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More Than a Mustache: The Many Lives of Mario, Video Games’ Most Malleable Mascot

He’s been a plumber, a doctor, a painter, a golfer, and a chair umpire for tennis matches. While wearing all those hats, he’s also become the most iconic video character of all time. That’s not a coincidence.

Ringer illustration

This weekend marks the 35th anniversary since our favorite overall-wearing, mustachioed plumber ingested his first mushroom in Super Mario Bros. To mark the occasion, Nintendo is releasing new games and holding events in the coming weeks. The Ringer is also celebrating, looking back at the legacy of the most iconic video game character of all time, both in games and his forays into film and television. So jump down the pipe and warp to the Mushroom Kingdom with us.

After almost 40 years and hundreds of starring or supporting roles in video games, what do we really know about Mario, Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot? When we met him, in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong, he was a carpenter. Then he became a plumber, subsequently stopped plumbing, and later became a plumber again. Widely believed to be a middle-aged man, Mario is actually in his mid-20s. When he speaks, his vocabulary is barely above Pokémon level; in his most famous phrase, he reminds us that he’s Mario. For years, he had no official surname, and when one was finally confirmed, it was the least revealing last name imaginable: Mario.

Mario Mario rescues Princess Peach and battles Bowser, but only sometimes; he jumps, but not always; he wears blue overalls and a red shirt, except when he doesn’t. It’s impossible to describe Mario without sounding like the stoners describing Preston in Can’t Hardly Wait: He’s Mario, you know? No wonder fans freak out every time a new tidbit about Mario emerges. In 2017, the internet went wild when it learned that Mario has nipples. Yet in 2020, new Nintendo art indicated that Mario may not have nipples after all. The Mario mystery deepens.

Mario’s mustache is perhaps his only immutable quality, the feature that would be most missed if it were to disappear. Like almost all of Mario’s identifying features, the mustache was almost accidental, more a solution to a problem than a predetermined trait. Mario has a mustache because mouths were more difficult to depict on a 16x16 pixel grid. He has overalls because the contrast in colors made it easier to tell that his arms were moving in three frames of animation, and he has a hat so that his hair wouldn’t have to move. He jumps because the arcade cabinet for which Donkey Kong was designed had a spare button. “The entire design was a case of form being dictated by function,” former Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata once said.

Mario exists at all because the character’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, failed to license the rights to Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl. The character’s name morphed from “Jumpman” to Mario because Nintendo of America happened to have a landlord named Mario Segale. He became a carpenter because he had overalls and because Donkey Kong was set on a construction site, and he switched to plumbing both because he kind of looked like a plumber and because the new occupation suited the setting of his 1983 spinoff from Donkey Kong. As Miyamoto told USA Today in 2010, “With Mario Bros. we had a setting of course that was underground, so I just decided Mario is a plumber. Let’s put him in New York and he can be Italian. There was really no other deep thought other than that.”

It might seem as if Mario has thrived in spite of Nintendo’s apparent lack of a plan for its loosely conceived character. But refusing to stick to a strictly defined roadmap for Mario is the company’s plan, and it’s made Mario the medium’s best-known and best-selling character. Like fellow white-gloved mascot Mickey Mouse, whom Mario famously surpassed in popularity among American kids in 1990—and whose cultural hegemony Miyamoto still seems determined to topple—Mario is amorphous. His lack of specificity makes him the most malleable mascot and the most versatile video game character, capable of adapting to different decades and genres: racers, RPGs, puzzle games, party games, sports games. Although Mario made his mark by inventing and repeatedly reinventing the platformer, from the arcade to consoles to portable platforms and from blocky 2D to polygonal paradises, the character’s legacy has been burnished by his contributions to franchises whose play styles bear little resemblance to the Super Mario series that started 35 years ago. Mario broke out because he could leap between platforms and hop on heads, but he stayed popular in large part because he could do anything.

