It’s a-me, Mario: The world’s favourite video game turns 40
It makes no sense. The game is called Super Mario Bros, but really, only one character is called Mario, and he’s much more famous than his brother Luigi. Mario is a plumber — moustache, overalls, cap and all — but does no pipe work. Guided by you, he must run, slide, jump-jump-jump and fight his way past each level only to find that his girlfriend, Princess Peach, is trapped in a different castle by the villain Bowser. Along the way are mushroom power-ups, deadly turtles and plants, coins to collect and theme music that lodges in your brain and never leaves.
And yet, 40 years since Mario debuted in Donkey Kong and 36 years since he headlined a game of his own, he remains a video-game superstar. The franchise has sold more than 763.45 million units worldwide, making it the best-selling title of all time. Take a closer look at the leaps of faith that helped him leap to fame.
He wasn’t always Mario: At Nintendo in the ’80s, video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, now 68, was hoping to create a Popeye-like hero. But the rights cost too much. So his home-grown game, Donkey Kong (1981), featured the eponymous ape villain flinging barrels and obstacles for a tiny carpenter to dodge. Miyamoto referred to him as Mr Video; the team named him Jumpman. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for the time — other games were called Pac-Man (1980), Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979). But Nintendo’s American division wanted a new name for Miyamoto’s character. Some warehouse workers thought he looked a little like their landlord Mario Segale. The name stuck. Miyamoto approved too.
He’s a blue-collar hero: Miyamoto’s next game was set in sewers, with green pipes and turtles. So, his little carpenter transformed into a plumber for 1985’s Super Mario Bros. The big nose, bushy moustache, hat, blue overalls and stocky body from the original design stayed. Miyamoto had drawn Mario to fit within the few pixels available in video games of the time and still pop out against the blue skies and white clouds of the new game’s simple background.
In India, the game sneaked in via smuggled handheld devices and cartridges played on bulky local Samurai consoles that ran Nintendo software. Gaming and tech writer Jaison Lewis, who grew up in Mumbai and now lives in Germany, recalls playing on them. “I had the handheld one that played both Donkey Kong and Mario and was powered by two button cells,” he says. The cartridge-and Samurai version, which plugged into the TV for a big-screen 16-bit experience, was the dream. “You had to have a rich friend who’d let you borrow their toy, or rent one for ₹10 as a Sunday treat. It was great fun.”
The theme tune is a classic unto itself: There’s just three minutes of original music in the 1985 game, but composer Koji Kondo uses it like a maestro. Games in the ’80s didn’t have the tech for complex symphonies. The cartridges had tiny synthesisers that played the limited sounds as one moved through the game. Kondo worked out an upbeat, almost swing-like melody, using three notes at a time, for the opening level. For the underwater sections, where Mario swims through enemy territory, there’s a lighter waltz. And of course, throughout the Overworld theme, when Mario collects coins, there’s that triumphant metallic ping.
They teach Mario at universities: The first level of Super Mario Bros is so easy to follow that it’s part of design curriculums. One instinctively knows when to jump, what to avoid. Miyamoto’s gameplay is smooth too. The jumps last just as long as one holds the button, Mario accelerates as he runs. In an interview with America’s National Public Radio in 2015, Miyamoto says Mario is popular because his journey is universal. “Everyone is afraid of falling from a great height. If there is a gap that you have to cross, everyone is going to try to run to jump across the gap. These are things that are uniquely human and are a shared experience across, really, all people.”
Mario is big money: The 3D version of the franchise, Super Mario 64, came out in 1996 and its cinematic point of view style and movements quickly set the standard for 3D games. Most fans wore their cartridges out. In August, a sealed game fetched $2 million at auction, setting a new record for highest price ever paid for a video game. It broke a record set less than a month earlier, when a sealed copy of Super Mario 64 fetched $1.56 million. Lewis says a big part of the appeal is nostalgia. “The game, after all, is hardly rare. There’s a Mario game for every generation of Nintendo device. But as with toys, it’s hard to find a classic game sealed, in mint condition. Which kid would have got a Mario game as a present and not ripped off the packaging to play right away?”
Mistakes were made: Mario and Luigi appeared in the 1993 live-action film Super Mario Bros, a movie so bad Nintendo refused, for decades, to give Hollywood studios the rights to make any more. Now, they’ve relented. A 3D animated film is in the works, featuring the voices of Chris Pratt as Mario, Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, Charlie Day as Luigi and Jack Black as Bowser. It’s due out in December 2022. Will the plumber flush out the $300 million that his Sega rival Sonic the Hedgehog raked in last year, when it became the highest-grossing video-game adaptation of all time? Mario better headbutt all the ???s for mushrooms.