The Mario franchise is the best selling video game franchise in history. The games in the main Mario series alone have sold nearly 250 million copies, and that doesn’t include Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, Mario Party, and a whole slew of other titles. Have you ever wondered why on earth the Japanese game designers decide that the main character an Italian plumber?
The game was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto who is the Babe Ruth/Michael Jordan/Beethoven of video game design. Miyamoto was working on the original Donkey Kong as a new flagship video game for his company. He developed the character that would become Mario as an unnamed guy who runs up ladders and platforms dodging barrels thrown by Donkey Kong. Miyamoto originally just called him Mr. Video and had actually employed him in a number of different video game settings without finding the right fit. Donkey Kong was set on a construction site, so they designed him as a carpenter to fit his surroundings. As a child, Miyamoto was a big fan of comic books, including foreign comic books. When sketching out his ideas for Mario he drew from the memory of some of his favorite characters from western comics and ended up with a character with a bulbous nose and a big bushy mustache. In the next iteration, what would eventually become Mario Brothers, the designers came up with the idea of a game where the main characters traveled through pipes. Miyamoto thought it didn’t make sense to have a carpenter traveling through pipes, so he changed him to a plumber, put him in New York, and made him an Italian as a cheeky explanation for the mustache.
They were still calling their Italian plumber Mr. Video, however, when they began expanding into North America with the roll out of Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong would quickly become a sensation as the next true video game phenomenon after Pac-Man. At one of their warehouses, their landlord Mario Segale, a Seattle real estate mogul, got into a heated argument with Miyamoto’s boss. Segale was fuming over unpaid rent, especially since he saw the business taking off. The employees eventually calmed Mario Segale down by promising to pay the money owed. When he left, they decided that they should name their new version of Mr. Video after the hostile landlord.
Miyamoto admits that the Mr. Video likely never would have taken off to become the worldwide sensation that it is today. Giving him a blue collar job, a name, and an ethnicity made him more relatable as a protagonist and improved the gaming experience. Through countless games, his image has been refined over the decades (as has his brother Luigi’s). But he still has the same essential character story he did in the original Donkey Kong appearance. He’s just a hard-working guy trying to win back his girl. Japanese, Italian, or American-we can all relate to that.