Fans have been certain of Super Mario’s background for decades, but one former Nintendo employee has cast doubt on those origins now.
Gamers have finally reached the long-awaited release of Paper Mario: the Origami King, the latest game to star Nintendo’s venerable mascot. The game, a surprise addition to the company’s release line-up, is the first in a potential host of releases celebrating the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. That iconic NES game made him a household name.
Given his longevity, it’s easy for fans to believe they know everything about gaming’s most iconic plumber. A recent comment from legendary Nintendo designer has cast doubt on one thing fans have believed for years.
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Masayuki Uemura designed Nintendo’s first home console, the Famicom. The console was released in Japan in 1983 and, after some tweaks, became the most popular console in Japan in 1984. It was released nationwide in the United States in 1986, under the name Nintendo Entertainment System. It resurrected an American video game industry that had been devastated by a market crash in 1983. The use of Super Mario Bros. as a pack-in game was a key part of that success.
In a recent interview with Kotaku, Uemura talked about the development of the NES. When talking about the popularity of Japanese games worldwide, which started in the late 1970s with games like Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, Uemera dropped a bombshell about Mario’s creation.
“Super Mario Bros. isn’t set in Japan, but the character’s Japanese. The name Mario sounds Italian, but he isn’t Italian. They were really able to capture that ambiguity,” Uemura said.
Uemura went on to talk about how Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s creator, used the limitations of the hardware of the time to create Mario’s iconic design. With so few pixels available to him, Miyamoto had to use colors to make him stand out. Mario’s hat did a lot of work to keep his character design and animations within the limits of the hardware.
Mario being Japanese would come as a shock to many people, including Miyamoto himself. He has cited his childhood love of comics as an influence on Mario’s design. That includes foreign comics, which is where he picked up the idea of giving his characters western features like large noses.
Miyamoto has also talked about how Mario transitioned from his job as a carpenter in Donkey Kong to his plumbing career in Super Mario Bros. The underground setting of SMB led Miyamoto to decide that Mario was an Italian plumber from New York. “There was really no other deep thought other than that.”
Nintendo hasn’t officially declared Mario is a Japanese character with an Italian name. Uemura has been retired from Nintendo since 2004, so his take on Mario’s origins has first-hand credibility but not the company’s seal of approval.
Nintendo did briefly change Mario’s occupation in 2017 when they began to recognize him as a jack of all trades from all of his side projects. His official Japanese profile declared that he was no longer a plumber, though that didn’t last long. His profile was updated in 2018 to acknowledge plumbing as his occupation once again, although one that frequently takes a backseat to his main priority of protecting the Mushroom Kingdom.
Mario’s identity as an Italian has been burned into generations of fan’s brains by his appearances in other media. Italian professional wrestling legend Lou Albano played him in his first live-action incarnation, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! 1993’s infamous Super Mario Bros. movie also portrayed the brothers as Italian Americans, even if they were played by the English Bob Hoskins and Columbian actor John Leguizamo.
Despite Uemera being the creator of the NES, his take on Mario’s heritage is unlikely to change the way the character is perceived. At this point, Mario is an Italian to anyone who cares enough to know anything about him. The fact that Nintendo has never officially called him Japanese means this is likely to remain apocryphal in the Mario canon.
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