We’ve decided to go right to the top of the video game character hierarchy and examine the phenomenal success of Nintendo’s mascot, and everyone’s favourite moustachioed Italian plumber, Mario Mario (not a typo for those of you too young to remember that that’s actually his surname too)...
Age (years since debut): 29
Debut Title: Donkey Kong (although technically he wasn’t given the name Mario until he appeared in 1982’s Donkey Kong Junior)
Notable Skills: Plumbing, jumping, flying, throwing fireballs, constantly looking in the wrong castle
Distinguishing Characteristics: Moustache, trademark blue dungarees with red shirt and hat, penchant for mushrooms
The beginnings of Mario aren’t perhaps as you might think. After the huge commercial disaster of Radar Scope, the title Nintendo of America had hoped would be the catalyst in their plans for domination of the video game market, Nintendo found themselves struggling desperately to develop a hit game. Nothing they tried seemed to appeal to the masses. Enter staff artist Shigeru Miyamoto.
Miyamoto was handed the task of creating the game needed to propel Nintendo to the top of the market, and in short order. Fortunately for Nintendo, they couldn’t have picked a better man for the job, and pretty soon, Donkey Kong was born. Although this was Mario’s first appearance, he would be known simply as “Jumpman” until the sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., rolled around.
Although his name was yet to be finalised, Jumpman bore the characteristics hallmark familiar to Mario fans around the world, namely his portly appearance and trademark blue and red clothes (although for his first two appearances, Mario would have his colours reversed, with red dungarees and a blue shirt).
Miyamoto has since confessed that Mario’s appearance was as much down to the hardware limitations of the time as his own creativity. The hat was to cover for the fact that Miyamoto didn’t feel particularly competent at designing hairstyles; the moustache was to circumvent the difficulty in animating facial expressions as well as to accentuate the character’s large nose; the red and blue colour of his clothes were used for their highly contrasting appearance on the arcade unit’s display; and the white gloves were used to show the movement of his arms while in motion against his dungarees.
Influenced by director Alfred Hitchcock’s insistence of including himself in all his movies, Miyamoto unofficially named Mario “Mr. Video”, as he fully intended on using him in every game he created from that point onwards... fortunately the name wasn’t to stick for long. As video game folklore tells it, the mow famous name came about due to an impromptu visit from the landlord of Nintendo’s then American Landlord, Mario Segale, who was demanding overdue rent be paid to him. If you believe the story, it’s because of this meeting that Jumpman officially became known as Mario – and Mario Segale would unwittingly become the inspiration for over two hundred video games.
Just as Nintendo had hoped for, their new creation was a massive commercial success. By late 1982 Donkey Kong had shipped over 60,000 arcade units and earned in excess of $180 million in America alone, and netted another $100 million the following year – a success that had been almost unheard of in video games up to that point. The public loved this fresh new platforming genre, and they forked out huge amount of their cash in arcades all around the world to get their fix.
The inevitable sequel to Donkey Kong followed in the shape of Donkey Kong Jr., a game notable for not only the first appearance of Mario with his new name, but also for being the only game ever created where he plays the role of the chief antagonist. This change of role didn’t last for too long, and in his next arcade appearance Mario found himself back in familiar territory as the hero of the day – alongside his brother Luigi – in 1983’s Mario Bros.
It was this title which really set out the guidelines for what was to come in future games. Mario and Luigi were now Italian/American plumbers, and their enemies included what would later become known as Koopa Troopas, the first appearance of the now infamous green pipes, and the gameplay mechanic of first stunning enemies and then kicking them to their demise. Mario Bros. would continue the success of its predecessors, despite being released during the video game crash of 1983. Its popularity ensured that it would be ported to eight of the most popular gaming systems of the time. Mario was quickly becoming a favourite among gamers.
It was in 1985, upon the release of Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo’s NES home entertainment system in America (the game didn’t hit shelves over here until 1987) that Mario mania really took hold. In what would serve as the blueprint for countless platform games to follow, Miyamoto expanded upon his earlier ideas to produce a master class in originality, graphical prowess and undiluted gameplay.
The premise of the game itself will be familiar to anyone who spent any of their youth playing video games; such was its all encompassing influence. Super Mario Bros. established what would go on to become the format of countless Mario games to come, with the player working his way through eight worlds, each with three sub-levels, to save Princess Toadstool in the final castle following a showdown with King Koopa.
The importance of Super Mario Bros. cannot be overstated. Not only did it endear Mario to a much broader market than any of the previous games, but in selling over 40 million copies to date, it helped massively in turning the home video game market around following the crash of 1983. For this reason alone, it is doubtful if the industry would be anywhere near as big as it is today, were it not for that one particular Italian plumber.
As with any successful franchise, the sequels kept on coming for Mario. Unlike most however, the continued high standard of the games remained almost unwavering. Yes, there were more than a few “novelty” games that didn’t quite cut it, but Mario’s popularity ensured that the public never really held those few blips against the series.
Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 followed, with 3 being widely regarded as a watershed moment in the platform genre. Adding suits which gave Mario new abilities to the power ups found in previous games, as well as much more detailed and larger levels, Super Mario Bros. 3 went on to be the biggest selling game of all time for the NES... and the success continued unabated with the release of Nintendo’s more powerful Super Nintendo in 1992.
Accompanying the system at launch was Super Mario World, which shipped with the console in America and Europe. In my humble opinion, Super Mario World is still perhaps the greatest 2D platform game ever created, and deserves every ounce of the plaudits it received when released... But the success didn’t stop there. Next Nintendo rolled out an interesting curiosity called Super Mario Kart, a cartoon styled action racer featuring various characters from the Mario games which preceded it. Undoubtedly an interesting move from Nintendo, its phenomenal success could probably not have been foreseen by even the most ardent of Nintendo fanboys. In short, it blew almost everything else out of the water and went on, as was becoming something of a pattern for Mario based games, to inspire a slew of copycat titles, none (apart from Nintendo’s own sequels) which managed to attain anything close to the level of pristine gameplay that marked Mario Kart as one of the most important games of its generation and beyond.
