The Problem With Mario Timelines

I’m not even going to pretend that I’m not procrastinating a little here, but with the buffer barely over a week (which means I have almost no breathing room at all if I want to keep content coming to my patrons a week early) I’ll take whatever random nonsense I can hammer out in an hour just to give me more breathing room. Can you tell this wasn’t supposed to be a one-man project?

Anyway, below the break we’ll talk about the problem with Mario timelines. Obviously the problem is ultimately that the Mario games have paper-thin plots with little to no continuity, but there’s a more specific problem that makes them hard to assemble into a timeline – and this more specific problem is relatively recent.

Early Mario games are pretty easy to sort out into a timeline. Even through to the Gamecube, the only things that give you even a little bit of difficulty is the sports and racing games, since Bowser and Mario appear to be, at the very least, not mortal enemies in them. There’s plenty of explanations for that one problem, though (I won’t go into them here for fear of bloating this out into a multi-part series), and other than that the games sort themselves into a timeline that not only makes sense, but tells a bit of a meta-plot. I think this early meta-plot is the reason why a lot of people try to cling to a Mario timeline now (that, and that some of the Zelda timelines were really cool and some people are hoping they can wring something similar out of Mario, which is a weird thing to believe considering how radically different in tone the two franchises are).

Prior to the Wii era, the Mario timeline begins with Yoshi’s Island, seeing Mario rescued from Bowser by Yoshi and delivered to his parents. There’s a jump in the timeline, Mario fights Donkey Kong for his girlfriend Pauline in the original Donkey Kong arcade game (retold in greatly expanded format on the Game Boy with no particular change in the overall plot), ends up with a job as a plumber after being fired as a carpenter because he catastrophically wrecked the construction site where he’d worked (and note: Donkey Kong the First is Mario’s own pet gorilla, so this is hardly unreasonable). It’s during his work as a plumber that he finds a magical portal to the Mushroom Kingdom. If you like, you can assume that everything after this is a moderately coherent ‘shrooms trip.

Once in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario has a series of steadily escalating confrontations with Bowser. He saves Peach from Bowser’s forces in the Mushroom Kingdom, he saves various royals (including Peach) from Bowser’s forces in the Mushroom World, at the end of Super Mario Bros. 3, Bowser crash lands his final airship in Dinosaur Land and takes over with his remnant forces, Mario and co. stumble across him there and defeat him there as well.

With his armies thoroughly annihilated, Bowser is forced to take a guerilla approach for the next several conflicts. He sneaks some remnant soldiers into Peach’s castle, takes over from within, and dares Mario to come after him in Mario 64, in which Bowser has significantly fewer forces and no holdings of his own. Every single position he holds is something easily accessible from Peach’s Castle and vice-versa, so it’s not a stretch to say that they were controlled by the Mushroom Kingdom before Bowser’s coup.

The significantly reduced number of enemies is obviously because of gameplay differences between 2D and 3D games, but it helps make the arc work, and it continues in the later games. In Luigi’s Mansion, Bowser is not present at all, and an unrelated villain has come for revenge, exerting influence over a very small area. In Super Mario Sunshine, Bowser and his child run a guerilla campaign on Delfino, relying on troops corrupted on the spot and local sympathizers rather than bringing an army of their own. This arc of Bowser going from world conquering threat to a remnant army to a guerilla force with almost no loyal forces left at all is almost certainly unintentional, but it is an arc, and taken on its own, these NES through Gamecube era games tell a story of Bowser being steadily worn down, of Mario’s victories actually making a difference, and if you take one interpretation, of Bowser ultimately racing go-karts and playing party games with Mario, presumably after some kind of surrender or truce (there’s a darker interpretation of the sports and party games that I like better, but I won’t bog this post down with it).

The timeline presented above is mostly chronological to the order of games released, with most of the exceptions coming because games like Yoshi’s Island are obviously prequels to others. Minor games, like the Mario Land games and its Wario spin-offs, Super Mario Bros. 2, and the RPGs can be slipped in pretty much anywhere after Mario’s return to the Mushroom Kingdom in Super Mario Bros. Super Mario RPG takes place during a time when Bowser does still have at least one castle and thus presumably predates Super Mario 64, and also probably predates Super Mario World since all of Bowser’s fortifications from that game were in a region where Mario and co. didn’t expect to find him, but its position in the timeline between those games can be basically anywhere. Super Princess Peach likewise appears to occur during some time when Bowser had significant armies, but it could be anywhere before World. Even if it’s after SMB3, it’s possible that Bowser was striking from Dinosaur Land with Mario and co. being unaware of where his armies were coming from. Super Mario Bros. 2 (America) and Super Mario Land both deal with entirely unrelated villains and can occur at any point in the timeline at all.

Occasionally you get into issues with remakes, like the 1994 Game Boy remake of Donkey Kong. The first four levels are copy/pasted from the original arcade game, but are then followed by many more levels. DK the First wrecks the construction site he climbs up, so it’s pretty weird that an identical construction site would be around for him to wreck again. There’s an easy solution to this, though, which is just to assume that the remake is a retelling of the same events rather than an account of incredibly similar events. It is, after all, a remake.