Nintendo will mark the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. not only by releasing a trio of remastered platformers as Super Mario 3D All-Stars, but also by unveiling an augmented reality take on Mario Kart called Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit and a battle royale version of Super Mario Bros. called Super Mario Bros. 35. As much as classics like Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, or Super Mario Galaxy, those new releases epitomize Mario’s capacity to shift shapes and take advantage of the latest trends and technology. He’s a mascot of many hats, both figuratively and literally. As Miyamoto said in 2010, “he’s a familiar character, but he is also fresh because he is always doing new things based on what the technology allows him to do.” Like a gas, he expands to fill whatever container Nintendo tries to stick him inside.

Mario began to branch out before Super Mario Bros. In 1984, he appeared as a chair umpire in Tennis, a slapshot artist in Donkey Kong Hockey, an unnamed golfer in Golf, and a platform-toting bonus character in Pinball. The next year, just before the release of Super Mario Bros., he and Luigi graced Wrecking Crew, a puzzler in which a sleeveless, hard-hat-wearing Mario couldn’t jump because he was carrying a heavy hammer. In 1987, Mario waved on cars in Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race and watched fights from the audience in the arcade version of Punch-Out!! before becoming the in-ring referee in the NES version (without prior permission). “It might be easier to list the Nintendo games of that time into which Mario was not shoehorned,” Jeff Ryan wrote in Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America.

Miyamoto had originally intended for Mario to make cameos in all of his games, à la Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his own movies. Early on, though, the character outgrew games developed directly by Miyamoto and popped up in projects led by different divisions (like Wrecking Crew). As Miyamoto admitted in a 2005 interview, Nintendo intentionally refrained from defining Mario clearly so as not to limit what the character could be. In 2010, Miyamoto told USA Today, “The scenario dictates his role.” Mario’s broad recognizability mattered more than the details of any one game: “Mario is someone who has become very familiar,” Miyamoto continued, adding that “people are comfortable with becoming Mario.”

Not long after Super Mario Bros., Mario’s role expanded to include helming Mario-branded games that had nothing to do with what a consultant might call his core competency. In 1990, Mario lent his likeness and name to the Tetris-inspired Dr. Mario, the first of several franchise-starting spinoffs starring Mario. In 1992, he headlined Super Mario Kart and the innovative forebear of Super Mario Maker, Mario Paint. In 1995, he appeared in Mario’s Tennis for the short-lived Virtual Boy, the first explicitly Mario-branded sports game, which spawned several successful Mario-fronted tennis games on other consoles. The next year, he transitioned smoothly to Super Mario RPG for the Super NES, which gave rise to spiritual sequels in the Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series. In 1998, he anchored Mario Party for the Nintendo 64 (up to 10 sequels and counting). The next year, he graced Mario Golf for the N64 and Game Boy Color.

Each of those spinoffs started a storied series in its own right, and even less hallowed outings like Mario vs. Donkey Kong, Super Mario Strikers, and Mario Superstar Baseball enjoyed moderate critical acclaim, fan devotion, and sales success. Mario’s many platformers made his reputation and helped advance video games beyond their rudimentary origins. Take those tentpoles away, though, and Mario might still be the medium’s most successful character.

The hallmarks of the Mushroom Kingdom were essential to some of those spinoff series’ appeal: Mario may not have a pronounced personality, but he does belong to a lineage of games with distinctive designs and memorable musical cues, the bequest of Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. In other cases, Mario was more of a Trojan mascot whose aura raised the profile of a game that probably would have worked without him. “Nintendo doesn’t make good Mario games; it makes games and makes the best ones Mario games,” Ryan says via email.

At times, Mario’s presence is mostly cosmetic: In Dr. Mario, for instance, he simply poses at the side of the screen and tosses colored capsules that the player positions to eliminate matching viruses. On other occasions, he waltzes into a partially completed project and gets to take the credit, as in Super Mario Kart, which was not originally envisioned as a Mario-flavored game. Ryan compares him to a baseball player who could consistently sub in after another batter works the count in their favor. “Mario is that character: his stats insanely yoked to represent the best of the Nintendo style of gameplay,” Ryan says.

That extra playing time comes at a cost to Nintendo’s other iconic characters, including Link, Samus, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Fox McCloud. As Mario makes more and more plate appearances, those characters ride the pine, often restricted to one or two titles per console generation, if that. (Console gamers miss Metroid.) Thus, they’re not nearly as ubiquitous, and outside the stages of Super Smash Bros., they’re largely limited to one genre. The deck is stacked in favor of Mario (who has his own card game, of course), but he’s also earned those extra opportunities by being the most multitalented, relatable, and compatible character. He’s the video-game-character equivalent of type-O blood.

