For a self-effacing, portly little plumber, Mario may be the most ambitious guy in video games.
It's not enough that he has the most recognizable face in the industry; his parents at Nintendo have promoted him everywhere, from T-shirts and lunchboxes to cartoons and cell-phone ringtones.
He's probably more familiar to kids of a certain generation than Mickey Mouse.
Like Mickey, Mario has a lively supporting cast, including his brother, Luigi, his object of desire, Princess Peach, and his nemesis, King Bowser.
Nintendo's deep bench also includes such cuddly stalwarts as Donkey Kong, Kirby and the entire Pokemon lineup.
No other video-game company puts its characters to work as much as Nintendo does. Mario's closest competitor is Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog, but he's had some pretty rough years, with a run of lackluster games.
But you can't keep a popular mascot down forever, and Sonic may be on the verge of a long-awaited comeback.
—"Wario Land: Shake It!" (Nintendo, for the Wii, $49.99): Wario is Mario's evil alter ego: He's fatter, meaner and greedier, and his mustache is out of control.
While he began his career as an antagonist for Mario, he's taken the lead in about a dozen games since, including the terrific "WarioWare" series of five-second-long "microgames."
"Shake It!" isn't anywhere near as inventive as those gems. Instead, it's a fairly linear, two-dimensional running-and-jumping game (a "platformer," to resort to industry jargon).
It's exactly the kind of game that made Mario famous two decades ago, and it feels awfully old-fashioned.
The twist is that by shaking the Wii remote, you can cause earthquakes, which flip your enemies upside-down and open up new areas to explore.
While "Shake It!" is a solid platformer, the levels aren't very challenging — you can get through each one in about 10 minutes, and you can polish off the entire game in just a few hours.
There are some bonus goals that provide motivation to replay levels, but most gamers will be disappointed. Two stars out of four.
— "Kirby Super Star Ultra" (Nintendo, for the DS, $34.99): Kirby is one of those second-string Nintendo characters that gamers either love or hate.
He's a simple pink ball with flipperlike arms and big red feet, and he sucks. Literally. His primary power is the ability to inhale his enemies, which allows him to absorb their powers.
Amazingly, this cipher has his own Saturday morning cartoon series.
"Ultra" is a remake of a 1996 game that came out on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. For the most part, it's a straightforward platformer.
After you breeze through the initial levels, subsequent stages throw in variations: You may need to race against an opponent or collect a certain number of treasures before time runs out.
There are also a few minigames in which you need to match cards or hit targets, but they aren't worth more than a couple of plays.
Young Kirby fans who missed the original game will get a kick out of "Ultra," but it's not the best showcase for the iron-lunged dynamo. Two stars.
— "Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood" (Sega, for the DS, $34.99): Sega has been trying for years to recapture the excitement generated by the original "Sonic the Hedgehog," released in 1991.
For this DS adventure, the company put its marquee performer in the hands of BioWare, the studio that made the last great "Star Wars" game, "Knights of the Old Republic."
The result is a crafty genre mix that could introduce Sonic fans to BioWare's specialty, the role-playing game.
Knuckles the Echidna has been kidnapped, and Sonic and his friends uncover a millennia-old conspiracy when they set out to rescue him.
The plot doesn't aspire to the sophistication of BioWare's "Mass Effect," but it's a cut above most platformer stories.
There's a lot of territory to explore in "Dark Brotherhood," and a variety of interesting puzzles that require the talents of all of Sonic's friends to solve. And the combat sequences mix turn-based strategy with the need for nimble stylus-tapping.
BioWare has delivered a fresh approach to the Sonic saga, and I hope this is just the start of a long partnership. Three stars.