I do love a nice inflammatory topic that inspires lots of reasonable, intelligent debate, which is what drives me to begin this column with the following question: is Mario dead? And with that said, I think I'm going to skip reading the comments on this one.
His face is still everywhere, true enough. It's still easy to find lunchboxes with him on the front and he's still a name and an image that remains known even to people who don't know anything else about videogames, like what Superman is to comic books, or what Mickey Mouse is to the entirety of American culture. But when was the last time Mickey Mouse actually did anything? Anything besides being plastered across toys and clothing by the massive corporation to which he is enslaved? Epic Mickey, granted, but it's been a long fucking time since he starred in a cartoon short or a film, which was where he built his appeal.
Mario and Mickey Mouse both inhabit this strange state of existence where they are no longer "characters" but are "intellectual property". The difference being that a "character" has personality and inhabits actual stories in which they undergo arcs, but "intellectual property" merely exists, frozen in time, to be worshiped and stamped on T-shirts. Frankly, I couldn't imagine a more tortuous existence. It'd be like if a bricklayer was made King. And they sat him on a throne and everyone kowtowed before him and took pictures, and the bricklayer wants to go and lay some bricks because that's kind of what he likes doing. But no-one will let him because they want to admire his lovely hands some more. That's no kind of life. It's more like living death. Mario is a cultural zombie.
There are still games with Mario in them, yes. Token ones that do little more than remind you of his existence, New Super Mario Bros Whatever, current-gen retreads of concepts that were explored pretty much to their full around Mario 3. The last time any Mario game was cutting-edge and relevant and conceptually challenging was Super Mario Galaxy back on the Wii, and as I said at the time, there aren't a whole lot of places you can go once you've blown the 'going into space' load, that's what the Jason films discovered. So now, he's just kind of there. He came back from space and now things will never be the same again. In that respect Mario is basically The Fury from Metal Gear Solid 3. Mario has slightly demented arsonist leanings whenever he's got a fireflower on, doesn't he.
The first sign that a character is kinda done is when his owners start joining in with the people who are taking the piss out of them. And that's what was going on with the Paper Mario wing of the Nintendo castle, as well as the Mario & Luigi RPGs and, going all the way back, Super Mario RPG on the SNES. Games where the fixed "canon" of the standard Mario game - Bowser bad, Bowser kidnap princess, you rescue princess - is toyed with by introducing new characters and in-depth dialogue that hangs the metaphorical lampshade on the inherent absurdity of the original concept. So you have situations where Bowser becomes a figure of fun or even an ally, totally undermining the core principles. Games like Mario Kart were arguably already undermining the canon by showing that the hero, the villain and the distressed damsel were all chummy enough to spend go-karting holidays together.