April 19, 2024

Mario: Bigger even than Mickey Mouse, the Little Plumber from Japan is a World-wide Superstar

Dec. 15, 2004
“...this game is for the adult who still has the character of a child.”
-- Mario game designer Shigeru Miyamoto

Pretty much everyone who’s ever come into contact with a videogame -- and a large percentage of people who haven’t -- have at least heard the name “Mario.” With a reach that stretches beyond his “home system” -- not the Milky Way galaxy, but the media success known as Nintendo -- Mario has quite a history, from the earliest days of arcade machines in pizza parlors to the Nintendo home game systems (the most recent being the GameCube) that are now in millions of homes.
Check out these statistics. Back in 1991, computers were in only 15 percent of U.S. homes, yet Nintendo’s NES game system was in 33 percent. This year, 25 million of the newest Nintendo gaming units (GameCube and the portable GameBoy Advance) were sold, and continue to be available at such local outlets as K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy. That’s a lot of house calls for Dr. Mario.
It all began with Shigeru Miyamoto, who grew up in Sonebe, Japan. An avid artist even as a kid, Miyamoto spent much of his childhood sketching, painting, constructing models, and crafting puppets and flipbooks as well as exploring the local forests and caves around his home.
In 1970, Miyamoto went to college, but he wasn’t the best student. It took him five years to graduate with a degree in industrial design because he spent most of his time daydreaming, continuing his artistic hobbies, and teaching himself to play the guitar.
Like many graduates, Miyamoto found himself jobless in 1977. His father helped him get a job through an old family friend who was the then president of the Nintendo company, a Japanese firm that was, at that time, working to break into the American coin-operated arcade business, and not doing so well. Their early efforts -- the games Space Fever and Sheriff -- were nowhere near hits. Their Radarscope game got a little bit of attention, which Nintendo promptly squandered by over-ordering units of the game. Nintendo was in dire straits, and all of their best designers were preoccupied with more important Japanese projects.
It was Miyamoto’s big chance.
Desperate, the company president turned to the young artist with a request to design an arcade game that would catch the eyes -- and coins -- of Americans. Ever creative, Miyamoto devised a storyline involving an escaped gorilla and a kidnapping at a construction site. The hero of this game was crafted so that the gamers could relate to him: a pudgy carpenter named “Jumpman,” with wide eyes and a bulbous nose, bright red overalls and cap, and a mustache.The gorilla was named Donkey Kong, which Miyamoto believed translated into “silly” or “stubborn” in English. When the game – also dubbed “Donkey Kong” – was ready for release in 1981, Jumpman was renamed Mario, Donkey Kong became the fastest selling arcade game ever, and the Mario legacy began.

A couple of years later, in 1983, Mario became the star of his own stand-up arcade game, Mario Brothers, in which he graduated from carpenter to plumber along with his “new” brother, Luigi, and a host of pixellated pests that included crabs, turtles, and fireflies. The game was a moderate success, appearing in arcades and pizza parlors across the country, even in the slow-to-catch-on Midwest.
Meanwhile, Nintendo had released the “Famicom,” or Family Computer home console in Japan, had offered up the NES System (the “original” Nintendo console) to North America for a test run, and had assigned Miyamoto to head up Nintendo’s R, a new development project whose mission was to create the most inventive video game ever made. That game was Super Mario Brothers, which Miyamoto crafted from his earlier childhood cave and nature expeditions.
Light years from “Pong” (but still very primitive compared to today’s standards), Miyamoto’s Super Mario Brothers offered up a colorful mushroom world that also featured side-scrolling, which had never been seen before. Cute, appealing, and non-violent (unless you count animated magical creatures toppling over), Mario appealed to the adult demographic just as much as kids.
Combined with the NES home system, Super Mario Brothers spent the tail end of 1985 as a huge hit and a popular Christmas gift that was as often played by parents and older siblings as it was by the kids who received the game in the first place. Demand for more Mario picked up quickly, and by 1988, Super Mario Bros. 2 - with its additional Princess and Toad characters, plus cacti, vegetables and potions. Super Mario Bros. 3 followed next, suiting up Mario in special suits, including the Frog and Sledgehammer suits, that gave him new abilities. A national survey taken in 1990 found that Mario was more recognizable among American kids than Mickey Mouse. Now that’s Mario power.

Next up for Nintendo was the Super Nintendo console - and you can bet that Mario would be invited to the party. The flagship game for Super Nintendo was, appropriately, Super Mario World, with the Super Nintendo consoles in such demand that there were near riots at some stores when not enough units were shipped, causing shortages for eager shoppers.
And Mario would move into three dimensions when Nintendo dropped their Nintendo 64 system several years later. Super Mario 64 was actually pivotal in selling the game systems; Nintendo’s system sales grew to four million by the end of 1996 based on one little red-overall-clad plumber and his newest game.
With the translation of Mario and pals to 3D, Nintendo and Miyamoto’s distinctive approach to game design was even more solidified. Nintendo kept the bar high for such competing consoles as Playstation, Sega, and Dreamcast, continually developing more sophisticated games. But it’s Mario who remains both the workhorse and the king.
A priceless asset to Nintendo, Miyamoto’s Mario has branched out like crazy. He may just be a plumber, but he sure has a lot of extracurricular interests. Over the years, Mario has taken turns as a painter (Mario Paint), a physician (Dr. Mario), a race car driver (Mario Kart), and an athlete (Mario Golf and Mario Tennis), and quite the party animal (the entire series of Mario Party games, which as of this date number five).
He’s starred on the cover of Nintendo Power magazine 18 times - far more than any other character. He’s even expanded his appeal far beyond the TV screen - if you haven’t actually played a Mario game, chances are you’ve seen his cartoons or his movie, or have seen his likeness on plush dolls, cereal, t-shirts, lunchboxes, housewares, books, ice cream, and so much more - the list is endless.

Some gamers even purchase all of the Nintendo console systems, from NES to GameCube, in order to own the Mario games in all their configurations. You can even take traveling Mario with you wherever you go with his special games for the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance. In the last 20 years, over 160 million Mario games have been sold. And more Mario is on the way.
With the launch of Nintendo’s newest game system - the GameCube - came Super Mario Sunshine, which positions Mario in a brighter, even more detailed world that is again proving to be a guilty pleasure for adults just as much as a fun pastime for kids. And now that the development time for games has been streamlined (Super Mario Sunshine took only a year and a half to develop, compared to the three years that passed between Super Mario Brothers 2), the key designers of the Mario series have been divided into several teams in order to introduce Mario games with even less lag time between releases.
Mario has a long life ahead of him - he’s the Tom Cruise, the Mick Jagger of the gaming industry - but Tom and Mick probably wouldn’t look half as cool in Mario’s red overalls.


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