Note: this is an opinion article. Thanks to Soma and PushDustIn for edits.
One of our last articles of 2015 was TheAnvil’s “the Extended Mario Universe,” an essay and image showing off the numerous crossovers Nintendo’s portly plumber has made over the years. One sticking point in it, for both some readers and to an extent, myself, was on the notion of “canon,” and why some games mattered and others did not. It’s a loaded word, especially for a franchise as large and wide as Mario, so I thought I might delve a little bit into that and take a different look at how it works in the franchise.
“Canon” is a Latin word that refers to a measuring rule, and has historically been used to define foundational principles in art, religion, or other aspects of culture. Works or ideas that are canonical are the ones that fundamentally matter, that are central to why something is what it is. There are canons for artists (Quentin Tarantino, for instance, has multiple films that can be read as a single body of work, with recurring themes and motifs that together function as a set of ideas), media, and genres, even companies – Nintendo certainly has one. You may have heard this definition of the word in high school literature class, from “the Western canon.” It’s a topic fraught with complexities and questions over what does or should “matter,” and it’s common for texts to become more or less valuable over time for a number of reasons, like changes in the culture, ease of access, or critical reappraisal.
This is different, I should note, from “continuity,” which refers to simply a specific set of events that occur within a story from beginning to end. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably in pop cultural circles, with alternate versions, crossovers, side stories, or fan-fiction being considered “non-canon” and outside the realm of the universe’s events. However, I’d like to advocate using this older definition of Western canon as an alternative, especially considering that many major series – particularly that of Nintendo – defy the principles of the more modern use. They flagrantly play with their own histories, exist in vaguely distinct realities that influence each other, and are unconcerned with narratives being strictly contiguous.
It’s possible for, say, something that isn’t in continuity to still be part of a broader canon. The Kirby anime series influenced content in the Kirby games – the name of Meta Knight’s sword, for instance – and is one of the more important “texts” of the franchise. While I’ve not found an authorial statement that specified it as a separate story, it does have several elements large and small that would indicate that (several of the anime’s main characters are exclusive to that version, characters from both act in different ways, and the lore is unique). But I doubt anyone would argue that the anime isn’t part of what makes Kirby, well, Kirby – you don’t have to necessarily like or respect it as a work of art, but it would be hard to fully understand Kirby as a series without considering the cartoon at least to an extent. And if that’s the case, where would Nightmare in Dream Land, a remake of Kirby’s Adventure that used designs from the anime, fall in this? Where does any remake, for that matter?
That’s also certainly the case with Pokémon; it is undeniable how monumental its anime is, even if it is clearly a separate world from its games. Even the main series’ official timeline is still split between two versions of each generation. It would be silly to argue about whether Black or White is the “true” story of Unova and Team Plasma, because while the broad strokes are important in their shared story the details are less so.
Star Fox in particular is a minefield for this. Two of its sequels – Star Fox 64 and the upcoming Star Fox Zero – are explicit reimaginings of the SNES original. Zero and Star Fox Command have openly taken inspiration from Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel that has been effectively removed from continuity but is still a known and regularly discussed quantity. Are these all strictly separate universes? Perhaps, or perhaps they’re just “retellings” of the same story of space animals in windbreakers saving the galaxy from a demented scientist. Instead of a single line drawn again and again, the “story” of Star Fox might be more like a remixed song, playing with beats in different ways (incidentally, this premise is central to a fan theory about the Legend of Zelda, suggesting that each game is a unique interpretation of a grand myth).
Out of all of Nintendo’s properties, I find the most interesting form of “canon” by far is Super Mario and its various spinoffs, because the Mario franchise is satisfyingly resistant to modern conceits of continuity. Mario doesn’t – and isn’t supposed to – age. His games are expressly made to cater to a wide variety of players, and while his past is often emphasized there’s always an interest in giving new entries something unique and identifiable.
