In what’s become one of the more iconic stories from video-game history, everyone’s favorite Italian plumber was almost named “Jumpman.” Minoru Arakawa, the first president of Nintendo of America, had clashed with the company’s landlord over several months of unpaid rent. Recounting the tussle with his colleagues, Arakawa reportedly joked that their irascible landlord bore some resemblance to the protagonist of the company’s latest arcade game, Donkey Kong. So first in office lore, and then in subsequent games, “Jumpman” was rechristened in honor of their landlord’s given name: Mario.
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Mario’s miraculous evolution from office joke to cultural phenomenon has paralleled the development of video games as a creative medium. So it’s worth asking, 30 years after the debut of Super Mario, why and how Mario commands the kind of cultural influence he does. The simplest but least gratifying explanation is simply Mario’s popularity: As of 2015, the character has been featured in more than 116 distinct titles (not counting remakes and re-releases), with over 220 million copies sold. Still, other franchises have sold in similar numbers yet their characters cannot hope to match Mario’s cultural power; sales alone can’t explain Mario’s privileged place in the pantheon of video-game characters.
More important is the immense range of references to Mario in games and other media. When Jonathan Blow designed Braid, his artful deconstruction of the video-game protagonist, he chose Mario—single-minded, hopelessly devoted Mario—as his referent. And though the visual artist Cory Arcangel could have hacked virtually any ‘80s game cartridge, he chose Super Mario Bros. as the basis for his famous image-generator Super Mario Clouds, now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Impressive though these statistics and litany of allusions are, they can at most establish the truth of Mario’s popularity. Pressed to explain “why?,” they fail to yield compelling answers. Why should Mario, an “average Joe” if there ever was one, have achieved greater fame than Donkey Kong, the eponymous antagonist in Mario’s debut? How is it that Mario, whose vocational history (plumbing, carpentry, sanitation, etc.) hardly lends itself to world-saving antics, has established himself as the spokesman for an entire medium?
The “secret” to Mario’s popularity lies in his profound average-ness, which allows him to easily adapt to virtually any context. More than once, I’ve heard Mario referred to as a video-game “Ur-Symbol.” This prefix isn’t idle, and helps explain why Mario first garnered and has maintained such cultural power.
Depending on what etymology you accept, “Ur-” is derived from the Sumerian metropolis of the same name, whose recurrent appearance in Western philosophy testifies to the ancient city’s central role in European myth-making, as well as its tremendous conceptual flexibility. When Hegel laid out his teleology of human civilization, he modeled history as a Western tide that originated in the “Near East” but settled on the shores of Europe—Ur to Rome, in other words. The appeal of Ur, in this sense, lies in its evocation of a primal moment, distant enough to be irrefutable but still capable of relevance in changing cultural contexts.
Paradoxically, the Ur-symbol is both eternal and protean. It can be assigned a variety of traits without losing its distinctness. Its qualities are not internal, but external: It means what we need it to. The most famous manifestation of the Ur-symbol is likely the image of Jesus Christ, which has proved an endlessly adaptable anchor of an imagined spiritual community. In his own way, Mario has become a gaming Ur-symbol: His continued relevance through nearly every major paradigm shift in the medium’s history—arcade to console, two dimensions to three, subcultural hobby to ubiquitous pastime—attests to Mario’s unparalleled ability to remain relevant in an ever more heterogeneous community of players and games.
Consider the cast of recurring characters—Peach, Luigi, Bowser, etc.—that accompany (or antagonize) Mario in games set in the Mushroom Kingdom. Though many have starred in their own titles, the identity of each is typically constructed in terms of their relationship to Mario: Luigi is Mario’s brother, Peach, Mario’s lover, Wario, Mario’s anti-hero, and so on. When we call supporting characters’ own titles spin-offs, we acknowledge that there’s something off which they are spinning: that something is, of course, Mario.
