In the early 1980s, Japanese video game maker Nintendo set up its American operations in a small warehouse in Washington state.
Sometime during the development of the groundbreaking video game Donkey Kong, the warehouse owner, a man named Mario Segale, came to collect overdue rent. The mustachioed Italian was not too happy with his tenants during the visit and, according to a now-famous story, berated Nintendo of America boss Minoru Arakawa in front of the others.
The visit unintentionally provided a moment of profound inspiration. The Donkey Kong creators were still looking for a name for their hero character: a recognizable human figure with a remarkable ability to jump. Until then, he was known as “Jumpman” and “Ossan” (a somewhat negative expression for “middle-aged man” in Japanese). When the landlord left, everyone agreed that Jumpman should take the landlord’s name: Mario.
Mario became so popular that he got his own game alongside his brother Luigi in 1983’s Mario Bros. On July 14, 1983, the game was first released for public sale in its native country of Japan.
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“Super Mario” or – Super Dad?
Since then, Super Mario has grown into a commercial and cultural phenomenon unparalleled in the gaming world. The Mario franchise, which spans multiple game titles from Super Mario to Mario Kart, has sold more than 800 million copies, making it easily the best-selling video game franchise of all time.
Its appeal is generational. This year’s release of The Super Mario Bros. Movie was a huge commercial success. It has grossed $1.3 billion (€1.1 billion) at the global box office to date, and it was the largest global animated film launch in history.
Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, said “the multi-billion dollar question” is why an apparently Italian plumber with superhuman jumping abilities is so universally popular.
“There’s a theory that Mario is basically your father,” he told DW over the phone from his home in New Jersey. When you’re four or five years old, he said, you think your father can do everything.
“When your dad changes the lightbulb, suddenly he’s the greatest builder in the world,” Ryan said. “And the feeling that your father is a superhero is what Mario can evoke. We have a little sense of the can-do-anything guy when we play Mario and that’s who we become – the can-do-anything guy.”
The Italian plumber was Nintendo’s golden goose
The success story of “Super Mario” is essentially the success story of Nintendo. It is the oldest active video game company in the world, dating back to 1889 when it was still a playing card company.
In the 1970s, the company specialized in electronics and computer games. In that decade, Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who ultimately came up with the idea for Super Mario, joined the company.
“Without Mario, Nintendo would be just another company,” Ryan said.
He thinks Nintendo would probably have become one of the much smaller Japanese gaming companies like Taito or Bandai. Instead, the continued success of the franchise has allowed Nintendo to remain one of the leading gaming companies in the world. In 2022, Nintendo ranked fourth worldwide behind Sony, Microsoft and Tencent with revenue of $13.8 billion, according to Statista.
“Nintendo intentionally made Super Mario its Mickey Mouse,” Ryan said. “They decided to brand him all over the place, so when you think about one thing, you think about the other.”
Mario was such a success factor for Nintendo that they introduced him to games he wasn’t originally supposed to play in, just to stimulate development. For example, the game that became Mario Kart started out as a regular go-kart game.
“When they decided to add Mario characters, the heads didn’t match, so they gave them all oversized heads,” Ryan said. “Now you don’t even think of them driving around with huge heads, but they are.”
Mario leaves a lasting impact on the gaming world
According to most analyses, the global gaming business is now worth more than 200 billion US dollars annually. Market research firm Fortune Business Insights estimates it could be worth more than $600 billion by 2030.
“Super Mario” has played no small part in this remarkable rise. Ryan said the game Donkey Kong, which first introduced Mario, pioneered early storytelling in video games. The gameplay “narrative” inherent in many Mario games, helping the plumber complete an obstacle course, gained tremendous influence.
This influence continued as the “Mario” games evolved.
“Right now there are over 25 different ‘Mario’ franchises,” Ryan said. “The first ‘Mario Kart’ game itself is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most influential video game of all time, with over 50 comparable kart racing games in just the two years since it was released.”
As Mario nears middle age, his attraction shows no signs of waning. Ryan believes he is comparable to Mickey Mouse in terms of his impact on pop culture over the last century.
“These are the characters who, more than anyone else, have managed to capture the collective zeitgeist.“
Edited by: Kristie Pladson