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8 things you didn't know about Super Mario Bros.
He is one of the most recognizable fictional characters around the world. But while generations have sent him bopping along under sunny skies, shimmying down pipes and eating very large mushrooms, Mario, of Super Mario Bros. fame, has rarely crossed over into television or film.
"The Super Mario Bros. Movie," a new animated film, hits theaters Friday, featuring stars like Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy and Jack Black. Released by the same studio that produced the kid-favorite "Minions" movies, the new gambit may also be designed to appeal to Nintendo-nostalgic Gen X and millennial parents.
It's certainly not the first game franchise to translate its characters and content for viewing – rather than playing – audiences. Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft have all gotten their closeups. The zombie horror game series "Resident Evil" was made into seven films.
Video games earned an estimated $184.4 billion last year, dwarfing the $25.9 billion raked in by the global box office. In 2020, thanks to existing trends and the COVID-19 pandemic, the video game industry surpassed the profits of both film and sports combined.
How did we get here? Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Bowser all certainly had a hand. Here are eight things you may not know about how they came to be.
1. Mario was inspired in part by Disney and their best-known cartoon character.
In the '90s, news articles and books claimed that Mario was more popular than Mickey Mouse. This is a little ironic, notes Jeffrey Ryan, author of "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America."
"Nintendo purposely stole from the Disney playbook to put Mario everywhere they could make him their Mickey Mouse. And they succeeded."
Hiroshi Yamauchi, long-time president of Nintendo, first encountered Disney when he met with the company to discuss licensing its characters to put on playing cards, which were his company's original product. That experience inspired his desire to transform Nintendo into a global company.
"Yamauchi realized that the Japanese market, which for him was the whole world, was just one tiny bit," Ryan said.
2. Super Mario was originally a spin-off.
Mario made his first appearance in the arcade game Donkey Kong in 1981. He was first known as "Jumpman" because, well, he jumped over barrels thrown by the angry gorilla while trying to rescue a woman known as "The Lady." Unlike other arcade games of the time, Donkey Kong featured different levels that became progressively harder, instead posing a simpler challenge like enemies that become faster or more numerous.
Crucially, the game contained another innovation: Donkey Kong was one of the first to have a story. At the beginning of the game, Donkey Kong kidnaps The Lady and Jumpman has to rescue her. If he succeeds, the player gets a cutscene – a narrative break in game play – showing the two successfully reunited before Donkey Kong comes out to kidnap The Lady once again.
3. Donkey Kong itself was a conversion from another game – and the efforts of a Nintendo executive trying not to get fired by his father-in-law.
According to Ryan, Yamauchi had built his family-owned company, Nintendo, into a success in Japan by the 1960's, but he was "desperate" to break into the global market. To expand to the United States, Yamauchi hired his son-in-law, Mino Arakawa, whose wife, Yoko, objected because she did not have a good relationship with her father.
The first offering to American arcades was Radar Scope, a space shooter similar to the already popular Space Invaders or Galaga. The game was a hit in Japan and 3,000 units were shipped to the U.S., but arcade owners weren't very interested. Arakawa managed to sell 1,000 "cabinets," the physical boxes that contained the games, but another 2,000 sat in warehouses. Facing the prospect of failure and a father-in-law who was notorious for having his own family member fired, Arakawa got creative, according to Ryan.
Old arcade games could be "converted," have new elements added to the program to interest players and get more years out of them. To salvage his 2,000 Radar Scope cabinets, Arakawa announced a company-wide competition to create a conversion kit. The winner was a company artist with no previous game design experience, Shigeru Miyamoto, who leveraged his interest in manga (Japanese comics) to create a hero with recognizable human features and a changing game play that kept users dropping quarters at the arcade.
4. By the time Super Mario Bros was launched for NES, home gaming consoles in the U.S. had already gone bust.
Prior to Nintendo and Super Mario, the video game market was fractured with several game consoles, as well as PC games. Console makers had little control over who designed games for their systems, the result being a lot of games but many of poor quality. One of the most notorious examples was the adaptation of the 1982 movie "E.T." Though Atari published the game themselves, the design was rushed. The game was considered by many to be nearly unplayable and one of the worst games ever made.
The glut of consoles, poor quality games and competition from personal computers led to "the video game crash of 1983," in which sales of video games fell from a peak of $3.2 billion to only about $100 million two years later, according to Engines of Our Ingenuity, a public radio show from Houston Public Media. Several companies closed or left the home video game market altogether.
