Cracking Mario’s Power-Up Code

After decades of working its way into the mainstream, the world of gaming has produced numerous iconic characters and worlds. Many of these ideas are so pervasive that even non-gamers can identify them by name. It’s rare to find someone in western culture that isn’t familiar with Pac-Man, Sonic, Mega Man, or in this case, Mario.

Dating back to the original Donkey Kong in 1980, Mario has starred, co-starred, or cameoed in hundreds of games in the last 30 years. His games have consistently set the standards for the platforming genre, and the original Super Mario Bros single-handedly created the gaming archetype of rescuing princesses. Mario’s games are so prevalent that, according to one study, he’s more readily recognizable than Mickey Mouse.

What makes the feat truly masterful is the fact that Mario’s games, for most intents and purposes, stick to the same basic plans with relatively minor tweaks and adjustments. Those small changes can garner big results, but overall, the base mechanics and plots of Mario games go untouched. For this reason, certain elements — such as power-ups — are just as iconic as Mario is himself. Getting an extra life or becoming invincible often generates images of green mushrooms and stars with eyes, even if you’re not a fan of the Mario franchise. The list of power-ups has seen innovation and variation, but they rarely stray far from their classic roots.

Which leads to one very important question: WHAT THE EVER-LOVING FUCK IS THIS THING?!


For those of you as unnerved as me, the above image is called a Pal Pill. It was introduced in Super Paper Mario for the Wii, and generates eight small 8-bit versions of Mario (or whatever character got the power-up) to serve as a spinning meat shield. To date, it has only appeared in its game of origin.

Upon first visual contact with this power-up, I admit that I recoiled in my seat just a bit; I could only wonder what sort of ability would be gained from three severed Mario heads and began to imagine Luigi as the Headless Yoshiman. The power-up seemed so out of place to me because it didn’t seem to ‘fit in’ with any of the other traditional Mario items, but I couldn’t exactly say how, since Mario’s power-ups tend to be all over the map as it is. I mean, I’m sitting here trying to justify that this thing is weird while accepting that a leaf partially transforming Mario into a raccoon is totally legit. Well, I’m happy to say that I think I’ve got it. I’ve finally figured out what Mario’s power-ups have in common!

In the early days, Mario games only had a handful of power-ups: Super mushrooms, 1-up mushrooms, fire flowers, and the starman. As the franchise has evolved, it’s leaned toward familiarity in the form of new mushrooms, flowers, and stars, but there have also been items that came completely out of the blue (such as the metal cap, feather, frog suit, and carrot). And yet, for some reason, none of these new items seemed to clash with the motif.

Overall, Mario’s items fall into two major categories.


It’s no secret around the internet that Mario has a loooot of variant outfits, each of which come with their own unique abilities. Whether he’s donning a new hat, a koopa shell, or a full-on fursuit, Mario’s become quite the fashionista over the years. We’ve even branched into an era where the wardrobe is becoming more widespread; as more and more games include additional characters to play (or at least, more characters than just Luigi), new characters have been able to wear Mario’s magical costumes — and in some cases, Mario gets to wear theirs, too. Hell, Mario even stole a giant shoe from that Kuribo guy in Super Mario Bros 3.

While the clothes are easy to categorize, the rest of the items were a little trickier. However, they do have a common thread among them. And that thread is made out of a stem.


Yes, you heard me: Stems. All these years it seemed like Mario’s power-ups have been randomly drawn out of a hat, but there actually is a scant amount of logic behind the madness. The stems are a surprisingly unifying element for many of these disparate parts, and it does make Nintendo look a little more like they’re working with a theme here. The fact that they’ve decided to stick within the realm of a few basic general shapes helps this trend, of course, but they’re also so wacky that it probably wouldn’t strike us as unreasonable at all if the next Mario power-up was a friggin’ wrecking ball. And even then it’d still be an item with a stem.

Upon discovering this enigmatic truth that’s been staring me right in the face, I thought I’d finally gotten to the heart of why the Pal Pill seems so out-of-place among Mario’s other items. Unfortunately for me, the fact of the matter is that I not only failed to make my point, I failed even harder by specifically proving myself wrong. How, you ask? Let’s review the Pal Pill and what it does.


Dr. Evil Mario and his army of Mini-Me clones.

Once a player picks up a Pal Pill, the little wad of heads grows into a fully formed (albeit primitive) copy of the given character. In other words, little tiny bits of a character generate into complete versions of whatever is near them.

They aren’t just little Mario heads. THEY’RE STEM CELLS.


Mario, his power-ups, Super Paper Mario, and everything else relating to the Mushroom Kingdom belong to Nintendo. The category collages, however, I made myself, and I’m specifically taking credit for them because they were a bitch to organize.

No, Nintendo’s not actually involved in stem cell research. Well, not that I know of, anyway.


About Leedzie

Leda "Leedzie" Clark is a writer and game designer with a sharp eye for detail and a kooky sense of humor. She's been a nerd as long as she can remember, and always seems to notice the wrong thing first in any given situation.

Posted on October 11, 2013, in Feature Articles, Humor, Journalism, Retro Games, Video Games and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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