Since I was a child I've always had a fascination with the lyrical artwork of the Super Mario Bros. Universe. Being a cartoonist I tended to be more aware of the artistic changes the series went through over the years. With the recent resurgence of the classic Mario artwork through the release of Super Mario 3D World I thought it would be nice to take a look at the evolution of the 2D Mario art style since it's inception in Super Mario Bros. The purpose of these articles are to also make the modern day public aware of some of the rarer artwork that existed in the early Nintendo days, and to point out some of the stylistic changes the characters have gone through in the earlier games.
It would be unfair to talk about Mario's artwork without mentioning the two people who were responsible for the art direction of the series. Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario's creator, was responsible for setting the foundation of Mario's world. Yoichi Kotabe, was a former animator from Toei, who developed the game artwork into the cartooning style most people are familiar with today.
For the sake of this article the majority of my resources come from the original Japanese releases in the order the became available in Japan. I'm also including the anime movie, Super Mario Bros.: Peach-hime Kyushutsu Dai Sakusen (The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach) because it confirms several design choices that did not have corresponding official artwork at the time. The reason this article is not covering Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros. is because they came before Nintendo decided that the Mario franchise needed visual consistency therefore I omitted them from this art study.
Super Mario Bros. Release Date- September 13, 1985
There are two pieces of artwork that define the original Nintendo game. The main piece is illustrated by Shigeru Miyamoto and was the cover art for the Japanese and Europeon release of the game. Mario is in his classic “Super Mario” pose that tended to be cut a pasted on the majority of Nintendo's 80's merchandise (including being slightly altered for the cover of the US release of Super Mario Bros.2). Almost all the other characters look completely different from their modern designs. Bowser originally sported a look that was inspired from the Ox King in Toei's Saiyuki anime movie (1960). All the enemy characters have a rougher, more simplified design. What's really noticeable is Princess Peach looking like a child and having brown hair. In fact, Peach's design had many visual inconsistencies in the early game artwork. While later on her design would be refined it took the colorists some time before they made a final decision on her official hair color and if she wore her opera styled gloves consistently.
The second piece of artwork that has fallen into obscurity is one which has Super Mario in the same pose and opposite to him is Luigi. This is the earliest example of Luigi's official art. Of course in this picture it's simply a recolor of the Super Mario design with Luigi's in game colors. The other visual difference is here Mario and Luigi are depicted with black hair as opposed to the brown hair he has in the artwork starting with Super Mario Bros. 2 USA.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels Release Date- June 3, 1986
Known as the originally Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan this game had some very rare artwork. The first piece is a Japanese ad featuring Mario and the Princess. Unlike the Super Mario Bros. illustration this piece features the Kotabe designs and there is already a distinct visual difference between the characters depicted here and in the first illustration. While originally I thought this was the only piece of artwork associated with the Japan-only Mario 2 when I was looking through my Nintendo Sticker Album from my childhood I came across an interesting discovery.
Back in 1988 Nintendo released several sticker sets of the Mario characters. Three of those stickers were full illustrations from Super Mario Bros. Upon closer study I have reason to believe that these illustrations were actually corresponding to the Japanese Mario 2. In two of the illustrations there is a mushroom that looks like the evil twin of the Super Mushroom. Mario 2 Japan featured the debut of the poisonous mushroom so my deduction is that all three of these illustrations were originally used to promote Mario 2 in Japan. Visually the style has a consistent watercolor look that dominated most of the earliest Mario artwork. While these posters utilized the Kotabe designs they also have a more anime-esque feel which leads me to believe they may have been handled by a different illustrator. While this artwork was prevalent in much of Nintendo's early merchandise it has all but fallen into obscurity in today's times.
Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach! Release Date- July 20,1986
I bring up this anime movie mainly because it is the earliest example of Luigi beginning to transition into his modern design. In this movie Luigi is taller than Mario but his mustache and hair style are similar to his brother's. Also, Luigi's color scheme is a navy blue hat and overalls over a yellow shirt as opposed to the green and blue style he later adapts. This is also the earliest example of the Princess and Bowser having their modern color schemes, something the official artwork would continue to be ambiguous about until Super Mario World.
Super Mario Bros All Night Nippon Release Date- December 1986
This is a obscure game that was released as a raffle prize for the Japanese radio program All-Night Nippon. It is basically Super Mario Bros. with altered sprites of various celebrities associated with the program. The artwork is important as it seemed to be the last piece of classic artwork from this era and another early depiction of Luigi. Most of the characters have their designs from the original Super Mario Bros. poster while Luigi dons a light blue cap and overalls with a green shirt. He still has Mario's design but this illustration does put him closer to his standard color scheme.
The next article will discuss the later NES era and early Super NES era designs. As well as commentary on how Nintendo subsequently went back and touched up the earlier artwork from Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) and 3.