Two things you need to know about my childhood: I did not have a Nintendo, and I loved Super Mario Bros.

You can see the problem.

Yes, I knew lots of other kids with a NES, and I became very good at cajoling them into playdates and sleepovers. Sometimes, I was allowed to rent a Nintendo. I’d challenge my dad to a Super Mario Bros. 3 tournament and quickly demolish him, then squeeze in as much gaming as I could before the three-day weekend ended.

The rest of the time, I needed other ways to explore the Mushroom Kingdom. I pored over Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World strategy guides (which I bought without owning the games) and the maps and illustrations in Nintendo Power (which I subscribed to without owning any consoles). Then I imagined what the rest of Mario’s world was like. I read some of the comics and watched the cartoons occasionally, too, but those always felt slightly off. Mostly, I filled in the gaps myself.

I don’t necessarily love Mario — especially now, when he’s more of a commodity than a character — but I do love the bizarre world he lives in. In part, it’s a standard fairy tale setting. There’s a dragon, a princess, and plenty of castles. The mushrooms come straight out of Alice in Wonderland; Jack’s beanstalk isn’t the only one leading to treasures in the sky.

But the hero looks like someone’s dad. Pipes dot the landscape like trees (of course a plumber is a hero in a world like that!). Function very explicitly defines form. There are treasures hidden everywhere — sometimes in rooms that are hidden all on their own — with seemingly deliberate intention. It raises a number of questions: primarily, who hid them?

This tension turns the Mushroom Kingdom into a fascinating place, and early Nintendo’s complete lack of interest in telling its story invites us to tell our own. And then there are the maps.

The world maps in Super Mario Bros. 3 make Mushroom World feel alive. Every location has a distinct geography, climate, and culture (you can figure out that last one because the rescued kings have unique wardrobes). There are roads, houses, gaming parlors, and fortresses, hinting at some kind of urban planning and non-wartime society. Enemies roam around of their own free will; they’re minding their own business until Mario comes along!

Super Mario World ups the stakes with a more realistic landscape (and winding paths to match), the ability to change the map itself, and some very evocative artwork — just how did that airship crash in Dinosaur Land’s ocean, exactly?! And then, again, there are layers upon layers of secrets. To see all of Super Mario World, you need to find hidden exits that go six or seven levels deep. As Mario, you literally venture off-path to make grand, world-altering discoveries. For a kid growing up on a diet of Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander and Brian Jaques, it’s intoxicating.

Eventually, my parents recognized a lost cause and let me get a Game Boy, then a Super Nintendo, while Mario went on to become a better corporate mascot. You know, the kind without any edges. Don’t get me wrong, many of the newer Mario games are great, but do they leave you with questions or a sense of a lived-in place? Not so much, I think.

So consider The Toad Town Times, aka The Warped Zone, aka Warped, a fansite celebrating the early, weird, imaginative days of the Mushroom Kingdom — my Mushroom Kingdom, at least. I’d love to hear what yours looks like.

Christopher Gates, writer (ostensibly)
Created for Critical Distance’s 2024 Fansite Jam