The Character of Mario & Luigi Through the Years
September 13, 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of the world renowned Super Mario Bros.'s release on the NES. Despite being the defining game of the now famous brotherly duo, Mario and Luigi look much different in Super Mario Bros. compared to today's titles and ones that came before it. Mario wears a brown shirt and red overalls and hat, while Luigi wears white overalls and green shirt and hat. Mario and Luigi still weren't even physically different yet. There have been many changes in the design of the Mario Bros. and even more inconsistencies in their portrayal in artwork and adaptations. So in honor of their most famous game's anniversary, let's look at how the Mario Bros. have changed through the years.
First Appearance of Mario as Jumpman - Donkey Kong (1981)
Mario's first appearance was in the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong, though here he's called Jumpman and is a carpenter, not a plumber. This is one of the few times that Mario's in-game appearance matches the official artwork. Mario's overall design is clear and present here though; compared to his modern style, his shirt and overalls have swapped colors and Mario lacks the rounded Mickey Mouse-esque features that would become the standard. Before Donkey Kong was Donkey Kong, Nintendo tried to acquire the rights to make a Popeye game. The deal fell through, but in some artwork you can still see glimpses of Popeye in Mario.
Mario in Donkey Kong Jr. (1982)
1982's Donkey Kong Jr. is actually the first time Mario is called Mario. And surprisingly, Mario stars in a villanous role, imprisoning Donkey Kong, with the starring role going to the titular Junior. Here we see the first change in artstyle. On the cabinet art, Mario has lost the Popeye style and gained more round, portly proportions.
As for the change in art style, Nintendo likely realized they had the makings of a franchise of characters on their hands and decided to adopt their own art style, and create the prototype standard for what Mario would look like for years to come. An interesting bit of trivia is that by the time of Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong had aged into Cranky Kong and Junior became the tie-wearing DK we know today. Or at least that's how the story goes.
Character of Mario & Luigi in Mario Bros. (1983)
1983's Mario Bros. is Luigi's first appearance. Here, Luigi is essentially a copy of the Mario sprite reused from Donkey Kong, but sports a white shirt and hat with green overalls. However, most promotional material, including the artwork on the arcade cabinet, featured Luigi with a brown shirt and green overalls and hat, and Mario with a blue hat and overalls and red shirt. This is where the inconsistencies and changes begin. This is the game where the Mario Bros. became plumbers. Someone told Shigeru Miyamoto that Mario looked more like a plumber than a carpenter, and thus the whole game was based around the idea of plumbing.
I can imagine Luigi's shirt was made white in-game to make his sprite more distinguishable against the black background. Though Luigi lacks his trademark height and slender features, a commercial for the Atari 2600 and 5200 versions of Mario Bros. may be the origin of Luigi's cowardly personality.
First Console Appearance in Super Mario Bros. (1985)
1985's Super Mario Bros. is the introduction to the Mushroom Kingdom, the setting of just about every Mario game to come after. Besides just a change of setting, Super Mario Bros. turns the Mario franchise into outlandish fantasy rather than cartoonish adventures. Despite keeping his color scheme from Mario Bros. on the Eurpoean version of Super Mario Bros.'s cover, Mario's shirt is brown instead of blue in-game, likely to keep his sprite from blending with the backgrounds. Here we see a design change due to technological limitations.
If you'll notice on the box art above, Bowser is gray for some reason so Nintendo still didn't figure out how to get people to color their stuff right. Good news is the artstyle is fully realized, giving the Mario universe the style that defines it to this day. Luigi now has a white hat and overalls with green shirt, which is a terrible design choice because you can't visually differentiate between Super Luigi and Fire Luigi.
It also stands to note that all games and images that show Mario with regular human proportions is not regular Mario, that's Super Mario. Regular Mario is that weird short guy. Same for all the other characters. Canonically, everyone is actually small until they eat mushrooms.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)
The Super Mario Bros. 2 most people know is a uniquely North American/European title. The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was an enhanced version of Super Mario Bros. that featured better graphics and some tricky puzzles, such as trapping the player in a warp zone that forces them to either die or go back to 1-1. In Japan, the game that would become the western version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, a license cooperation between Nintendo and Fuji Television to promote the broadcaster's 1987 Yume Kōjō event, which showcased several of their latest TV shows and other products at the time. The festival's mascots became the game's protagonists, a family consisting of siblings Imajin and Lina and their parents, Papa and Mama.
