The Mario franchise is the best-selling video game franchise in history. The main Mario series games alone have sold nearly 250 million copies, and that doesn’t include Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, Mario Party, and a host of other titles. Have you ever wondered why the hell Japanese game designers decide that the main character is an Italian plumber?
The game was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, who is 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 anonymous guy who climbs stairs and platforms while dodging the barrels thrown by Donkey Kong. Miyamoto originally just called him Mr. Video and had actually used him in a number of different video game setups without finding the right setting. Donkey Kong was established on a construction site, so he was designed as a carpenter to suit his surroundings. As a child, Miyamoto was a huge fan of comics, including foreign comics. In sketching out his ideas for Mario, he drew on the memory of some of his favorite Western comic book characters and ended up with a character with a bulbous nose and a large bushy mustache. In the next iteration, what would eventually become Mario Brothers, the designers came up with the idea for a game where the main characters traveled through pipes. Miyamoto thought there was no point in having a carpenter traveling through pipes, so he swapped it for a plumber, put it in New York, and turned it into Italian as a cheeky explanation for the mustache.
However, they still called their Italian plumber Mr. Video when they started expanding to North America with the release of Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong would quickly become a sensation as the next true video game phenomenon after Pac-Man. At one of his warehouses, his landlord Mario Segale, a Seattle real estate mogul, had a heated argument with Miyamoto’s boss. Segale was furious about the unpaid rent, especially since it saw the business take off. The employees finally calmed Mario Segale 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 owner.
Miyamoto admits that Mr. Video probably never would have taken off to become the worldwide sensation that he is today. Giving him a blue collar job, a name, and an ethnicity made him more identifiable as a protagonist and enhanced the gaming experience. Through countless games, his image has been refined over the decades (as has that of his brother Luigi). But he still has the same essential character story that he had in Donkey Kong’s original appearance. He’s just a hard-working guy trying to get his girl back. Japanese, Italians or Americans, we can all relate to that.