In 1981, arcades reigned supreme, Pac-Man was a pop culture phenomenon, and Nintendo scored its first major hit in America with Donkey Kong. To go up against the titular ape, Shigeru Miyamoto created Jumpman, a hero who was later renamed Mario. Against all expectations, Mario quickly outgrew his original franchise and landed his own game, Mario Bros., in 1983 alongside his previously unrevealed brother, Luigi. Their adventures continued in 1985 with Super Mario Bros., which solidified their status as Nintendo’s most iconic heroes.
Although Mario has gone on to appear in over 200 video games, he hasn’t always had success in Hollywood. Regardless, Mario’s very first appearance in animation occurred four decades ago, and that journey continues this week with the arrival of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. There’s a lot that happened in-between, which is why we’re taking a look back at Mario’s history beyond the games.
Welcome to the Supercade
Unless you lived through the early ‘80s, you may not realize just how huge arcade games were back then. These characters were incredibly popular. Pac-Man was king, and had his own animated series, but CBS’ Saturday Supercade cartoon had pretty much everyone else. Weekly Donkey Kong segments headlined the show alongside segments featuring Frogger, Donkey Kong Jr., Pitfall Harry, Q*bert, and even Space Ace in Season 2.
The Donkey Kong segments had to walk the line of making both Mario and Donkey Kong sympathetic, since both were beloved. Peter Cullen, the longtime voice of Optimus Prime in The Transformers, was the first actor to portray Mario. Cullen was joined by Judy Strangis as Mario’s girlfriend, Pauline, and each week, they tried to track down the escaped Donkey Kong, who was played by Soupy Sales.
Fortunately, the creators of this series managed to find ways to get Donkey Kong, Mario, and Pauline on the same page by giving them common enemies. But that didn’t mean Donkey Kong refrained from occasionally grabbing Pauline and forcing Mario to once again save her, just as he did in the arcade.
The Anime Kingdom
In 1986, fans in Japan were the first to see Mario and Luigi star in their own anime movie, Super Mario Bros.: The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach!, which was also one of the first video game films ever made. It primarily uses Super Mario Bros. as its inspiration, but the mythology was still largely unformed or ignored. For example, Mario and Luigi work in a grocery store and Princess Peach briefly escapes into Mario’s real world from a Japanese NES (Famicom).
From there, it’s a pretty standard story of Mario and Luigi traveling to the Mushroom Kingdom to save Peach before King Koopa (Bowser) can force her to marry him. They even have to get the video game power ups to save the day. But the biggest surprise, and also the biggest deviation from the lore, was the reveal that Peach had a fiancé named Prince Haru. This film was also the first time that Mario’s romantic feelings towards Peach were overt, even if they were thwarted by a romantic rival.
Do the Mario!
Mario’s next adaptation came in 1989, with the release of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, which was an unexpected mix of live-action and animation. Former wrestler and manager, Captain Lou Albano portrayed Mario, while Danny Wells played Luigi. The live-action segments were a bizarre sitcom that imagined the Mario Bros. as if they were simply ordinary plumbers in the real world whose lives were intruded upon by surreal and comedic events. There was one episode that even featured Maurice LaMarche as Inspector Gadget!
The animated segments were more faithful to Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2, with Mario and Luigi teaming up with Princess Toadstool (Jeannie Elias) and Toad (John Stocker) to protect the Mushroom Kingdom from King Koopa (Harvey Atkin). But to switch things up on Fridays, the animated segments were swapped out with The Legend of Zelda series, with an unusually chatty incarnation of Link (Jonathan Potts) and an indignant Zelda (Cyndy Preston).
Nobody Beats The Wizard
Although Mario is not a character in The Wizard, that film was perhaps one of the most blatant advertisements for a video game before video game movies became a thing. Fred Savage stars as Corey, the older brother of JImmy (Will Seltzer), a video game savant who suffered PTSD following the death of his twin sister, Jennifer. To keep Jimmy from being institutionalized by his mother and step-father, Corey and his new friend, Haley (Jenny Lewis), take Jimmy on the road to Los Angeles to compete in a video game tournament to prove to his parents that Jimmy has worth.
