Super Mario—or just Mario to his friends—this week celebrated his 30th birthday in style, with the release of a new game for the Wii U. Super Mario Maker is a new twist on the classic two-dimensional platforming formula in that it allows players to make and share their own levels.
As with just about every previous Mario game over the decades, it’s proving to be a hit. Nintendo Canada says Super Mario Maker first-weekend sales were 15% to 20% ahead of Splatoon, another of the company’s big hits released earlier this year.
On a global basis, Super Mario is somewhat synonymous with video games. The Italian plumber was unofficially born from the mind of legendary developer Shigeru Miyamoto in 1981, where he served as the protagonist in Donkey Kong. But he didn’t really have a name yet, going instead by the generic moniker of “Jumpman.”
It wasn’t until 1985 that he got his own name and top billing in Super Mario Bros. Since then, the character has developed into full icon status, moving nearly 300 million units of games over three decades. That’s more than the Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty or FIFA franchises.
I discussed the legacy and importance of the character and the franchise with Nintendo Canada general manager Pierre-Paul Trepanier. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
What makes Mario such an enduring character?
He does seem as relevant today as he was when I was a kid. There’s something about Mario games that’s easy to jump into but challenging in just the right ways. It doesn’t feel too hard or too easy and it’s continued to evolve over the last 30 years.
With Mario, [Nintendo] has found a way to propose new gaming experiences throughout the years. This newest version, Super Mario Maker, is one that feels a lot more creative and inclusive. The balance between the creating part and the playing part is very well achieved.
In all these iterations, it’s never been exactly the same game. It’s been different flavours of Mario.
How would you gauge the franchise’s impact on games as a whole?
It invented the whole category of platforming, as far as I know, which has evolved into all sorts of experiences today including 3D platforming. The whole concept of run-and-jump comes from those first few Mario experiences.
Mario then really reinvented other genres. He reinvented the racing genre with Mario Kart, the latest instalment of which continues to be one of the best-selling games in Canada this year despite being over a year old, which in video game terms is old.
He has pushed the boundaries of gaming experiences in new ways in party and role-playing games on portable consoles. It’s kind of a familiar face on innovative experiences every time.
What is unique or different about Mario in Canada?
The one thing our American colleagues always rib us on is that some Canadians pronounce “Mah-rio” as “Meh-rio.” You know the person is Canadian when they call it Super “Meh-rio” Brothers.
Also, NPD Canada has only been tracking game sales since October 2002 and they don’t measure all retailers, but they have down-to-the-unit sales of most Canadian retailers. The grand total of all Mario games in Canada is 11,822,927 units. That’s probably one of the biggest gaming franchises here in Canada.
He is certainly one of our best-selling Amiibo [toys]. That’s one of those amazing, surprise stories in the video game business world in Canada. We’re close to hitting a million units sold of Amiibo, which is a complete surprise to us. We’ve been ramping up production and we have a lot out there, and there’ll be a lot more heading into the holidays.
Over the weekend, we sold over 75,000 here in Canada. According to NPD, Nintendo is now by far the number one manufacturer and seller of video game accessories. Nearly one in four video game accessories sold in Canada are from Nintendo.
So Amiibo are being considered accessories?
Yes, exactly. It’s just the way that retailers and NPD segment the business. There’s hardware and there’s software and accessories. Amiibo and the whole toys-to-life category falls within the accessories category.
So that would include Activision’s Skylanders, Disney Infinity and so on?
What is the proper plural form of “Amiibo?”
That’s a good question. I tried “Amiibi” once and it did not go over well so that’s not the right answer. It’s just “Amiibo.”
Not Amiibos or Amiiba?
In French, maybe it becomes Amiibeaux?
What makes a good Mario game?
It has to be different from previous Mario games, there has to be innovation built into it. As a dad, I think it has to be playable at multiple levels. I love Mario games because in general they allow everyone in my family to enjoy them together.
Whether it’s my wife who doesn’t know how to press all the buttons on the controller or it’s my 12-year-old who over the weekend has been creating these levels that are just impossible to complete, everybody can enjoy it at their own level.
Now that Nintendo is moving into making mobile games, any ideas what might make a good mobile Mario title?
As a fan, I have lots of game ideas, but to be honest as a Nintendo employee I’m not involved in that at all. I have no insight into exactly what games they’re working on and in fact whether it’s a Mario game at all.
As a fan, what do you think would work well?
As a fan personally? I have a folder with game ideas that I’ve been trying to pitch to Mr. Miyamoto for a while. [Laughs] I’ll have to follow up with him and see if I can sell any of my ideas.
Nintendo has been criticized for relying too much on established franchises. Has this hurt the company in the long run?
I think the weekend sales of Mario Maker being what they are are certainly proving that Mario is as relevant today as he was 30 years ago. The numbers don’t lie, they show that Mario is a still a massive [intellectual property] in the world of entertainment.
That being said, I don’t think we completely depend on Mario. Even in the past few months, Nintendo has come to the table with some really new, completely non-Mario IP like Splatoon. That’s in the top 10 in Canada in May, June, July and August and it continues to do well.
Given that it’s a complete rethink on what a shooter could be, I’m expecting it to continue to do well over the holiday season when families are looking for family-friendly games versus violent games.
We’re above 70,000 units just here in Canada and it’s an example of how Nintendo also brings new IP to the table.
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