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.