The Mystery of the World’s Most Famous Plumber
How a group of Japanese video game developers based their character on their Italian landlord, Mario
Mario is immortal. You ask any person my age or older, and they’ll instantly recognize that big nose, thick mustache, and the blue overalls with the red-sleeved shirt and a hat. It’s iconic. The backstory, however, is an enigma.
1983: Nintendo releases an arcade game called Mario Bros.
In 1985, Super Mario Brothers was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I wasn’t born yet, so the only testimony I have to its legacy are the words of my older cousins and my uncle.
I was born in 1991, and Super Mario 64 was released on the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Almost 25 years later, the game’s playthrough rests in eternity as some of my happiest memories.
The main creator of Super Mario 64 was a man named Shigeru Miyamoto.
Mario is not your normal character. As a 5-year-old, I did not acknowledge that Mario sounded stranger than me or looked a little funny. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you that Nintendo was a Japanese company.
Mario is a stereotypical, heavily accented Italian plumber. He has a fairly large nose and a thick mustache. He is your main link into a 360-degree universe, the first of its kind in video-game history. Mario is hilariously bizarre. One venture into this soundboard will have you enjoying the sounds of a childhood you forgot you were nostalgic about:
“Here we goooooo” “Mama mia” “Thank you so much for-to playing a-my game” “It’s a-me, Mario!”
It’s rumored that Nintendo of America gave birth to the idea that this character would be named Mario, an Italian plumber. Nintendo of America was headed by a man named Minoru Arakawa, also Japanese.
The story goes that in either 1980 or 1981, Nintendo of America had a 60,000 square foot warehouse they were leasing in Tukwila, Washington from a real estate developer named Mario Segale. Nintendo of America was not profitable then. One day, the landlord berated Arakawa for the rent, but, eventually, left after a promise to pay. At least, this is what happened according to author David Sheff, who wrote: “Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped An American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children”
Even in Sheff’s book, however, the team at Nintendo of America exclaims that they will call the character “Super Mario”. This was 1981. Super Mario is a representation of a power-up that doesn’t exist until much later. The story also misspells Mario Segale’s name as Mario Segali. Lastly, the idea that the landlord began to angrily scream at Arakawa the moment that the team was deciding what to name their video game character seems absurdly unrealistic.
The title of Sheff’s book probably doesn’t lend much, if any, credibility to reality either. Nintendo certainly didn’t do any zapping, or capturing of dollars, or enslaving of children.
As far as I’m concerned, Sheff and I attended the same university.
Nintendo created a basis point on which all video games are created today. It’s embarrassing to conclude any of the things in Sheff’s subtitle. Miyamoto went on to create Legend of Zelda. Both Zelda and Super Mario became the models on which an entire industry was created: The open-world, 360-degree, role-playing game. Any role-playing game today is built on the revolutionary work that Miyamoto did. If anything, Miyamoto aided in jump-starting an industry right here in the United States.
It’s hard to objectively say there is a better video game developed in its time. Super Mario 64 was unique, one-of-a-kind, and perfect. Video games today are beautiful graphically, but that wow-factor isn’t there. Super Mario 64 was the starting point of development that has lasted a quarter-century now.
Behind this immortality is a story about a man we don’t know much about. We know that something did happen with him, and we know that it’s something that we can confirm on The Seattle Times from 1993. In what seems to be the only interview with Mario Segale, he was asked what he thought about Nintendo’s success with Mario. He answered:
“You might say I’m still waiting for my royalty checks”
Other than that, what we know about Mario Segale is pure rumor. The Sheff story being the most inaccurate and exaggerated of all.
The one thing that we know is that Mario Segale was not, actually, a plumber. However, an e-mail received from a close friend of Segale by a journalist mentions his appearance:
“Mario values his privacy over money, which is why he hasn’t accepted any for being “Mario.” He’s just a normal, wealthy (self-made), semi-grumpy old man. But we thought we’d let you know that he is really not particularly fascinating! You would probably be disappointed if you ever saw him. He doesn’t even wear coveralls! But he is not too tall and he does wear suspenders.”
