For as long as Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and Princess Peach have existed, another group of characters have been waiting in the wings, ready to let players know about whose princess is in which castle. The Toads have always been there, and they have always been overlooked. But Toads can be heroes.
Super Mario’s World is a look at the characters that turned the Mario franchise into a household name for 35 years.
We’ve all felt overlooked and powerless at some point in life—now a cliché at the start of 2021. I have a lifelong complex around the idea that I’m being overlooked professionally and personally, and whenever I do get recognition, I worry about when I’ll lose it, possibly for good. There are times when the things we love about ourselves go unseen and ignored by the people around us. We all carry names and identities, and we want them acknowledged, respected, and even celebrated.
In that way, we all know what it must feel like to be a Toad.
To be a Toad is to know fear. From their very first appearance in Super Mario Bros., they’ve been tools and victims in the war between Bowser and the Mushroom Kingdom. Just like the Koopa King has his erstwhile minions in Goombas and Koopa Troopas, Princess Peach has always ruled over the Toads, a race of diminutive, vest-clad mushroom people.
Sometimes they’re a generic mob of frightened peasants. (Given that their entire military defense system is Some Guy And His Brother, the fear is warranted.) Sometimes a single, unnamed Toad (or Kinopio, as he’s known in Japan) gets bumped up to playable status in a platformer or a party game. Toads can be fodder or friends, punchlines or protagonists, depending on the game or the story they’re in. But above any other Mario character, the Toads raise more questions the more you think about them.
Are they grown like fungi? Do they reproduce asexually? Is every Toad an evolved version of the already-mobile Super Mushroom? For years, I wondered if Princess Peach was a colonizer human reigning over a race of indigenous fungi. But then we learned about Peachette. Is Peach just an older, fully-evolved Toad? I could go on.
The Mario franchise isn’t concerned about lore, and the Toads exist to give Peach a Kingdom of denizens to rule over and Mario some extra people to save. Their screechy, terrified panic has been a fixture of Mario’s adventures for decades, and in games like Paper Mario: Sticker Star, he can meet literally hundreds of identical Toads and never learn the name of a single one. At their worst, Toads are a caricature of the masses themselves; jittery bulb-headed commoners that need the guiding hand of a monarch. A sea of nameless NPCs, literally and figuratively.
But Toads are as great as they’re allowed to be. Give them names and voices, and they become many of the most engaging and memorable characters in the Mario RPG spinoff games. Give a Toad a playable role in Super Mario Bros. 2, and he’s stronger and faster than even Mario himself. Add a pair of vaguely-pigtail-looking orbs, and you get Toadette, one of the most bubbly and multi talented characters in the Mushroom Kingdom. Throw in a sepia-toned recolor and a cane, and you get Toadsworth, the elder statesman.
Add a headlamp, a backpack, and an infectious love for “adventure,” and you get Captain Toad: my favorite Nintendo character.
Introduced in Super Mario Galaxy as the de facto leader of the Toad Brigade, Captain Toad is a normal Toad who finds himself stranded in space with friends, builds a fully-operational spacecraft, and gains the title of “Captain” as an afterthought. He helps (?) Mario alongside his Brigade (his other, color-coded, non-Captain Toad friends) by locating and uncovering power stars, a testament to his treasure tracking talents. He is a child’s idea of an explorer, and the absolute pinnacle of Nintendo’s adorably effective brand of character design.
Captain Toad lugs around a backpack as big as his entire body. He brings along a weathered, rolled-up parchment map while travelling through outer space, which seems...unhelpful? He has a headlamp strapped to his mushroom cap head that, physically, he cannot remove on his own. His arms are too tiny to reach it! Most importantly, he’s robbed of everything that defined Toad from a gameplay perspective in Super Mario Bros. 2. He can’t jump (because backpack) and he moves at an adorably slow-and-steady default walking speed (once again, backpack).
But he can still be a hero, in his own way. All he needed was a chance. Subsequent appearances in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D World cemented him as a recurring character, and the latter game made him playable in a series of puzzle-box standalone levels. Those levels, in turn, were the focus of his very own spinoff game, Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker.
I love Treasure Tracker. More importantly, I love watching other people play Treasure Tracker. Even gaming newcomers are at least familiar with Toads as a character and a concept: they’re tiny, they’re weak, they’re shrieking. Seeing Captain Toad as the hero is a source of immediate joy and empathy, because he’s still prone to fear-based meltdowns and scratchy, high-pitched exclamations. But he also is ready for some goddamn adventure, and will do anything to save his adventure pal, Toadette, from the clutches of Wingo, a vaguely Middle-Eastern bird. (She returns the favor in the back half of the game, because Treasure Tracker is a masterpiece.) Anyone who plays Treasure Tracker knows that Captain Toad and Toadette are regular Toads doing their best, and it’s hard to not love someone for that.
Mario was born to be a hero, and the entire world bends to his will. Bowser was born to be a villain, and will master the worlds of science and magic to take his kidnapping-and-tyranny game to the next level. As player ciphers and obstacles respectively, they represent practically unlimited potential. Even in their own fantastical worlds, these characters are superlative. Hell, his name is Super Mario, and no one even bats an eye at the ego of it all. But in your life, you are the Toad. That’s not an insult, it’s just statistics. The Toad is the everyperson, the commoner, the most populous and diverse creature in the world.
The average sentient being in the Mushroom Kingdom isn’t like Mario, Luigi, or even Princess Peach. The average person is a Toad. And Toads are, well, punchlines. The Mario franchise is somehow on the cusp of becoming much more than just the most recognizable brand in video game history. The (entirely Mario-focused) Super Nintendo World theme park is set to open in Japan this spring, with several worldwide parks to follow. Illumination, the American film studio that unleashed Despicable Me (and by extension, Minions) on the world, is set to release Super Mario Bros.: The Movie in 2022.
It’s not hard to imagine what the Toads in that movie will become. It’s literally the people who invented the Minions. We could be watching a group of Toads dance to a Charli XCX single over the end credits in just over a year. It will probably become the highest-grossing video game movie of all time, and Toads will probably continue to be a joke.
But they can be so much more. They can be anything. Toads have been artists, chefs, knights, socialites, and pro wrestlers. The right outfit can change them from a comedy prop to an all-time classic character. No one is flat, helpless, and one-note in their own stories. Every Toad contains that potential.
That’s why we love them. Captain Toad is, essentially, doing half of what Mario does on a good day, with twice the effort. We have raided tombs, run through temples, and killed giant magic birds in video games before Captain Toad gave us the privilege. But we’ve rarely done it as a character almost defined by its non-hero status. Captain Toad, and nameless Toads that occasionally get the spotlight in games like New Super Mario Bros and 3D World, aren’t super. They aren’t chosen ones, and if you took away their accessories and put them in a lineup, they would look like anyone else.
That’s the point. A hero can look like anyone else. And they could be ready for adventure right now, just waiting for their chance to shine. We are all Toad. We can all shine.
Mike Sholars is a freelance pop-culture writer who believes that the best way to celebrate the things you love is to roast them relentlessly. He loves video games and anime. Follow him on Twitter @Sholarsenic.