Super Mario, one of the most iconic characters in video game history, made his inauspicious debut in 1981. He wasn’t much—just a handful of colored pixels on a grainy screen, a figure trying to save his girlfriend from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. But by the time the 1990s came around, Mario had not only rescued his lady love from her simian kidnapper; he’d become the face of Nintendo itself.
It all started a century earlier in 1889, when Fusajiro Yamauchi founded a small company named Nintendo Koppai to manufacture hanafuda, a popular type of Japanese playing cards used widely for gambling. (The word Nintendo translates roughly to “luck-heaven-hall,” or a place where your fortune is placed in the hands of the gods.) Business boomed for many decades—Nintendo is still one of the top hanafuda manufacturers in the world—but when Yamauchi’s grandson, Hiroshi, took over in 1956, he began looking for ways to diversify the company’s revenue streams.
The younger Yamauchi tried his hands at some pretty outside-the-box business ideas. There were instant rice packets, “love hotels” catering to amorous couples, a taxi cab company and other missteps. He finally found Nintendo’s new niche in the late 1960s, gaining a foothold in Japan’s electronic toys market. When Hiroshi saw the incredible success of home computer and arcade company Atari in the 1970s, he next set his sights on the video game market, and in 1977 Nintendo introduced the Color TV-Game home video game console to the Japanese market.
The machine came pre-loaded with several versions of the same game—initially, Nintendo’s version of "Pong," one of the era's most ubiquitous games—and would sell roughly 3 million units over the next three years, a modest success for the company.
Hungry for more, Yamauchi turned his attention to another prospering industry—quarter-munching video arcade games. Encouraged by the success of its "EVR Race" and "Radar Scope" in Japan, Nintendo produced 3,000 Radar Scope cabinets for distribution in the United States. Unfortunately, American arcade vendors found the game too similar to Space Invaders, and were turned off by the aggravating beeps and noises that constantly emanated from the cabinet speakers during gameplay. Yamauchi was left with nearly 2,000 unsold Radar Scope machines, and it seemed like “game over” for the company’s North American hopes.
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Donkey Kong Introduces a Future Icon
Yamauchi went back to the drawing board. He tasked product developer and artist Shigeru Miyamoto with creating a game that would appeal more to Americans and achieve the heights that "Radar Scope" could not.
Miyamoto had one advantage that other video game developers did not have. He wasn’t a programmer. Rather than approach the project from the perspective of what the hardware could do—as most developers did back then—the 28-year-old focused on the story first.
After considering several ideas, he settled on one inspired by the American cartoon and comic book character, Popeye. But Instead of having Bluto and Popeye fight over the love of Olive Oyl, Miyamoto’s game featured a carpenter named Jumpman who had to rescue his girlfriend, named Pauline, from a giant gorilla kidnapper named Donkey Kong. (They felt this name conveyed the idea of a “stupid gorilla.”)
Prior to "Donkey Kong"’s 1981 release, Nintendo of America rented its Seattle-area warehouse (where the Radar Scopes were collecting dust) from a man named Mario Segale. Because so many of the company’s resources were tied up in the development of "Donkey Kong," they fell behind on the rent. When the cantankerous Segale paid company president, Minoru Arakawa, an angry visit, demanding payment. Arakawa assured the landlord the rent would be paid soon. When Segale finally left, a lightbulb went off in Arakawa’s head, and he and his team began jokingly referring to their pixelated creation as Mario.
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"Donkey Kong" was a huge success, but the company did not take their hands off the joystick and celebrate their win. They quickly developed and released a sequel named "Donkey Kong Jr.," which featured the son of Donkey Kong attempting to rescue his father from the evil clutches of the character formerly known as Jumpman, but now named Mario. Despite Mario being the “bad guy” (for the first and only time in his career), the game was another huge success for Nintendo.
In 1983, Mario finally got a chance to be the star, when he and his brother Luigi (now billed as plumbers from New York) were tasked with defeating numerous creatures attempting to rise from the sewers of their beloved city in the successful arcade game "Mario Bros."
On July 15, 1983, Nintendo (and Mario) leaped out of the arcade and into millions of living rooms for the first time, with the release of the home console Family Computer (Famicom for short) in Japan. Sales soared domestically, and after a year of market testing in select U.S. locations, the Nintendo Entertainment System—renamed and redesigned for the American market—was released nationwide in September of 1986. The system launched with 17 available games, including a new game featuring everyone’s favorite plumber: "Super Mario Bros."
By 1988, Nintendo had a stranglehold on the American console market, and thanks to the automatic inclusion of "Super Mario Bros" with later versions of the NES, the connection between character and company was reinforced.
But why did Mario become such a phenomenon? According to Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, it was because Nintendo essentially forced him into stardom.
“Nintendo made him a star,” said Ryan. “They purposefully put him in a whole slew of innovative video games, and kept hopping him around from genre to genre.”
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In the 1980s alone, Mario appeared in 12 NES games. In many cases, he wasn’t even essential to the plot. He appeared as the chair umpire in "Tennis" (1985), the golfer in "Golf" (1985), the main character in "Wrecking Crew" (1985), the referee in "Punch-Out!!" (1987), and in other seemingly forced roles in "Tetris" (1988) and "Pinball" (1985). Simply put, Nintendo made Mario their quality control symbol. If Mario was putting his stamp of approval on the game, you knew it was going to be good.
“For comparison sake, imagine if the #1 show on TV, for the last 30 years, was a series of 'Happy Days' spinoffs about Fonzie,” theorizes Ryan. “A medical drama, starring Fonzie. A police procedural, starring Fonzie. A story of female friendship, starring split-screen Fonzies in wigs. 'Potsie’s Got Talent.'”
In the decades since he climbed out from under the considerable shadow of that overgrown ape named Donkey Kong, Mario has appeared in more than 200 games. "The Mario Bros." series alone has sold more than 240 million units, with Nintendo releasing several sequels to the original across their different generations of consoles.
Despite the industry’s nonstop search for “realistic” gameplay experiences, the decidedly low-tech, 30-years-and-counting battle Mario has waged to stop a gargantuan spike-shelled turtle named Bowser remains one of the most popular games in history.