There’s an interesting article up on the Escapist discussing Mario’s place in the videogame universe and how he got here.
As far as I can tell the article doesn’t actually deal very much with the character’s marketability, even though the title claims he is “unmarketable”. The author also points out that a top-selling multi decade icon is really hard to create, and that icons launched in the past wouldn’t always translate directly into the present. But I think that’s true for almost any name brand character. Would the sexist, liquor swilling, arrogant James Bond work if he was introduced in 2007? Clearly not. But we still get new Bond movies.
I’ve discussed the “fossilization” of iconic characters more in depth in a previous post, and reading this article makes me realize that there’s some interesting points to be made about the function of that kind of character in the video-game world. Mario games never tell much of a story, and people don’t much care. The rules of the narrative are pretty much set in stone (princess kidnapped, rescue, go) are part of what makes the games work. The fact that the story is cartoony, bland, and generic make the Super Mario games more successful than the Zelda series, which often suffer under the weight of trying to generate a convincing narrative out of the same thin fabric.
Mario is more than the sum of his parts. It’s not what the character does, but what he evokes that matters. I think that’s a discussion worthy of a separate post.