Among the crowd aboard the Sydney Starship, a group of thirtysomething men with carefully tousled hair hold champagne flutes and exchange niceties with one another as their statuesque partners - washed in neon blue light - disinterestedly gaze across the water towards the lights of the drizzling city nightscape.
All around them TV monitors and friendly demonstrators both wait patiently at the menu screen. In the background, a celebrated Australian DJ plays velvet-smooth house music.
Into this otherwise ordinary scene lumbers a young man in a costume. His loud outfit is composed of a red shirt and blue overalls, workman’s boots, a red cap and white gloves. He’s wearing an oversized mask. He can’t see where he’s going.
Upon spying him those same thirtysomething men dissemble, peeling themselves from their dates and gaggling around the disoriented mascot – nattering to one another and impatiently waiting their turn to have their photo taken.
Only Mario can do that. Only he can regress self-possessed grown men back to wide-eyed childhood.
The smothered actor waves furtively for his handler: “Mario has to go for now,” she explains as she guides Nintendo’s mascot past the abject few who missed their photo op, “We don’t want him passing out from heat exhaustion.”
Seemingly, the cameo has reminded some why they’re here. Nintendo is celebrating the imminent release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and the groups shift, some gravitating towards the game demonstrations, others the bar. Having watched the spectacle unfold, our group turns the conversation to Mario himself.
Mario’s origins are the very stuff of folklore, gaming or otherwise: Told and retold, but always received with a ready ear whether the audience is hearing it for the first time or whether they’re armed to trade opinions on the particulars of the legend:
“Luigi is named after a pizza parlour near Nintendo’s old New York warehouse offices,” he’ll say. “Mario & Luigi’s Pizza.”
“No no,” the next will reassure you, “his name is actually a play on the Japanese word for ‘analogous,’ as in the earlier games Luigi and Mario were interchangeable.”
Details or no, it’s the kind of tale everyone likes to hear. It’s one of humble origins, late nights, flirtations with bankruptcy and frantic shortcuts turned overnight runaway success, billion-dollar industry saver and global cultural icon. It’s the story of how an 8-bit collection of red and blue pixels became a mascot synonymous with videogames, one recognised around the world as quickly as two golden arches, or a white ribbon on a red field.
In 1980, Shigeru Miyamoto was an artist trying to find his place in an industry dominated almost exclusively by programmers and suits. Thirty years ago, those who coded games also dreamed up what those same games were supposed to be about. Often, the mechanics of the game were designed and then dressed in a skimpy plot that players were free to take or leave… Something about ghosts and fruit, maybe? Who cares? It’s fun.
Nintendo’s US track record in those years had been less than impressive: Essentially, two knock-offs of Space Invaders - Space Fever and Radar Scope - and Sheriff, a game the developers had hoped would finally launch their aggressive move into America.
All could be found at the back of the arcade, bleeting cheerily but largely ignored.
Miyamoto had been dispatched across the Pacific and tasked with creating an arcade game that could truly rival the success of those perennial US favourites, Space Invaders and Pac-Man.
But all the artist had come up with so far was a sprite he called “Mr. Video” – hardly an inspired name, but one that properly evokes that more straight-forward era before conceit, allusion, obfuscation and quid pro quos became commonplace this industry (the fascinating Cold War saga of Tetris notwithstanding). Mr. Video was designed to be a serial character in any games Miyamoto might create, making cameos or filling the leading role as necessary. It was an idea borrowed from manga comic artists and Alfred Hitchcock, who also makes repeat appearances in his own work.
His first idea, however, was to license all-American cartoon character Popeye the Sailor-Man, and to create a game based on the love triangle between Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl. Nintendo sought the license, but was unable to secure it.
Undaunted, Miyamoto reverse engineered the cartoon’s plot. Mr. Video stepped into Popeye’s boots. He was given a trade – carpentry – and a new name, “Jumpman.”
Jumpman has mistreated his Bluto-modelled pet gorilla. The gorilla escapes and kidnaps Jumpman’s love interest, Lady. Now, Jumpman must climb his construction site to rescue Lady as the gorilla rains down barrels to try and stop him.