All of this followed the gaming crash of 1983 that killed off a good 90% of American games. Because of this, Nintendo was purposely delaying the release of Super Mario Bros, 2 in the West because they didn't want the Mario franchise to be associated with frustrating and hard gameplay. Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was retooled into Super Mario Bros. 2. for the West as a more friendly alternative. This version of the game became so successful it became the standard.
Despite not even originally being a Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 2 is one of the most influential games in the Super Mario series in terms of design. From a game design viewpoint, this game is where Nintendo decided that accessibility would be more important than challenge in Mario games. Aesthetic-wise, this is the first game where we see Mario's sprite match the color design that would become standard for Mario, though the box art is still wrong.
But Luigi is the real winner in Super Mario Bros. 2. Luigi finally gains his trademark height thanks to Mama's own height. Again because of Mama, Luigi flutters further in the air by kicking his legs and also skids when he hits the ground. I think Mama's traits were purposefully passed onto Luigi by the development team because these little antics reflect Luigi's more comical, clumsy nature compared to his older brother, whose stats are pretty rounded out in the game.
In this we see how character specific gameplay mechanics can reflect personality traits. These characteristics would stick with the Mario Bros. in many games including their appearance in the Super Smash Bros. series and Super Mario 3D World.
Without Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, the Mario Bros. may have looked and played much differently than they do today. Luigi may have forever remained a palette swap of his brother, never gaining his own identity. In a strange set of circumstances, what is basically a Nintnedo approved bootleg became one of the series most defining games in terms of character design.
Super Mario Bros. 3 & Super Mario World
I'm combining Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World into one segment because both games really only have one shared problem: Green Mario. Once again poor Luigi was reduced to a palette swap for both of these games, likely because he was once again just the second player sprite and not a unique character like in Super Mario Bros. 2. It's likely the developers just didn't want to waste space making new sprites for Luigi. In the Super Mario All-Stars version of these games, Luigi would be given his own sprites, making all right with the world.
America's Super Mario Bros.
After Super Mario World there wasn't another Super Mario game on consoles until 1995's Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, and that was more of a Yoshi game. There were the Super Mario Land games, but other than giving us Daisy and Wario there's not a lot to talk about in terms of the Mario Bros. design changes. What I'd instead like to highlight is a few American adaptations that Nintendo likely didn't have much control over and how they changed the perception of the plumbers.
The Super Mario Bros. Super Show featured live-action segments at the beginning and end of each episode called Mario Bros. Plumbing with Mario and Luigi respectively played by wrestling manager Lou Albano and Danny Wells. They would make jokes and get into some sort of hijinks to lead into and send off the cartoons. Here, Mario and Luigi are two burly Italian-American Brooklyn born plumbers with gruff voices and a pizza lust. Was this racist? Yes. Was it funny? Yes. While the Mario Bros. have always been plumbers, this heavy-handed stereotyping is an American creation that dates back as far as that Mario Bros. commercial posted earlier. This portrayal of the Bros. would span a television series, commercials, Hotel Mario, a Ron Jeremy porno, about a million YouTube Poops, and the infamous Super Mario Bros. live-action movie.
It's 1993. You're a kid who loves the Super Mario Bros. You've got the games, toys and even love those lightly racist cartoons. Then you go to see the Super Mario Bros. movie where Mario grinds in an underground club, Bowser is an evolved T-Rex, and the goombas are weird lizard monsters dressed like David Byrne in "Stop Making Sense." It's one of the worst adaptations of all time and a must see movie for how hilariously awful it is. It's this movie that killed Nintendo's hope of turning Mario into a multi-media franchise. No more cartoons, no more movies, no more "American Mario." The series was officially put on a short leash. Though I can't back it up, this movie was likely the last straw that caused Miyamoto to scream out his window "Can't you yankees do anything but drop bombs?!" and proceed to make The Official Nintendo Style Guide.
The Official Nintendo Style Guide
In 1993, Nintendo came out with a guide to their flagship characters, The Official Nintendo Style Guide. Featuring the primary cast of the Mario universe along with Kirby and Samus Aran, this guide gave a glimpse into the personalities and backstories of these characters and set up an official color scheme for the characters.
And thus the Mario Bros. reached the end of their character design changes. From Popeye inspirations to the style guide and to now, they and the rest of the Mario Bros. cast have remained largely consistent in personality and design. Sure there have been games that experiment with aesthetics such as the Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi series, but Nintendo seems to have found a stable character design for the famous duo and there doesn't seem to be any sign of them changing.