Here’s an excerpt of an interview with the creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto. Taken from Miyamoto Shrine’s account of his May 1991, Mario Mania Players Guide interview.
“Q. What were some of the things you thought about when you created Mario?
A. We had to work under technical constraints including the number of pixels and number of colors the Famicom can display. There are many reasons why we drew him the way we did. We gave him a mustache rather than a mouth because that showed up better. We gave him a hat rather than hair because that looked better, too. Mario wears overalls because that shows the movement of his arms, and he’s wearing white gloves because the white contrasts better with the colored backgrounds. These are the technical reasons we made him look the way he does.
Q. So from there you decided to make him a plumber?
A. We wanted him to be a character that works very hard. Also, we wanted him to be shorter than enemy characters and the princesses he rescues. Based on these factors, we decided on his appearance. We always draw the dot character first, and from that, we make other art work, for the package for example.”
The entirety of the Mario character was designed so that Mario would convey motion and be an easily noticeable character. All of this while working within the hardware limitations of a NES console. Mario is not only a character of necessity but an avatar of hardship. In the second question Miyamoto reveals that Mario is created to be a weak but capable character. This is part of the reason why the player normally starts the game as small Mario. Small Mario is the real Mario, the one untainted and unchanged by the Mushroom Kingdom. There is no “Super” and every object in the world is something to wither fear or be a difficult to assail obstacle. This is similar to Superman. When Superman daylights as Clark Kent he’s not himself, he’s in a disguise and is behaving how he believes all people are. Clumsy, weak and boring. When he wears his Superman suit, the suit made from the fabric of his blankets, he sees himself as his true self.
Many video games function under the guise of the player being weak but being very capable and powerful because of their available resources or special abilities. They’re always victorious in spite of themselves. Like Scrooge McDuck from Duck Tales, a rich old guy with a top hat and a cane running amok all on his own. It’s easier to ignite the players imagination and fun when they play as a less capable character that is truly anything but weak- I guess! How many times has Mario defeated his enemies? Does he have insurance for that clown car?