In a 2012 interview with Game Informer, creator Shigeru Miyamoto obliquely described the Mario cast as a “troupe of actors,” akin to how classic comic and cartoon series like Popeye or Looney Tunes would use characters in different but comparable roles. This is maddening from a strict narrative perspective (what’s Bowser’s motivation for being in kart races?), but it’s not that different from mythology or folklore. Archetypes and folk heroes were frequently reimagined for subcultures or people, and myths were less a strict storyline than a series of anecdotes and fables, with the most famous and popular ones being dominant. Mario is Anansi the Spider, or Paul Bunyan, or Superman – these familiar motifs of openness and adventure are always there, just played with in new contexts. Nintendo often works in that vein; narrative cohesion over the course of a series is less valuable than themes expressed through gameplay mechanics. And that’s a perfectly acceptable, undervalued form of storytelling.
One of the franchise’s biggest urban legends – which Miyamoto confirmed in a promotional video for Super Mario Maker – was the notion that Super Mario Bros. 3 was actually a stage play. If its events weren’t “real” in a strict sense, do they matter? Are they worthwhile? Of course, there isn’t a satisfactory answer from that perspective, because Mario 3 wasn’t designed for that – it was based around an idea of the series being performative, less serious, and open to personal interpretation. It doesn’t really matter whether Mario really fought Roy Koopa at the end of Sky Land, or if Mario and Roy were just acting. Further confusing things, Super Mario Advance 4 is a remake of the game with additional content – but it’s largely an artifact of the Game Boy Advance, with minimal influence on future games. As the newer version it “should” replace the original from a narrative perspective, but the first is clearly the most iconic, popular, memorable, and relevant.
I’d suggest that for Mario, instead of making a dichotomy of “canon/non-canon” or suggesting that only some games are part of a serious continuity, perhaps we should think of it instead in terms of hierarchy, based around common tropes, motifs, and design principles. At the top is Super Mario Bros., of course; it’s one of the best selling games in history and a definitive text for the medium as a whole. Similarly, other platformers like Mario World, 64 and the original Donkey Kong are up there too for their historical relevance, commercial success, and influence on future titles. Below them are various spinoffs or other platform games, which can be somewhat influential but not as consistently or fundamentally. However, this is a relatively fluid grouping – a game like Paper Mario may be more important in some periods, and less so in others.
As for continuity? I’d say it all fits. Seriously; all the crossovers with parties who Mario will never meet again, the side stories and remakes that make no sense, Mario did them all. Yeah, we’ll likely never see Mario in another NBA Street game (okay, we’ll likely never see another NBA Street game at all), but it’s pretty cool that he once faced off against LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s the magic of the character, the same kind that let him fight Dennis Hopper in that terrible movie.
If there’s anything I’d like readers to take away from this, it’s that “canon” is a broad concept, and one that – at least for fans – is very malleable. Mario doesn’t need strict continuity; it builds a collection of events and ideas that players and fans can work into whichever larger story they’d like. Similarly, while some games are more important than others much of that importance is relative, and open to interpretation. A friend of mine, the YouTube essayist Wambu, mentioned while we were playing Mario Maker that his primary connection to Mario comes from the RPGs, and that despite being a Mario and Nintendo fan that he wasn’t as familiar with the 2D platformers. Clearly the latter is more influential than the former, but there’s nothing wrong with his interpretation. It’s neat that there are different kinds of Mario fans, ones who interpret the franchise differently. That’s why you have fans who care more about tight, fast level design and fans who like expansive, detailed worlds and fans who appreciate the large cast of the Mushroom Kingdom.
So while some entries will clearly matter “more,” it’s important to have a more open attitude towards the history of these larger franchises. Mario Kart Wii sold over 36 million copies, more than Sunshine, Galaxy, and 3D World combined. Looking at its influence it’s clearly less relevant to the franchise as a whole than any of those games, but that’s still a ton of purchases and players; it’s not right to dismiss how they got into or view the franchise. When we discuss, say, the “importance” or “relevancy” of series or characters in Super Smash Bros., it’s worth remembering that these things do exist, but are by no means set in stone.