When you think of video games you often think of space ships, aliens, castles, dragons, ghosts and other imaginative concepts. So it’s a little surprising that the most popular video game character in the world is an Italian plumber from Brooklyn. And yet Mario is by far my favorite character with the largest amount of video games spanning the widest range of genres. I actually loved the character before I became a gamer, because I was first introduced to him in the Saturday morning cartoon based on his games. By the time I became a Nintendo fan it was like I already knew him.
But where did Mario come from and who created him? That would be Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created the arcade game Donkey Kong (1981) which featured Mario in his video game debut.
The object of the game was for you to guide a carpenter named Mario up a maze of girders to save his girlfriend Pauline from a gorilla named Donkey Kong. Mario was the first video game character in the history of the medium who you could make jump with the press of a button. Not only that but the game popularized the platformer genre and paved the way for story-driven gaming as its cutscenes were closely tied to the gameplay.
Mario’s design originated from graphical necessity: the 8-bit pixels were low-resolution so a mustache was easier to depict than a mouth, a hat was easier to animate than hair, and overalls made his arm movements more visible.
Mario would again appear in the sequel Donkey Kong Junior (1982) as the villain who holds Donkey Kong captive, and a year later would star in the 2-player arcade platforming game Mario Bros. (1983) in which carpenter-turned-plumber Mario and his brother Luigi (in his video game debut) had to exterminate an army of creatures emerging from sewer pipes.
Mario Bros. would form the basis for the platformer Super Mario Bros. (1985) for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Super Mario Bros. took the plumbing team of Mario Mario and Luigi Mario from Brooklyn, New York to the Mushroom Kingdom for the first time, with the object of the game to save Princess Toadstool from Bowser the fire-breathing turtle king. Along the way Mario and Luigi must jump, climb, swim, navigate warp pipes, hit blocks and collect coins and power-ups such as the size-enhancing Super Mushroom, the fireball-shooting Fire Flower and the invincibility-granting Starman while avoiding enemies such as the walking mushroom Goomba, Bowser’s turtle soldier the Koopa Troopa, the winged Koopa Paratroopa, Piranha Plant, Bullet Bill, the flying Lakitu, the aquatic Cheep Cheep and Blooper and the hammer-tossing Hammer Bros.
Shigeru Miyamoto, who directed and designed Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior and Mario Bros., had finally realized his vision for a large-scale platforming adventure game when he designed Super Mario Bros. alongside Takashi Tezuka, and they went beyond the call of duty in presentation as for the first time you were able to navigate vast worlds from left to right with the camera fixed on Mario, all while the catchy and upbeat tunes of Koji Kondo played in the background contributing to the game’s fun and light-hearted tone. Background music in most games were non-existent but the iconic music in this game normalized soundtracks being an important centerpiece of video game design from that point forward.
The success of Super Mario Bros. made the NES popular around the world, made Nintendo the biggest video game company in the world and made Mario the most popular video game character in the world.
In 1986 following the success of the first game came a sequel released only in Japan called Super Mario Bros. 2 (later known in America as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels) which had a higher difficulty level. Nintendo found that American gamers were less tolerant of the game’s high difficulty, but Super Mario Bros. was hugely popular in America and a sequel was in high demand, so the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was instead based on the gaming engine of the Arabian-themed Japanese Nintendo game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic) which was based on Fuji TV characters who would have been unknown to American audiences anyway.
The character Imajin was replaced by Mario, the high-jumping Mama was replaced by Luigi, Imajin’s girlfriend Lina, who has the ability to float in the air, was replaced by Peach and the fast and strong Papa was replaced by Toad.
This localized version of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic featuring Mario characters was released in North America in 1988 and was a huge commercial success that Americans loved despite being a huge stylistic departure from Super Mario Bros., and when it was released in Japan under the name Super Mario USA, it was highly popular there as well. Some enemies from the game have since become classic characters who appear frequently in Mario games, including Shyguy, Bob-omb, Pokey, Snifit and Birdo.
Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) for NES, which is my favorite of the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, featured the return of Bowser and the introduction of popular enemies like the barking Chain Chomp, Boo the shy ghost, the flattening Thwomp and Bowser’s children the Koopalings: Larry Koopa, Roy Koopa, Lemmy Koopa, Wendy O. Koopa, Iggy Koopa, Morton Koopa Jr. and Ludwig von Koopa. This game, which Miyamoto and Tezuka directed, was challenging but never at the expense of fun, and it is a highlight of the NES library that further proves Mario games were the best platformers on the market.
Other platformers include the Game Boy game Super Mario Land (1989) which introduced Princess Daisy, its sequel Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992) which introduced Wario, and the Super NES game Super Mario World (1990) which brought Mario into the world of 16 bits and introduced Yoshi the dinosaur who Mario and Luigi could ride and whose frog-like tongue could be used to consume enemies.
Mario entered the three-dimensional world for the first time with Super Mario 64 (1996) for Nintendo 64 and proved his games could be fun no matter what dimension you’re playing them in, and that was followed by an excellent series of 3D platformers including Super Mario Sunshine (2002) for Nintendo GameCube, Super Mario Galaxy (2007) for Wii, its sequel Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), Super Mario 3D Land (2011) for Nintendo 3DS, Super Mario 3D World (2013) for Wii U and Super Mario Odyssey (2017) for Nintendo Switch.
Meanwhile the side-scrolling spirit of the original Super Mario Bros. was kept alive in games like New Super Mario Bros. (2006) for Nintendo DS, New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009), New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012) for Nintendo 3DS, New Super Mario Bros. U (2012) for Wii U, Super Mario Run (2016) for iOS and Android and the Super Mario Maker series which allows you to build your own Mario courses and share them online.
Mario became Nintendo’s mascot very shortly after the success of Super Mario Bros. and he has appeared in more than just platforming games.
Mario has appeared in the Game & Watch games Donkey Kong II (1982), Mario’s Cement Factory (1983), Mario’s Bombs Away (1983), Donkey Kong Circus (1984), Donkey Kong Hockey (1984) and Mario the Juggler (1991) as well as the Game & Watch Gallery series spanning Game Boy and Game Boy Advance which featured updated Game & Watch games starring Mario characters.
Mario also appeared in the NES games Tennis (1984), Pinball (1984), Golf (1984), Wrecking Crew (1985), Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (1987) and the puzzle game Dr. Mario (1990), the Game Boy games Baseball (1989), Alleyway (1989), Tetris (1989), Qix (1990), F1 Race (1990) and Mario’s Picross (1995), the Virtual Boy games Mario’s Tennis (1995) and Mario Clash (1995) and on Super NES he has appeared in the art tool game Mario Paint (1992), the puzzle game Mario & Wario (1993) and the role-playing game Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996) developed by Squaresoft of Final Fantasy fame.
In addition to these games, Mario has appeared in the racing game series Mario Kart, the multiplayer party game series Mario Party, the Mario Golf series, the Mario Tennis series and other Mario sports games themed around baseball, soccer and basketball.
Plus the success of Mario Paint led to the art tool games Mario no Photopi (1998) for Nintendo 64 and Mario Artist (1999) for 64DD (Disk Drive) and the popularity of Super Mario RPG led to the Nintendo 64 game Paper Mario (2000) which featured a paper flat Mario navigating a three-dimensional world and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga (2003) for Game Boy Advance in which you alternate between playing as Mario and Luigi and use their individual abilities while trekking the Beanbean Kingdom. Both games have spawned long-running RPG series.
The success of the Mario series has also led to spin-offs like Luigi’s Mansion, Yoshi’s Island, Wario Land, Wario Ware and Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker as well as crossovers with Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog in Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, Square Enix’s Dragon Quest in Fortune Street, Ubisoft’s Rabbids in Mario+Rabbids Kingdom and other Nintendo characters in the Super Smash Bros. fighting game series. And Mario has also had made small but memorable cameo appearances in the Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Tetris, Pilotwings, Kirby, Animal Crossing, Wario Land, Wario Ware, Pac-Man, Metal Gear Solid and Minecraft series and has been a playable character in the GameCube versions of the EA Sports games NBA Street V3 and SSX on Tour alongside Luigi and Peach.
I will discuss more in my next blog “Mario Through the Ages Part 2.”