In his official portrait, Nintendo’s iconic hero Mario poses with confident insouciance, hands placed jauntily on his hips, gut projecting outward. This is the look of a man who knows he can get away with anything, no matter how internally contradictory or tacky, including a pair of white gloves that ill befit his blue overalls with their oversize gold buttons. Even a red cap with his own logo emblazoned on it—a true sign of class if ever there was one, I’m sure.
This week, however, we have seen a new Mario. Mario as never before. Mario, if you will, gone wild.
On Wednesday, Nintendo showed off a promotional video for the forthcoming Super Mario Odyssey. Though there was much to enthuse over here for the franchise’s most ardent fans—an ice kingdom! An airship shaped like a top hat!—one truly novel detail stood out: Mario takes off his shirt during a trip to the beach. What’s more, for what is apparently the first time, he appears to have nipples.
The reaction was immediate and overwhelming. “Shirtless Mario Leads To Widespread Pandemonium,” read the headline to a Kotaku post that rounded up so many tweets I stopped counting them. “Here’s What Mario’s Nipples Look Like, I Guess,” Entertainment Weekly obligingly reported. “Mario’s Nipples EXPOSED *NOT CLICKBAIT*,” promised a YouTube video.
If our protagonist’s partial nudity is shocking (and OK, yes, it is not), the surprise derives as much from its seeming break with tradition as it does from Nintendo’s family-friendly reputation. Indeed, Mario’s conventional attire says as much about the history of gaming hardware as it does about the character himself.
The stark contrasts of his traditional uniform—evident in that official portrait—are persistent evidence of the limited color palettes available on the Nintendo Entertainment System and other early gaming machines. Taking advantage of those carefully managed resources, Shigeru Miyamoto and his collaborators blocked out their hero’s look in a way that would ensure the player’s avatar stood out against the background. In Super Mario Bros., for example, his original overalls typically appear to be white or brown, presumably to create a clear contrast with the flat blue of the sky behind him.
As the power of Nintendo’s hardware—and the cleverness of its software designers—increased, the appearance of their hero began to change, but always conditionally so. The raccoon-like Tanooki suit, introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3, for example, demonstrates their growing ability to work within, and expand upon, the console’s limitations. Even as the underlying technology grew more sophisticated, however, they maintained many of the original choices structurally dictated by earlier restraints. What started as a response to a machine’s finitude became the hallmark of narrative continuity. That the delicately shaded and dynamically lit Mario of the newest title still resembles the character we met more than 30 years ago is, in other words, a testament to the evolutionary history of digital architecture.
But if Mario as we see him now is a consequence of the ways he has been, perhaps we should think differently about his newly revealed torso. Remember, Mario lives in a world peopled almost entirely by animate mushrooms and sentient turtles. Mario may look human, but how do we know that we’re not simply projecting on him, imposing our own anthropocentric expectations of what a hero should be?
Think again about those gilt buttons on his overalls in the portrait above, the sole remaining hallmark of his former working class profession. (He is, we are told, not a plumber these days.) They seem to be positioned almost exactly where his “nipples” appear to be in the new footage. What if those round discolorations aren’t holdovers from mammalian prenatal development after all? Maybe they are, instead, evidence that his conventional costume fits his whale-like body just a little too tightly.
Perhaps, reader, you think my hypothesis ridiculous, and it may well be, but there are other signs that things are not what they seem. As many (here at Slate and on the wider internet) were quick to note, Mario’s bare body is strangely hairless, as if his chest and newly revealed arms had been shorn clean by Bowser’s cleansing fire. His face is hirsute as ever, but strangely so. Pausing the video, we note that his mustache, eyebrows, and coiffure are all different shades and textures. Is Mario—like the Mephistophelian Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—beset with alopecia universalis? Is he, perhaps, wearing a wig? Does a hastily spirit-gummed toilet brush adorn his upper lip?
It’s possible that we will never know. We may think we’ve see our hero as we really is, but I suspect that his body still holds many secrets. Gaming systems will keep advancing, but our hero will remain what he always has been. We have, I think, yet to see his true form. Let us pray that we never do.