Before the era of affordable widespread computer graphics technology, Nintendo's Mario was at the mercy of whichever artist was drawing him that particular day when it came to promotional artwork. The character's style and appearance changed numerous times in the 1980s and 1990s, and it wasn't until Nintendo began using a 3D computer model of the character during the GameCube era that everyone's favorite fictional plumber enjoyed some visual consistency. Now when we see some vintage artwork from the dawn of the Nintendo Entertainment System period, we recoil in horror (or, at least, mild bemusement) at what are now horribly off-model renditions of the Mushroom Kingdom residents. Consider this old piece of artwork that David Oxford of Kombo and Poison Mushroom dredged up from the memory hole, for instance. Where did it come from, why is Bowser more of a dragon than a turtle, and why do the Koopa Troopas look like geese with shells?
The origin, as I knew it, was in the Christmas Sears “Wish Book” catalogs. At least, I think that’s what they called them; I think we got them from JC Penny’s, Belk, and Sears, and I’m not sure if they all shared the “wish book” nomenclature. In any case, as The Video Game Museum shows in its Game Ads section (right hand side), this was an illustration used over and over again of a very strange-looking Bowser and a squad of his Koopa Troopas chased after a very normal looking Mario. I never really understood just why they used that picture, thinking maybe it was done in-house by an illustrator who looked at some screenshots. And in that regard, it was very good, and rather true to the appearance of the first Super Mario Bros. title.
However, I recently stumbled upon the truth and realized that I was very, very wrong about this peculiar-yet-nostalgic artwork. Turns out that it’s actually official.
We've come a long way from some of the original art concepts that were, thankfully, discarded or improved over the years. Would the Super Mario franchise have the same personality today if the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom had actually been a mushroom-person? I recall artwork from a similar time that depicted Bowser as less of a reptile and more of a gorilla (perhaps the artist had Donkey Kong in mind?) and the princess as a wee little girl (an angle that puts a much different and quite disturbing twist on the Mario/Peach relationship). Those retro Koopa Troopas do look much meaner than their tamer modern counterparts though. They look as if they were more than happy to bite a stray hand, and when they did (not "if", but "when"), it would really hurt, what with those bird-like beaks and all.