The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is currently going on in Las Vegas, and great news — it looks like everyone’s favorite pal Mario is in attendance. But bad news too, he’s a creepy AI Mario, and we hate him.
We first learned of the monster via X (formerly Twitter)- user @ProbChild_, who filmed an interaction with it:
So Mario was at #CES
But uh… who approved this abomination? 💀 pic.twitter.com/diG3axCJIG
— Greggory (@ProbChild_) January 10, 2024
Our own reporter Taylor Lyles on the show floor was able to confirm this is indeed a real thing at CES. It’s tech made by a company called Proto, which is developing hologram communications software. What appears to be going on here is that Proto has loaded up a Mario hologram for the CES show floor, and is using a mixture of voice recognition and AI tech to listen to attendees ask it questions and then have Mario respond in a noticeably off-brand Italian voice.
What’s a little unclear here is how much, if any, of this was sanctioned by Nintendo. Nintendo is known to be extremely strict when it comes to who uses its characters, and how. I’m no legal expert, but the extremely off voice, mouth movements, stiff posture, and just everything about this screams “Nintendo did not approve this” based on their past work.
It’s certainly not limited to just showing Mario; other attendees have reported that the Proto hologram box was previously showing off other images and real people, including a demonstration with the CEO of AARP:
Highlight at #CES2024: Our SVP, @InnovationAndy showcased the @ProtoHologram to @AARP CEO, @JoAnn_Jenkins at our @agetechcollab exhibit. A virtual Jo Ann hologram demonstrating our commitment to innovative tech. #InnovationAtAgeTech #AARP #FutureOfTech pic.twitter.com/T6qPjTe568
— AgeTech Collaborative™ from AARP (ILabs) (@AgeTechCollab) January 10, 2024
The AARP connection is a bit weird, as @ProbChild_ and @raystrazdas also reported being told by a representative from AARP (not Proto) at the booth to ask Mario how to buy a game. Mario replied (in his upsetting deep voice) by encouraging the question asker to look online at Target dot com, and notably, the hologram appears to have a small Target logo in the bottom corner that isn’t present on the other demonstrations we’ve seen on Twitter. So it looks like Target is involved somehow, too?
So I guess there was more video thanks to @raystrazdas
I was told from the AARP rep to ask Mario something about how to buy a game?
Nothing about this makes sense. AARP? Mario? buying from Target? AI??
This whole experience was weird from the start 🙃 pic.twitter.com/mHiSElHsPj
— Greggory (@ProbChild_) January 10, 2024
As best we can tell, what seems to be happening with the Mario situation is that Proto is demonstrating some kind of hologram AI tech for partnership with retailers such as Target that can be used as an AI assistant in stores. Using Mario specifically appears to be a bit that Proto cooked up to draw people to its booth, though it’s unclear what kind of reaction Nintendo will have to the whole affair. We’ve reached out to Nintendo, Proto, and for good measure, Target, for comment on this.
What’s maybe most upsetting about this is that at first glance, this entire exhibit recalls something Nintendo has actually done before: they’ve had Mario (and Luigi!) talk in real time to passersby at places like New York Comic Con and Nintendo New York. But every time they’ve done it in the past, the production worked because Charles Martinet was lurking somewhere off-camera listening to questions and responding in real-time in the Mario voice. But Martinet stepped down as the official Mario voice last year, and while he’s still around as the official “Mario ambassador” (a role he doesn’t even seem to understand), he’s been replaced in Super Mario Wonder, at least, with actor Kevin Afghani. I’ve been wrong about Afghani’s voice before, but uh, what Proto’s demonstrating doesn’t really sound like him. At all. Or any version of Mario, including the controversial Chris Pratt interpretation.
The contrast between the wholesome, Nintendo New York Mario and this SHAM of a Mario is stark the second the plumber opens his mouth. Video game character though he may be, there’s a human element to Mario that comes through in his voice that an unsettling AI Proto robot just can’t quite capture. Hopefully, this will be a signal to Nintendo and all other major gaming companies that replacing real voice actors with robots – an issue we’ve incidentally seen crop up a lot at the beginning of 2024 – might not go the way they hope.
Rebekah Valentine is a senior reporter for IGN. Got a story tip? Send it to [email protected].
Additional reporting by Taylor Lyles.