_________________________________________________This is part of a blog post I wanted to make but never got around to it and since you are talking about new worlds for Mario, I guess this kind of fits.
Looking back on the Mario series it seems to me that there is a key element to the presentation of the Mushroom Kingdom which was gradually over-shadowed by a fun, cute, whimsical, fantasy theme. Mario Bros never ‘felt’ like a cartoonish world, it was a bit more ‘real’ than that, it was ‘surreal’. The entire concept of Mario is that he is a plumber in a sort of “Labyrinth”-like fantasy world or even, as you say, an Alice in Wonderland fantasy world. It is not a “Care Bears”-like fantasy world or a fun cartoony world. It has both light and dark, real and fantasy sides to it and conveys them in a multitude of ways. There are floating bricks and invisible ones, walking/flying turtle-ducks, pulsating white flowers that give you the ability to throw fire-balls, giant mushroom forests with iron bridges and floating plat-forms and pulleys. I’m going to try to explain this as best I can but ‘feel’ can be difficult to share.
The Mario character represents a world, the real world of an Italian plumber… maybe from Brooklyn or some other city. So, we have things like ‘pipes’ and ‘bricks’, ‘hammers’, maybe even ‘elevators’, etc. – things we can find in the real modern world. And these things must maintain their realist presentation in the Mushroom Kingdom. When we look back at how Mario, and even more so, Super Mario Bros were presented to the world, we can see that they were given a realistic appearance.
The image above is the Marquee from the Super Mario Bros. arcade machine. The colors convey a touch of realism; there are natural browns, greens, and blues. The clouds, hills, pipes are shaded indicating a natural light source. The bricks look like real bricks we would find in an actual city. The colors are natural, not like those you would see in typical animation. The world was almost a fusion of realistic ‘city’ elements with medieval fantasy kingdom elements. When we look at the in-game art, we see the same conveyance of realism. The question mark blocks weren’t just a bright yellow to represent “gold” but actually had a golden twinkle to them. There were castles and walls but they were built from urban materials, whereas in the medieval fantasy, the castles would have been built of stone as they are in the modern games. This difference in presentation can be seen by comparing the images below.
The colors are now bright, the golds are now a boring yellow, not the twinkling energized golden. The castles and landscapes are not urban in their appearance but that of a typical fantasy. The edges and objects are rounded and fluffy (soft) rather than sharp (hard/cold). Over the years Mario drifted away from its ‘surrealism’ by emphasizing a cartoony fantasy world with all sorts of fruity colors and fun-times – the first step was the transition from SMB to SMB 2. Some of it is still there but the transition completely killed the mood of the original game. Some of the modern world themes I feel have no place in the Mario Universe are: Chocolate world, vanilla world, jungle world, Egypt world, and much to the dismay of the Malstrom audience… Ghost world. “Egypt World” and “Jungle World” really just need some tweaking but “Ghost World” just really doesn’t gel correctly – its not properly grounded in the Mushroom Kingdom. At least, the way it has been done up to this point. Mario always had a creepy element to it (not in a Casper the Ghost way), it had a dark side. Perhaps the “Ghost World” can be transitioned more into a “Lost-Souls” Limbo dimension, but nothing exceedingly dark, just not the cutesy modern presentation. But nothing should be named after foods…
Getting back on track… it was this real side that allowed the game to draw in a very large demographic… While the surrealistic element appeals to a very broad range of age-groups and status groups, the cartoony element only appeals to the younger crowd and women. This is one of the reasons the original SMB was such a phenomenon. I remember the first time I played SMB; I was about 4 or 5 and it was at a place called Gene’s Beer Garden around 1985. Why was I in a bar? Who cares? The important thing to note is that SMB was in a bar – a place where mostly adult males drink alcohol and smoked cigarettes. It was there with the pinball machines, pinball keno gambling machines, and pool-tables. It was there because it was able to appeal to a very wide demographic due to its presentation.
The color tones are important for conveying the proper mood of the game, the amount of realism vs fantasy is also important, and the two have to complement each other. So, the following images are just random art concepts from unknown sources I have collected from the Internet over the past few years. I believe that these examples will provide the general idea of how the Mario universe needs to be presented in order to capture the largest demographic and spark the most interest in the minds of the player. The one thing these images have in common is their emphasis on surrealism and from my view they capture the mood of the original Mario and SMB. I’m not suggesting that a new Mario needs to take on any one of these particular art styles but maybe borrow from them in order to create a new SMB phenomenon.
