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 colorful pixels on a grainy screen, a character trying to save his girlfriend from a giant ape named Donkey Kong. But by the time the 1990s rolled around, Mario hadn’t just saved his beloved from her simian kidnapper; he had 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 card widely used for gambling. (The word Nintendo roughly translates to “lucky charm,” or a place where your fortune is placed in the hands of the gods.) but when Yamauchi’s grandson Hiroshi took over in 1956, he started looking for ways to diversify the sources of income for the business.
The young Yamauchi tried his hand at some pretty original business ideas. There were instant rice packets, “love hotels” for couples in love, a taxi company and other missteps. It finally found Nintendo’s new niche in the late 1960s, gaining a foothold in the Japanese electronic toy market. When Hiroshi saw the incredible success of the personal computer and arcade company Atari in the 1970s, he then turned to the video game market, and in 1977 Nintendo introduced the video game console domestic Color TV-Game.
The machine was preloaded with several versions of the same game – initially the Nintendo version of “Pong”, one of the most popular games of the time – and would sell around 3 million units over the next three years, a modest success for the company. .
Eager to learn more, Yamauchi turned to another booming industry: quarter-hour 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 beeps and aggravating noises that constantly emanated from the cabinet speakers during gameplay. Yamauchi ended up 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 presents a future icon
Yamauchi returned to the drawing board. He commissioned product developer and artist Shigeru Miyamoto to create a game that would appeal more to Americans and reach the heights that “Radar Scope” could not.
Miyamoto had an edge that other video game developers didn’t. He was not a programmer. Rather than approaching the project from the perspective of what the hardware could do, as most developers did at the time, the 28-year-old focused first on the story.
After considering several ideas, he chose one inspired by the American cartoon and comic book character, Popeye. But instead of Bluto and Popeye fighting over Olive Oyl’s love, Miyamoto’s game featured a carpenter named Jumpman who had to save his girlfriend, named Pauline, from a giant gorilla kidnapper named Donkey Kong. . (They felt the name conveyed the idea of a “dumb gorilla.”)
Prior to the release of “Donkey Kong” in 1981, Nintendo of America rented its Seattle-area warehouse (where speed cameras were gathering dust) from a man named Mario Segale. Because so many of the company’s resources were tied to the development of “Donkey Kong”, they fell behind the rent. When the cantankerous Segale visited the company’s president, Minoru Arakawa, in anger, demanding payment. Arakawa assured the landlord that the rent would be paid soon. When Segale finally left, a light bulb went on in Arakawa’s head, and he and his team began jokingly referring to their pixelated creation as Mario.
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“Jumpman” becomes Mario and an empire is born
“Donkey Kong” was a huge hit, but the company didn’t let go of the controller to celebrate its victory. They quickly developed and released a sequel called “Donkey Kong Jr.”, in which Donkey Kong’s son tries to save his father from the evil clutches of the character formerly known as Jumpman, but now named Mario. Although Mario was the “bad guy” (for the first and only time in his career), the game was another huge hit for Nintendo.
In 1983, Mario finally got his chance to be the star, when he and his brother Luigi (now billed as New York Plumbers) were tasked with defeating numerous creatures trying to climb out of their beloved city’s sewers in the hit arcade game Mario Brothers.”
On July 15, 1983, Nintendo (and Mario) jumped out of the arcade and into millions of living rooms for the first time, with the release of the Family Computer (Famicom for short) home console in Japan. Sales soared in the domestic market, and after a year of market testing in some American countries, the Nintendo Entertainment System, renamed and redesigned for the American market, was released nationwide in September 1986. The console launched with 17 games available, including a new game featuring everyone’s favorite plumber: “Super Mario Bros.”
By 1988, Nintendo had a stranglehold on the US console market, and with the automatic inclusion of “Mario Bros” with later NES releases, the connection between the character and the company was strengthened.
But why has Mario become such a phenomenon? According to Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered Americait’s because Nintendo basically forced him into fame.
“Nintendo made him a star,” Ryan said. “They deliberately put it in a whole slew of innovative video games and kept moving it 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 a chair umpire in “Tennis” (1985), golfer in “Golf” (1985), main character in “Wrecking Crew” (1985), referee in “Punch-Out!!” (1987), and in other seemingly forced roles in “Tetris” (1988) and “Pinball” (1985). Simply put, Nintendo has made Mario its symbol of quality control. If Mario put his stamp of approval on the game, you knew it was going to be good.
“For comparison, imagine if the #1 show on television, for the last 30 years, was a ‘Happy Days’ spinoff series on Fonzie,” Ryan theorizes. “A medical drama, starring Fonzie. A police procedural, featuring Fonzie. A story of female friendship, featuring split-screen Fonzies wearing wigs. “Posie has talent. »
In the decades since stepping out of the considerable shadow of that overgrown ape named Donkey Kong, Mario has appeared in over 200 games. “The Mario Bros.” The series alone has sold over 240 million units, with Nintendo releasing several sequels to the original on their various console generations.
Despite the industry’s relentless search for “realistic” gaming experiences, Mario’s decidedly low-tech, 30-plus-year-old battle to stop a gargantuan spiked turtle named Bowser remains one of the most most popular in history.