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Super Mario: Nintendo’s decades of star power

Apr 05,2023 - Last updated at Apr 05,2023

A Mario figurine is displayed during Madrid Games Week 2015 in Madrid, Spain (AFP photo by Sebastien Berda)


PARIS — Hollywood is having its second bash at sprinkling some movie magic on the “Super Mario Bros” video game franchise, three decades after the last attempt.

The pint-sized plumber from Japanese game maker Nintendo has enjoyed 40 years of extraordinary popularity that has transformed the character into a truly global icon.


The saviour


Nintendo owes a lot to its moustachioed hero, created by a young game designer called Shigeru Miyamoto initially as the protagonist in the “Donkey Kong” arcade game 1981.

The firm had been struggling to crack the North American market and, according to some accounts, was on the verge of financial ruin.

With Kong, the Japanese studio finally succeeded in the United States — and invented the platform video game along the way.

The hero was known as “Jumpman” until 1983 when he was given the name “Mario”.

Miyamoto then let him loose in his own “Super Mario Bros” game in 1985, where he was finally renamed “Super Mario”.


Gaming icon


The main Super Mario games have since shifted more than 400 million units.

And that does not account for wildly popular spinoffs like “Mario Kart” and “Mario Odyssey” or “Mario Golf” and “Mario Tennis”.

Mario’s stratospheric success helped propel Nintendo to the pinnacle of the gaming world.

Game designers have built a Mario universe with characters including his green-clad brother Luigi, turtle-demon nemesis Bowser and friendly dragon-like sidekick Yoshi.

The franchise has thrived through transitions from 2D to 3D and from consoles to smartphones with “Super Mario Run” and “Mario Kart Tour”.

And retro-gamers are still willing to pay big bucks for a slice of its history.

A sealed Nintendo 64 cartridge of “Super Mario” sold for $1.56 million in 2021, a record for a video game, according to Heritage Auctions in the US. 

“He is a pop culture icon known to everyone, young and old,” Morihiro Shigihara, a writer and former arcade manager, told AFP. 

“The only other video game character with a claim to be more famous is Pikachu,” he said, referencing the hero from the Pokemon franchise.


Global statesman


Japan’s late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not known for his comic flair. 

So he surprised the world by rocking up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio — the official handover ceremony for Tokyo 2020 — dressed as Mario.

“I wanted to show Japan’s soft power to the world with the help of Japanese characters,” he told reporters afterwards.

“I wasn’t sure how the audience would react. But I received so many cheers.”

Mario was given perhaps an even stranger tribute by the authorities in the Spanish city of Zaragoza in 2010 when they named a new street Super Mario Bros Avenue. 

Though it is just around the corner from streets named after Space Invaders and Tetris.


Real-world empire


Nowadays, movie adaptations of video games are everywhere. Some, like “Resident Evil” and “Tomb Raider”, have become bankable franchises.

But Super Mario was there first with the 1993 movie “Super Mario Bros” starring Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper.

But it bombed. Critics and audiences hated it.

Nevertheless, the wider Mario universe has expanded undeterred with the genial working-class hero getting toy tie-ins with Lego, watches made by Tag Heuer, and a backpack range from Eastpak.

“Mario” theme parks are also popping up — first in Osaka in 2021, then Los Angeles last year, and a planned third “Super Mario World” in Florida.

One of the attractions being considered is the ultimate tie-in, where the real world and Mario world finally meet — an augmented reality “Mario Kart” race around Bowser’s castle.

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