The Origin of Mario Bros: Who Created the Iconic Video Game Character
More than thirty-five years ago, Nintendo debuted a video game that wiped out its competitors like a green turtle shell wiping out a string of Goombas. In case you didn’t get the reference, it’s from “Super Mario Bros.,” which was released in Japan on September 13, 1985. The game went on sale in North America later that year and it quickly became one of the most popular video games of all-time, eventually selling over 40 million copies for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
The game’s titular character — Mario, a mustachioed plumber in overalls and a red cap — went on to become Nintendo’s unofficial mascot, appearing in more than 200 different video game properties, from “Mario Kart” to “Mario Party,” and making the company’s large portfolio of Mario-themed games the best-selling video game franchise ever.
But, if the Nintendo game designer who first created Mario had his way, the character might never have existed — or, at least, he would have been very different.
Legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (“Donkey Kong,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Star Fox”) actually first created the Mario character to be the protagonist of “Donkey Kong,” the 1981 arcade game where a carpenter tries to rescue his girlfriend from a giant ape who was Mario’s pet. (Mario didn’t become a plumber until four years later, when Miyamoto decided that Mario’s profession should better match the green pipes and sewer settings of the “Mario Bros.” franchise.)
Miyamoto, an artist who had been hired at Nintendo four years earlier for his skills as a toymaker, was tasked with coming up with a new arcade game to replace Nintendo’s failed 1980 title “Radar Scope,” according to a 2010 profile of Miyamoto in The New Yorker. Miyamoto wanted to create a game based on the iconic cartoon sailor Popeye, but Nintendo wasn’t able to land the rights to those characters, so the artist had to come up with a new idea.
Instead, of a sailor, Miyamoto opted for another blue-collar profession — a carpenter, and one who sported a mustache and Mario’s trademark overalls and hat. The character was originally just called “Jumpman” since he had to leap over obstacles; then, the real star of the game was Donkey Kong.
When Nintendo released “Donkey Kong” in the United States, the company’s American executives felt that Jumpman needed a better name. Workers at Nintendo’s Washington warehouse had started calling the character “Mario” because he resembled the property’s landlord, a man named Mario Segale, according to the book “Game Over, Press Start to Continue.” Miyamoto heard about the nickname and liked it, so he stuck with it.
“They started calling the character Mario, and when I heard that I said ‘Oh, Mario’s a great name — let’s use that,'” Miyamoto told NPR in 2015.
“Donkey Kong” was extremely popular in arcades around the world, earning the game its own spot in the pantheon of classic video games. Nintendo went on develop several sequels to the original before tasking Miyamoto with breaking out the Mario character for his own game. Miyamoto created a brother for Mario (the green-clad Luigi) and the pair debuted in the 1983 arcade game “Mario Bros.,” which was mainly only distributed in Japan.
Two years later, though, Mario’s star exploded worldwide when Nintendo released “Super Mario Bros.” as the centerpiece game for its NES home-gaming console. After its successful release, Nintendo started bundling “Super Mario Bros.” with its consoles — so, if you bought the system, you got the game too — which helped further drive sales. The Nintendo NES went on to become the best-selling video game console of its generation, selling over 60 million units, according to the company.
And, while the NES gave way to the Super Nintendo console in 1991, and then the Nintendo 64 in 1996 and so on, the character Mario has endured and flourished for Nintendo for over three decades and across multiple gaming platforms and other media (including films and TV). Today, when Nintendo launches a new gaming platform, the company invariably has a new Mario game title ready to pair with it, such as 2017’s “Super Mario Odyssey” for the popular Nintendo Switch (the game has sold over 10 million copies).
And, while Miyamoto may have originally had his sights set on a more Popeye-like character, Mario’s eventual ubiquity is one thing the artist actually planned from the start. “My original goal was that I really wanted to use Mario in a lot of different games,” Miyamoto told Time magazine in 2010.
“It’s sort of common among the popular culture in Japan that a creator will take that same character and have him will appear in different manga [comics],” he says. “It’s also sort of like, maybe, Hitchcock appearing in all his movies. It’s sort of cool to have that character appearing here and there, whether or not they have a large role or not.”
The Success of Mario Bros and the Role of Shigeru Miyamoto
It’s been over forty years since Mario made his video game debut as the hero of 1981’s arcade classic Donkey Kong, although back then he was simply known as “Jumpman.” He’s had quite the glow up since then, appearing in over 200 video games, a Saturday morning cartoon, and now two theatrically released movies. And the success of Donkey Kong didn’t give the world just one star, it also delivered another: creator Shigeru Miyamoto.
Credited as the brains behind not just Mario, but Zelda, Star Fox, Pikmin and more, Miyamoto has been the creative and philosophical force driving Nintendo for decades, having reached a level of icon status in the games industry few can rival. But he didn’t do it alone. Beginning with 1985’s Super Mario Bros., Miyamoto began collaborating with composer Koji Kondo, whose keyboard arrangement for the game would become a master class in elegant simplicity, worming its way into players’ heads for generations.
The most obvious industry parallels for the two might be Walt Disney (Miyamoto) and John Williams (Kondo). The former pioneered both game design and art direction that arguably saved the entire medium. The latter breathed life into virtual worlds with melodies as addictive as the gameplay itself. Together, they built the legacy of Nintendo with some of pop culture’s most memorable characters and music.
