The most affable citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom are also the most mysterious. What are Toads, exactly? Where are their knees? Their legs? Their nipples? Why has Princess Peach been designated the Toad monarch despite clearly belonging to a different species?
It would take philosophers and scientists years to answer the multitude of questions surrounding these fungus folk, so we’re better off sticking with one particularly prickly point of debate. In this instance, the largest and most prominent enigma revolves around Toad’s head. What is going on there? Do all Toads wear the same kind of large, round hat? Or are the polka-dotted headbulbs part of their mushroom-like biology?
To better understand each school of thought, let’s explore the evidence that supports each side, starting with Team Hat.
The Case for Team Hat
It might seem silly to consider the idea that an entire race of people are ALL wearing the same kind of headgear at all times, but it makes sense in the context of the Mario universe. Look at it this way: Each morning, every Toad steps into the same pair of shoes, puts on the same style of vest and pulls up the same brand of high-waisted diaper over their bellybuttons. With a few exceptions, the only thing differentiating Toads is their color scheme. If they’re all wearing matching uniforms, it might not be a stretch to say a hat is part of that uniform.
That promising foundation of in-world logic is somewhat softened by the most popular argument in favor of the Hat Theory. Whenever the subject of Toad’s head comes up on the internet, you’re bound to see a variant of this picture sooner or later.
Many will recognize this as a screencap from the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, a live-action/cartoon hybrid television program that first aired in the late 80s. In one of the animated shorts, Toad reveals that his mushroom cap is actually just a cap, which he removes and wrings in dismay.
That’s not the only time something like this happens in the series. During the first episode, Toad is seen treating his “head” like a parachute.
Fans often argue over what Nintendo products are considered canonical to the very important and not at all frivolous Mario lore. What really “counts” as official representations of the Mario universe? Are the kart and sports games considered separate? What about that obscure janky stuff on the Phillips CDi?
If you’re not sure whether a piece of media is canon, it helps to consider the implications of every element in said media being included with that canonization. So, if you want to claim that Mario’s full name is “Mario Mario” by citing the beautiful shitshow that is Super Mario Bros: The Movie, you also have to agree that Bowser is a middle-aged white man with crusty gel spikes in his hair. Similarly, if you allege that Toad is wearing a hat because of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, you are also making the argument that Mario calls people “paisanos” and routinely yells “Pasta Power!”
A decades-old kids cartoon show hosted by a professional wrestler isn’t the most reliable source of official information. A recent Mario game, however, might be different story.
This is the Blue Toad as seen in Super Mario 3D World, released on the Wii U in 2013. Pictured on the left is Toad’s default form, and on the right we see Toad after acquiring a power-up. The design of Toad’s new helmet looks as thought it replaces his old headpiece, rather than sitting on top of it. You could argue that Toad squeezed his noggin into that helmet, but the malleability and all around squishiness of Toad heads has yet to be verified. As it stands, it appears as though the helmet replaced the usual polka-dotted bulb, which would imply that Toad just switched hats. Either that, or the power-up radically altered the composition of Toad’s skull, which might be too harrowing a thought to contemplate.
Then there’s the matter of hair. Some Toads have it.
Though the character models have been standardized since, both Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door feature Toads with what looks like hair coming out from under their bulb. Again, we don’t know exactly how this species works — maybe this is a natural extension of their fungus, or maybe these are “natural extensions” they bought online — but the simplest explanation is that this hair is coming from their head, under a hat.
Outside of the internet’s seedier fan art communities, we haven’t ever seen the real anatomy of anyone in the Mushroom Kingdom. This is only speculation, but something about displaying bisections of cute dinosaurs and orblike ghosts might run contrary to Nintendo’s brand. The closest we ever got was Super Mario Strikers Charged, which briefly shows full polygonal models of character skeletons during an electrocution attack.
The black void where Toad’s headbulb should be is deeply unsettling but also illuminating. This seemingly confirms that Toads are vertebrate creatures with skeletal structures akin to that of human. At the same time, we see their skulls do not extend into the bulbous area of their heads. That could mean that the bulbs are made of cartilage or other soft tissue that isn’t visible when you expose a cartoon character to several thousand volts, or it could mean that there’s just nothing inside that multicolored melon because Toad is wearing a dang hat.
