It’s-a Mario! A look back at the greatest franchise in gaming.
After just three years, Nintendo’s aggressive move into the North American videogame market proved a complete disaster. Out of three thousand units built, its much-hyped, last-ditch arcade shooter Radar Scope only sold one thousand units. The rest gathered dust in a warehouse.
Minoru Arakawa, the man who placed the bold Hail Mary order, begged his father-in-law (Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi) to reprogram the useless Radar Scope machines into a new hit game. Anything less would be the nail in Nintendo of America’s coffin. Yamauchi agreed, handing the job to Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the successful Game & Watch series, and his young protege, Shigeru Miyamoto… a graphic artist who’d never designed a game in his life.
For the first time, story came first and gameplay was designed around it. Miyamoto based his plot on the Popeye love triangle, a license Nintendo pursued and lost. Very quickly, a giant gorilla subbed for Bluto while Popeye the Sailor-Man became Jumpman, a carpenter leaping barrels and scaling his construction site to rescue “Lady.” Miyamoto wanted a linear progression through different stages. His four-man programming team didn’t want to code the same game four times. It was foolish, like redesigning a chess board every five moves.
Under protest, they delivered a whopping 20k of code while Miyamoto composed the music and designed animated “intermissions” to advance the story. Everything had to stay within Radar Scope’s hardware limitations.
Chips and conversion kits were shipped to America in 1981. Arakawa, his wife and a few others changed two thousand Radar Scopes into Donkey Kongs, but Arakawa knew “Jumpman” wouldn’t cut it with the Americans. The character needed a real name. His breakthrough came when their landlord burst into a board meeting, demanding long-overdue rent.
The man’s name was Segali… Mario Segali.
Might As Well Jump
Twenty-six years later, Mario is the face of videogaming, more recognized around the world than Mickey Mouse. He’s appeared in two hundred games, collectively selling over two hundred million units. He’s launched consoles, salvaged entire industries and led the charge into true 3D gaming. Six out of the top-ten best selling videogames of all time are Mario games. Orchestras perform his theme music. Operas have been written. He’s gotten his own cartoon series and, unfortunately for those that saw it, a live-action film. He propelled his creator from staff artist to legend, honored in America, knighted in France and in control of his own division at the third largest company in Japan.
Well before Mario became the official mascot of Nintendo, Donkey Kong‘s runaway success – 60,000 cabinets eventually shipped – was attributed to its star: Donkey Kong. Mario barely registered. For his next appearance in 1983’s Donkey Kong Jr., he took on the whip-wielding villain role.
Miyamoto intended Mario to be his go-to character, a slightly pudgy, silly-looking fellow who could easily fit into any game as needed. Accordingly, he designed his little carpenter mostly by creating elegant solutions to practical, 8-bit problems. Overalls made the arms more visible. A thick mustache showed up better than a mouth and accented the bulbous nose. Bright colors popped against dark backgrounds. He wore a hat so Miyamoto could skip designing a hairstyle – not his favorite task — and to save programmers from animating it during jumps.
…Except Mario’s occupation didn’t sit right. A colleague told Miyamoto that his little sprite looked more like a plumber.
Accordingly, Miyamoto put Mario in a crab/turtle/firefly-infested sewer for his third outing. Further inspiration came from Joust, an early co-op game where players worked together or, alternatively, wiped each other out. For Player two, Miyamoto adapted his catch-all character again, swapping Mario’s color palette to create an identical “brother.”
Stories range on how Luigi got his name, from a play on the Japanese word for “analogous” to a pizza parlor near Arakawa’s office called Mario & Luigi‘s. Regardless, the twins went to work clearing underground pipes of vermin in Mario Bros., their first headlining game. Players leapt across platforms, stunned critters by punching the ground underneath them, and booted them off-screen to reap their reward in gold coins.
Mario Bros. was only modestly successful. Arcade titles typically had a quick shelf life anyway, and Yamauchi wanted to move Nintendo into the more lucrative home gaming market… just as it completely imploded in the U.S.
Japan remained unaffected. By 1985, the Nintendo Famicom overcame its rocky, recall-stained launch to dominate Asia. However, after several false starts — including a scrubbed deal with Atari — North America remained elusive. Through it all, Yamauchi held to a simple philosophy: games sold consoles, and the best game designer in the world worked for him. He gave Miyamoto his own division, R&D4, to create Famicom games in time for Nintendo’s next pass at the American market.
Mario and Luigi left both sewers and arcades behind. The Mushroom Kingdom was their home now, and the Famicom their new platform.