Geek Trivia: Name of the game

What was the original name of the Nintendo video-game character Mario, and what was his occupation?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is on extended leave, but he did get off his slacker butt long enough to pull this Classic Geek, which originally ran on Sept. 13, 2005, from the archives.

Grab yourself a Fire Flower, and start stomping on some mutant turtle monsters, old-school gamers, because more than 21 years ago, the world first met the Super Mario Bros. On Friday, Sept. 13, 1985, the best-selling console video game of all time debuted in Japan, and the U.S. release quickly followed on October 1 of the same year.

Over the next two decades, Super Mario Bros. racked up 40 million units sold in North American alone (largely on the strength of being the sample game included with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Famicom game consoles). In the process, it catapulted the title character into the Pac-Man-esque stratosphere as one of the most recognized video-game characters of all time.

Mario is now the official mascot of the Nintendo video-game empire, and he's enjoyed a live-action movie, a live-action television show, and several children's cartoons all based on his pixilated exploits. That's not bad for a guy who began his career in someone else's video game.

Mario first appeared as the ladder-climbing, barrel-dodging, gorilla-enraging protagonist of Donkey Kong, which made its arcade debut in 1981. In 1982, Mario would reappear as the villain in the Donkey Kong Jr. arcade game.

It wasn't until 1983 that Mario would rate his own name on the game marquee, when he enjoyed three title releases: Mario's Cement Factory, Mario's Bombs Away, and Mario Bros. The latter introduced the world to Mario's brother, Luigi. (It was also the first time Mario squared off against evil turtles.)

1985, however, was the banner year for the brothers Mario, as Super Mario Bros. set the standard for the side-scrolling platform game genre. From there, the Mario franchise was truly born, with Mario and his ever-growing cast of associated characters appearing in more than 100 different titles and accounting for roughly 180 million game units sold.

In an industry where an ever-increasing number of complex and hyper-real—and in some cases, hyper-violent—characters and concepts grab headlines and zeitgeist, it's nice to think that a simple Italian plumber named Mario still carries a lot of weight with avid game consumers. Of course, this world-famous character has come a long way from his humble roots—when his name wasn't Mario, and his gorilla-free day job was something besides a plumber.


What was the original name for the Nintendo video-game character Mario, and what was his supposed occupation when he first appeared as the gorilla-fighting protagonist in the 1981 arcade classic Donkey Kong?

While we may know him today as the red-capped, blue-overall-clad plumber named Mario, he began life under the nondescript name Jumpman—a humble carpenter who used his leaping ability, ladder-climbing skills, and the occasional hammer to rescue the damsel Pauline from the clutches of a girder-scaling, barrel-tossing gorilla named Donkey Kong. At least, that's how game producer Shigeru Miyamoto—the legendary creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, and Pikmin—originally envisioned this character.

Mario didn't officially get his name until 1983, when he appeared in Mario's Cement Factory. (His profession was also different—a cement factory worker—though there was never an official distinction made.) It wasn't until Mario Bros. that he and his newly introduced sibling Luigi appeared as plumbers, matching that game's setting of an underground collection of pipes and viaducts.

So, why Mario? Well, the character's namesake comes from an actual Mario—Mario Segali, the former landlord of the New York office building that housed Nintendo of America headquarters in the early 1980s. When searching for a more marketable name for the Jumpman character, then-president of Nintendo of America Minoru Arakawa purportedly remarked on the likeness of the game character to the company's landlord—and thus the name Mario caught on.

Of course, it's doubtful that Segali ran around in overalls and a bright red cap. Developers chose those sartorial accoutrements for logistical, not stylistic, reasons. Due to the pixilated limitations of early video game graphics, Mario's animated arm motions would have been indecipherable if his shirt sleeves were the same color as his shirt.

Thus, developers outfitted Mario in overalls, so his swinging arms would appear even in their crude early forms. Similar difficulties in animating a tousle of thick hair led to Mario wearing his signature cap, and problems animating a mouth are responsible for his thick moustache. Mario's back story as an Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn emerged as game premises required.

So, to take stock: Mario began with a wardrobe and features chosen by necessity, a name stolen from his landlord, and a career as an also-ran in some other ape's game, and now he's the most bankable game character ever conceived. That's a rags-to-riches tale that would make even the Mushroom Kingdom—and Geek Trivia—take notice.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia—namely, when the Trivia Geek gets back from his extended leave. (To read the original quibble from this article, see Listing A.)

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.