That’s not to say that there’s never been a Mario misfire; gaming’s most prolific character was bound to have his share of duds. With the console wars raging, Sega gaining market share, and Sonic ascendant, Mario was overextended somewhat in the early-to-mid-1990s, appearing in less-than-stellar licensed outings like educational games Mario Teaches Typing, Mario Is Missing!, and Mario’s Time Machine, puzzlers Yoshi’s Cookie and Hotel Mario, and the regrettable Mario’s Game Gallery, as well as the Nintendo-developed Yoshi’s Safari, the lone Mario franchise first-person shooter. That spree of ill-conceived, ill-received, and mostly mediocre Mario spinoffs coincided with one of the longest gaps between mainline Super Mario console games, as Miyamoto steered the series into the third dimension.

“What almost anyone else would have done—what Sonic, Alex Kidd, Gex, ToeJam and Earl, the Battletoads, etc., all actually tried to do—was to be cool,” Ryan says. “To be the aspirational edgy character that makes Simpsons fans start saying ‘Poochie.’” For the most part, Nintendo didn’t try to keep up with what was cool. Instead, it tried to be timeless. With the sole exception of 1982’s arcade sequel to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario has never made a heel turn. (That’s what Wario is for.) In all of his various guises, he remained resolutely inoffensive and family friendly. “Most every other gaming hero that’s come since has had the burden of creating a personality for its star,” Ryan wrote in Super Mario. “Crash is silly, Sonic is snarky, Jak is stoic. Mario has the freedom to have no personality at all.” That “bland persona,” Ryan continued, “is part of his appeal: He’s a one-size-fits-all hero.”

Although Nintendo’s traditional lack of third-party software support for its platforms has contributed to its reputation for being overprotective and insular, Nintendo has welcomed other companies’ contributions to the Mario library. As Ryan notes, Iwata went to Nintendo from HAL Laboratory, Inc., a second-party developer partnered with Nintendo; while at Nintendo, Ryan says, Iwata “worked to bring more companies into the fold.” Mario’s second-party stable includes Intelligent Systems, the brains behind Paper Mario; Next Level Games (makers of Mario Strikers); and Camelot Software Planning, makers of Mario Tennis and Golf. (Ironically, Camelot was founded in 1990 as a division of Sega.) Mario Party was created by Hudson Soft and continues under the care of Nintendo-owned developer NDCube, which was formed by former Hudson Soft employees. Nintendo only rarely allows Mario to moonlight on non-Nintendo devices, but the fresh blood that the company has recruited to develop for its own systems has been crucial to the character’s continued vitality. Farming out the character could have been disastrous, but it became one of the keys to staving off staleness in Mario’s middle age.

Despite sporadic lapses in quality control—sometimes attributable to outside developers—Mario has proved immune to overexposure. According to the Q Scores Company, Mario’s level of familiarity among Americans aged 6 and up has increased steadily from 60 percent in 1996 (when the company’s digitized database begins) to 72 percent as of this spring. His Q Score, or likability, has consistently hovered around 30 percent, meaning that roughly 30 percent of people familiar with Mario have rated him as one of their favorite characters. At present, he’s the most popular video game character, and his familiarity score trails only Sonic’s (which was probably boosted by the February release of the surprisingly decent Sonic the Hedgehog movie, which earned upward of $300 million worldwide, more than enough for a sequel).

