I’ll never forget when I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System (aka NES, aka just straight-up Nintendo, aka Original Nintendo).
Picture 7-year-old me, in a K-Mart somewhere in the middle of New Mexico, with my older brother, 4 years my elder, pointing to the pile of NES consoles in some dirty, unkempt K-Mart shopping aisle.
But they weren’t just consoles, they were bundles. The first of its kind: a bundle that featured a single cartridge with two games on it. And, hold on to your butts for this one, a light gun.
And not only that, but they were on sale. ON SALE. I can’t remember exactly how much it was, but for some reason $100 sticks in my mind.
Which, as you can imagine, I did not happen to have socked away somewhere as a 7-year-old in 1988.
My brother and I, like most siblings, spent a lot of time disagreeing (if you call chucking a Hot Wheels car at the other’s head a “disagreement”). But on this, we were united. My brother hatched the plan, and I bought in.
We would do something unheard of, unprecedented in the annals of our family’s history: enact a bold plan to beg our parents to let us get a combined advance on our allowances large enough to cover the cost of the most mind-bending home entertainment system to ever hit the market.
And somehow, someway, our parents actually gave in.
We weren’t even in our hometown at the time, so I remember hooking up the RF connecter to the back of a dingy hotel TV set, ensuring that our parents would instantly regret their decision.
And we played the hell out of both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.
Of course, we would continue to play those two games, and only those two, for at least the next three months. Although in my memory it felt much, much longer. Because we blew every penny we had, plus our weekly stipends of $5, in exchange for that glorious machine.
And that two-for-one cartridge really drove home just how insanely bizarre the Mario games really are, right then, from day one in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of New Mexico.
You see, Duck Hunt is a reasonable game. You shoot ducks, with a gun, and a dog picks them up (he also giggles incessantly, but that’s beside the point). That makes sense. That’s just like real life.
Then there’s Super Mario Bros. And yes, I get that Mario was in Donkey Kong, but for the vast majority of humans, at least in the United States, Super Mario Bros. was the real introduction to this lasting icon.
I’ve limited this list to only “old-school” Mario games, which I’m calling anything SNES or earlier. And because there’s just so much weirdness in this series, we’re also limiting this list to Mario console games. Start allowing random Game Boy games in there and this article will last forever.
So without further ado, let’s dive right into the uncomfortable, twisted world of old-school Super Mario games.
A leaf gives you a raccoon hat and tail that lets you fly
It would be easy to build a list of the strangest things from Mario games simply by going through each item in the games and talking about what they do and how what the item is and what it does always seems totally disconnected.
But this one really does deserve its own shoutout.
Throw your hand up if you remember the movie The Wizard, starring Fred Savage and Christian Slater (and Beau Bridges somehow). Aka, an advertisement for Super Mario Bros. 3.
Like, the kid just grabs the leaf, and figures, oh, OK, I guess you fly now that I have a hat with ears and there’s probably a warp thing this way?
Also shoutout to the actor who plays the host of the video game championship. He is all in.
For curious minds, the item is called a Super Leaf, and this isn’t technically a suit it gives you, but instead, it simply turns you into Raccoon Mario, a form with a raccoon hat and tail—not to be confused with the raccoon suit, aka the Tanooki Suit (which I thought was a bear suit), which gives you similar abilities as the hat but also allows you to turn into a stone statue and avoid enemies.
Totally makes sense now that I looked it up…
A giant humanoid turtle wants to kill you
Ahh! It’s Bowser!
The most intimidating and tough … uh … what animal is he? Like a dragon or something?
Nah, he’s a turtle.
OK, so technically Bowser, and all the other troopas, are Koopas—which are, you guessed it, humanoid turtles. In fact, Bowser’s forces are sometimes referred to as the “Turtle Tribe.”
So let’s just step back and think about what’s happening with Bowser in the original Super Mario Bros.: A giant, humanoid turtle is trying to trick you into falling into lava with toad-people dressed up as princesses.
He’s dressing up toad-people as princesses in order to murder you.
Yeah, this definitely goes on the list.
No offense to my dude Yosh, but what the hell is it?
A lizard? A dinosaur? A type of koopa?
Hell, the best even Super Mario Wiki can explain Yoshi is as dinosaur-like.
