A Brief Guide To
Super Mario Mod-Based Art

June 18, 2014 | Sophie Weiner

At the recent E3 Conference, Nintendo announced Mario Maker. The new interactive element for WiiU will allow players to customize their own 2D Super Mario courses from scratch, “legitimizing” a practice already developed by hardcore modders and artists alike.

Why did Nintendo suddenly decide to allow gamers this interactive experience? Journalist and game critic Leigh Alexander suggests that the companies are smarting up, taking advantage of the fact that building and sharing online is a desirable game feature. “The most successful games have thriving creative communities around them, people who mod and make levels,” Alexander tells ANIMAL. “It’s important for game companies to realize now that sharing is a big part of how people play — half the fun of Mario Kart 8 is looking at all the GIFs and video clips people have made of ‘Luigi’s death stare.’

Mario Maker isn’t so much a harbinger of things to come, but an acknowledgment of what’s been happening in communities of Mario fans for a long time. Many artists and game designers have messed with Mario over the years in their various unique ways. Here are a few highlights, assembled with the help of Babycastles‘ Syed Sallahudin.


Let’s start with a classic. Cory Arcangel, an established digital artist of our time, and his Mario mod. Like much of his work, Clouds transforms a familiar world into something ethereally beautiful. It was made back in the days when “mods” involved actually pulling apart and altering hardware by hand, for which he outlined in step-by-step cartilage hacking instructions. Today, the work feels just as relevant — a reminder of the tranquillity we can access when we look past our desire for constant stimulation.

Arcangel’s Super Mario Movie pushes the technique even further. The ROM loads the complex digital video art piece into an NES emulator, and Arcangel provides the scripts for “a very simple built from scratch music sequencer, a rudimentary animation engine, and an RLE scheme to compress background” buried within the a full blast of the entire working archive of the code for this project.”


Canadian artist Myfanwe Ashmore has extensively hacked and altered classic video games, sometimes exhibiting them as video loops and other times as playable games. Between 2000 and 2004, she created the Mario Trilogy. These games are variations on a theme. In each game, your avatar is placed in a landscape devoid of any of the hallmarks of the Mario world. Ashmore described her work on the game mario battle no. 1.

“I have removed all of the enemies, all of the prizes, all of the architecture, and left only the landscape,” she explained. “As there is no captured princess peach (toadstool), no need for heroism, no monetary prizes, no amphetamines to make you stronger, there is nothing left to do but go for a walk, run, or jump around, solitary in the landscape and then you run out of time and die.”

The two other mods are similarly bleak. Mario is drowning places Mario in a lake where eventual death is inescapable, while mario is doing time takes the same approach as battle no. 1 but uses the dungeon as a setting. These existentialist scenarios allow a dark contemplation of human existence, and our relationship with technology.


Super Mario Eclipsea somewhat less depressing Mario mod, overlays the Mario universe with psychedelic shifting color gradients. “The eclipse stars, a source of mythical powers, have been unleashed upon the world,” the game’s description reads. “As a result, the entire Mushroom Kingdom has been shrouded in the shadows of an everlasting eclipse.” This feels like a bit of a narrative stretch for something that is essentially throwing a color filter over a game, but it’s probably fun to play on spirituality-affirming drugs.


Created by lo fi game collective Pixeljam for Adult Swim, Corporate Climber isn’t a hacked Mario game, but does bear a striking similarity to the Mario platform. Your character starts off as a lowly plumber, and with each level ascends another rung on the corporate ladder. Things get alternately more violent and surreal as you run the rat race to the top. We won’t spoil the end, you can play it yourself online.

Perhaps, Super Mario itself is a piece of surreal digital art, as proposed by PBS Idea Channel’s Mike Rugnetta. “There’s a guy who throws armadillo type things at you… from a cloud,” he says. “There are turtles who throw hammers called The Hammer Bros.”

Perhaps we don’t see this surrealism as bizarre, because Super Mario so embedded in our cultural mythos. We don’t question it.

Rugnetta points out that non-sequitor has become so prevalent in our culture that images like those Magritte’s paintings, which scandalized viewers when they were first made, would barely phase us today. “The only difference being is that you can play Mario, but you can’t really play a Dali painting.” Game designers? Your move. (Image: Cory Arcangel)