Into this American wasteland Nintendo launched the NES – the Nintendo Entertainment System – in 1985, and more widely in 1986. Packaged with the system were two free games: Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. According to Ryan, Super Mario Bros. set a bar for other game designers.
"If [a consumer] needed to buy an extra game that was 35 or $40 in 1985, then it needed to at least be on par with Super Mario Bros. or a lot higher [quality]. For a long time, the games weren't that good," Ryan told the PBS NewsHour.
5. This isn't the first Super Mario Bros. movie.
However, a 1993 live-action film was a critical and commercial flop, and an ensuing embarrassment to Nintendo.
"So Yamauchi-san, the head of Nintendo, decided 'we're not going to be in the movie business anymore and we'll just stick with games,'" Ryan said. "And long after he retired and then passed on, his edict stayed: 'We're not bringing [Mario] out of the video game world.'"
Nintendo's business culture was one of pride in its games and were reluctant to associate with a poor result – even a film, he added.
"I think that's baked into the DNA, the fact that these games are a matter of honor. 'We're not going to release a bad game and have people buy 30 million copies of it and then walk away disappointed. We want to give people their money's worth. We want to give people a good experience because that's going to reflect well on us as craftsmen and Nintendo.'"
Jennifer deWinter, dean of Lewis College of Science and Letters at the Illinois Institute of Technology, believes the original 1993 film was also doomed in part because it did not evoke the spirit of the Super Mario games.
"The core experience of Mario is playgrounds," deWinter said. "It's climbing and jumping and sliding and exploration. Look at that original movie, the core experience is the conflict. [The game has] never been about the conflict, it's about the experience. How do you translate this experience?"
6. A bumpy Mario racing game spawned a wave of imitators.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Super Mario Bros isn't the most influential Mario game. That distinction goes to Super Mario Kart, a racing game with a visible heritage across the gaming landscape and in popular culture.
"There were 50 copycats that came out in the two years afterwards and there hadn't been such a thing as a cart racing game," Ryan said. "There were games that focused on speed, but not on moving at a relatively stately pace and bumping into each other."
It also offered the gaming industry a useful business strategy of making new games by using existing intellectual property. Creating a wholly original video game for popular animated characters might be expensive and difficult. But adapting them to a racing game was much easier, and it meant other companies with popular animated characters could issue their own racing games.
7. Luigi lives in his brother's shadow, but that gives him special powers.
According to Ryan's book, Luigi was first conceived as a second player option. – The game was called "Mario Brothers," so Mario needed a co-lead. The video graphics were still pretty limited, but there were more colors available – six in the new game versus only three in the original Donkey Kong. Miyamoto and Nintendo opted for a "palette swap" when designing Luigi, meaning he was essentially a copy of Mario but green instead of red. In later Super Mario games, Luigi would get slightly different abilities, like being able to jump higher or run faster, but the character was more difficult to control.
Mario is the star of the franchise and, arguably, the face of the company, and thus "hyper-controlled," said deWinter, author of "Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda." Luigi, as sidekick, might be more versatile.
"Luigi is my favorite. He's allowed to be your goofier character," deWinter said.
"He's allowed to go off on side-missions. He's allowed to have a personality that deviates and can sometimes undermine a narrative structure," she added. "He's not driven by a constant need to rescue a princess. So he's not confined in the same way that Mario is narratively confined."
8. Mario's nemesis got his name from a soup.
The game's primary villain, Bowser-a giant, fire-breathing turtle-like dragon- was called "Koopa" or "Kuppa'" in earlier games and "Daimaō Koopa" in the original Japanese. Miyamoto has said in interviews that the name Kuppa came from the Japanese name for a Korean dish, gukbap, a soupy stew served with rice.
Naming characters after food was not unusual in the manga that inspired Miyamoto, noted writer Matthew Byrd for the internet culture site Den of the Geek.
DeWinter added that both Korean and Japanese languages contain cognates – words from another language – from Chinese and the Chinese alphabet and have similar meanings.
Koopa eventually became the name of the many turtle minions of King Koopa, who in turn became Bowser. How that particular name came about remains a mystery.
DeWinter also notes that the word "Koopa" could evoke "Kappa," a frogman-like creature from Japanese folklore. Plus, like so many aspects of Mario, the word is just fun to use.
"It's a fun, cute word to say," deWinter says.