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The hell of being 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.

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The first time Mario looked at me I was sitting on the carpet of the den of my friend Nick’s house. That they had a den at all was amazingly luxurious; my childhood home had only had rooms named after whatever you were supposed to do in them. Dens remain a mystery to me: something more than a TV room, something more than a living room. But there I was: it was finally my turn to grasp the clammy gray object that was the N64 controller and start a new game so as not to erase—or further—progress that wasn’t mine. Nick punched the reset button on the console.

“Hello!”

The game’s introduction isn’t a prologue, or a tutorial, or an introduction; it’s a head. Mario’s canonical head: floating, disembodied, present. It somehow transcends the definitions of the caricatures before it: two-dimensional, cartoon, Bob Hoskins. Mario’s head speaks, Mario’s head looks. And with it, so does Mario—a true Mario.

To talk about Mario, as we do this week, you have to talk about protagonists—you have to talk about games. But you also have to talk about the self. In a lot of ways, Mario represents a cultural patient-zero for the interactive media; the ur-protagonist we all took our first steps through. In the same way that a (my) mother calls a gaming machine a Nintendo, Mario is your guy, you, me, I. When Mario dies, we die; I die. I lost a life. I got the star. I beat the game.

Mario never does these things without our say so. As a puppet, he is nothing more than the actions of his puppet master, which is to say, he is nothing more than the actions of his player. When you or I grab the controls, we are him; he is us. He is never him. We run him into lava, fall into pits, and fail jumps. We accept the defeat of a game over, see our disappointments mirrored in his gasps, his sighs, his plummets. We never share our victories with him, but we also never share our defeats. As we push him into failure and into death, he is powerless.

Mario is your guy, you, me, 

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It wasn’t until the early morning hours of that night’s sleepover that we started fucking with his face. “Did you know you could stretch out his face? In the beginning?”

Another reset.

“Hello!”

Grab his extremities and tug until they stretch no farther. The bill of his hat; his ears; his nose; his cheeks; his chin. Let them go, and they snap back with a comedic sound effect, a sproing. Stars dart around the infinite space Mario’s head seems to find—it? Him?—in Super Mario 64, the background says, on loop, tiling into infinity. His eyes follow the stars around, watching them flit about like insects. We didn’t know then that you could freeze his face by holding down a button. Until that point it was all so simple, so childlike. So fun. The hold button adds another layer. This layer is not fun. This layer is terrifying.

The cursor through which you grab his ears and cheeks isn’t a mouse, or a star, or anything. It’s a hand. To be precise, it’s Mario’s hand, also disembodied, floating, and fleshless: the ghostly white glove of a trained plumber. But it is also our hand; it has always been our hand. When Mario’s fist hits a coin block or throws a fireball, it is our hand doing the action: we hit the button and the motion is transformed. I beat Bowser. I found a 1-Up.

And this is the perversity of it. In the same way that an older brother tells you to stop hitting yourself, we are forcing his own hand to warp his own face. To pinch his own cherubic cheeks and rip them into harsh polygonal tears, to demolish his own face. Our face. We push and pull and sculpt and Mario sculpts with us, never owning his actions, for they are not his—they are ours.

Deep into Super Mario 64’s castle we come upon a mirror and, in some fourth-wall breaking effect, we see that the camera is suspended on the fishing line of a Lakitu, or, a weird little dude floating on a cloud. I still haven’t really been able to wrap my mind around the ramifications of this literal video camera in the Mushroom Kingdom, but it delivers an important point: for the first obvious time in a canonical Mario game, we are shown as an other, or rather, Mario is acknowledged as not us. We are behind the camera, somewhere; we control Mario from afar. His actions are our actions, but indirectly. We make Mario gaze into a mirror at himself while we observe from the floating distance.

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The thing about his eyes is that they don’t just follow the stars; they follow the hand. If you’ve ever had somebody move your hand you know that it’s an intimate act; to have somebody touch your face is even more intimate. It is a sense of comfort because it is a place of trust. To have somebody’s hand touch your face is to trust that they will not mistreat it; they will not tread on this monument of identity. When a horror movie threatens a face with a surprise in a mirror, ultimate self-familiarity is invaded by an intruder, and what’s at risk isn’t just bodily harm, but face harm; identity harm. A perversion of one’s own control, one’s own self. Take for instance Lucio Fulci’s Zombie: a zombie grabs Paola’s own hair—the same hair that she just finished washing with her own hands—to pull her, eye first, into splintered wood. She is powerless to resist, and we as watchers are powerless to look away: Fulci’s camera briefly takes on the point of view of the wood itself, and for a tantalizing moment we are the splinter, a harmful mirror, looking into Paola’s eye. When her eye stares forward into the camera, her eye is our eye; her harm is our harm. We know what is about to happen and we cannot stop it.

We warp his sacred, undeniable face 

Mario’s eyes see all; so do ours. We warp his sacred, undeniable face, and we warp our face in the mirror. Each time the hand moves across his face his eyes meet ours, and antagonist and protagonist are rightfully one: our hand grabs our cheek. Our hand grabs our ears. The hand cuts across the pupil like Luis Bunuel’s razor in Un Chien Andalou, and the shoulder button holds the face in place just as Bunuel’s fingers pry open the eyelids. Our fingers hold the eyelids. Mario stares forward, transfixed, and we stare back, as we move his face into some eternally silent scream.

If he recognizes himself we cannot know. His eyes are a weird thing. In head mode, they are the only things that do not move, as far as I can tell: if you grab his hat and stretch it far enough down, the whites of his eyes disappear and the bill tucks into his nose. But there, floating, remain his irises and pupils: staring directly ahead as we hold the rest of his face in place. If they do not move for us, they are the only things we cannot control. More importantly, they are the only thing that Mario controls. And through them, he sees his reflection, and through them, he sees us. Holding the N64 controller. Moving his hand. Stretching his cheeks. And for once, he owns something: he owns his mutation. He owns the face that we gave him. Look at what I did to his nose. Look at what I did to his ears. He looks first. Only afterwards do we look with him.

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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.

Header image: Hieronymus Bosch, acquired farily via public domain