Mario has always confounded me. Video gaming’s first sex symbol, Lara Croft? I get her appeal. Solid Snake has that Clint Eastwood vibe. And over 80 years of American cinema has clearly established the irresistibility of large apes with the surname Kong. But, a stout plumber with a great deal of facial hair? What makes him a superstar?
Certainly, there is something to be said for firsts. Mario is one of the first video game characters to become recognizable in part because of his persistent appearance in Nintendo arcade games like Donkey Kong (1981), Donkey Kong Jr. (1982), Mario Bros. (1983), and Super Mario Bros. (1985). Part of this persistence of the character may be due to his original conception.
While Shigeru Miyamoto initially imagined Mario as a carpenter in Donkey Kong, he was reconceptualized as a plumber by the time he and his brother Luigi were to appear in a game titled for these two regular joes. Indeed, Miyamoto reportedly designed Mario with an eye to creating a character that would be relatable to players as an emblem of the common man. The traditional uniform of the labor classes, overalls, seems a simple enough visual sign to send the message of who Mario was intended to be.
While I have often found myself baffled by his iconic stature, perhaps, I shouldn’t—especially as an American who should easily recognize the especially American appeal of a hero based not on the traditional qualities of a hero but instead on Emersonian and Puritanical work ethics. Mario’s first official appearance as a plumber in Mario Bros. contains more than just a brief nod to the uniform of labor. Its gameplay is wedded (maybe “welded” would be a better choice of words given the blue collar roots of this “American” hero) to the ethics and heroism of work. Mario and Luigi spend their working hours cleaning out pipes from invading reptiles.
Interestingly, the game suggests that the work of plumbing is its own reward. Points in Mario Bros. are accrued by doing the dirty work of keeping the tunnels clean by ridding them of turtles and through the acquisition of spare change (coins) that emerge from time to time from the pipes above. Turtle extermination and gathering pennies lead to more life for Mario as this work and coin is translated into points that earn “extra lives.” In Mario Bros., work is performed only so that work can continue.
Working to acquire money for the sake of survival becomes a persistent theme in the adventures of Mario through this mechanic of money being used to purchase life. The value of money for survival is established more directly in Super Mario Bros.. Defeating fungus and winged turtles no longer gains Mario anything other than points, but 100 coins always translates into an extra life. Thus, the practicality of a working class experience is more expressly represented in the economics of the franchise. The working man is always working hand to mouth. With every nickel and dime, Mario ekes out a continued existence.
If Mario is heroic as a hard worker though, it is in a kind of Faulknerian sense—because he “endures” through his persistent labor—he is also a hero rewarded in less pragmatic ways. If perseverance is the practical means to an end in the American mythology surrounding work, the end goal that hard work is intended to realize is one much more ideal in nature, the realization of the American Dream. The notion that success is a “dream” (as American nomenclature suggests) removes the concept from the realms of pure pragmatism and more clearly recognizes its idealized and romantic nature, the stuff of transcendental dream. This romanticism may explain why Mario finds himself in such extraordinary circumstances in so many of his appearances. The blue collar worker rather than a knight in shining armor (the kind of traditional romantic hero of European culture) is the one who will save the girl from the giant ape in Donkey Kong. Yet, this image is further romanticized in Super Mario Bros. because he is the regular guy who will save, not the girl next door, but the Princess herself. Unlike, the goal of saving Pauline from Donkey Kong, Mario does not simply get the girl—he gets the girl that is emblematic of wealth and prestige, seemingly the end goals of American sticktuitiveness. That Mario has to traverse seven worlds in Super Mario Bros. and defeat seven incarnations of Bowser and yet is consistently met with the anti-climatic announcement, “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” speaks to Mario’s perseverance as a man committed to keeping his eye on the prize. If you keep working, eventually you will get to World 8-4 and real success.
In other words, Mario is not merely relatable as a regular joe, but his progress from the labor class to a a man capable of mixing with the elite is a familiar claim of the American dream of upward mobility. With a lot of hard work and elbow grease, not only can one merely survive, but the individual can eventually land the princess and everything that she represents.
So, while lacking sex appeal, a laconic presence, or even some basic semblance of cool, I guess I can understand that Mario’s appeal stems in part from his possession of true grit and a dream. Forget G. I. Joe, Mario seen in this way is the real American hero.