The 100 Million Deaths of the Martyr We Call Mario

This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.


When the small man arrives at the moment of his death, he freezes in place as a series of MIDI tones ring out—three of them—in machine-gun succession. The small man raises his arms in a mortal splay. He feels the hot thrum of his blood rushing to the surface of his face, his mouth and unseeing eyes forced wide by shock. Because we cannot hear his voice we do not know for sure that he whispers a prayer in those final seconds: “Forgive them, Shigeru, they know not what they do.” But we believe that he does. As if using the last ounces of the force that has driven him ceaselessly to this dying place, the small man rises into the air. Straight up. Then he begins to fall, or, more accurately, to descend at a speed just a touch faster than gravity itself would take him down, as if some unseen hand reaches up from the invisible below and drags him. Just as the small man disappears below the lip of the screen it goes black.

Super Mario’s death is a gripping scene, and later iterations have only been more grim, but what we feel as these codas play out isn’t sadness. Instead we feel an impotent frustration mottled with shame. The feeling is the same no matter how horrible the scene we witness. Even after we are forced to watch Mario struggle, futilely, to scramble to his feet after suffering a head trauma, or drown screaming plaintively in a culvert of magma, or choke to death on noxious gas, our reaction is the same: we stab the Start button with our finger and grudgingly begin all over again the process of killing one of the most venerated global icons in pop culture history. The death of film and literature protagonists whose fame pales in comparison to Mario’s are marked by flowery prose, accented with orchestral swells, and lamented by the tearful tweets of millions. So why no florid eulogies for the world’s most indelibly beloved plumber? Why no dirge beyond this one? Why aren’t we the tiniest bit conflicted not only about watching Mario die, but about acting as the direct agent of his demise?

we tolerate death when it fits into the larger scheme 

Generally, Americans are not okay with death, but there is one sort of death that we accept more or less with docility. To paraphrase Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker hospital speech: we tolerate death when it fits into the larger scheme of how we make sense of the world. We are free marketeers, even on an existential level. We tolerate death when it buys us something in return, when it advances our principles, proves our point, or teaches us something. The most apt name for such a death, and our accompanying sense that its meaning is constituent of a larger scheme, is martyrdom. Super Mario, then, would seem to be the world’s second most famous martyr. The motivations and overarching scheme of martyr #1 have been, you might say, covered, and aren’t eligible for further investigation here, though information is widely available. Because Mario’s death was hardwired into his games from the beginning, and thus seems inevitable to us, it’s been subjected to much less rigorous examination. All of which leaves open the question of what exactly Mario might be attempting to communicate to us, his disciples, through his 100 million weekend trips into hell.

The most direct answer is the game developer’s answer, which is, unsurprisingly, the most boring answer. Avoiding death gives players what’s called an endogenous motivation to keep playing the game. The very fact that your actions sent Mario to the gardens of Jannah is a sufficient condition to let you know that you’ve made a mistake. What Mario’s death does not do is provoke a diegetic reaction—the kind that comes when a player’s identity begins to get tangled up with their onscreen persona, and the feedback the game provides goes beyond simply telling her how to successfully manipulate an avatar, but communicates meaning to the player herself. Endogenically, we don’t want Mario to die because the game defines success as completing levels without dying. But diegetically, we don’t feel morally responsible for Mario’s life, even though we control every aspect of it. A purely endogenic death is akin to a Reset Button communicated, for ease, in the language of mortality, the ultimate consequence.

The whole process of life and death is right there in front of us

If Mario’s death ritual was this self-contained, designed only to perpetuate itself, he wouldn’t be much of a martyr. Martyrs don’t die to endorse themselves. (Although one could certainly make the argument that Martyr #1, by his own lights, died to advance humanity’s understanding of Christianity—a religion whose object and premise is the worship of … well, Martyr #1. ) No, by placing us at the center of his cycle of death and resurrection, by giving us control over it, Mario bestows us with an exogenic purpose in playing—a real-life purpose. As Joe Bernardi writes: “That games permit the player to explore and experiment with death is arguably even more empowering than giving him the opportunity to avoid it. Dying in games sets our lives, such as they are, in very slight relief. Fighting through death, even fake death … can remind us more of our own endurance than our own mortality.” The whole process of life and death is right there in front of us in a linear sprawl that we cannot fail to perceive. We misjudge the distance of a ledge, we summon a fireball an instant too late, we lose focus for one millisecond beneath a hail of hammers, and the small man freezes, the MIDI tones ring out, the mortal splay, the rise, the descent, the blackness. He shows us that the spectre of our death, and the contortions to which we put ourselves to avoid it—to stave it off—is the only real process by which we learn anything.

Mario doesn’t die for anything as arcane or nebulous as our sins. Mario gives his life, over and over, for something far more prosaic: he dies for our mistakes, and in doing so he gives us tools to attempt to understand practically what we could only otherwise suppose intellectually: that death is the end of us, but it is also our greatest teacher. What makes the small man a martyr, the larger scheme to which he lends his life 100 million times, allows us to benefit from the lessons of death in hindsight. As he disappears below the lip of the screen, the small man shows us how instructive our own deaths could be if it wasn’t literally the last goddamn thing we do.


This article is part of Mario Week, our seven day-long celebration of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario World and 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. To read more articles from Mario Week, go here.