August 01, 2011
Like most people my age, I spent a significant portion of my childhood pretending to be a Italian plumber. You see, we were the Nintendo generation, and regardless of what games you ended up getting later on, you had to find every warp pipe and explore all the secret worlds of Super Mario Bros. first.
You see, we were the Nintendo generation, and regardless of what games you ended up getting later on, you had to find every warp pipe and explore all the secret worlds of Super Mario Bros. first. You had to squash every Goomba, bop every Koopa Troopa, and battle with Bowser. And you probably did it twice. You probably did it twenty times. And, if you had three older brothers like I did, you watched them do it, too—seeing who could get the best times and collect the most coins. We spent a lot of hours silhouetted against a television screen, running right, following Mario and and his brother Luigi.
So it was with great pleasure that I picked up Jeff Ryan's new book. In it, he tells the story of the company Mario acted as such a fine ambassador for in Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America.
And with that kind of success comes a lot of cultural capital, as well.
"Super Mario" has become the default nickname for any Mario. Formula One champion Mario Andretti (born in 1940) sometimes gets asked if he's named after Super Mario. (He says he is, to the delight of the seven-year-olds who ask.) Chef Mario Batali is called Super Mario as well. If you're good at a professional sport, and your name is Mario, you know what your nickname will be. Just ask hockey's Mario Lemieux, football's Mario Williams, ultimate fighting's Mario Miranda, cycling's Mario Cipollini, and soccer's Mario Basler, Mario Gomez, and Mario Balotelli. They are, respectively, Canadian, American, Brazilian, Italian, German, Spanish, and Ghanaese. The nickname cannot be avoided, wherever on the globe your a Mario.
At some point I realized that the "life story" of Super Mario is the history of gaming itself. Yes, it's a history of Nintendo and its creators: designer Shigeru Miyamota, billionaire Hiroshi Yamauchi, and his underestimated son-in-law Minoru Arakwa. But at it's core, it's the biography of a man who's not real, but has a Q rating up there with Mickey Mouse. A figure whose specific tale of the tape—a pudgy Italian plumber from Brooklyn—merely serves to make him as perpetual an underdog as that undertall Italian boxer from Philadelphia, Rocky Balboa. A world-beloved character with roots across three continents: Asian invention, American setting, European name. A character almost totally blank, yet beloved. A hero who is at once us, more than us, and so much less than us. A guy with a brother named Luigi, and a princess to save.
Super Mario The book comes out this week, but if you can't wait until Thursday for it, you can start on the introduction and first chapter over at The Daily Mario. And if you preorder, you'll get two bonus chapters and other goodies from the author. You can also watch him interview some of the game's characters on YouTube.