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'Super Mario' turns 40: Gaming's greatest triumph

July 14 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of "Mario Bros.", the video game that drove a multibillion-dollar industry and cemented the appeal of one of the most iconic pop culture characters in history.

In the early 1980s, Japanese video game company Nintendo set up its American operation in a small warehouse in Washington state.

At one point during the development of the groundbreaking "Donkey Kong" video game, the owner of the warehouse, a man named Mario Segale, came to collect some overdue rent. The mustachioed Italian-American was not too pleased with his tenants during the visit and, according to a now famous story, berated Minoru Arakawa, the head Nintendo of America, in front of the others.

The visit inadvertently provided a moment of profound inspiration. The "Donkey Kong" creators were still looking for a name for their hero character: a recognizably human figure with a remarkable capacity for jumping. Up to then he had been known as "Jumpman" and "Ossan" (a somewhat negative phrase for "middle-aged man" in Japanese). When the landlord left, all agreed that Jumpman should take the landlord's name: Mario.

Mario became so popular that by 1983 he got his own game, alongside his brother, Luigi, in "Mario Bros." It was on July 14, 1983 that the game was first released for public sale in its home country of Japan.

'Super Mario' or — Super Dad?

Since then, "Super Mario" has gone on to be a commercial and cultural phenomenon without equal in the world of gaming. The "Mario" franchise, which includes multiple game titles from "Super Mario" to "Mario Kart," has sold more than 800 million copies, making it by far the bestselling video game franchise of all time.

Its appeal is multigenerational. This year's release of "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" has been a huge commercial success, so far taking in $1.3 billion (€1.1 billion) at the global box office and enjoying the biggest worldwide opening for an animated movie in history.

Jeff Ryan, author of "Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America," said "the multibillion dollar question" is why an apparently Italian plumber with superhuman jumping abilities is so universally beloved.

"There's a theory that Mario is basically your dad," he told DW by telephone from his home in New Jersey. When you're 4 or 5 years old, he said, you think your dad can do anything.

"If your dad changes the light bulb, he's all of a sudden the world's the greatest builder," said Ryan. "And that feeling of your dad as a superhero is what Mario may engender. We have a little feeling of the guy who can do anything when we play Mario, and that's who we become — the guy who can do anything."

Italian plumber was Nintendo's golden goose

The story of "Super Mario" success is essentially the story of Nintendo's success. Its the oldest active video game company in the world, with origins that go all the way back to 1889 when it was a playing card business.

By the 1970s, the company had diversified into electronics and computer games. It was in that decade that Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who ultimately came up with the idea of "Super Mario," joined the company.

"Without Mario, Nintendo would just be another company," said Ryan.

He thinks Nintendo would likely have ended up as one of the much smaller Japanese gaming companies, such as Taito or Bandai. Instead, the franchise's continuing success has allowed Nintendo to remain one of the top gaming companies in the world. In 2022, in terms of gaming revenues, Nintendo was fourth globally behind Sony, Microsoft and Tencent, with revenues of $13.8 billion, according to data collected by Statista.

"Nintendo purposely made Super Mario their Mickey Mouse," said Ryan. "They decided to brand him everywhere so that when you thought of one, you thought of the other."

Mario was such a guarantee of success for Nintendo that they started introducing him to games he wasn't even supposed to be in originally, just to boost their development. For example, the game that became "Mario Kart" started out as an ordinary go-kart game.

"When they decided to add Mario characters, the heads didn't line up, so they gave them all oversized heads," said Ryan. "Now, you don't even think about the fact that they're driving around with giant heads, but they are."

Mario leaves lasting influence on gaming world

The global gaming business is now worth more than $200 billion annually, according to most analyses. The market research firm Fortune Business Insights estimates it could be worth more than $600 billion by 2030.

"Super Mario" has played no small part in that remarkable rise. Ryan said the "Donkey Kong" game, which first introduced Mario, pioneered early video game storytelling. The gameplay "narrative" inherent to many Mario games — helping the plumber navigate an obstacle course — became hugely influential.

That influence continued as the "Mario" games evolved.

"There are over 25 different 'Mario' franchises at this point," said Ryan. "The first 'Mario Kart' game itself, according to the 'Guinness Book of World Records,' is the most influential video game of all time, because there were over 50 comparable cart racing games that came out just in the two years after its release."

As Mario moves on toward middle age, his appeal shows no sign of waning. Ryan believes he is comparable to Mickey Mouse in terms of his influence on pop culture over the last century.

"These are the characters, which more than any others, have succeeded in grabbing the collective zeitgeist."

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