Brothers of Reinvention

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

So what is it about Mario?

The portly plumber who's out to save Mushroom Kingdom and maybe get a kiss from the princess is still hopping, jumping, stomping his way from the original "Super Mario Bros." (released in 1985) to the latest "New Super Mario Bros." (released in May). He's still the friendly Everyman, still in the same red-and-blue overalls, still sporting the same mustached, rosy-cheeked, aw-shucks look.

And he's the most popular game character among 9-to-12-year-olds, says the NPD Group, which tracks game sales in the United States.

"Mario never gets old, kind of like James Bond," says Michael Pachter, a game analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "And who doesn't think James Bond is cool?"

Twenty-five years after his debut, Mario is the angelic, lovable, all-too-recognizable face of the best-selling video game franchise ever, racking up sales of nearly $2.3 billion in the United States -- and that's only since 1995, as far back as NPD data go. There are currently more than 50 Mario-related games in the market. And the best ones attract tweens who are old enough to appreciate the games' complexity and beauty -- pipes that lead to secret mazes! Mushrooms that double your size! -- but young enough to want to have pure, easy, harmless fun. Who wouldn't want to break a brick by bopping it with your head?

It also doesn't hurt that many parents of these tweens, head-boppers themselves, have grown up playing Mario.

It's all Mario, all Nintendo, all the time at the Palamore residence in Arlington, where it's not entirely clear who's the biggest Mario fan.

Is it 8-year-old Matthew, who proudly declares, "I have Mario's voice," and spontaneously says " Mamma mia! "? Or Curtis, 10, who goes on and on about "Super Mario Sunshine"? Or 12-year-old Chris, who can't decide which of the family's eight Mario games is his favorite?

Or is it Brad -- the boys' 30-year-old dad, a minister at the Arlington Church of Christ -- who jokingly introduces himself as "Luigi" and has very fond memories of a five-day binge of pizza and "Super Mario Bros." on his Nintendo Entertainment System when he was 10?

"The thing about Mario is, you can play it with your kids," says Brad Palamore, a self-described "Nintendo dad." "You don't have to worry about what they're seeing on the screen because as a kid yourself, you've seen what goes on in a Mario game."

Mario is the creation of the legendary Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, also the man behind Donkey Kong. In the early 1980s, Mario was known as Jumpman, Donkey Kong's nemesis in an arcade game. But when Jumpman proved to be as popular as Kong, he transformed into Mario, the middle-aged plumber with a heart of gold. He's Tony Soprano but gentler, Tony Danza but cuter, Mickey Mouse but Italian by way of Japan, with a posse that includes Luigi, Yoshi, Princess Peach, et al. (It's been reported that the name is a homage to Mario Regale, the former landlord of Nintendo's warehouse in Redmond, Wash.) He's starred in "Super Mario Brothers," his very own live-action 1993 movie, and has appeared on "The Simpsons," playing an Italian tourist. He's the omnipresent mascot of Nintendo, which this fall will release Wii, its new game console, and if all goes well, a new game called "Super Mario Galaxy" with it.

"It's Mario's games that have made him so universally famous. 'Super Mario Bros. 3' is still my all-time favorite video game today. It's got such inventiveness -- not too simple, not too frustrating," says Dan Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly. "Mario's games are consistently good. That's why the man is where he's at today."

There's a Mario game in practically every flavor and genre -- sports ("Mario Tennis: Power Tour"), racing ("Mario Kart: Double Dash!!"), adventure ("Mario Party 7") -- and like "The Sims," the hugely successful PC franchise, Mario has proven to be girl-friendly too.

The game world, like other entertainment media, is an industry built on brand loyalty -- there are "Legend of Zelda" people, "Final Fantasy" people, "Madden NFL" people, "Halo" people, "Grand Theft Auto" people and the folks who sweat and swear and live by "World of Warcraft." Then there are Mario people like Michael Koyfman. Five years ago, at age 12, Koyfman started his own Web site, the Super Mario Fan Club ( http://www.smfc.us/ ). The club has 239 members.

Koyfman, 17, who will be a senior at John A. Rowland High School in Los Angeles County in the fall, says he got hooked on Mario 10 years ago and still takes the time each day to play one of his 30 Mario games -- "Mario Kart DS" and "Super Smash Bros. Melee" are his favs -- save Mushroom Kingdom and kiss the princess.

"I guess I should be getting tired of the games now, but I'm not."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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