Above: Smash Bros. Brawl: Mushroom Kingdom
The Smash Bros Mushroom Kingdom is great – look at the balanced surreal presentation, the natural almost realistic colors, the sort of yellowish hue; the golden, rusted, industrial look of the question blocks and pipes with the rivets. This is actually a wasteland version of SMB world 1-1. Below on the left is another example of a Mushroom Kingdom Wasteland (‘wastelands’ are common themes in surrealist art). Next to it is an artistic representation of SMB world 1-1 as a seemingly endless expanse with the golden sun setting in the background. These pictures could very-well be the same game area or maybe these represent the “plains” of the Mushroom Kingdom. Off in the distance where the sun is setting could be a Desert or maybe it is the giant Mushroom-Tree forest that leads to the first Castle. Maybe as you approach a castle the world becomes less barren or approach a different region there is a gradual transition. In the image on the right the score and such are actually present inside the Mushroom Kingdom. Some of you might say “well, they had to put that somewhere, it isn’t actually part of the Mushroom Kingdom”. But I strongly disagree… one of the interesting things about Mario was how it broke the confines of those stationary-screen games like the original Mario Bros., Pac-Man, etc. In SMB world 1-2 this is actually taken to the extreme where Mario is able to exit the traditional game area and run on-top of the ceiling where the score and clock were located. “The section with the score is not part of the game-world”. In SMB IT IS. This was a major part of the SMB experience – this really played off the surreal experience as you were not confined to the logical rules of reality while so much about this world is telling you it is real (the bricks, pipes, colors, etc.)
The first image below has always been one of my favorites… i understand that some wouldn’t want Mario and Peach to take on the ‘mature’ appearance they do in the images below but especially that first image really recreates the sense of SMB World 3. The sun is setting on the Mushroom Kingdom (day/night). Everything about it just takes me back… do yourself a favor and find a high-resolution version of this piece of art. Look at how those question blocks are glowing golden – its like there is a light emanating from it. The bricks exude realism – its perfect. Where does that vine go to? The clouds with a row of coins or maybe “Rainbow Road” where you can take a short-cut to another area and back-track, if you would like… having to travel in both directions of each world (rather than a beginning and end). It would be great if while on “Rainbow Road” that you could see the various worlds you are passing over below you.
The next image is a tad too grotesque but I think it really sets the scene for a transition from the water stage to an eerie industrial setting for a Castle/Dungeon. You can see the Castle smoking in the background and some industrial plants there as well. I love how Mario has his plumber tools. In both these images Mario is wearing the original red suspenders, not the blue that he wears in the modern games. I love the Red and Brown out-fit – gives the game a slightly more serious tone. And while I’m talking about it, I think the White suspenders and hat are a must for fire-flower Mario – don’t know how to explain it but ‘white’ is a special color with certain qualities when used correctly.
OK, the two images below are actually artistic renditions of SMB 2, while the one on the left characterizes Mario in an over-’mature’ fashion and both do so much too real, I still really think they do a decent job of conveying surrealism and a general sense of how a modern Mario game should feel and the world possibilities. They aren’t cartoony but still have a slightly animated fantasy aspect to them.
Above: SMB 2 Concept art from unknown artists
I really think a world like the one below could fit into Mario… I love the industrial style – it really works with the urban elements in Mario. Why can’t an area outside of the Mushroom Kingdom in Mario’s home world or a twisted reality of his world be part of a new Mario game? I could see warping from this “Donkey-Kong” world back to the Mushroom Kingdom in a pipe or even to a world like that presented in the two images of SMB 2 – these could be pipes that lead to alternate reality worlds or dimensions – like in “BeetleJuice” where that door opens-up to Saturn where the Sand-worms are or the one that opens to the “Lost Souls Room”. But I really want to be careful hear and not advocate a Hub-world approach to Mario game design, I prefer a much more linear and fluid approach like that of the classic series. But it would be great to have an almost unpredictable interconnectedness between all the different “realities/dimensions” and even from world to world in each of those aside from the default absolute linear path.
Above: Painting by Jose Emroca Flores.
Potential revamping of a “Ghost World”…
A few scenes from “Labyrinth”… The scene on the left reminds me of the bricks/sewers of Mario. The maze area could the the lead-up to Bowser’s castle with knights patrolling on Koopas. Maybe a shortcut to Bowser’s castle could be the pathway which runs along the top of the large wall of the maze. If you get knocked-off you have to traverse the maze.
So, the video here shows how the Labyrinth isn’t always what it seems – there are hidden passages that look like walls or hidden power-ups and 1ups which exist in blocks that can’t be seen – Hidden Passage in the Labyrinth.
OK, so I’m sure that some people are saying “maybe the first SMB had a strong surreal element to it but that was because they couldn’t pull-off the colorful art style with the early games.” That may be true, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is what the consumers responded too. Its entirely possible that the elements which initially helped make Mario a phenomenon were simply the result of accident rather than planning… perhaps games like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid were successful simply because they were made at a time when technology allowed for just enough expression without over-saturation. Maybe the composers had to work that much harder to really bring out feeling in the music due to the limitations.
I’ll stop here. I don’t really expect Nintendo to ever take this direction with Mario but I think if this was done correctly with all the attention that 3D Mario gets, and with the cool/funky music quality of the early games, and sticking to the core side-scroller/arcade roots, it would break-through to all demographics.