Here’s a Fun Fact: All Mario games are spin-offs!
Mario is probably the most recognisable videogame character in the entire world.
People who identify as gamers know characters such as Nathan Drake (Uncharted) or Carl Johnson (Grand Thef Auto: San Andreas), but even non-gamers have a good idea of who Mario is.
Join us as briefly we examine the origins, history, and cultural impact of everyone’s favourite Italian plumber.
Nintendo: Cards and Toys
It may surprise you to find out that Nintendo have been around since the 1880s.
They were originally founded to sell a specific type of Japanese playing cards named ‘Hanafuda cards’, and eventually began to sell toys as well.
In the 1980s, videogames were starting to become popular. Back then, most videogaming happened in a videogame arcade with coin-operated gaming machines (or ‘coin-ops’, if you like). While there are still some videogame arcades around today, they’re nowhere near as popular as they once were, mainly due to the existence of gaming consoles.
Nintendo wanted a cut of the arcade action, so they asked one of their artists, Shigeru Miyamoto, to design an arcade game for them.
Mario’s First Appearance
Miyamoto designed the story first, and then the game.
The game was Donkey Kong, and it defined single-screen platformer games of the era in the same way that Minecraft defined survival/building games in the 2010s.
The player controlled a carpenter named Jumpman, who had to navigate moving barrels (which he could also smash with a hammer) to save a woman named Pauline (Princess Peach wouldn’t appear until Super Mario Bros). The Donkey Kong coin-op arcade game was wildly successful, so Nintendo did their best to get a foothold in other parts of the world, especially the American market.
Nintendo of America was soon founded.
Mario gets his name
During one of their meetings regarding one of their next games, a platformer starring Jumpman, the landlord of their offices burst in, demanding his overdue rent.
Jumpman needed a name, and Nintendo named him after the landlord: Mario (although their landlord was named Mario Segal and not Mario Mario)
It’s not clear if this was done to spite or placate the landlord, but he was immortalised nonetheless.
The newly-named Mario would appear in the Donkey Kong sequel, Donkey Kong Jr. It was mechanically similar to Donkey Kong, but the roles were reversed: The player played Donkey Kong Jr, who had to rescue his father from Mario.
Donkey Kong Jr remains the only time that Mario has been a villain in an official Nintendo game.
Mario gets a new game and a brother
A year later, Mario Bros was released.
Not to be confused with Super Mario Bros (which would appear two year after Mario Bros), Mario Bros was another single-screen platform game like Donkey Kong and its sequel.
There were two major differences however, both of which had a long-lasting impact on the Mario legacy.
The first was the fact that this was the first Mario co-op game (as opposed to the hotseat approach shown in the Donkey Kong series). In other words, there’d be two players on screen. They couldn’t very well have two Marios, so the Mario sprite was palette-swapped ( or ‘recoloured’) and Luigi was born.
The second was the fact that they changed Mario’s profession from a carpenter to a plumber, which they did purely because of where the game took place. Videogames often have a sewer level: Marios Bros was literally just the sewer level.
Mario Becomes A Franchise
Super Mario Bros
The next game, the side-scrolling platformer Super Mario Bros, was the first Mario game released for home console, specifically the FamiCom – or as it was known in the rest of the world: The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Super Mario Bros came free with the NES, which meant that every single NES owner had access to the game.
While it could be argued that this is why the character became so beloved, the same wasn’t true for the character in the free game that came with the Sega Master System (Sega’s answer to the NES), Alex Kidd. In fact, Alex Kidd’s lack of popularity would ultimately result on Sega creating another mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Super Mario Bros would go on to receive multiple remakes, and also spawn multiple sequels and spin-offs that would appear on the Super Nintendo Entertainment (SNES), such as Super Mario World (which introduces Yoshi to the franchise) and Super Mario Kart.
Mario: Beyond The 8-bit Consoles
Mario was one of the first videogame characters to appear on TV (in 1983), and even appeared on multiple shows in that same year.
The Nintendo 64 game, Super Mario 64, is regarded as the game most responsible for popularizing 3D platform games – even if it wasn’t technically the first one.
Mario has appeared in non-platformer games, such as the puzzle game Doctor Mario. He’s also appeared in non-Mario games, such as the Smash Bros series.
Mario received a live-action feature film in 1993, ‘Super Mario Bros.’ and also recently appeared in the Pixar film ‘Wreck-It Ralph’.
Speaking of Wreck-It Ralph – now you know why the character Felix uses a hammer: Because he was based on Mario, who began his life as a carpenter!