Super Mario Bros. is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. For people of a certain age, Mario and Luigi are better known than old-school cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. But the interesting thing about Mario is that he didn’t just jump out of a pipe one day. Mario evolved through a series of fortuitous accidents. Let’s take a look at what happened.
Popeye to Jumpman
It started with Popeye the Sailor Man. Or rather, without him. Back in the Golden Age of Arcade Games, an upstart Nintendo wanted to create a game based on the famous comic strip “Popeye”. But licensing agreements turned out to be more difficult than they thought, and they had to invent new characters for the game. Hence Bluto, the burly bad guy, became Donkey Kong while and Popeye became a nondescript hero known as Jumpman.
Jumpman to Mario
Video games in the early 1980s had very crude graphics, so early games favored function over form. (After all, Pac Man is just a yellow circle with a wedge-shaped mouth.) For a human character such as Jumpman, it was hard to animate hair, so they gave him a hat. It was hard to do a realistic mouth, so he got a bushy mustache. And it was difficult to distinguish his arms from his torso, so he got overalls. This was the character sent from Japan to America. The American developers in Seattle thought that Jumpman looked a lot like their office landlord, an Italian American named Mario Segale. Soon the name Mario stuck, and a modern icon was born.
Mario to Luigi
Nintendo wanted to make a two-player game, but their was no room in the code to animate a second character. So instead they simply did a palette-swap, changing Jumpman/Mario’s red clothes to green. The American developers, after making Jumpman Italian, realized that his brother needed an Italian name as well. So they named him after a local Italian restaurant, creating the perennial sidekick known as Luigi.
Mario vs Luigi
Luigi was originally just a green version of Mario, but he soon became a character in his own right. Once again, the change came from another franchise, a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic. This game featured a family of four wandering around the desert. Nintendo adapted it into Super Mario Bros. 2 for the American market. This adaptation mostly involved changing the graphics to show the existing Super Mario Bros. characters. But unlike the early Mario games, the Doki Doki Panic characters had different looks and different abilities. This meant that the adapted Luigi character was taller than the adapted Mario. And the adapted Luigi had different abilities, jumping higher but landing less exactly. These traits were soon integrated into his character, and ever since, Mario and Luigi have been different characters, not just the same Jumpman in different clothes.
With dozens of video games over four decades, spin-off cartoons and toys and a horrid movie adaptation, the Mario series is steeped in mythology. But a lot of it comes back to the basic technology. If it weren’t for a few fortunate accidents over the years, Mario and Luigi wouldn’t even exist.