May 16, 2013

Why a Short Italian Plumber Is a Household Name

Why a Short Italian Plumber Is a Household Name

Raise your hand if you’ve played some version of Mario Brothers/Super Mario Brothers on multiple game consoles. Now, raise your hand if that number of game consoles is more than three. Raise your hand if you are in your forties and still live with your parents. We thought so.

The brothers Mario are video game icons; they were born in association with Donkey Kong, reached their formative years on their own, developed a massive drug problem in Super Mario Brothers II (all those ‘shrooms, you know), and ultimately learned how to fly in the greatest version of all time, Super Mario Brothers III (we’ll fight anyone who says different). There have been many supplementary editions of the Super Mario Brothers franchise since then, but we prefer the classics; we’re snobs like that.

We’ve spent many an hour bouncing on mushrooms, riding turtles and donning flying raccoon costumes, and we’ve also played a lot of Super Mario Brothers games (rim shot). How have these little, almost offensively stereotypical cartoon brothers endured for so long? We really have to take our hats off to the developers of this franchise that they were not only able to survive, but flourish in this new world of interactive games and pretend gangsters beating up pedestrians with bats. We’ve come up with a few theories as to why good old Mario and Luigi are still with us today.

Mamma, mia! We’re-a so darned loveable!

There’s something about the Mario brothers that’s just comforting. They’re distinct; they have instantly recognizable silhouettes and they are so incredibly un-herolike and average that you can’t help rooting for them. We speculate that they came along at a time when the youth culture just had a natural trust of and affection for middle-aged plumbers from Brooklyn.

Mario and Luigi have also diversified. When they’re not constantly rescuing princesses from savage turtles, they enjoy golf, tennis, go-kart racing, refereeing boxing matches and leaping through wrinkles in time. They have long since retired from plumbing.

Wide Range of Abilities

The Super Mario Franchise was so flexible that the brothers could be integrated into numerous video game genres. The image of Mario has become so ubiquitous that, alongside Pac-man, he is probably the most recognizable video game character of all time.

As we’ve said earlier, Mario doesn’t just appear in fantastical, mushroom-eating video game scenarios; he will occasionally play tennis, race and compete in other sporting activities. Mario is one of the few characters who can be enjoyed by children and adults alike, although adults might just be desperately reliving their childhoods in an attempt to stave off their inevitable physical decline. Whew! That was morbid.

Speaking of Flexibility…

The fact that the Mario Brothers can appear in television cartoons, movies, merchandise, kitschy t-shirts, sincere t-shirts and tons of memorabilia in addition to the standard video game makes them an absolute triumph of branding. Not only is old Mario a favorite among hipsters, the Wii version of Mario has just as much credibility among young gamers. Take that, Pac-man! You’re only relevant on ironic t-shirts!

Another branding triumph? The fact that Mario is a pudgy, mustachioed, Italian cliché and no one seems to mind. How did those design and marketing wizards pull that off? Would they have been as successful if their model was, say, an Austrian in lederhosen playing the accordion?

So, what have we learned today? We learned that the generation born in the late 70s and early 80s really, really can’t get over their childhood. We learned that an iconic brand has to be incredibly flexible and yet have a specific, evocative and easy to replicate image. We learned that a video game can clearly reference the use of recreational psychotropic substances and the world will pretend not to notice if the mascot is cute enough. Unfortunately, we haven’t learned exactly why Luigi is okay with being called a Mario brother. Don’t they have a last name?


by Kevin Smith
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