Source: NintendoMario’s Continuing Amusement Adventure
In another of his occasional guest features for Arcade Heroes – industry specialist Kevin Williams, looks at the amazing influence that one of the world’s most recognizable video game characters has had, and continues to have, on the amusement and attraction scene. Being that it is March 10th (Mar10/Mario Day), now is a great time to highlight the character as he has existed in arcades.
This day marks the moment in history when a then unremarkable video game character broke onto the World stage. The introductory game was ‘Donkey Kong’, and history would see the titular character the player controlled going under the ignominious title of “Jumpman”. The game was Nintendo’s 12th mainstream amusement release, under a name that through a fax error with their US distributor, would change from the originally intended ‘Monkey Kong’. A game feeding off the success of the 1978 movie smash ‘King Kong’. However, the play, graphics-style, and fast pace multi-level addictive action, would make this game a hit.
And so was life in the Golden Age of the amusement scene – when you had a hit it went large, and you needed to feed off it as quickly as possible. Nintendo, and especially their American division were keen to keep the good times rolling, and the next release was born with ‘Donkey Kong Junior’ in 1982. This time the roles are reversed, and it is son of Kong the players control while the newly named “Mario” is the captor of Donkey Kong, which the players strive to rescue. This would be the one and only time that Mario, (newly named after the warehouse landlord for Nintendo of America (Mario Segale), would promote a villainous side of his character.
The momentum for strong characters drove video amusement at that time, the limited pixel resolution meant that the players protagonist would have to be distinctive and drive the marketing and play of the product. This was seen with the success NAMCO had with establishing ‘Pac-Man’, and Nintendo was striving to find their lead character. With that Nintendo rolled out more games that focused on the original character and created a back story. So was born ‘Mario Bros.’ in 1983 – revealing a brother to compete with in the new job as a plumber, and so Mario’s star was born. But it was a star that would shine primarily in the emergence of Nintendo’s console platform aspirations. Only occasionally returning in the pivotal amusement cross-over ‘Super Mario Bros. VS.’ on the ‘Nintendo PlayChoice’ cabinet in 1986.
From an amusement standpoint, Nintendo and Mario would seem to sail their own course away from the arcade scene that established their meteoric rise beyond card game and toy maker. A slight speed bump saw Mario dragged into court as Universal Studio’s sued Nintendo over trademark infringement over the ‘King Kong’ property, (in the future Nintendo and Universals’ paths would cross again). But other than this, it was plain sailing for the now corporate mascot, and for most outward purposes, Mario was a home game icon with no impact on amusement. But that is not entirely the case.
Mario has continued to have an influence in amusement, but more as a promotional tool than a dedicated amusement title. Releases of successful console tentpoles would see their appearance into amusement, with the likes of ‘Super Mario Bros. 2’ and ‘Super Mario Bros. 3’ – all housed in the ‘Nintendo PlayChoice’ work horse. And even an attempt at an update of a proven formula with the release in 1991 of ‘Super Mario World’. Released on the controversial ‘Nintendo Super System’ (NSS) amusement cabinet, a proposed successor to the PlayChoice – but a failed business move. This would mark the last official amusement product manufactured and distributed by Nintendo, further involvement would be relegated to IP partnerships.
Source: Arcade Flyer Archives
Now to the present and we see Mario mark the importance the Nintendo still sees in the Out-of-Home entertainment landscape, not just to promote, but also directly influence.
Nintendo has undertaken the cross-promotion of their brands across their products and have also entered licenses that see other popular mascots and characters enter their game universe. This is best illustrated with the 1999 release ‘Super Smash Brothers’. The game pitting hosts of characters in a fighting arena. Originally focused on Nintendo properties, the game soon saw cameos from BANDIA NAMCO’s ‘Pac-Man’, and SEGA’s ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’, to name a few.
It would be this wetted appetite for cross property promotion, driving sales that saw the creation of the title ‘Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games’. A sports game focusing cross-over competition between the legendary mascots. Released in 2007 and developed by the SEGA R&D team as a perfect physical experience for the Nintendo Wii console. A critical and financial success, it was however this physical fun experience, and the continued investment into amusement releases by SEGA that led to the creation of an amusement version of this game based around the 2016 Olympiad with ‘Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – Arcade Edition’.
This amusement dalliance of Nintendo’s Mario sibling would even see Luigi make an appearance, again through SEGA (licensing a Capcom development), with the launch of ‘Luigi’s Mansion Arcade’ in 2015. The development of the original sports game however would continue to foster popularity and SEGA would release a second in the line with ‘Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – Arcade Edition’. Hoping to ride the build-up to the Tokyo Olympics that game however was impacted by the issues surrounding the event, and the whole Global Health crisis. That said, SEGA have started once again to promote the product as the World prepares to reopen and celebrate the event.