Lady would go on to be named Pauline, and the gorilla, of course, was Donkey Kong.
As a name, Jumpman was about a half-step up from Mr. Video and still too plain for Western audiences. The answer presented itself when Nintendo’s irate New York landlord burst in on a meeting, demanding his overdue rent and threatening the small conclave of expat Japanese nerds with eviction.
Miyamoto and his coworkers were eventually able to convince their incensed landlord that his rent would be settled, and as a showing of good faith, offered to name their videogame character after him. The placated Mario Segale could have had no inclination that his given name would go on to feature in more than 200 titles.
The character was first named “Mario” in Donkey Kong Junior and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s his first and last appearance as a villain. In it, Mario has recaptured Kong and Junior is on a platforming mission to free his father.
The character’s final evolution from puffy everyman to chubby, cheery sewer-dweller would come when Miyamoto decided that carpentry was too obscure a trade for his hero.
Mario was designed with ease in mind. His blue overalls and red shirt contrast sharply with one another, and stand out against the black backgrounds of Donkey Kong and Junior. His white gloves distinguish his hands from his face when he jumps. Mario has a bushy moustache and wears a cap because properly detailing a mouth and hair in 8-bit is next to impossible.
A colleague pointed out to Miyamoto that Mario’s getup made him look like a plumber. Miyamoto’s next game took place in New York’s sewers and set the plumber and his new brother against turtles and crabs. The only jump left to Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo Entertainment System was to depart New York for the Mushroom Kingdom, to substitute Lady-Pauline for Princess Peach and to replace Kong with King Koopa (or Bowser, as he’s sometimes known).
Very little has changed since. Mario has spent a quarter of a century rescuing Peach over and again from the machinations of Koopa, and with never so much as a weary whimper.
Last night’s pre-emptive celebration was a notable occasion for two reasons: For one, it’s the first time in nearly two decades that a true Mario game has had a sequel.
Secondly, it highlights Nintendo’s outmoded approach to staggering global releases: The game was released in the US on the 23rd of May and in Japan on the 27th. It will be available in Europe on the 11th of June before making its late début in the antipodes on the 1st of July.
Reviews of Super Mario Galaxy 2 are live across the Internet and they’re unanimously glowing – as I write it’s the highest scoring game of all time. Now we can only corroborate in part what the rest of the world is already saying, what everyone else already knows.
It is indeed a remarkable title, radical only in its extremely tight focus on exploring what’s possible in a dynamic 2D platformer. This is an era where so many developers play at Dr. Frankenstein, stitching disparate and unresponsive appendages onto their games. Super Mario Galaxy 2 proves again that the best work typically comes from a tight brief.
Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach (check) and fled to outer space. Mario is provided with a space ship and must traverse the Mushroom Kingdom’s six quirky galaxies platforming toward Power Stars and pursuing his nemesis.
The levels can turn on a dime, quickly establishing a mechanic such as diminishing platforms, restored by power-ups, before benching it and introducing the next just as you’re approaching mastery.
Controls are fluid and players have an intuitive rapport with Mario. Using the Wiimote feels instinctive, logical, as if you’re discovering all over again what a clever piece of design it is.
Yoshi returns as Mario’s steed and has a variety of specific power ups that will help him to carry our hero to his destination. His tongue can be used to snatch up goodies, baddies and to grapple from one platform to the next. Luigi is also able to sub in for Mario on occasion. Completing levels with Luigi will unlock a ghost Luigi that can then guide Mario to hidden secrets.
It’s a delight to play. You won’t discover much technical innovation, its achievements are more subtle and creative, surprising you with a clever turn that resets expectations and refreshes enjoyment. It's something worth the celebration.
And there's probably no better place for it than a boat - itself a kind of metaphor for Mario's enduring buoyancy. For 30 years, Mario has rocked with the changing tides and fads of gaming, and if occasionally he's lost his mooring - Sunshine springs to mind - Super Mario Galaxy 2 proves that he's sailing in smooth waters once again, even if his arrival in the Pacific is a little tardy.