Good things come in small packages; Toad, the short and squat mushroom of Nintendo fame, is just such a package. I have been fond of Toad (the Japanese know him as “Kinopio”) since his first appearance, in Super Mario Brothers on my old childhood eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. I cheered when he showed up in the numerous Mario sagas that followed (Marios 2 & 3, the memorable Game Boy Mario World, Super Mario World, etc. ) and especially in Wario’s Woods, where Toad is finally the protagonist. He was a character you could be in Mario Brothers 2, with a few new tricks, but he was still a lesser character. In Wario Woods, Toad saves the Mushroom Kingdom alone, fighting off Wario’s monsters inside an angry tree.
I have usually picked Toad as my driver in various Mario Karts, including on the international circuit-the “Mario Kart World Federation,” accessible to anyone with a Nintendo Wii-where his sweetness belies the cutthroat racing ambition below. His tiny, light vehicles are fast and handle very well, particularly the racing bikes. And whenever he wins, his cheers of self-congratulation are endearing and cartoonish, unlike the guttural grunts of Mario, Bowser and Donkey Kong.
But beyond his strength as a racer and cuteness as a mushroom, there is a mystery to Toad’s character. Was he born of a mother, since he talks and acts, or was he some magical spore that grew from the earth? He’s one of many Toads, all citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom (also created for the original Super Mario Brothers; Mario liberates the kingdom from Bowser Koopa); does he have passing identity crises, as he looks so much like his countrymen, sometimes identical?
Toad is the loyal attendant of Princess Toadstool, always helping her out in some way, relaying her messages to Mario (and, if he’s not around, Luigi), giving Mario useful suits, objects, and extra lives. They say the Nintendo game designers grew the anthropomorphic Toad out of the “power mushrooms” Mario eats to get bigger and more powerful; this makes sense, but why a mushroom? For the chemical properties of some of its species, inducing hallucinations? Or is it that the Japanese like mushrooms better than Westerners? Or because the Mario games are set largely underground, where mushrooms grow best? Or is it just that Toad’s an all around …fun guy?