August 1, 2011

Staff Picks: Super Mario

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 7:37 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

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 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.

There are 240 million Super Mario games out there. Just one game, The original Super Mario Bros., has more than forty million copies in print, not counting releases on other platforms or the uncountable emulators that let you play samizdat versions on your computer. [...] Do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: the number of Mario games sold times fifty bucks each, the average price of a game. This number is going to be off, since it doesn't account for games being bundled with consoles, which are discounted. But it also doesn't account for for merchandise and tie-in games like Dr. Mario, or for anything else Nintendo sells: Mario games are only one or two of its hundreds of titles a year, and that's all just the software. Hopefully you used a commercial-size envelope: the ballpark figure of Nintendo's Mario's sales is $12 billion. If each one of Mario's gold coins was worth a million dollars, to collect that much moola he would have to knock his head on a coin bloc for almost three and a half hours.
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.