Super Mario: Son of Buster Keaton

by Abe Rose

“Where do we go when we die?” is a question for the theologians, but “Where does Mario go when he dies?” is a question for the gamers. In the original Super Mario Bros., Mario exists on a flat, two-dimensional world. Yet when he gets touched by an enemy, he spirals into a convulsive death-state, and falls through the floor.


What is actually happening here in the Nintendo universe? Do the laws of physics suddenly die along with this protagonist? Does his body suddenly become incorporeal like one of those ghosts in Ghostbusters? Or is the game trying to show Mario falling forward, towards the Z-axis, like he’s falling out of a stage play?

It reminds me of Sherlock Jr., the silent comedy by Buster Keaton. In that film, Keaton plays a projectionist who falls asleep and dreams of being in the movie he’s projecting. His dreaming self enters the two-dimensional movie in the theater and tries to rescue his love interest from the villain. When he enters the movie, the characters stay stationary and flat, without interacting with depth. That means no third dimension, and no Z-axis. But when he is thrown out of the movie, he suddenly becomes a three dimensional being once more, who comes towards the audience, by means of the Z-axis.


In Super Mario Bros., the only use for the third dimension, or Z-axis, is for Mario to “die” – or get kicked off-stage. It’s essentially breaking the fourth wall. Mario is like a performer on stage. When he makes a mistake, he holds out his arms in embarrassment and falls off the stage in shame. If the whole game were to be perceived as a play, he would start rehearsing the scene all over again, going from stage left to stage right, completing each blocking correctly. Going through the game is like going through a stage play. Come to think of it, most classic 2-D side-scrollers, like Mario, use a whole lot of theater terminology. Levels are usually called “Acts” or “Stages” just like in plays. Even Super Mario Bros. 3 opens with a curtain call.



There are also other visual hints as well that Super Mario Bros. 3 is modeled after a stage play. Some floating platforms are held up by hanging poles from above. Other platforms cast shadows on the backdrop sky. There is a secret in which pushing down in certain places will cause Mario to fall behind the props. At the end of the stage, the backdrop ends.


Even the storyline in Mario is that of stage melodrama. There is a good-hearted hero trying to save the princess from an evil villain. The story is good vs. evil without a shade of moral ambiguity. It draws from the same well that Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd drew from when they were making their silent comedies. Chaplin’s Tramp character was always trying to win the heart of some maiden, but always seemed to lose her to a richer villain. Keaton’s love interest always seemed to be carried away by a gang of thugs. And Mario, sorry Mario, but your princess is in another castle.

Early Nintendo games were limited in speech and text in the same way that early silent films were. Speech was almost non-existent, and text was cluttered. But the old silent masters learned to use the limitations of the genre as personal strengths. Without speaking, the attention is instead put solely on the visuals. Character action was conveyed through body movement. Mario didn’t talk, just like Keaton or Chaplin or Lloyd. And like them, Mario was an unconventional stuntman that expressed himself through physical prowess.


Watch the way that Keaton soars through the air in Seven Chances, and see how effortlessly he seems to dodge all the tumbling boulders coming after him. Playing through an old Mario game is like playing a side-scrolling Buster Keaton movie. Every stage in Mario is about platforming, running, jumping, and dodging. Even the way that Keaton framed most of his shots seem two-dimensionally flat. He rarely had use for a third dimensional Z-axis, except in special cases like when he gets pushed out of frame in Sherlock Jr.

Keaton and the others didn’t need to limit themselves further by ignoring the Z-axis, but they did anyway. The Z-axis tends to get in the way of silent comedy, just like it gets in the way of stage plays and 2-D side-scroller video games. The third dimension destroys the logic of these types of stories. Silent comedians never utilize their peripheral vision. They are tunnel-visioned; they can only see what is directly in front of them. Without depth perception, they can totally miss seeing that crucial slapstick gag until they walk right into it. The third dimension would kill the comedy.

The existence of a third dimension makes two-dimensional interactions illogical. In the novel Flatland, consider how the square’s understanding of the world comes crashing down when he is introduced to the sphere. Three dimensions raise far too many questions for a two dimensional being in a video game. The great challenge in old video games is that most enemies are unavoidable, but if the third dimension were to exist, why not simply go around? In 2-D, it’s awfully hard to avoid those Hammer Brothers, but in 3-D, Mario can run so far around them that he could qualify for a half-marathon. While there is more freedom to explore in 3-D, the gaming becomes a lot less challenging. How long did it take you to beat three-dimensional Super Mario 64? Not too long? Now, how long did it take you to beat Super Mario Bros. 2? You did beat it, right? Wait, has anyone beaten it?

3-D platforming killed 2-D platforming, in much the same way that the talky movies killed the silent movies. Not all artists could make the transition from silent to talkies. Many years after the silent era ended, Buster Keaton became a penniless drunk, living in a trailer. As for video games, a lot of franchises were discontinued after the jump to 3-D. Not Mario, though. Mario not only was able to transition into the third-dimension, he led the innovative migration. He’s adaptable to anything. Give him a nine-iron and he will play golf. Give him a car and he will race. The man will appear in anything for a paycheck; he is like the Nicholas Cage of video games.


Mario could adapt when the time was right, but not all platforming heroes were able to make that move. Has there ever been a good 3-D Sonic game? How on earth do you mess up a story about a blue hedgehog saving forest animals? The story went from simple to… Come to think of it, I have no word to describe what happened to the Sonic storyline, because it zoomed towards incomprehensibility faster than the speed of sound. The 3-D Bionic Commando took a simple story of a Rambo commando with a mechanical arm fighting Nazis, and somehow ended up with a post-modern, convoluted story about a rastafarian with a mechanical arm, but his arm is… also is his wife. He’s married to his arm. Or something like that. The symbolism of that one was lost on me.

There was a charm in the way that the old 2-D stories unfolded. Sonic didn’t speak because there was nothing that needed to be said. Now that he can talk, he won’t shut up. It used to be that we only had to blow into a cartridge, plug it in, push start and the game would begin right away without unnecessary explanation. But now, even the weakest back-stories have to have endless exposition. I don’t need to understand Dr. Eggman’s motive to chop down all the trees and turn Sonic’s friends into robots, because the fact that he looks like the evil twin brother of Teddy Roosevelt already makes it clear: Teddy loved nature, therefore Eggman must hate nature. Just leave it at that.


Once technology allowed for voice to enter video games, the old school era of Nintendo faded away in the same way that silent film comedies faded away. Only through the passage of time have historians looked back and noted that the limitations of the silent films were not deficiencies at all, but rather strengths. The same is true of old-school 2-D platformers. Minimalism can be a strength. If voice didn’t add to the story, then don’t use it. If the graphics were distracting, then use simpler graphics. And if the story ending was too heavy handed, simply just end everything with “CONGRATURATION THIS STORY IS HAPPY END,” – misspellings and all.


We used to spend hours to get an ending like this. Sure it may make just as little sense as some of the terrible, long-winded endings of 3-D platformers, but at least back then they knew the art of brevity.


Originally posted on on May 2013.

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