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Mario Is the New Mickey

"Akashi" by Dave Bondi (2008)

I never understood Mickey Mouse’s appeal. He frightened me as a child, always striking me as a freakish fellow. I like his early movies (still some of the best experimental cartoons ever made!):

…but since then he’s really become a creep:



But when Mario turned 25 this year, I had to pause. I can’t help but feel a great affection toward the obese plumber, the result no doubt of hundreds of hours logged playing his games in the late 80s/early 90s. I pre-ordered a copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 (still my favorite), and spent weeks desperately awaiting its arrival. And I was so eager to play Super Mario Bros. 3 that I rented a Famicom copy (with a converter, but Japanese-language only)…and begged my Mom to take me to see The Wizard (my secret shame). So I can relate to those who love The Mouse.

Here’s my real thought, though. It always seemed to me that Mickey enjoyed his true popularity not in the 30s, or in the 40s, but in the 50s and 60s, when he became the most recognized/beloved corporate mascot in the world. If I’m right about this, then I think it’s an issue of saturation: he got his tenterhooks into the children of the Depression, and when they had their own kids, Mickey was ready and waiting for them. The Greatest Generation enjoyed buying Mickey paraphernalia for their kids, because it was familiar. “Oh, there’s Mickey; I remember him. How nice to see him again…” Buying a Mickey wristwatch for Jr. was a way to relive a childhood pleasure.

[This 2003 New York Times article claims that Mickey’s peak popularity came in 1997, and has since waned. Perhaps because of that, Disney is currently revising Mickey, taking him back to his “naughtier,” “more selfish” personality.]

I got set on this line of thinking around Thanksgiving, when the very young daughter of a friend showed me some Mario game or other that she was playing on some portable Nintendo device or other. She even explained to me who Mario was! (I nodded along.) And I realized that the same thing is happening with my generation: we bonded with the high-jumping Italian while we were kids, and now it’s delightful to see our own offspring mashing down the A button.

Nintendo has apparently come to the same conclusion:

Iwata:  Why do you think Super Mario Bros. has continued to be such a central character in video games for so long?

Eguchi: That’s a tough question, but I think it involves a buildup of trust. Those who played Super Mario Bros. games as a kid now have kids of their own, and when their kids say they want to buy the next Mario game, parents won’t hesitate to buy it. I think it’s because customers have the impression that it will always be a safe buy.

Konno: I agree. Throughout the 25-year history, there are different generations who grew up playing these games, and they might remember being hooked as a kid, or feel very nostalgic about them. And I’ve heard a lot of people from the Famicom generation say that when they bought New Super Mario for the Wii, they were able to play together with their children.

Eguchi: And it’s not always the same old thing. As we talked about earlier, we’re always thinking of changes to make.

Iwata: From generation to generation the games are actually quite a bit different.

Eguchi: Which means people who played a long time ago can buy a new Mario game, and be surprised or amused by the fresh gameplay elements, which I think adds a new layer of trust. And I’ll bet children of today can still have a lot of fun with the first-generation Mario games.

Iwata: That’s true. Today’s youth can still play the Mario games from way back when, while the Famicom generation can pick up a new Mario game and play it right away. I was talking to Sugiyama-san the other day when we did an Iwata Asks for Super Mario All-Stars Limited Edition, and he told me that once he took out the Super Mario All-Stars game from his closet and started playing for the first time in years, his “fingers remembered” how to play.

So, if my casual hypothesis is correct, Mario is about to become more popular than ever…and he’ll ultimately be “owned” not by us, the generation who first encountered and embraced him, but by our descendants, his destined true fans, who are getting to know him right now. And the definitive Mario games will be the ones that are being made today, not the original 8- and 16-bit adventures…similar to how, when we think of Mickey Mouse now, we think of Fantasia (1940), or the Mickey Mouse Club of the mid-to-late 1950s, or the costumed employee who welcomes us, arms wide open, at Disneyland (which opened in 1955)—and not Steamboat Willie.

Corporations play long, patient games.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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