In 1981, late-twenties Nintendo employee Shigeru Miyamoto was tasked with creating a new game to help recoup losses from unused arcade cabinets. Originally pursuing a license for Popeye at the time, Miyamoto’s vision featured a plucky underdog, an endangered maiden, and a brutish foe. That underdog would grow to become the character we know and love today as Super Mario, the most influential gaming mascot of all time.
With Super Mario Odyssey delighting a whole new generation of players, we take a look back at the twists and turns that the perennial hero has taken over the years – a journey that has seen Mario wear many hats, from doctor to racecar driver, referee to janitor, villain to his latest foray wherein he is accompanied by, most appropriately, a sentient hat. So pull up a chair, grab your favorite flavor of Shasta, and join us as we do the Mario!
Welcome to the arcade
The original plot of Donkey Kong cast Mario in a rather unfavorable light; with the titular Donkey Kong being a mistreated pet who kidnapped his tormentor’s girlfriend out of spite. The player controls the suspender-wearing protagonist, known simply as Jumpman, as he scales a series of obstacle courses in the hopes of rescuing the damsel in distress. Other than Mario’s iconic look, few of the series staples were found in this title. A carpenter by trade at the time, Mario’s primary weapon was a hammer that he could use to smash DK’s barrage of barrels.
Dodging springs, fireballs and even enormous pies, one thing was immediately apparent: this was a man who could jump. Clearly, his early moniker was indicative of this, but they were just scratching the surface of his sheer leaping ability.
The game was a huge success in North America, finally allowing Nintendo to capture a market that had eluded it up to that point. It was followed up with a sequel, Donkey Kong Jr., wherein the great ape’s son had to collect keys in order to thwart the efforts of the villainous Mario and rescue his pop. Needless to say, Mario’s reputation as a do-gooder everyman was not exactly established in these early days.
It wasn’t until 1983’s Mario Bros. that we began to see elements of the character that would become legendary. Along with his younger brother Luigi, Mario scoured the underground of New York, ridding the sewers of pesky turtles and crabs. This marked the first appearance of the iconic green pipes, and established Mario as a plumber. Players had to topple enemies over by hitting them from below before kicking them over, or using a POW block to topple all on-screen foes at once.
Though the title did not hit the lofty success of Donkey Kong, it laid the groundwork for one of the most influential games of all time, and the beginning of Nintendo’s dominance in the home console market.