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Mario Is Living the American Dream

How a humble plumber taught us to love video games — and to never give up on the princess

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on. The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

He’s working class — people forget that. A humble, cheerful plumber. Each morning he slips on his uniform (blue overalls, red shirt, work boots, white gloves, tastefully branded red hat) and assembles the modest tools of his trade (various mushrooms, Tanooki Suit, Cape Feather, Fire Flower, Super Star, P-Wing) and sets workmanlike to the thankless, mundane, quietly noble task of Saving The Princess. He does this not for any self-serving or prurient reason — if he and Princess Toadstool have a sex thing going, keep me out of it — but because it’s the right thing to do.

It’s also, of course, a blast. “WOO-HOO!” he yells, among many other infectiously delightful exclamations, stomping on a goomba or a turtle shell or a giant bullet or whatever. He often fights right alongside his brother, who is taller and prefers a green ensemble and jumps higher and scares easier. And when the working day is done, they and their various buddies engage in a wide variety of healthy leisure activities, including golf, cart-racing, tennis, painting, pinball, party games, and music composition. He is also, on occasion, a doctor.

You should enjoy what you do. You should do it with the people you love. It is the American (and Italian, and Japanese) Dream.

He first surfaced in 1981, in the arcade classic Donkey Kong, as a carpenter named Jumpman. (No relation.) But even as a squat, mute, barrel-jumping li’l sprite, the charisma was obvious. His creator: video-game demigod Shigeru Miyamoto, who’d started out with Popeye in mind until certain legal realities intruded. As author Blake J. Harris put it in his 2014 book Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation, “Who would possibly want to play a game where a tiny red plumber [sic] must rescue his beloved princess by hopping over obstacles tossed in his way by an obese gorilla?” Millions of people, Blake. Relax.

He played the ape-imprisoning villain in 1982’s Donkey Kong Jr., a brief dalliance with evil that he deeply regrets now, and for which we have forgiven him; he first teamed up with his brother, Luigi, in 1983’s grim sewer fantasia Mario Bros. But it was 1985’s Super Mario Bros., which served as the U.S. flagship for the eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, that launched him skyward, heavenward. Thanks to composer Koji Kondo, he had, with apologies to the gang over at Cheers, the best theme song of the ’80s — infectious, upbeat, endlessly mutable. And it soundtracked the richest, strangest, most enveloping video-game universe the world had ever seen, a full bestiary of whimsical foes skulking deep underground and high in the Seussian trees, from fireball-twirling castle dungeons to the ragtime-kissed turquoise sea.

By 1987, he was less a household name than an indelible part of your household — more than 40 million copies of the original SMB sold overall. Video games had boasted “characters” and “narratives” before, but never an architecture this huge, or this loopy, or this enduring. He was the world’s first virtual superstar, and his leaping powers — boing boing boing boing — were yours to command. “Each board had so many hidden coins and power-ups, so many enemies and dangers, so many secrets!” wrote Jeff Ryan in his 2011 book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America. “This wasn’t a simulation; it was a world to get lost in, as replayable as a favorite book or movie or album.”

In the years to come he’d command worlds, and then whole galaxies; as franchises go, he is the Ray Kroc of plumbing, his expanded kingdom an infinite Russian novel, a Marvel Universe all his own. His rise predates the tired “Are Video Games Art?” debate, which too often equates darkness with profundity, endless cutscenes with storytelling depth, antiheroes for heroes. We got it right the first time. No one doesn’t enjoy playing a Mario game — any of ’em, for any system, in any context. He was portrayed in live-action by Captain Lou Albano (on TV) and Bob Hoskins (in a movie you should avoid), which is the highest honor a video-game character can receive. This commercial made me tear up when I was 9. He has inspired far less fan fiction than his onetime rival, Sonic the Hedgehog, but that’s because his story is already complete. He is simple. He is perfect.

And that’s in part because he’s so unknowable. The environment has always loomed larger than the man, which only further underscores his honor and selflessness, his refusal to muddy the waters of his kingdom with complex, unnecessary motivations beyond “wants to save the princess” or dialogue beyond “It’s-a me, Mario!” The most famous lines in Mario lore are spoken not by him, but to him: “Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” It’s a disappointment he accepts stoically, not to mention heroically, pressing onward to new heights, new depths, new castles. He knows that the American (Italian Japanese) Dream is an action, not a place; a pursuit, not a reward. His work is our greatest, most communal pleasure.