Only the fact that the SNES was on its last legs, with a successor on the horizon, really prevented Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island from going down as the classic it deserved to. While still highly ranked amongst the more hardcore Nintendo fans, as well as the gaming press, it failed to make as much of a commercial impact as it should have done – one of the few real disappointments in Mario’s decorated history.
No such fate would await the series’ first excursion into the world of 3D however. Launched alongside Nintendo’s new 64 bit behemoth, the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64 was a game changer in every sense of the phrase. Platforms games had found themselves become somewhat stagnant, as years of bland and uninspired copy-cat games had almost sucked the life out of the 16 bit era, and the entire genre was crying out for a breath of fresh air – a breath Miyamoto and his team delivered with gusto.
For many, Super Mario 64 remains one of the most important games ever made, for others it is simply the greatest game ever made. For us it falls somewhere in between, but it is a testament to the skills of the developers that it still feels every bit as playable now as it did 13 years ago, which cannot be said for the majority of N64 games – including the seminal GoldenEye.
From Mario 64 onwards however, it can be argued that the series hit something of a slump (by its own standards at least) until the launch of Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii in 2007. It wasn’t so much that the games were of poor quality, because they most certainly weren’t, instead it was more that the innovation and creative design aspects of previous titles had been somewhat marginalised by other, fresher games. The likes of Luigi’s Mansion and Mario Sunshine, as well as the various upgrades of Mario Kart for each new system were passable games, and perhaps would have been praised had they come a generation earlier than they did, but they never quite managed to capture that certain spark which made previous Mario titles so spectacular.
This, of course, changed with Super Mario Galaxy, a game which almost three years after release still regularly rides high in Wii top ten sales charts (although this might be more of a damning indictment of the state of Wii games in general than anything else) and will see its sequel hit the shelves later on this year. The public perception of Mario is something which has definitely not changed, almost any title featuring the character is almost guaranteed to shift huge amount of copies due to the popularity of the character.
The impact of Mario cannot possibly be understated. Perhaps the most telling statistic to back his meteoric rise to fame was to be found in a 1990 survey which discovered that more American children knew who Mario was than Disney’s flagship character, Mickey Mouse. Inspiring a host of comics, merchandise, books, cartoons and even a (completely terrible) live action movie starring Bob Hoskins, Mario was truly the first video game personality to successfully break into the mass consumer consciousness.
Even the record books weren’t safe from Mario’s all conquering ways. In Guinness’s Book of World Records 2008 Mario clinches no less than seven world records, including “Best Selling Video Game Series of All Time”, “Most Prolific Video Game Character of All Time”, “First Movie Based on an Existing Video Game Character” and “Best Video Game Ever” for Mario Kart, based on a combination of sales and legacy.
He regularly features high on lists of top video game characters throughout the gaming and regular press, often clinching the number one spot, and even today his image adorns countless numbers of clothes available everywhere from street stalls to trendy alternative clothing stores. But most importantly of all, the games are still coming. 2009 saw the release of The New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and last year brought the first direct sequel to a 3D Mario title with the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2. He may be getting on a bit at 29 years old, but Mario looks set to continue amazing us with his relevance and genre defining escapades well into the next decade.
Since Mario has appeared in over 200 games alone to date, it wouldn’t be particularly space efficient to list them all, so we’ve picked some of his more important appearances...
Donkey Kong (1981) – Arcade
Donkey Kong Jr. (1982) – Arcade
Donkey Kong (1983) – Atari 8-bit, Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS
Mario Bros. (1983) – Arcade, Game & Watch, Atari 2600/5200
Mario Bros. (1985) – NES
Donkey Kong (1985) - NES
Super Mario Bros. (1987) – NES
Donkey Kong Classics (1989) – NES
Super Mario Bros. 2 (1989) – NES
Super Mario Land (1990) – Game Boy
Dr. Mario (1990) – NES & Game Boy
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1991) – NES
Super Mario World (1992) – SNES
Super Mario Kart (1992) – SNES
Mario Paint (1992) – SNES
Super Mario All-Stars (1993) – SNES
Yoshi’s Safari – (1993) – SNES
Donkey Kong (1994) – Game Boy
Mario’s Tennis (1995) – Virtual Boy
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995) – SNES
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996) – SNES
Super Mario 64 (1997) – Nintendo 64
Super Mario Kart 64 (1997) – Nintendo 64
Super Smash Bros. (1999) – Nintendo 64
Mario Tennis (2000) – Nintendo 64
Paper Mario (2001) – Nintendo 64
Super Mario Advance (2001) – Game Boy Advance
Mario Kart: Super Circuit (2001) – Game Boy Advance
Luigi’s Mansion (2001) – GameCube
Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) – GameCube
Super Mario Sunshine (2002) – GameCube
Mario Party 4 (2002) – GameCube
Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (2003) – GameCube
Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004) – GameCube
Wrecking Crew (2004) – Game Boy Advance
Super Mario 64 DS (2005) – Nintendo DS
Yoshi Touch & Go (2005) – Nintendo DS
Mario Kart DS (2005) – Nintendo DS
Mario Kart Arcade GP (2005) – Arcade
New Super Mario Bros. (2006) – Nintendo DS
Super Paper Mario (2007) – Wii
Mario Strikers Charged (2007) – Wii
Super Mario Galaxy (2007) – Wii
Super Mario Kart Wii (2008) – Wii
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008) – Wii
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009) – Wii
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010) – Wii