This use of a popular IP associated with a successful consumer release has seen BANDAI NAMCO continue a popular love affair with Mario. Having licensed and released an amusement version of the popular 1992 title, with ‘Mario Kart Arcade GP’ in 2005, the company would continue to milk this franchise with numerous sequels, including the latest release in Japan with ‘Mario Kart Arcade Grand Prix DX’. The various versions of the amusement release so beloved by players in Japan and the West – and even played by Presidents – has proved to be such a consistent performer that it is one of Bandai Namco Amusements’ longest produced titles, having been first introduced in 2013.
It is with this interpretation of the popular Mario universe that has seen the character make is only current venture into Virtual Reality (VR). BANDIA NAMCO creating a VR version of the popular karting game in support of their investment through the BANDAI NAMCO R&D ‘Project-i-Can’ team to create VR experiences for their new ‘VR ZONE’ properties. In 2017, the company launched ‘Mario Kart Arcade GP VR’, launched initially at ‘VR ZONE’ locations in Japan, but then saw four placements in Europe and America at ‘VR Zone Portal’ popups. Incredibly popular with the limited numbers that got a chance to play the game. This however would mark the only real deployment of the mascot into a virtual experience.
There have been other amusement uses of the Mario intellectual property (IP) through the recent time, Nintendo involved in licensing the use on pinball tables, such as the 1992 ‘Super Mario Bros. Mushroom World’, developed and released with Gottlieb. The property of Mario has found his way into several slot machines and medal games. Early on with the Konami license with ‘Mario Roulette’ in 1991, and then again licensing their leading man to Capcom, releasing the ‘Mario Party Fushigi no Korokoro Catcher’ series in 2004. Even in the videmption scene Mario has found a home, licensed by Banpresto for the 1996 release ‘Super Mario Attack’. These are properties that have overall not found their way out of Japan or have been released in such quantities to act as a foot note towards the greater Mario empire. There was also the failed attempt to bring one of these games to the West when Raw Thrills and Capcom tested out Mario Party Challenge World on several occasions.
It is this re-investment into the amusement and attraction scene that is also reflected in what could be the most important appearance of Mario in the out-of-home entertainment landscape. Some years since the corporates clashed over IP infringement, but and in 2015 Nintendo signed a massive partnership with Universal Studios – initially to construct a theme park that would offer “immersive experience” attractions based on the Nintendo IP. This expanded into a multi-theme park project that saw $578 million spent on the first location at Universal Studios Japan. Named ‘Super Nintendo World’ the gate sees intense usage of the Super Mario World IP and characters, including advance Augmented Reality (AR) interactive dark ride attractions. Mario, and his universe placed front-and-center.
The facility has seen the launch of two of its attractions, ‘Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge’ is an impressive dark ride, and the first of its kind to use AR glasses for the four riders per vehicle, allowing them to collect coins as they progress through the hectic recreation or a kart race through the world of Mario. This is a ground-breaking augmented entertainment experience, living up to the immersive experiences that the park was created to offer guests, and sets the bar incredibly high for future immersive attractions. The rest of the park is populated with elements from the Mario universe, and there is even a life-size Mario character walking round the park, using the latest technology to incorporate facial expressions and his catchphrase; for meet-and-greets with park goers.
As with the worlds other most recognized character, Walt Disney’s ‘Mickey Mouse’, the ability to be a multi-platform entity, with recognition factor across the current and future media is essential to increased bankability. And while the launch has been impacted by the pandemic, the initial soft opening of ‘Super Nintendo World’ has seen massive interest, and a growing demand by the local audience to experience this unique undertaking. Work accelerated on launches of this theme park gate at other Universal properties. A “immersive experience” that could de-throne the larger theme park properties, as they adjust to the impacts of video gaming on their audience.
As has been proven by this latest move by Mario – a presence in the out-of-home (commercial entertainment) environment is now advantageous. Offering new and unique entertainment elements through the technology only achievable from multi-million Dollar attractions, is a valuable ability to ensure longevity. A tip that other important game IP’s (and their publishers) will be sure to emulate.
About the Author – Kevin Williams is a widely-respected expert on entertainment and technology. A regular presenter at international conferences, Kevin is also a regular speaker at the Foundation Entertainment University (FEU), a bootcamp for FEC investors. He also holds the role as one of the senior judges of the VR Awards.
Kevin’s consultancy KWP Ltd specialises in helping international clients develop immersive and interactive entertainment. Kevin has recently become Co-Founder and Technology Director for Spider Entertainment, a Global leader in Out of Home Entertainment for retail destinations.
Kevin is editor of the Stinger Report, a-must-read for those working or investing in the amusement, attractions, and entertainment industry. Along with this, he is also a prolific writer with regular columns for the main trade publications in this market, along with presenting numerous conference sessions on the sector and its global impact. He is also the co-author of the only book on this aspect of the market – currently working on the next edition, scheduled for publication soon. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.