Video game characters often deserve as much as love as the franchises they are tied to, and usually are the sole reason behind its success and beyond. The Video Game Icons series explores the most iconic (Ubisoft definition not withstanding) characters in video game history, from the colorful pioneers of the hero archetypes to the anthropomorphic beings that spawned many great childhood memories. This first episode travels to a mushroom kingdom far away to focus on the lovable Italian plumber, Super Mario.
Mario was first introduced to the world in 1983 with Super Mario Bros., developed and published by Nintendo under the creative watch of Shigeru Miyamoto for the Famicom. It told the simple tale of an Italian plumber, Mario, journeying through the mushroom kingdom to save Princess Peach, taken by the scheming fire-breathing villain, Bowser. With five worlds to explore and various levels introducing new enemies and gameplay mechanics, Super Mario Bros. was arguably the first true platformer of its time to involve a loose narrative driving its unique and groundbreaking game design. The game is cemented in legend, often regarded as the true beginning of modern gaming.
At the heart of it all, the blue-and-red clothed short plumber donning a well-groomed mustache and a habit of bashing bricks with his bare hands.
Contrary to popular belief, the popular plumbers first true appearance was actually in the 1981 video game Donkey Kong, also developed by Nintendo. Although he did not have a name yet, going by his earlier identity as “Jumpman” or “Mr. Video”, Mario was the protagonist responsible for saving a damsel in distress from the also now iconic giant ape, Donkey Kong. By scaling up ladders and avoiding obstacles along the way, Mario had to rise to the top to defeat the ape and save the girl. This heroic mentality carried over to his standalone game, Super Mario Bros., also roping in his brother, Luigi (but that’s for another episode).
Typically he had no defining characteristic outside his Italian heritage and accent, but what made him identifiable in the first place was his colorful, unique physical appearance. Mario epitomized the underdog hero, a short seemingly powerless everyday guy going up against impossible odds; killer mushrooms, weapon-wielding tortoises, man-eating plants, deadly fish, and environments designed to push his physical abilities, among many other threats in the kingdom.
After the initial success of Super Mario Bros, he went on to be the central hero once again in several sequels, spin-offs, and features in other Nintendo licenses. The Nintendo icon became a household name despite only ever appearing on Nintendo consoles and not venturing out to more popular platforms like the PlayStation or Xbox. This ensured a part of Nintendo’s tremendous success in the gaming industry, holding some of the most nostalgic gaming characters in its already impressive roster that included Link from The Legend of Zelda and Samus from the Metroid series.
For many gamers, Super Mario Bros. was the entry point into their hobby, once again pushing the envelope of game design with Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64, resulting in many future 3D platformers following its inventive design and mechanics. Mario continued his dominance as an iconic character well into later critically acclaimed installments like Super Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart, cementing his status as one of gaming’s most recognizable figures.
The Nintendo icon inadvertently created a snowball effect for future protagonists, favoring quirky and colorful designs with mostly silent but charismatic personalities. This, of course, spawned gaming’s darlings of the 3D platformer, including Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon, Gex, Jak & Daxter and even influencing its spiritual arcade counterpart Pac-Man to venture into its own 3D design with the Pac-Man World series.
Nintendo’s resounding success story of Mario went on to become a staple in popular culture, even for non-gamers who fondly remember playing as the charming Italian plumber stepping on mushrooms, battling the forces of the kingdom to save his beloved princess. A gaming fairy tale that has never lost its magic.