In this sense, social life in the Mushroom Kingdom is centered on and around Mario. By extension, the narratives derived from these relations can never escape Mario’s influence, whether or not he is present. And because of the center-periphery relationship between Mario and his acquaintances, games (WarioWare, Inc., Luigi’s Mansion, etc.) that center on any other character than Mario inevitably have a sense of novelty about them.
It’s no surprise, then, that Mario is nearly always the “default” in games that offer multiple playable characters. On the character selection screen of each iteration of Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros., Mario occupies the first (that is, top left) position in the character grid. Moreover, in games that offer differing stats and abilities for their characters, Mario is nearly always the “standard” character—no particular strengths, but no glaring weaknesses either. When in Mario Kart Toad is labeled as “light” and Bowser as “heavy,” it’s the regulatory presence of oh-so-normal Mario that makes such value judgments possible.
Mario’s cardinal trait is simply his “default-ness.” Other characters are inevitably judged on Mario’s terms, and some of their otherness is simply that they are not Mario. The process of establishing their own identities depends, in part, on making it clear that they are not Mario. At the same time, this opens up tremendous flexibility for Mario in terms of the identities he can assume. Over time, this has enabled Mario to pursue a peripatetic vocational itinerary, changing careers like the rest of us change clothes. When other characters are “marked” by the fact that they are not Mario, then Mario himself may be “marked” in any number of ways—Paper Mario, Dr. Mario, Baby Mario ... the list goes on. Perhaps for that reason, Mario has been able to bear the ideas, dreams, and criticisms of countless designers, writers, and players. Perhaps for that reason, he is gaming’s only Ur-symbol.
This is not, however, to discount the role that Mario’s social normativity—a white, straight, middle-class, salt-of-the-earth working man—has played in establishing his place atop the hierarchy of game characters. It is no coincidence that Mario looks like he could belong to one of the demographics that the game industry has served most closely. Books could be written about how Mario, intentionally or no, has reflected and participated in debates over the political values embedded in games and gaming culture.
If that seems a bit unfair to poor Mario, who was never meant as a political statement (except, perhaps, in his turn as a semi-willing ecological activist in 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine), I am surely sympathetic. Realistically, Mario’s race and gender have more to do with the technical challenges designers faced in the early 1980s than with any conspiratorial marketing ploy. Yet to have a legacy is to outlive one’s best and worst intentions. This is the nature of symbols, especially Ur-symbols, which are defined by their capacity to outlive and transcend their “originary” meanings. How else can something so “old” perpetually seem so “new”?
The point isn’t that games need a spokesperson who represents the diversity of the gaming populace (such a spokesperson would surely be impossible), or that Nintendo should be shamed for decisions made so long so, back when the company could barely pay its rent. Rather, it’s that if we have accepted Mario as the putative social and formal center of gaming’s most iconic franchise, then we players also inhabit his periphery at least as much as Nintendo’s other characters do. Our “otherness” is simply that we are not Mario.
As players, writers, and fans we all have our claim to him, at least as much as he has a claim on us (just as Jesus, or even Ur, may still matter for those who believe they do). What we know and say about Mario is a measure of what we know of the “other” in ourselves. The diversity of ideas that emerge from Mario speak to our desire to make meanings of his image, eternal and protean, like that mythic capital of an imagined past. To Ur, of course, is human.
Hegel thought as much with his notion of “Urteil,” a concentration of meanings bound within an object that may be teased out over time. These meanings, though, exist sui generis: It is the beholder’s job to reveal them, like Michelangelo seeing his angels trapped in marble. Yet Hegel, in some ways, misstates the truth: The meanings have always been our own. The myth of Ur was always already an image of something lost, mediated not only by the passing of time but by the changing needs of its beholders. Myth, then and now, needs to be animated to be meaningful. Meaning, in other words, needs a player. Mario means nothing until he’s in our hands, wielded and wound up through controllers and keyboards. He’s any man, he’s every man; he’s no man at all.