Turns out Yoshi is actually an entire species, but also the name of the character. So if you’re name is Human, you get it.
Still weirds me out that a creature that just squats and lays eggs all the time became a regular part of this franchise.
I don’t know where I thought Baby Mario came from.
I didn’t play Yoshi’s Island when it came out, so when I saw the baby characters in later iterations of Mario Kart, I didn’t think much of it. Just a funny skin to choose from, I thought.
Then, I decided to check out Yoshi’s Island in Nintendo’s classic console emulator. My life will never be the same.
Turns out Yoshi’s Island is, what, like a prequel, I guess, somehow? Even though it’s not?
It begins with a stork (ah that’s where the babies came from!) on its way to deliver a Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, presumably to their parents. Sidenote: I honestly have never thought about what Mario and Luigi’s parents must be like. Huh.
Then the evil turtle wizard, Kamek (the guy who I knew as making spaces extra good or bad in the later rounds of Mario Party games) sends flying koopas, or something, to kidnap baby Mario.
Why does Kamek want to kidnap a baby?? I honestly have no idea.
But I digress, what’s really bizarre here is just that there’s a baby Mario as the main character in the game, just chillin’ in nothing but a pint-sized Mario hat and diaper.
When I was three I put on my cowboy boots and a diaper and hopped on my Big Wheel to leave home forever (or so was my plan, according to Mom). So honestly this is somewhat believable, but putting that in a game? And instead of a Big Wheel it’s a dinosaur-like creature??
Sheesh. More on Yoshi’s Island later.
The dude in a football helmet and pads who throws baseballs at you
I have a confession to make—I never did get real into Super Mario World. Not in the way I did the first three Mario Bros. games on the NES, anyways.
So imagine my confusion when I went back to play this SNES bundle game and found this bold bastard roaming around.
Turns out Chargin’ Chuck is a football-helmet-wearing badass that can take many, many forms. In this case, he is aptly called Confused Chuck, which explains why he throws baseballs.
Please feast your eyes on this handy illustration which explains all the different types of Chucks. I found this on Super Mario Wiki, but if you know where it originated, let me know.
Honestly, somehow, this one actually ends up maybe making the most sense in the end compared to anything else on this list. And that’s saying something.
All of Yoshi’s Island
As promised, more on this insanely bizarre, incredibly awesome game. First a note: This is, technically, the sequel to Super Mario World.
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island defies explanation, especially as somehow a sequel?
As mentioned above, the main plot here is that Kamek, a wizard koopa, wants to kidnap Baby Mario, but instead Lil Mario ends up on the home island of the Yoshi species. But, Kamek does get Baby Luigi.
Luckily, a map is also dropped. Somehow, between this and the fact that Baby Mario seems to want to go in a certain direction, the Yoshis decide collectively to risk their lives to get him there.
One problem, they can’t let Baby Mario touch the ground—EVER. Thus, the Yoshis set up a relay system to get Baby Mario where he wants to go.
This game is bonkers.
Plot notwithstanding, the mechanics of carrying around a baby who can’t be left on the ground for more than 10 seconds are equally bizarre.
And yes, I’m aware this is a Yoshi-heavy list, but, I mean, what the hell?
By now you probably know the story, but for those who don’t, a quick history lesson.
Super Mario Bros. 2, as we know it in the U.S., was NOT the originally-planned sequel. As Japanese game developers were building the actual sequel, they deemed it too difficult for North Americans.
In fairness, it is pretty difficult. You were able to play it not long after the 1986 Japan-only release in the form of Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. But it actually just feels like they ripped it from the first one, kind of tweaked shit, and released it.
That’s why I’m grateful that Nintendo for some reason decided the answer was to re-skin a Japanese Famicom (the JP version of the NES) game called Doki Doki Panic with Mario characters and call it a sequel in North America.
Doing so opened up so much imagination and creativity in the franchise, taking it someplace strange and wonderful. For the first time, we got to play as side characters, and they even had their own unique abilities—a feature that has stuck around in Mario games to this day.
I say dream, damn it.
Except when it comes to Birdo, in what appears to be a lab experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong. A creature with no hair, spitting eggs at you.
It’s absolutely terrifying.
Sorry Birdo, it’s not your fault, it’s just how you were made … but I hate you.