In the early 1980s, the Japanese video game company Nintendo established its American operations in a small warehouse in Washington state.
At one point during the development of the groundbreaking “Donkey Kong” video game, the owner of the warehouse, a man named Mario Segale, came to buy some overdue rent. The mustachioed Italian-American was none too pleased with his tenants during his visit and, according to a now well-known story, berated Minoru Arakawa, head of Nintendo of America, in front of others.
This visit inadvertently provided a moment of profound inspiration. “Donkey Kong” creators were still searching for a name for their lead character: a recognizable human figure with an impressive leaping ability. Until then he was known as “jumpman” and “ossan” (a negative term for “middle-aged” in Japanese). When the landlord left, everyone agreed that Jumpman should take the landlord’s name: Mario.
Mario became so popular that by 1983 he got his own game with his brother Luigi in the movie “Mario Bros.” The game was first released for general sale in its home country of Japan on July 14, 1983.
‘Super Mario’ or – Super Dad?
Since then, “Super Mario” has become a commercial and cultural phenomenon unmatched in the gaming world. The “Mario” franchise, which includes multiple game titles from “Super Mario” to “Mario Kart,” has sold more than 800 million copies, making it the best-selling video game franchise of all time.
Its appeal is multigenerational. This year’s release “Super Mario Bros. Movie” has been a huge commercial success, taking in $1.3 billion (€1.1 billion) at the global box office so far and enjoying the biggest worldwide opening for an animated film in history.
Jeff Ryan, author of “Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America,” said the “multibillion dollar question” is why an Italian plumber with superhuman jumping skills is so beloved.
“There’s a theory that Mario is basically your dad,” he told DW by telephone from his home in New Jersey. When you’re four or five, he said, you think your dad can do anything.
“If your dad changes a light bulb, he’s suddenly the world’s greatest builder,” Ryan said. “Mario might instill that feeling of your dad as a superhero. When we play Mario we have a little can-do feeling, and that’s us – the can-do guy.
Nintendo’s golden goose was an Italian plumber
The “Super Mario” success story is essentially a Nintendo success story. It is the world’s oldest active video game company, having been in the playing card business since 1889.
By the 1970s, the company diversified into electronics and computer games. It was during that decade that Shigeru Miyamoto, 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 may have ended up as 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 top gaming companies in the world. In terms of gaming revenue in 2022, Nintendo will rank fourth globally behind Sony, Microsoft and Tencent, with $13.8 billion in revenue, according to data collected by Statista.
“Nintendo intentionally made Super Mario their Mickey Mouse,” Ryan said. “They decided to brand him everywhere so that when you think of one thing, you think of the other.”
Mario was a guarantee of Nintendo’s success, and in order to boost their development, they started introducing him to games he shouldn’t have. For example, the game that became “Mario Kart” started as a normal go-kart game.
“When they decided to add the Mario characters, they gave them all-sized heads because the heads didn’t line up,” Ryan said. “Now, you don’t think of them walking around with giant heads, but they are.”
Mario has had a lasting impact on the gaming world
According to most analyses, the global gaming business is now worth more than $200 billion annually. Market research firm Fortune Business Insights estimates that it will be worth more than $600 billion by 2030.
“Super Mario” is no small part of that remarkable rise. Ryan said the “Donkey Kong” game that first introduced Mario pioneered early video game storytelling. The gameplay “narrative” inherent in many Mario games – helping the plumber move around an obstacle – was heavily influenced.
That influence continued as the “Mario” games evolved.
“There are over 25 different ‘Mario’ franchises now,” Ryan said. “The very first ‘Mario Kart’ game, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the most influential video game of all time, as over 50 kart racing games came out within two years of its release.”
As Mario moves into middle age, his appeal shows no sign of waning. Ryan believes he can be compared to Mickey Mouse in terms of his influence on pop culture over the past century.
“These are the characters that have succeeded more than any other character in capturing the collective zeitgeist.”