Which only adds to the enigma of the backstory of Mario. In Super Mario 64, Mario isn’t grumpy at all. He’s a joyful, small, jumpy man exclaiming strange, stereotypical English phrases in a heavy Italian accent created by a Japanese game development team.
When NPR interviewed Miyamoto in December 2016, they asked him about the origins of Mario, to which he replied:
“So that’s also an interesting story. When I was younger, I used to enjoy comics and drawing comics as well. And among the comics that I read, some were Italian comics. And if you think about it, the big nose and the mustache is not a facial feature that’s characteristic of Japanese people. And so I think that my connection to those Italian comics — probably I drew on that inspiration when we first drew the character.
When we sent the game to the U.S. to sell the Donkey Kong arcade games in America, in the warehouse that the Nintendo was operating out of in America at that time, there was somebody related to that warehouse whose name was Mario. And the staff at Nintendo in America said that the character looked like the individual named Mario. So they started calling the character Mario, and when I heard that I said ‘Oh, Mario’s a great name — let’s use that.’ ”
It could be that the team simply wanted to pay respect to a man who rented out their first warehouse here in America. By doing so, they immortalized him — accidentally — in video-game history. I don’t think anybody could have guessed how popular Mario would go on to be. Today, when we think of Nintendo, we think either Zelda or Mario. For the longest time, when I thought Mario, I was always confused as to the heavy intentional Italian accent or the concept of him as a plumber.
Steven L. Kent wrote The Ultimate History of Video Games in 2001, where he states:
“The news could not have come at a better time. [Nintendo of America] had nearly bankrupted themselves, and Arakawa was having trouble covering the costs of his floundering operation. Around this time, Mario Segale, the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse, visited Arakawa to complain that the rent was late. After threats and angry words, Segale accepted Arakawa’s promise that the money would arrive shortly. Arakawa later immortalized Segale by renaming Jumpman, the carpenter in Donkey Kong, Mario.”
It always seemed so confusing and mysterious. A group of Japanese video game developers getting together to come to the decision that the concept of Miyamoto’s “Mr. Video” or “Jumpman” would be called “Mario”: The small Italian plumber who saves a princess from a turtle with spikes on his shell.
All we have is a single, inaccurate account of what went down in Washington that year. Compound this with Miyamoto’s affinity for Italian comic books. We do know that the year is accurate, though, because there were flyers from 1981 where “Jumpman” in the Donkey Kong arcade game was intentionally called Mario:
Given the popularity of Mario and the nature of his progression in Super Mario 64, it’s hard to be led to believe that Arakawa’s and Segale’s interaction was overly negative. Or, that the portrayal of Segale is in some way supposed to be satiric or insensitive. Kent’s and Miyamoto’s depictions of events seem most credible of all the limited information available to us. In almost all ways, Super Mario, and the convention of Mario as a character, is both funny and perfect. He’s playful, energetic, fast, and sort of goofy. If anything, it seems to pay homage to the man that is Mario Segale.
The overarching theme of Super Mario 64 is to save a princess.
Perhaps if Segale did go after Nintendo, we might not have seen the continuation of Mario through the years. As a child, I might not have experienced a game I regard as the greatest of all time.
Mario Segale died on October 27, 2018, at a local hospital in Seattle. I didn’t — and don’t — know much about him. From the accounts of Sheff’s book, it’s clear that he doesn’t know anything, either.
I’m grateful that Segale was a man that, as far as we know, displayed reason and compassion for what Nintendo of America was doing. That little Italian plumber transformed the world of video games forever. Today, he lives well outside of games and at the crossroads of popular culture and heavy nostalgia for kids around my age.
Mario is the story about the possibility of anything. While his backstory as a video game character is fragmented and absent, his place in the annals of video game history will stay forever, immortalized.
Mario is a testament to the universal truth that inspiration is anything, anywhere, or, sometimes, anyone.