Mario: Upward Mobility and the Working Class Hero
With a lot of hard work and elbow grease, not only can one survive, but the individual can eventually land the princess.
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.
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.
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.