Mario’s history is an interesting story. A lot of people assume Mario’s history began with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. Mario’s story actually started 4 years before this in 1981. In the late 70’s into the early 80’s Nintendo as a company wasn’t doing so well. Until a man named Shigeru Miyamoto developed a video game called Donkey Kong. From the onset, Donkey Kong was an immediate success. Donkey Kong was the highest grossing arcade game in 1981 & 1982 to the point it caused a coin shortage in Japan. Nintendo built and sold over 67,000 arcade cabinets in the first year. Nintendo then licensed the game to Coleco in 1982, a developer of arcade home console cartridges, selling 6 million cartridges. Coleco along with various other ports sold over 15 million units worldwide.
Donkey Kong involves maneuvering Mario (then called Jumpman) across platforms to ascend a construction site and rescue Pauline from the giant gorilla named Donkey Kong all while avoiding or jumping over obstacles. One of the things that made the game so fun was this is the first video game with the option to “jump.” The phenomenal success of Donkey Kong positioned Nintendo for market dominance from 1981 through the late 1990’s. The game debuts Jumpman, who became Mario, Nintendo’s mascot and one of the world’s most recognizable characters of all time.
In 1982 Nintendo created the sequel called Donkey Kong Jr. It also proved very successful from the beginning. It won awards in 1984 for best conversion from arcade to home console and an Annual Arkie Award for best video game audio-visual effects. It is also listed in the top 100 video games of all time. Yet, Nintendo did something very interesting and unique with this game that most people do not realize. They changed the roles of the characters.
For the first and last time in Nintendo history, Mario is now the Villain. Jumpman’s name is now permanently changed to Mario. Donkey Kong, after being defeated by Mario, has been entrusted into his care. However, his son, Donkey Kong Jr appears and attempts to rescue his father. Mario takes his keys and places them in the building where he fought Donkey Kong. To stop Donkey Kong Jr, Mario unleashes several circus animals, but Donkey Kong Jr escapes them and makes it to Mario’s headquarters. The two face off but the building begins to crumble, causing a recreation of Donkey Kong’s climatic scene. Donkey Kong Jr saves his father and the two set off together. So, the only time Mario appears as a Villain, he is defeated. Oh well...I guess the good guy always wins.
In 1983 we find out that Mario has a brother named Luigi. On June 21, 1983, Nintendo released a game called Mario Bros. It was released in arcades in Japan and US in the summer of 1983. It was released for Famicom in June of ‘83 and for Atari in December of ‘83. It wasn’t released on the NEC until June of 1986.
Most consider this to be the first appearance of Luigi, even though Luigi appeared in a Game & Watch game of the same name, but the arcade game was in development first. The premise of the game is twin brothers, Mario and Luigi are in the sewer system of New York City. The sewers are overrun by a lot of enemies, which must be defeated for coins. This was the first game to introduce a simultaneous two player mode, coins, pipes, and pow blocks. The goal in each phase is to defeat all enemies which is done by jumping up and hitting the floor below the enemies. This flips them giving the player the chance to kick them away, which is rewarded with 800 points. The Pow block can be used to flip enemies but can only be used 3 times.
Mario Bros was an immediate success and the story of the two plumber brothers Mario & Luigi was born.
1983 & 1984
Later in 1983 Nintendo released the third game in the Donkey Kong series simply named Donkey Kong 3. It was released in arcades in Japan in October and US in November of 1983. It was released on Famicom in 1984 and on the NES in 1986. There was one major difference about this game compared to the previous Donkey Kong games. Donkey Kong 3 did not feature Mario, as it instead stars a new character called Stanley. This game’s approach is more like a shoot’em up rather than a platformer.
Donkey Kong breaks into Stanley’s greenhouse and goes to hang in the rafters where he stirs up nests of bugs, which will destroy Stanley’s flowers in revenge. Armed with a sprayer, Stanley must destroy the bees and chase Donkey Kong away before he eats all five of his flowers. If Stanley is defeated, the insects immediately eat him, though this is removed in the NES port.
Then in July 1984 Nintendo released a game called Vs. Wrecking Crew in the arcade. Wrecking Crew was released for Famicom in June of 1985 and the NES in October of 1985. The arcade version featured simultaneous two player mode. Famicom and NES versions was a two player game but only one at a time. In Japan, Game Machine listed Vs. Wrecking Crew in its October 1,1984 issue as the 13th most successful table arcade unit of the month.
Mario is now a demolition worker and the goal is to break down all the walls in each phase. You could choose to start on any of the 100 phases excluding the bonus stages. As Mario tries to break all the walls with his hammer, he is attacked by various enemies. This game also introduces a new character named Foreman Spike. As Mario is going up and down ladders smashing all he can, Foreman Spike can try and push Mario off the platforms. Mario can hit Foreman Spike with his hammer and knock him down. In bonus stages the player has to compete against Foreman Spike to find a coin hidden in a row of walls as the time counts down. After completing all 100 phases, the game simply starts over again from the beginning.
Wrecking Crew's success was soon dwarfed by the release of the best game in video game history!
In 1985 the history of video games changed forever. Nintendo released arguably the most popular video game of all time, Super Mario Bros. It was released for Famicom in September of 1985 and the NES in October of 1985. Super Mario Bros shifted the gameplay away from single screen arcade predecessor Mario Bros and instead featured side scrolling platformer levels for the first time. Not only kicking off an entire series of Super Mario platform games, the wild success of Super Mario Bros popularized the genre as a whole and helped revive the North American gaming industry after the video game crash of 1983. In a sense, Super Mario Bros saved the entire video game industry from collapse. It was responsible for the initial success of the NES, with which it was bundled as a launch title. Before being surpassed by Wii Sports, Super Mario Bros was the best-selling video game of all time for nearly three decades, with over 40 million copies sold worldwide.
I won’t go into the premise of how the game is played and what it involves. Most people on planet earth in some manner have encountered Mario or a Mario game. So, most of us know exactly how the game is played. When some people couldn't recognize pictures of presidents or historical figures, they could immediately still recognize Mario.
I’ll never forget the first time I played Super Mario Bros. I couldn’t get enough. I just wanted to keep playing. I believe most of us remember that first video game you played that just blew your mind and was so much fun. My first was Pacman. I will always be a Pacman fan, but for me, hands down Super Mario Bros is the best video game of all time. Kids like me that grew up in the 80's all the way up to kids present day know and play Mario games.
So, we learned that Mario’s history actually began in 1981 long before the release of Super Mario Bros in 1985. For me this is why the 1981 Menko of Donkey Kong with Jumpman & Pauline is one of the most important & iconic pieces of Mario & Nintendo history.