Now, they’re working to bring that legacy to a whole new generation, as well as audiences who may never pick up a controller. A joint production between Illumination and Nintendo, The Super Mario Bros. Movie feels like a labor of love in just about every way, and much of that is due to the creative input of Miyamoto and Kondo. Miyamoto, bringing his stewardship of the brand to the film in the same way he did to the recently opened theme park, worked with the creative team at Illumination to find the right angle to power-up Mario for the silver screen. Kondo, working with composer Brian Tyler, provided his expertise and nearly four decades worth of arrangements that informed the film’s score.
The Super Mario Bros. Movie and the Creative Process
Following the film’s LA premiere, Rolling Stone met with the duo to discuss the difficulties of adapting their work, Bowser’s fingers fitting into piano keys, and how sometimes success can actually be a curse.
Why is now the right time for Mario to make the leap into film?
Miyamoto: So, about 10 years ago — up until that point Mario was created specifically for a video game. And we had created Mario as a character to be used in video games as we make new ones. And because of that reason, we didn’t set any outside details that are unnecessary for the game, because it could turn into limitations in the future. [So] things like, “What’s Mario’s favorite food?” “Does Mario have a brother?” “Does Mario have a sister?” All those kinds of questions were unnecessary. We didn’t do that. But when it comes to movies, [that kind of] peripheral information and detail becomes important, it becomes crucial. So that’s something that we had to kind of grapple with.
And about 10 years ago, after this time period where [people were saying], “It’s either Nintendo, Sega, Sony or Microsoft,” after all of that ended, we started to want to focus on the idea of wanting people to enjoy Nintendo and love Nintendo as Nintendo, not specifically as any certain game. And alongside Mr. Iwata, we decided that we wanted to shift focus and take a more IP-focused approach. And within that kind of approach was the idea of creating movies, theme parks, and other things like that.
Why was Illumination the right partner to help bring this to life?
Miyamoto: After that decision to take the more IP-focused approach, we had talked about potential partners, and then our encounter with Chris [Meledandri] was an interesting one in that, as we got to know each other, we realized that our philosophies and the way we think about creating something new is very similar. We thought that this would be a great match and decided, let’s work together to create something new. And it was just this kind of joint forces of these two different creatives, and then we finally decided on creating a new movie and since then, it’s been a smooth sailing process from there.
There were times when people would come to the original creators, Nintendo, and say, “Here’s the kind of movie you want to make. And here’s how we can expand this into business.” And it was back in that time when we changed approaches that we started to feel like it should be Nintendo that creates this kind of thing. With Chris it wasn’t, “Hey, let’s make a Mario movie.” It was like, “Let’s create something new,” and that kind of shift in perspective and how our approach to creating something was what really made this partnership work.
Kondo-San, what was your experience like collaborating with composer Brian Tyler on the music for the film?
Kondo: The overall film, of course, from beginning to end, was composed by Brian [Tyler]. We really wanted him to take control of that process. My contribution for him was to provide game music that I thought — a list of game music — that would match with the different scenes that I had seen in the movie. And then Brian took some of those suggestions. And then he added different phrases of music. He took those and added those phrases to the overall score, rearranged things in ways that supported the overall film.
I didn’t provide specific instructions to say, “Please use this music in this scene.” And the reason for that is, I didn’t want people to be taken out of the movie by hearing a piece of game music that didn’t fully fit that particular scene. So they were really just suggestions as to what I thought would help, and then Brian was able to take that again and weave that into the overall composition for each scene. And again, he just came up with this really amazing piece of work.
There’s a fine balance between music composed for the film and needle drops with popular songs. What went into striking that balance?
Kondo: As far as those outside pieces, those licensed pieces of music, I really think that’s up to the [directors]. And I think in this case, they did something that worked flawlessly within the overall structure of the film.
Are there tracks that you wish had made it into the film?
Kondo: No! I’d like to create the music myself! [Laughs]
Miyamoto: In the movie, there were temporary licensed [tracks] that were placed in. [We] then went in and tried to replace them with songs that were created specifically for the movie. But there were still scenes where we felt like the licensed songs worked better, and those are what’s left in. Another thing that we thought about was [that] all of the music created for the movie — that includes Nintendo music — none of it has lyrics and vocals, and having a movie score that doesn’t have any lyrics and vocals might be a little off, so we thought it’d be good to have. We’ve kind of leaned on the licensed music to provide vocal lyrical relief in the musical score.
To that point, was there any internal debate about the decision to bring back “The Plumber Rap” or “The DK Rap”?
Miyamoto: This is actually something that was decided early on by both the screenplay writer and the director that they wanted in there. And on our part, there was a lot of nostalgia, as we did some of that PR work in New York [to dig
1. Who created Mario Bros?
Shigeru Miyamoto, a legendary video game designer, is credited with creating Mario Bros. He first created the Mario character to be the protagonist of “Donkey Kong,” the 1981 arcade game.
2. What was Mario’s original profession?
Mario was originally a carpenter when he first appeared in “Donkey Kong.” However, four years later, Miyamoto decided to change Mario’s profession to a plumber to better match the green pipes and sewer settings of the “Mario Bros.” franchise.
3. How did Mario get his name?
Workers at Nintendo’s Washington warehouse had started calling the character “Mario” because he resembled the property’s landlord, a man named Mario Segale. Miyamoto heard about the nickname and liked it, so he stuck with it.
4. How many video games has Mario appeared in?
Mario has appeared in over 200 different video game properties, from “Mario Kart” to “Mario Party,” making the company’s large portfolio of Mario-themed games the best-selling video game franchise ever.
5. What is the latest Mario game title?
The latest Mario game title is “Super Mario Odyssey,” released in 2017 for the popular Nintendo Switch, which has sold over 10 million copies.