Mario and Luigi are no longer plumbers but why where they plumbers in the first place?
Everyone knows Mario. Nintendo’s mustachioed mascot has led quite an eventful life in the 40 years since his debut. He’s appeared in countless video games, starred in several tv shows, comics, and cartoons, helped sell milk, endured a Hollywood adaptation, and kick started his own dance craze. He even has his own day: March 10 is “National Mario Day”!
No doubt you know the basics about Mario: he wears a red hat and blue overalls, he’s Italian, he works as a plumber, and he’s very good at jumping. But do you know why he’s a plumber? There’s a great reason why Mario has the job–and the name–he does. It all starts in 1981 in a humble warehouse in Seattle…
First appeared in Donkey Kong as a carpenter
Mario first appeared in the 1981 NES game Donkey Kong. In the Japanese version, he is known simply as “Jumpman”. When Nintendo sent the game to their newly-established America branch, however, branch president Minoru Arakawa was afraid the game wouldn’t sell if the character didn’t have a more memorable name. Mr. Arakawa really needed Donkey Kong to sell, both because Nintendo of America (NoA) was hard-up for cash and because he didn’t want to disappoint his father-in-law! They were so hard-up, in fact, that according to legend, the landlord renting out the warehouse Nintendo used as an office burst in one day to demand his late rent payment. That landlord’s name was Mario Segale.
Accounts vary as to why NoA decided to name Mario after their angry landlord. According to some stories, Segale bore a striking resemblance to the character. In others, they thought it would be a funny prank. Segale wasn’t a plumber, however. So how did Mario come to be possibly the most famous plumber of all time? The answer is surprisingly simple, and it mostly has to do with what he looked like.
Mario’s distinctive design is iconic these days, but it wasn’t necessarily made to be. According to Mario’s original creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario was simply designed to stand out on screen. Televisions in 1981 were small, and the 8-bit graphics of the Nintendo Entertainment System were basic.
Miyamoto chose to give the character a big nose and mustache because those features would make it easier for players to see him. Miyamoto gave Mario the famous hat both because hair movement was hard to animate and he wasn’t good at coming up with hairstyles! Even the overalls served a mechanical purpose: they made Mario’s arm movements stick out more, so players could keep track of his running and jumping. Mario’s bright colors popped against Donkey Kong’s dark background.
So: between Miyamoto’s original design and the NoA’s translation, we know where Mario’s name and his look came from. But we still haven’t answered the main question: why plumbing?
Mario green pipes
In Donkey Kong, Mario leaps over barrels in a construction site to save the damsel-in-distress Paulette from Donkey Kong, a barrel-throwing giant monkey. According to legend, the plot of Donkey Kong was originally based on Popeye. Nintendo pursued the license to make Donkey Kong into an official Popeye game, and only didn’t because their negotiations failed. The setting changed to a construction site to preserve the already-programmed gameplay.
If you’re thinking the plot of Donkey Kong doesn’t sound like it would star a plumber, you’re right! Mario’s first official job was as a carpenter. When it came time for Mario to star in his own game, however, one of Miyamoto’s colleagues told him that he thought Mario looked more like a plumber than a carpenter. Miyamoto may have been inspired by this comment, because he set Mario Bros. in New York’s sewers and made it about monsters coming out of pipes. Pipes have been a key component of virtually every Mario game since then, and though he has dabbled in other jobs, plumbing is the career Mario keeps coming back to.
Nintendo see Mario’s everyman profession a major part of his appeal
But why? While we may not personally agree, we have to admit that plumbing is not the most exciting profession a videogame character could have. Over the years Mario has explored space, raced go-karts, and even competed in the Olympics! With all that under his belt, why is Mario still so heavily associated with plumbing?
As it turns out, Miyamoto and Nintendo see Mario’s everyman profession a major part of his appeal. When Miyamoto first conceived of Mario, his idea was to make a cipher-like character that the player could easily identify with. That core idea was at the heart of Mario’s every iteration. By making Mario a simple plumber (who just happens to have an eight foot vertical), players always have something to connect with. Mario’s just a regular guy in a wild world–just like we are. So while Mario’s plumbing profession may have come about largely by happenstance, it has become a big part of the reason why he’s among the most recognizable mascots in the world today