From humble beginnings to global sensation: The origin story of Nintendo's Mario

From humble beginnings to global sensation: The origin story of Nintendo's Mario

From a little-known character named Jumpman to a global icon, here’s how Mario became everyone’s favourite Italian plumber

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Mario is one of the most famous faces in gaming.

Thirty-eight years ago, Japanese artist Shigeru Miyamoto brought to life one of gaming’s most enduring heroes. His name? Mario. 

The mustachioed Italian became one of the most recognisable characters on earth, spawning his own video games, cartoon series and even an atrocious movie.

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Not only is he the face of Nintendo, he also features in more than 100 different games. How did this humble plumber rise to such heights? Let’s take a look at his origin story and many achievements.

Humble beginnings

It all began in the 1980s, when struggling toy and card company Nintendo was trying to break into the gaming scene. One of their first games, Radar Scope, barely sold, and the company needed to fill arcade cabinets as soon as possible.

Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi approached Miyamoto for help designing a new game. Miyamoto wasn’t a programmer; he had only ever worked on the artwork for games. Because of this, he had an unconventional approach to designing the new game, starting with the backstory first, rather than the gameplay.

One of Nintendo’s early consoles, the Nintendo Entertainment System, with three different Mario games.

In 1981, Mario made his debut in Donkey Kong, as a man trying to save his girlfriend from his pet gorilla. His name was initially Jumpman, and his job was to climb up ladders and avoid barrels while jumping from platform to platform.

Donkey Kong came to define this genre of game, known as a platformer. It was very different from most major video games at that time, and quickly became a hit, especially in the US. Jumpman was renamed Mario, after the landlord of the Nintendo warehouse headquarters. 

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Two years later, Mario Bros. hit arcades. It also made its way into gamers’ homes through the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Miyamoto even gave Mario a trusty sidekick: his brother, Luigi. The game saw the pair battle to defeat pesky turtles in the sewers of New York. The future of the Mario Brothers was clear to Nintendo in 1983: Mario was a huge success and would indefinitely become the face of the company. 

An instant classic

As popular as these early Mario releases were, the best was yet to come. In 1985, Nintendo launched the now-iconic Super Mario Brothers. It became an instant classic, beating all of its predecessors in sales, while its music and stage layout is one of the most recognisable of any video game.

While keeping the platformer model, developers also added power-ups; Mario could grow bigger if he ate a mushroom, or shoot fireballs with a flower. First released on the NES, then on the Gameboy, you can now even play the game on your Nintendo Switch, proving just how much staying power it has.

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In 1988, Super Mario Bros 3 was launched on the NES in Japan. Fans had been disappointed with Super Mario 2, which hadn’t improved much on the original game, but the third instalment made up for this by introducing new features like the world map, and new power-ups like the Super Leaf, which transforms Mario into a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) and enables him to fly. This game is considered  by many to be one of the greatest games of  all time. 

New generations

The launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990 brought with it a new Mario game, which was intended to showcase the updated features of the new system.

Mario's rideable dinosaur sidekick, Yoshi.

Super Mario World added new layers of complexity to gameplay, with different ways of solving each level. It also introduced players to Mario’s new dinosaur sidekick, Yoshi. It was another home run for Nintendo, with Super Mario World becoming the company’s biggest game to date.

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The mid-90s brought with it a new generation of gaming. Super Mario 64, released on the Nintendo 64 (N64) in 1995, was one of the first games to use 3D graphics, changing the way Mario moved and fought from linear side scrolling to a roaming experience. Levels offered side tasks and different routes and ways to complete the game. The game was revolutionary, and would pave the way for games like Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii and Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch. 

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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