The True Face of Mario

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In addition, Nintendo almost certainly knows that Segale is not enthusiastic about the association, so why rub it in his face when there’s little (if anything) to be gained by it on Nintendo’s part?

Nintendo recently had an excellent opportunity to officially address Mario’s name origin with this entry in the “Iwata Asks” series on Nintendo’s website. In it, Nintendo Co., Ltd. President/CEO Satoru Iwata interviews Shigeru Miyamoto about New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The two discuss the origins of the Mario character:

"Iwata: So the entire design was a case of form being dictated by function. You can really see that your specialist field, industrial design, is evident in the final result. Then, because he jumped up and down, he became known as “Jumpman”, right?

Miyamoto: Well, I called him “Mr. Video”. My plan was to use the same character in every video game I made."

Through this, we know that Miyamoto’s original name for Mario was “Mr. Video.” The two discuss that name to some length, but Iwata strangely doesn’t press him on the origins of the “Mario” character name. The sole reference to Mario’s final name came from Miyamoto:

I felt that I had come up with a pretty solid character, which is why I thought: “Right, I’ll keep using him from now on!” That’s why I decided a solid, imposing name like “Mr. Video” would work best. But thinking back, I don’t think I should have gone with that name. Someone at Nintendo of America actually came up with the name Mario. If he had been called “Mr. Video,” he might have disappeared off the face of the earth. (laughs)

Miyamoto, as quoted through Nintendo corporate, devotes no more than a single short sentence to the official explanation of Mario’s name: “Someone at Nintendo of America actually came up with the name Mario.” And they leave it at that. No follow-up questions about it from Iwata, no inquiries about the origins of the character’s Italian heritage. It’s slightly odd, to say the least.

On the other hand, Nintendo might just be genuinely confused about the origins of Mario’s name. The Mario naming story took place at great distance from Nintendo’s main office in Japan, which gives the account once-removed status from corporate Nintendo, injecting uncertainty about the geography and circumstances of Mario’s naming. Evidence of this theory can be found in interviews of Mario creator and Japan native Miyamoto, who acknowledges the story about a NOA landlord, but often mistakenly mentions that NOA’s rented warehouse was located in New York. Here’s one such quote from a 2005 MTV article:

"The team gets a lot of credit from Miyamoto, who points out that even conceiving the character’s name was a group effort. The character was initially called “Jump Man” when he made his debut as the player-controlled protagonist in 1981's “Donkey Kong.” Nintendo had warehoused the first American copies of the “Donkey Kong” arcade game in New York. “Apparently the landlord of the warehouse in New York had a striking resemblance to the character that we had designed in Japan for the game,” said Miyamoto. The New York-based Nintendo players took note. “They kept calling him Mario, and eventually we made that the formal name of the character.”"

Of course, Miyamoto’s account is even more confused than that, because he says that ambiguous “players” of Donkey Kong named the character Mario instead of high-level Nintendo employees. Miyamoto’s statement doesn’t match the stories of Nintendo of America employees who actually worked in Tukwila, Washington at the time of Mario’s naming.

What to Believe

Since I’ve presented so much information here and the modern reader tends to skim, I’ll summarize what I know. My research confirms that the Steven L. Kent version of the Mario origin story is the most accurate. Mario A. Segale, real estate developer, was indeed the namesake of Nintendo’s Mario character, and he was indeed the landlord of Nintendo’s Tukwila, Washington warehouse in 1981 when employees of the then very small Nintendo of America named the protagonist in Donkey Kong after him. Many details beyond that still remain in the realm of speculation and will remain so unless the parties involved talk to the press in more detail (and reporters do their part by reporting it accurately).

Ultimately, Mario is Mario is Mario. We never needed to know about Segale to take delight in playing a masterfully crafted Mario title. But as we enjoy the games Nintendo brings us, we can now appreciate the reclusive millionaire that inspired a few aspects of the famous character. At the end of the day, there’s a big difference between the two, and the continuing silence of both Segale and Nintendo on the matter server to remind us of that. It’s in the best interest of both parties to keep the two concepts–Mario the man and Mario the character–as far apart as possible, even if history tells us otherwise. For yes, Segale is truly a part, however small, of video game history.

Special thanks to Bill Odekirk (an alumnis of Highline High School himself), Jeff Ryan, Chris Baker, and Steven L. Kent for help with this article. Simon Carless provided the scan of Lincoln and Arakawa.

More gaming history at Technologizer:

15 Classic Game Console Design Mistakes

The Golden Age of Electronic Games

13 Game Boy Oddities

Forty Years of Lunar Lander

This story, "The True Face of Mario" was originally published by Technologizer.

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