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The Damnedest Thing I Saw At E3 Was Mario Doing Crowd Work

I wasn't prepared to hear a character I'd known since childhood start mixing it up with journalists.

Mario's face from Mario 64

It’s-a him. Credit: Nintendo

E3 nostalgia is not a habit I like to indulge in. This is because I am mostly a video person, and as a result my primary interaction with the show was carrying a heavy camera and tripod and doing damage to my spine and back that’s now catching up to me. But I do have one specific memory that will stay with me until my dying days. When memories of my children fade, when my bones are weak, I will forever remember the floating head of Mario doing crowd work to a room of journalists.

E3 went through a lot of different phases, shifting back and forth between being exclusively a trade show, more of an enthusiast show, and then being unquestionably dead. E3 never worked as a public-facing event because the sheer amount of time needed to wait in line to see one high profile game made it impractical to anyone except fans who live and die by a single series. It was slightly less dysfunctional as a press event; it wasn’t great, but it had a kind of internal logic to it that made sense.

Stuff like this used to be more commonplace, but now you'd never see it.

At one point in E3’s history, there was a premise that the games press was important, a concept cultivated to explicitly flatter the egos of the most pliable, which led to an arms race of increasingly baffling and expensive decisions around show promotion and keynote presentations. One year there was a life-sized model of the monster from the game Evolve (it also appeared at PAX), and from time to time I will daydream about what happened to that thing. Maybe Turtle Rock Studios still has it, maybe its consistent parts are locked in an abandoned airplane hangar like the Ark of the Covenant, or maybe it was torn apart and put into a landfill. 

Thank you VentureBeat for actually capturing this, my footage is sadly lost to time.

In 2013, I was waiting in line before a Nintendo keynote presentation with all of my gear. It was a loose queue of journalists and guests waiting to be seated. What followed was one of the weirdest 10-20 minutes of my entire career: Above the waiting area, hovering like Big Brother, was the smiling face of Mario projected on a screen. It did not seem pre-recorded but rendered live, with its mouth movements connected to what sounded like Charles Martinet doing crowd work with every journalist there.

“Oh hello, it’s-a me Mario,” the voice boomed. He started calling out individual journalists by name, like they were his colleagues. “Oh look it’s-a Michael McWhertor from Po-ly-gon,” he said, firing off a list of whoever was there to the crowd’s amusement and confusion. 

It was surreal, and baffling. The appeal of Mario is his brevity, but Martinent was a ham and loved to riff. His take on the character came from him rambling Italian-sounding gibberish into a mic. In effect, Martinet's role as Mario began with riffing for a system like this.

Apparently Martinet got the role of Mario specifically to riff in a real time animation system.

“Brian Crecente!” his voice boomed. Maybe it’s my memory embellishing itself, but I can hear him say that name clearer than anything else in my life. It’s one thing to remember PR people from mixers; it’s another to see the personification of a character you’ve known since childhood act like he’s familiar with the concept of journalism generally and games journalism specifically, and is on a first name basis with people in the industry. In reality, it was very probably a PR person drip feeding Martinet a string of names and outlets to read off, but the result was wildly disorienting. 

Another angle. One day I will find the entire thing.

“I believe this happened at a Tuesday morning event, because the show floor opened at noon,” Chelsea Stark of Polygon told me, recalling her first E3 via email. “There were a bunch of press in Nintendo's booth, and we were all there to see Super Mario 3D World, I think. Mario spent so much time shouting out press names, some I knew, many I didn't. I definitely remember him saying ‘oh it's-a Stephen Totilo,’ and also Chris Kohler.”

"It was my first E3, and I'm a huge Nintendo mark, so I was excited, but I was also a bit lost." Jeff Grubb recounted. "I didn't know what to expect. We all filed into what I think was the Nintendo booth and we just had to stand there while Mario yelled at us. Or, I guess he wasn't yelling -- Mario doesn't yell. But he was just making noises and saying hi to random people."

"And these were names I recognized. I remember it feeling a bit like the Two Minutes Hate or like a religious congregation. We were all under the alter of Mario, who is real and whose love is real. It must've stuck with me because I remember it better than I do any of the games I saw that year."

I recorded as much as it was expedient to record, keeping in mind I had to make room for demos, but he just kept going, an inexhaustible fountain of riffs and names and people. This was not content made for public consumption, it was just a baffling choice that Nintendo had decided to make. So I didn’t end up posting it: It was too weird, it wasn’t really news, and I didn’t know how to frame it aside from “check out this very confusing thing Nintendo did,” which in retrospect would have been a solid angle. And now I have no idea where that footage is. I regret not properly archiving it to this very day.

The oldest example I could find of a live Mario face rig. Another similar video appears here.

Apparently this bit is ancient. The oldest footage I can find of Martinet riffing as Mario’s disembodied head is 1992 and involved putting a full face rig on him. Footage also exists from 2004, with an updated workflow. Multiple videos of this setup exist. This apparently predates the opening splash screen of Mario 64, and I can draw a straight line spiritually from that to the weird AI Mario that Nathan visited at the Nintendo store.

The Mario rig seems to appear over multiple years, here it is in 2004 without the intrusive face rig.

I don’t feel nostalgia for E3, for Mario’s disembodied head, or for any of the moves that PR used to pull, but it did seem to come from a distinctly human place. If you are being charitable you could say that it was goofy and charming, a sign of a healthier time in an industry with the capacity for novelty. None of that exists now. The industry is in the toilet, E3 is long dead, and what has emerged to replace it is hollower and sicker. Summer Game Fest does not have the juice, no matter how much Keighley attempts to will it into being, in part because companies just don’t spend money that way any more, because they’re too busy pulling the wiring out of the walls to sell the copper. I have never been less certain of the future of this industry, but it’s instructive to look at its baffling, goofy past.

More footage of Mario riffing.

Anyway, the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.

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