The final showcase of the tournament featured the North American debut of gameplay footage from Super Mario Bros. 3. It didn’t take much acting to make the Super Mario Bros. sequel look entertaining, and it probably would have been a success with or without the film. But watching Jimmy emerge as the champion after playing the game was a very effective moment for young gamers who wanted to play Super Mario Bros. 3 for themselves.
The cast also included Beau Bridges as Corey and Jimmy’s father, Sam, while Christian Slater portrayed their brother, Nick. Tobey Maguire also makes his screen debut in this flick in a brief uncredited role as a stooge for Jimmy’s power glove-wearing rival, Lucas (Jackey Vinson).
The Sequel Series
By 1990, Mario was back on Saturday mornings for The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, a very loose continuation of the animated portions of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! For this series, the live-action segments were eliminated in favor of a fully-animated show. John Stocker reprised his role as Toad, and Harvey Atkin also returned as King Koopa. However, the three other primary roles were recast, with Walker Boone as Mario, Tony Rosato as Luigi, and Tracey Moore as Princess Toadstool.
As the title implies, this series was initially based upon Super Mario Bros. 3, but it also took some liberties with the Mario lore by allowing characters from the Mushroom Kingdom to enter the “real world” at will. Even King Koopa and his minions were able to come to Earth and cause trouble.
In its second season, the show was retitled Super Mario World, after the fourth game in the series hit the SNES. Yoshi, Mario’s fan-favorite dinosaur companion, made his animated debut in this series, which actually gave him a backstory in the final episode. It turns out that Luigi was the one who rescued Yoshi when he was an egg, and he was understandably imprinted on by the young dino. But even when he was a baby, Yoshi still helped the Mario Bros. save the Princess from King Koopa.
Mario Hits the Big Screen
1993’s Super Mario Bros. has the distinction of being the first live-action movie to be based on a video game. Beyond that, it’s infamous for being such a huge box office bomb that it scared Nintendo away from Hollywood for the better part of three decades.
By now, someone had figured out that if they were the Mario Bros., then Mario’s name was actually Mario Mario, here played by the late Bob Hoskins. John Leguizamo co-starred as his brother, Luigi Mario. Curiously, Nintendo didn’t acknowledge that Mario was their last name until 2015, well after the movie had come and gone.
One of the many missteps of this film is that it attempts to explain aspects of the game’s lore without actually keeping true to the source material. So the Mushroom Kingdom was re-envisioned as a parallel world to Earth that diverged millions of years ago. And in this world, humans evolved from dinosaurs and came to live in a city called Dinohattan.
Daisy (Samantha Mathis), the uncrowned princess of Dinohattan, was smuggled to Earth as a baby after King Koopa (Dennis Hopper) overthrew her parents. Daisy briefly befriended the Mario brothers before Iggy (Fisher Stevens) and Spike Koopa (Richard Edson) kidnapped her and brought her back to Dinohattan. The Mario Bros. went to save her, and the movie goes to great lengths to walk viewers through some of the smaller details of the games, including how the brothers can jump so high.
It’s a real mess of a film, and even the cast members haven’t been shy about bashing it over the years. Regardless, it does have a cult following. Some people love Mario so much that even this movie’s missteps can’t keep them away.
This week, after three decades, Mario and company have their shot at redemption with The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Having learned its lesson from the last film, Nintendo took a more active hand in this adaptation while teaming with Universal Pictures and Illumination, the studio behind Despicable Me and Minions. Veteran animation directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic helmed the film, and its drop-dead gorgeous visuals are directly inspired by the games.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt is the new voice of Mario, with Charlie Day as Luigi, Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, Keegan-Michael Key as Toad, and Jack Black as Bowser. In a nod to Mario’s long gaming history, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) also appear, while Charles Martinet, Nintendo’s official voice of Mario and Luigi, lends his voice to the film as the Mario Bros.’ father.
Despite the less than stellar reviews — the film currently has a 46 on Metacritic — it looks like The Super Mario Bros. Movie is going to be the king of the box office. It made $31.7 million on its opening day, and it will likely make more in its opening weekend than the live-action film made in its entire run. So it’s safe to say that there will be more Mario movies in the future.