This flexibility with new elements makes the above timeline practically impervious to being invalidated. You can assign new games a position on the timeline based on the apparent strength of Bowser’s troops and call it a day. There is one thing that makes the above timeline, if not fall apart, certainly become much less compelling: Stagnation. Constant, incessant stagnation. Which, what do you know, is exactly what Nintendo got up to in the Wii and Wii-U eras.

Beginning with New Super Mario Bros., Nintendo entered an era when nearly 100% of their content was just remixing games they’d already made. All of these seem to take place in the area of Super Mario Bros. 3, and indeed some of them are practically remakes of that game, but their repetition plays merry Hell with the escalating scale of the Gamecube era timeline. Just how many kingdoms did Bowser have? He’s got eight of the fuckers per game, plus usually at least one minor fortification (tower, Boo house, etc.) per castle. Every single set of eight is kicked off with yet another plot to kidnap Princess Peach, and all of them end in a final world that is basically Mordor which, in Super Mario Bros. 3, is the terrain of the Koopa Kingdom. How many times can the Koopa Kingdom get invaded before Bowser loses the ability to conquer and fortify seven other kingdoms? I get that Mario’s one-man massacre isn’t really leaving behind any garrisons, but Bowser’s still gotta run out of resources to keep rebuilding his empire eventually.

Now, not every instance of Bowser’s final kingdom necessarily has to be the Koopa Kingdom itself. While it’s not clear if the paintings in Mario 64 are teleporters leading to other lands or sub-dimensions containing other lands, what’s obvious is that they have permanent inhabitants and that there is no particular indication that Lethal Lava Land is part of the Koopa Kingdom. It makes sense that Bowser and co. would set up shop out of terrain similar to their home, and it makes sense that such an inhospitable land wouldn’t be very appealing to anyone but them and would thus be unoccupied, ready for them to take over. Even if the final world of most or all games cast in the SMB3 mold isn’t the Koopa Kingdom itself, just how often can Bowser set up shop in a volcanic region, conquer six nearby areas the last of which (and only the last of which) borders the Mushroom Kingodm, then invade the Mushroom Kingdom to kidnap Princess Peach, before the Mushroom Kingdom runs out of neighboring kingdoms strategically positioned exactly five lands away from a Koopa-friendly Mordor-alike?

Of course, since every single New Super Mario game (including 3D Land and World) is fundamentally a Super Mario Bros. 3 remake, kind of like how the DS has a (much, much closer) Super Mario 64 remake, you can just use the same excuse we used to solve the remake problem that first cropped up in 1994 with the Game Boy Donkey Kong. Except, the games aren’t quite remakes, because each one does have a slightly different plot. While New Super Mario Bros. Wii (as an example) is basically just “Koopalings kidnap Peach, go save her,” 3D Land has the Tail Tree as an origin story for the super leaves that appear in SMB3 and NSMB 2, the Sprixie Kingdom of 3D World is clearly a different location from the eight kingdoms visited in SMB3, in NSMB-U Bowser takes over the Mushroom Kingdom and renovates it which makes it kind of more like SMB1 than SMB3 but not really, and so on.

Mario 64 and its DS remake are so similar to one another that playing the first level of one and then the first level of the other immediately after one another is repetitive, whereas the New Super Mario games are actually different games. They have different power ups and different levels even if they recycle the same bosses and nearly the same plot over and over again. They feel more like expansion packs than sequels, adding in only a handful of new mechanics (contrast Mario 64 to Sunshine and Luigi’s Mansion and they all have similar but very distinct gameplay), but they’re definitely not remakes. If you want a timeline that ties every Mario adventure together, it’s one thing to say “pick your favorite version of Mario 64 – that’s the real one, ignore the other, it’s a retelling,” and quite another to say “pick your favorite of these half-dozen loosely related games and ignore the others.” The purpose of a timeline is to unify things and when you toss out anything that doesn’t fit you’re missing that point.

So, what, you let there be an SMB3 era where Bowser conquers dozens of different kingdoms and invades the Mushroom Kingdom six times (and counting!) with a slightly different kidnapping plot each time? It completely messes with the cadence of escalation the timeline used to have.

Of course, there’s other ways to tie things together that don’t rely on this, the most famous being the “SMB3 is a play” theory, which posits that every single time Mario has ever saved the Mushroom Kingdom except the first is actually Mario just dramatically retelling his original adventure over and over again, with different embellishments each time. This has the advantage of being kind of like what’s actually happening in real life, in that people are releasing media, so if Nintendo starts using repetitive plots and gameplay, then Mario’s theater company starts using repetitive plots and stage directions. There’s other theories along these lines, but none of them really tell a story the way the timeline used to. Instead, they excuse a lack of one. The lack of a plot has never been a secret for Mario, but it is disappointing to see the accidental meta-plot unraveled.

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