Rarely is Toad’s biology referred to in dialogue, which is probably why this bit from 2017’s Mario Party: The Top 100 stood out.
The surface-level reading of this line would indicate Toad is indeed wearing a hat and is ashamed of the unseen horrors underneath it. Then again, in this scenario you might say Toad is stating that “neither of us wants to see” him rip off the top part of his head and expose his brain, which would also be accurate. Dorkly illustrator Julia Lepetit jumped at the chance to render the latter, and oh my god why
Overall, the body of evidence supporting Toad wearing a hat is voluminous. Yet, upon closer inspection, most of the individual pieces of “proof” are thin or ambiguous. Let’s see if Team Head fares any better.
The Case for Team Head
Based on decades of games and also common sense, we can safely say that Toads and their ilk are natives to the Mushroom Kingdom. It stands to reason that the Mushroom Kingdom would be inhabited by mushroom people. The idea that this sentient species is related to fungus is a little more believable than the idea that a Toad looked at a mushroom one day and said “Okay, every single person in the kingdom should wear these gargantuan hats and never take them off.”
Maybe the strongest argument for Team Head is the recently released Super Mario Odyssey. Many Toads appear in the game, and they’re almost all wearing actual hats.
Outside of Team Fortress 2, nobody has ever had any reason to wear more than one hat at a time. It’s not like there’s some kind of newfangled two-hatted fashion trend going on in the Mushroom Kingdom. Heck, from what one of Odyssey’s NPCs says, hats in general are a novel idea.
The way Toad phrases his excitement makes it sound as though hats are the cool new thing everyone is into and not, say, the thing that everyone in the land has been wearing since the dawn of time.
This is getting a little bit into the weeds, but there’s another detail in Mario Odyssey that’s worth mentioning: The Cappy that can be found on one Toad’s head.
For those not familiar with Super Mario Odyssey, Cappy is Mario’s weird ghost/hat/friend that helps him out by possessing enemies and using their abilities to the pair’s own nefarious ends. Cappy and his kind can possess just about anything, unless that being is already wearing a hat (in most instances, Mario has to knock hats off of his enemies in order for Cappy to psychically dominate them). And so, by the rules of this universe, a Cappy could not possibly sit atop that Toad if the spotted bulb were itself a hat. I don’t make the obscure video game rules, folks, I just bring them up whenever there’s an argument about imaginary characters.
Speaking a bit more broadly, Toadette poses a problem for Team Hat.
Those pigtails seem to be coming from her pink headbulb and not from some unseen patch of hair underneath. The Toads with hair were a substantial boon to Team Hat, but Toadette kind of cancels all of that out.
Coming back to Mario Odyssey, there’s a certain Toad that can’t be explained by Team Hat or Team Head.
As you can see, this Toad is wearing headphones directly on his bulb. You’re probably just now noticing that Toads don’t have any earlobes to speak of, so… what in the hell is going on here? Are those big spots his… ears? How would that even work? Marcos Lopez posited one idea to Twitter, and I think we all hope it isn’t true.
— Marcos Lopez (@marcoscrislop) October 29, 2017
I don’t think we can count this unknowable paradox as a win for Team Hat or for Team Head. For everyone’s sake, let’s just move onto the verdict.
In an extremely scientific and generally infallible Twitter poll of over 3,000 respondents, 66% agreed that Toad is not wearing a hat and that bulb is in fact his head. Given the evidence, the staff at Dorkly concurs with Team Head. The claim that Toads wear hats is just not well substantiated, especially given that a large part of the argument hinges on the canonical legitimacy of an old TV show that featured live-action guest stars like Magic Johnson and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
So that’s one of the Mario universe’s mysteries solved. Now, as to whether the orifice Birdo shoots eggs out of is a mouth or something else altogether… you’re on your own.
UPDATE! Mario Odyssey producer Yoshiaki Koizumi answered “Hat or Head?” in an official Nintendo video — it’s Team Head!
— Nintendo of America (@NintendoAmerica) February 5, 2018
Tristan Cooper can be found on Twitter.