’t jump as high as his brother, but feels tighter to control; he’s not as fast as Toad, but can jump higher (meaning less need to perform the Power Squat Jump; and he can’t float, but he is still faster at picking things up. The other characters’ special traits may benefit players less experienced with the game, but in capable hands, any character is a good pick, and Mario especially so.
Perhaps more interesting than anything Mario does in the game itself, however, is how he looks in it.
Some may not realize it, but Super Mario Bros. 2 was something of a defining moment for Mario, as it effectively established his look. Prior to this, his appearance was prone to change from one game to the next, leading to some instances of confusion, but this is where the appearance he would take on to this very day was effectively canonized.
Well, mostly. Sort of.
In Super Mario Bros., Mario’s pixel art depicted him with a brown shirt, red overalls, and a red hat, though the game’s Japanese and European box art would show him with a blue shirt instead, effectively duplicating his color scheme from Donkey Kong (though arcade cabinet art also gave him something like a plaid shirt on its banner) and Donkey Kong Jr., yet diverging from Mario Bros., where he was given blue overalls, a red shirt, and a blue hat — except in the Nintendo Entertainment System’s home port, where he had a red hat instead.
In Super Mario Bros. 2, Mario’s pixel art gave him blue overalls, a red shirt, and a red hat, effectively duplicating the scheme found in Mario Bros. for the NES. However, it seems someone in marketing didn’t get the memo. A lot of people, even.
First and foremost, there’s the art that accompanied the game. While Mario sports his blue overall, red capped look in the game, the box tells a different story. There, he’s shown in the red overalls and blue shirt that had effectively become the character’s trademark in American minds as of Super Mario Bros.
The accompanying instruction booklet did the same. The art there was a bit different from what’s best known as the normal 2D style throughout the franchise, most notably in how it removed the blue from Mario’s eyes, but it also depicted him with red overalls and blue shirt.
I’ve gone over how even the cover to the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power went astray, but at least the interior managed to get it right. Well, some of the time.
Nintendo Power‘s coverage of Super Mario Bros. 2 incorporated a lot of art from various sources, even within the same article. First, there was the comic-styled artwork, which went off-model, but got the colors right — with the possible exception of the shoes. There, the artist arguably hewed a little too closely to the pixel art of the game, making Mario and Luigi’s shoes red and green, respectively. This was even echoed on the covers of the more on-model covers of the Super Mario Bros. 2 Inside Out guides that Nintendo Power published, some of whose art I’ve used in the banner of previous articles.
Then there was the stock art that was already commonly in use across swaths of Mario merchandise, which was colored to match the clay model on the cover of the magazine’s first issue. This extended beyond the coverage of Super Mario Bros. 2, and was used throughout the magazine, perhaps most notably on the survey cards for the Player’s Poll contest, a sample of which can be seen above. These would see continued used for a while after the game had first come out, too.
Then there are some of my personal favorites, as a third style was featured in the opening Super Mario Bros. 2 article in a series of pictures like the three seen above. These clearly attempted to keep true to the original Mario stock artwork while also remaining true to the pixel art in the game. Mario has a more robust frame here, and a curious addition unique to this version in his yellow gloves. My best guess is that this was how they reconciled the fact Mario wears gloves, yet his hands have a flesh tone in the games. With a limited color palette, one figures that some openness to interpretation is required.
Despite the move to blue overalls and a red shirt, however, the red overall/blue shirted version remained something of a staple of the character for years to come, particularly in other media.
Dic’s The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! kept the Mario Bros. in their red and green overalls, which makes some degree of sense. After all, it incorporated elements from both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2, and since Mario was known for red overalls in the first game and sported them on the cover for the second (as well as associated merchandise), it makes sense they’d go with the majority option. What makes it strange, however, is that they kept that color scheme for the brothers in The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and The New Super Mario World, despite the blue overalls having been firmly established in game, art, and merchandise alike by that point.
Moving a little beyond that, Hollywood Pictures’ Super Mario Bros. movie used a different style of coveralls for the duo, and made the dominant colors red and green for each of the respective Marios. Amusingly, this is hailed by many as the one aspect of the film (besides maybe Bob Hoskins’ mustache) that is true to the games, despite the fact Mario had been sporting blue overalls (and not coveralls) for a good three and a half years by this point.
Interestingly enough, Mario would return to the classic red overall color scheme in some future games. Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that despite coming out in 1996, BS Super Mario USA had Mario and Luigi in their earlier color schemes, which also matches the Japanese box art for Super Mario USA.
Even more recently, Super Mario Odyssey allows you to dress Mario up in the “Classic Outfit” (with matching “Classic Cap”) after either purchasing it from a Crazy Cap store or scanning a Mario amiibo figure. While generally attributed to Donkey Kong, some still see it as Mario’s outfit circa Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2.
Basically, I feel like those are what made Mario come alive to me in this game. Unlike his Super Mario Bros. appearance, this made the character more cartoon-like and eager to tackle the adventure before him. It might have even been the first instance that I can recall seeing personally of a game bridging that sort of gap, which had been something of a goal of Shigeru Miyamoto’s going back to Donkey Kong.
Looking at earlier prototypes of the game, or even certain frames of animation (such as when ducking, dying, or even just waiting to be selected on the character select screen), the whites are missing from his (as well as Luigi and Peach’s) eyes. From what I understand, this is due to the four-color limitation of sprites on the NES (usually three colors, plus transparency). Nintendo cleverly got around this by using an additional sprite to give the characters the whites of their eyes. (I absolutely don’t understand the finer points, but I did find this thread for anyone interested.)
To that point, I’ve always felt that Mario’s pixel art (to say nothing of Luigi’s) in Super Mario Bros. 2 was far superior to what we saw in what’s often considered the better (if not the best, depending on who you speak with) game, Super Mario Bros. 3. But as this has probably gone long enough, I think I might save the specifics for another time.
For now, I think that covers all the key points about Mario in this adventure.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.