I spent 2011 documenting the life of one of the most important people in the media world. His name is invoked when referring to the European debt crisis, Medicaid reform, soccer stars, and even bioplastics. PETA protested him, coasting off his reflected fame.
I spent the year blogging about Super Mario.
While researching my book on the history of Nintendo, I set up a Google Alert for the chubby video game hero. Turns out there are dozens of stories about Super Mario written each day: who knew? What in the world was there to say about a guy who's said maybe five words, ever?
As a dare to myself, I decided to chronicle a year's worth of Super Mario stories on my book's website. Ground rules: each day, a new and unrelated story about a different slice of the Mario cake. (You know, the cake Peach baked for him in Super Mario 64.) No days off. No unnewsworthy stories (ie, critiques of 1991 games written in 2011: that's not news). The daily link had to carry its weight.
Was there a new story every single day? What would - what could — they all say? And if indeed there was one a day, what would that ubiquity say about us as a society? Why had we elevated Mario to the same lofty heights as Lady Gaga, Steve Jobs, and Chuck Testa?
Day one: January 1, 2011. Most people resolve to pay attention to their pot bellies: I resolved to pay attention to someone else's. My first @dailymario tweet, going out to eleven people, alerted the populace-of-eleven-people that in an online game called Minecraft, someone has put Mario's face on Mount Rushmore. Brick by brick, someone went into a video game and very elaborately built a monument where George Washington was replaced by "Hey-It's-a-me." Surprised? This not only won't be the only Mario tribute I hear about in Minecraft, it's not the only time Mario's face has shown up on Rushmore. (Pilotwings 64 players know what I'm talking about.)
Here's an average week's worth of stories:
—Sunday, Jan. 9: Nintendo announces plans to reprint some limited-edition games in honor of Super Mario Bros. 25th anniversary.
—Monday, Jan. 10: A clip of the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Smith's 67-yard touchdown, set to the invincibility Starman music.
—Tuesday, Jan. 11: Dubious news: Super Mario Galaxy 2 has been pirated 1.5 million times, making it one of the most stolen games of all time.
—Wednesday, Jan. 12: a fan-made video that horrifyingly adds Mario (and his creators) to Silent Hill, a gruesome disturbing horror game franchise.
—Thursday, Jan. 13: a Dutch gamer sets a Guinness record for playing Mario for 18 minutes...while in freefall.
—Friday, Jan. 14: another Mario video, placing him and Luigi in a Grand Theft Auto-styled crime game.
—Saturday, Jan. 15: a College Humor video of the Super Mario roast, featuring Patrick Warburton as the foulmouthed voice of Bowser.
—Sunday, Jan. 16: Take a wild guess who made it onto a Belgian postage stamp!
Around three months into the experiment, I start up the blog proper. Instead of just tweeting a link, I write a blog post about it, then tweet the link to the blog post....to eleven people. First story was the launch of the Nintendo 3DS, its new handheld console in the Game Boy/DS family.
The Nintendo 3DS will become one of the big Nintendo stories of the year, mostly because it's a dud. At launch in March it's expensive ($250), it has no killer-app games — no Mario! — and its vaunted 3D feature isn't much used. Nintendo ends up slashing the price, slashing their execs' salaries, and forking over 20 downloadable games to the early adopters who bought high instead of waiting.
Another Nintendo saga was its secret successor to the Wii, which turned out to be called the Wii U. The controller is a touchscreen tablet, with buttons lining the edges. There's more to it, to be sure, but an iPad clone rumored to cost $100 more than an iPad? As with the 3DS debacle, Nintendo's stock price limboed lower and lower.
Those are all business stories, one stripe of Mario news. Rumors about new hardware, and updates about new games (Mario has six in 2011), offers two more news streams. But shouldn't that be all? What else is there to talk about, besides the occasional hacking?
Welcome to the online world of Mariolatry, where Mario is such a celebrity any mention of his name draws traffic like Chain Chomps. Thus, any excuse to write about Mario is a valid one. For instance, one day, a new record was set on the original Super Mario Bros.. beating the game with 700 measly points. Quite a feat, surely one that can't ever be — wait, someone just did it in 600 points.
Mario is huge in the world of memes: sooner or later, every big meme is married to a Mario illustration. Mario acted in puppet shows, made it into the Smithsonian, stripped in Chicago, fought pirates, ran the London Marathon, ran a gaming marathon, and became the letter M.
2011 found more Mario branding than an Italian cattle ranch: Converse sneakers, parkour gyms, toy racecars, actual racecars, more Mario-decorated bathrooms than you'd think possible. Crossover cameos in other games: Portal, Angry Birds, Just Dance. There was even Mario-themed wedding invitations. Weddings? Yes, weddings. This article would go on even longer if I included all the covers of Mario music, so here's just one: a cockatoo.
Mario's having a good Christmas. He arrived on his white horse — well, green dinosaur — in November, with the superb Super Mario 3D Land. It was designed to be actively MORE difficult without using 3D — the jumping puzzles are intuitive with the 3D on, but off they're like trying to tweeze a gray hair in the mirror. A Mario Kart title and a classic Zelda game repackaged for the 3DS followed soon after. 3DS sales doubled. Mario and Zelda won awards. The juggernaut of public opinion was finally moving uphill.
The year ended with a curious about-face: on a Wednesday in December, Wired's Chris Kohler broke the news that Mario's mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto was retiring from his overseer role at Nintendo, and would start up an in-house shop with new young talent. The stock price dropped 2%. Nintendo the next day said that Wired's scoop was "absolutely not true."
Miyamoto has become the Steve Jobs of gaming, in that anything he says can and will be used against his company's stock price. One can imagine Nintendo execs ordering the world's most comfortable handcuff, ever so gently chaining Miyamoto-san to his desk. Wonder who'll come to save him?
If you'll pardon the pun, it makes sense that we've put Mario on a platform. (For nongamers: Mario's side-scrolling style of gameplay is called platforming.) He's remained uncorrupted, always there to unleash our inner 10-year-old whenever we need him. And he's been doing it for a full generation, 30 years. Kids from the ‘50s had Howdy Doody, but their Gen X kids had no idea why a black-and-white puppet mattered. Kids from the ‘70s have the same problem explaining the Muppets to their offspring. The current youth will no doubt have a hard to delineating what there is to love about Zhu-Zhu Hamsters or Skylanders.
But Mario looks to stay eternal. Nintendo never strays him too far from his jumping-around and exploring wheelhouse. That lets his be a symbol of innocent play, of yesterday's uncorrupted fun. When we talk about loving Mario games, we're really remembering our own childhood. Mario, meet Rosebud.
That's why there's so much written about Mario: we love talking about ourselves. And in my year of Mario, who did I end up talking about the most? Hey, it's-a me!
Jeff Ryan is the author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America. He is working on a follow-up, Dig-Dug: The Agony and the Ecstasy. Every day he posts what's happening in the world of Mario at www.supermariobook.com.