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Mario Can’t Be Super Without Psychedelic Power-Ups

Nintendo’s mascot is boring. So for nearly four decades, it has fed the jumping plumber an increasingly bizarre diet of items.

Early into his newest adventure, Mario transforms into a large elephant.

It’s not a costume like those in previous Super Mario video games, where acrobatics are imbued in the cat suits, penguin wings and frog legs worn by the Mushroom Kingdom’s savior. Instead, the fictional plumber gains hooves and quadruples in size. His signature overalls stretch to accommodate his leathery largess faster than he can shout “Wowie! Zowie!”

That peculiar power-up, which lets Mario use his trunk to swat enemies and water benevolent flowers, is just one spectacle in the eccentric Super Mario Bros. Wonder, which arrives Friday for the Nintendo Switch.

But by turning its star into an elephant, Nintendo is also acknowledging a simple fact of its Goomba-stomping, Koopa-kicking empire: Mario himself is a little boring. The smorgasbord of power-ups is what keeps players excited.

Mario’s greatest natural ability is high jumping. And his motivation has been the same for decades, usually involving his need to rescue Princess Peach from the evil King Bowser. But the stakes are ultimately low, with heroes and villains who come together elsewhere for party games and go-kart antics.

“It’s not like we were setting out to create a hero,” said Takashi Tezuka, a longtime executive producer at Nintendo who helped design 1985’s Super Mario Bros. alongside the franchise’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto. “We are also very lucky that he is someone that people view as being approachable.”

In the 1983 arcade game Mario Bros., Mario could avoid enemies only by running and jumping. But two years later, in Super Mario Bros., he was chowing down mushrooms that increase his size, flowers that allow him to throw fireballs and stars that grant temporary invincibility. Mastering those abilities to traverse increasingly difficult levels is part of what attracted players to the franchise.

A more oddball approach came with the 1990 arrival of Super Mario Bros. 3 for the Nintendo Entertainment System: Mario could fly using a raccoon-like tanooki suit, or squeeze inside a giant boot to hop across spiky obstacles. By the time New Super Mario Bros. arrived for the Nintendo DS in 2006, developers appeared satisfied with refining older concepts, including mushrooms that could shrink and supersize the plumber.

Now there’s Super Mario Bros. Wonder, which turns the franchise into a carnival of bizarre delights. Each level includes a wonder flower, a new mechanic that sends Mario on something like a psychedelic trip, reconfiguring the world around him — warp pipes start crawling like caterpillars, rhinos begin a stampede and some mountains gain a set of googly eyes.

Nintendo did not arrive at the concept of the wonder flower until about halfway through the game’s decade-long development period, sending the team scrambling for ideas. There were regular meetings called “wonder consideration time” and a list of nearly 2,000 ideas generated from the game’s staff.

“It was a lot of work,” said Shiro Mouri, the game’s director. “Out of those ideas, we whittled them down to potentials and prototyping. Then we got into the nitty-gritty details to make them wonders.”

Nintendo has a management group that helps keep track of nearly four decades of Mario power-ups. One of the challenges in Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s development process was encouraging younger employees to experiment.

“Among staffers there were thoughts of not changing key elements,” Tezuka said. “At the very beginning, I reached out and said: ‘That is not true. Don’t be restricted.’”

The development team behind Super Mario Bros. Wonder hopes it can ride that wave of interest while reintroducing the classic Mario formula to a new generation.

“We do still have some heart palpitations,” Tezuka said, “thinking about whether people in the real world will get the same enjoyment that we intend them to have.”

Listed years are U.S. release dates. All video clips courtesy of Nintendo. Produced by Lucky Benson, Tala Safie and Rumsey Taylor.

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