Super Mario Bros. is on Amazon Prime and video game movies have never been better

Super Mario Bros. movie poster
Things really should have got better by now (pic: Disney)

As Uncharted releases in cinemas to expectedly poor reviews, the original Super Mario movie shows how little things have changed.

When Super Mario Bros. was released to cinemas in May 1993 it became the first ever live action video game movie. It got terrible reviews, performed poorly at the box office, and had virtually nothing to do with the games it was nominally based on. As such it set the template for video game movies for the next three decades, and it’s genuinely shocking how little anyone seems to have learned from its mistakes.

The strangest thing about video game movies is that Hollywood keeps making them, despite most struggling to even break even. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu still managed to underperform, despite generally being regarded as the best quality adaptation so far, while Sonic The Hedgehog is the highest grossing and yet still only saw an estimated profit of around $100 million – chump changed compared to a true blockbuster.

And yet still Hollywood persists, with Uncharted currently struggling to get into the black despite the benefit of Tom Holland as its star and pandemic restrictions relaxing all around the world. The worse thing is that Uncharted is one of the better video game movies, in that it’s mediocre rather than actively bad and they at least bothered to keep all the characters’ names the same.

That’s not sarcasm, as one of the original scripts, written as the movie made its progress through six separate directors, portrayed Nathan Drake as part of a family of globetrotting explorers who protect ancient antiquities from less scrupulous collectors. A concept which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the games, other than ancient treasures are involved.

There are generally two different kinds of problems with creating a video game movie and Uncharted perfectly illustrates the first, in that most games with a more complex plot are so directly influenced by movies that there’s no point turning them into a film. The Uncharted games were inspired by Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones and while they feel perfectly distinct as interactive entertainment, they come across like second generation copies when turned into actual films.

That’s why there’s never been a Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty movie (although the latter is now rumoured), because those games already copy entire scenes from existing movies, that would seem ludicrously plagiaristic if turned back into a film. Again, this problem is evident in the Uncharted movie, which recreates the cargo plane scene from Uncharted 3, even though that sequence was itself copied from James Bond film The Living Daylights.

The other problem with video game movies is adapting games that don’t really have a plot. Doom and Super Mario Bros. might not seem to have much in common, but they were both amongst the first franchises to get a movie tie-in even though their plots could both be summarised on the back of a postage stamp – and yet even then the films still managed to get them wrong.

Super Mario Bros. is a terrible movie but so fascinatingly poor that it becomes so bad it’s good. There are a lot of minor elements taken from the games but the tone and context is so peculiar – with the film basing its visual style on Blade Runner, of all things – it’s impossible not to watch the whole thing in anything but open mouth bewilderment.

Despite what the names implies, Super Mario World was the primary influence at the time and to be fair that is not a game that any sensible person would look to turn into a linear movie, considering its surreal imagery and almost total lack of plot or characterisation.

But that’s because it’s a video game and video games are interactive, and even with those that have complex plots of their own the best storytelling still comes from your own imagination, as you create ad hoc explanations for your progress and imagine the events and characters in entirely different ways than the developers intended.

Super Mario Bros.: what happened?

Despite playing the lead character, Bob Hoskins famously said that he never understood the plot to the Super Mario Bros. movie and it’s not hard to see why. It starts with an explanation that the meteor that killed the dinosaurs created a parallel dimension where dinosaurs evolved into humanoid form.

Italian-American plumbers Mario and Luigi (whose surname is revealed to also be Mario – the only element from the film to make it back into the games) stumble into the dimension via a portal in Manhattan and become embroiled in a quest to save long-lost Princess Daisy and stop King Koppa (aka Bowser) from merging the two worlds.

For no apparent reason, Bowser is portrayed as an intense germophobe, with no less than Dennis Hopper hamming it up as Mario’s nemesis – apparently because his kids were fans of the games and urged him to do it.

Naturally the heroes win in the end but it’s all extremely odd and almost impossible to follow, which is understandable when you learn of the multiple script versions and constant rewrites that were going on even during filming.

As well as being the first video game movie though it’s also notable as being pivotal in the adoption of digital visual effects, bridging the gap between solely physical technologies and using modern computer editing and compositing.

The general rule is that the better a video game is at telling a linear story the less interactive it is, with Naughty Dog titles such as The Last Of Us, which is getting its own HBO series, lauded for its storytelling but given a pass for its unremarkable and repetitive gameplay.

Creating a movie based on an action game makes little more sense than making a film based on a song or a football match, as despite all the pretences over the years films and video games have very little in common beyond surface visuals. To even want to make an adaptation suggests a lack of appreciation for gaming as an artform, and its unique position amongst other non-interactive media.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done though, and Sonic The Hedgehog in particular seems proof that if you try something enough times then simply by the law of averages you’ll hit gold, or at least some semi-precious metal, eventually. Nintendo are certainly keen to try again, with a new animated movie scheduled this year from the creators of Minions.

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Nothing is known about the movie yet other than the cast, which includes Chris Pratt as Mario – a choice which it’s already been implied means Mario won’t have his distinctive Italian accent, which is almost his only identifiable characteristic other than what he looks like.

Most Mario games don’t have a plot more complex than save the princess but the Paper Mario series, especially The Thousand-Year Door, is an exception, with its wry script and street level portrayal of the absurdities of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Most fans would consider that the obvious route to take, and yet Hollywood always seems to go out of its way to avoid the sensible decisions. Presumably it will be a more accurate adaptation than the 1993 movie but whether it’s any more entertaining remains to be seen. Super Mario Bros. is a terrible film but at least you can laugh at it, with its bizarre inappropriateness being far more interesting than the bland competence of Uncharted.

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