Highest Q Scores Among Video Game Characters

Character Familiarity Q Score
Character Familiarity Q Score
Mario 72 30
Pac-Man 72 28
Link 36 27
Master Chief 16 27
Luigi 60 26
Yoshi 52 26
Sonic the Hedgehog 75 24
Donkey Kong 65 23
Pikachu 58 23
Toad 34 22
Crash Bandicoot 25 22
Batman (video games) 61 18
Talking Tom 34 15

That leaderboard is littered with Nintendo characters, including several Mushroom Kingdom characters who rode Mario’s raccoon tail to success. (In addition to his own enduring appeal, Mario helps his teammates’ stat lines, like a video game Gretzky or LeBron.) Decades-old Nintendo creations have had time to imprint themselves on the national psyche, but they’ve also had time to fall out of favor. Mario has avoided that fate, even as upstarts like Crash have seen their fortunes fall. (Although the long-dormant character has recently been revived, Crash’s familiarity percentage and Q Score have fallen from 33 and 24 to 25 and 22, respectively, since 2010, when the franchise was probably already past its peak popularity.) Mario’s relative household-name status has lifted the velvet rope that typically keeps characters confined to their own franchises, allowing him to cross over into many Nintendo and non-Nintendo games via cameos, references, and full-fledged games like Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and the once-inconceivable Mario & Sonic sports series.

Although Mario is the industry leader among video game characters, his fame can’t quite compete with the mainstream appeal of the top non-video-game-characters, listed below along with their 2020 Q Scores in their respective categories.

Mario’s Q Score Compared to Non-Video Game Characters

Character Familiar Q Score
Character Familiar Q Score
M&M’s Candy Characters 77 36
Scooby-Doo (cartoons) 76 36
Charlie Brown 78 33
Mickey Mouse 88 32
Mario 72 30
Miss Piggy 76 29
Spider-Man (movies) 80 28
Donald Duck 84 27
The Geico Gecko 79 24

The Q Scores Company reserves its breakdowns by age for its clients, but among Americans of all ages, Mickey Mouse has a large lead on Mario. Then again, Mickey had a head start of more than half a century. And Nintendo is aiming for even more mainstream success via a new Mario movie slated for 2022 and the Super Nintendo World theme parks, the first of which will open (potentially next year) in Osaka, with plans for future expansions to California and Florida.

Although Mario has annexed almost every video game genre, he hasn’t yet demonstrated much staying power in scripted entertainment: 1993’s Super Mario Bros. was the first movie based on a video game, but neither that nor the trio of animated Mario TV shows that preceded it gained the character a sustained foothold on the big or small screens. Maybe Mario’s nebulous personality holds him back as a leading man when the audience isn’t telling him where to go and what to do. If so, though, his continued cachet among gamers is a testament to Nintendo’s designers, as well as the work of the outside developers who’ve helped Mario evolve. Mario may be bland, but his best games are anything but: They’re bursting with inventiveness and an endearing, quirky charm.

It’s easy to imagine a world in which Mario ran out of extra lives long ago. Like a seasoned speedrunner, the character benefited from perfect timing. “Five years earlier he’d be a 4-bit Atari character and resemble a Tetris screw-up,” Ryan says. “There’d be no on-screen ‘character’ per se that carried over, just rectangles trying very, very hard to be bipedal. Five years later and someone else would have decided to ‘brand’ a series of unrelated 8/16-bit video games with the same character. And the graphics would allow for recognizable characters, but there’d be no goodwill carried over from a beloved character/game to another. You can’t wave a ‘franchise’ wand over a character.”

Not over most characters, at least. Other mascots, from Sonic to Crash to Diddy Kong, have copied Mario’s move to racing games, and Sonic (who’s about to turn 30) has shamelessly chased the Mario franchise’s shadow. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is Sonic’s Mario Kart equivalent, Sega Superstars Tennis is his Mario Tennis, and Sonic Chronicles is his Super Mario RPG. Those games were well received, but they didn’t really launch lasting franchises in the way that their Mario predecessors did. Mario has the magic touch. According to the character’s updated 2018 bio, “he can do it all and look cool doing it.”

Whether he looks cool is questionable, but there’s no denying that Mario, more than any other video character, caters to every taste. No matter what type of game a person prefers, there’s a cap for that somewhere in Mario’s massive millinery shop. His diversified portfolio makes him a mascot for all seasons who will likely outlast his creator. “When we create games, the gamer really is the main character,” Miyamoto said in 2010. “In that regard it may not really matter who the main character is onscreen.” It has to be someone, though, and for almost 40 years, Nintendo has decided over and over again that it might as well be Mario. The company has rarely regretted it.