You know something is a true global pop culture phenomenon when a world leader is willing to embrace fancy dress for it.
And so it was when the Rio Olympics came to a close this weekend, and the handover for Tokyo 2020 was signalled by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appearing in the stadium dressed as lovable video game mascot Mario – transported there via warp pipe no less:
— junya犬ラブユナイテッド (@junyaganba) August 22, 2016
Around the same time, a real-life Mario level made for someone’s hamster was quietly going viral:
It’s fair to say that Nintendo’s plucky mustachioed plumber has won countless hearts through his antics in video games, and beyond, over the past 35 years.
Here’s a short, potted history of Super Mario from his inception through to the present day.
Mario’s original appearance in the video game world actually came under a slightly different guise – as the imaginatively named ‘Jumpman’ in iconic Japanese arcade title Donkey Kong.
Released back in 1981, Donkey Kong saw Jumpman tasked with rescuing his girlfriend Pauline from the clutches of the titular beast, by scaling networks of ladders and platforms, and avoiding thrown barrels and other hazards on his journey to the top of each level.
Creator Shigeru Miyamoto cast Jumpman as a blue-collar worker – though of a different profession to the one he’s famous for today.
In Donkey Kong Mario was modelled as a carpenter. As the environments were supposed to be construction sites, Miyamoto felt it appropriate.
A more familiar Mario, complete with that famous moniker for the first time, then turned up in Mario Bros in 1983, alongside his brother Luigi.
Here, the siblings battled enemies including turtles (who would later evolve into the ever-present ‘Koopas’) in the sewers beneath New York.
This was the point at which key attributes were cemented. Mario was a short, plump Italian-American plumber, he had a big problem with shell-backed creatures, and pipes would forever be an integral part of his existence.
In 1985, Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System emerged as one of the most influential releases in gaming history. Rather than being confined to a limited single-screen display, Mario now hopped and dodged his way through exciting, fully-realised side-scrolling levels.
It set the template for 2D platforming experiences ever since. From collecting coins to gain an extra life, to cool power-ups and different themed worlds, it felt like a fantastic revelation at the time.
This initial adventure to save the Princess from the nefarious clutches of giant turtle creature Bowser was followed by two late ’80s sequels, which – together with Mario’s debut appearance on the suddenly ubiquitous Game Boy device – helped popularise him even further.
A pop culture phenomenon
By the time Super Mario World leaped onto the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the early ’90s Mario was a bona fide poster boy for Nintendo as a gaming giant.
Sales were in the millions. Children the world over – and their parents – now saw him as a badge of colourful quality.
So desperate were Nintendo’s rivals SEGA to have their own answer to the lovable gaming icon, that they conjured up a cooler, edgier alternative in the shape of Sonic The Hedgehog for their Mega Drive console.
A high-profile ‘console war’ erupted that made headlines in mainstream news coverage, as well as sending playgrounds everywhere into a frenzy of angry debate.
The level of this boom was epitomised by Hollywood’s ill-fated decision to move in on the character, resulting in live-action disaster Super Mario Bros in 1993.
The big-budget movie starred Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper and featured a bizarre, nonsensical plot. It bombed at the box office.
Head-scratchingly strange and laughably surreal, it’s best looked back at as a morbid, misguided curiosity; a gleaming example of what happens when a character’s fame is appropriated by people with no understanding of what made them great in the first place (and a sorry template for pretty much every video game movie since).
Just as Mario had once pioneered platforming on the 2D plane, when the N64 console launched in 1996 Miyamoto and his forward-thinking team embraced three dimensions in the shape of Super Mario 64; creating arguably the first – and certainly one of the best – 3D platformers in existence.
Guiding Mario around action-packed, dynamic and (for the time) luscious open environments with a camera following behind was a joyous feeling, and one that cemented Mario’s status as a true trailblazer as well as a reassuring founding father of modern gaming.
Imitation is of course the sincerest form of flattery, so soon the likes of Spyro The Dragon and Crash Bandicoot were vying to create 3D platforming icons on the Sony PlayStation, while another memorable N64 great, Banjo-Kazooie, would follow in Super Mario 64’s illustrious footsteps in 1998.
Back to his roots
Though Mario would continue to soar through the expansive possibilities of 3D in Super Mario Galaxy, Sunshine and 3D World/Land, over the ten years or so the elder statesmen of video game heroics has simultaneously revisited his roots in a number of modern, yet retro-flavoured experiences.
The New Super Mario Bros series on the hugely successful DS handheld devices, and more recently the Wii U console, have returned the perennially-leaping plumber to the side-scrolling sphere.
And Super Mario Maker, released on Wii U last year, formed a nostalgic love-letter to the series’ past – allowing players the ability to craft ingenious and diverse levels based on several of the most iconic Super Mario games from the days of yore.
It combined whimsical adoration for classic Mario with the creative, individual freedom and possibilities popularised by the likes of Minecraft.
It seems inevitable that the character will continue to be a major figure in both video games specifically, and pop culture at large.
His seamless and rare knack for stirring heartwarming nostalgia, while also consistently moving and evolving with the times, has made Mario a much-loved creation the world over.
We can’t wait to see real-life Mario Kart in the 2020 games when they come to Tokyo. Make it happen, Nintendo.