The Lucrative History of Super Mario: A Statistical Analysis.
How did The Super Mario Bros. Movie make so much money?
Intro: How Did The Super Mario Bros. Movie Earn Box Office Gold?
In case you haven't heard, the Super Mario Bros. Movie has somehow grossed over $1.2B and counting — roughly equivalent to ~100,000,000 Chipotle Burritos. Cinema purists may be questioning how a film about a highly-skilled video game plumber received lukewarm critical reviews but still managed to shatter box office records. The answer likely lies in the unprecedented commercial success of the Super Mario video game series, a franchise that has proven remarkably prolific in capturing hearts and wallets for over four decades.
Today, we'll delve into the riveting history of Super Mario, a 5'9 Italian handyman who has achieved unparalleled global success. How did this unassuming arcade character grow into a global icon? How is the scale of the Super Mario franchise unlike other video games? And why did a long-forgotten Super Mario movie adaptation in the 1990s fail while the 2023 iteration succeeded?
The History of Super Mario.
Mario is undoubtedly the most widely-known video game character of all time. But it wasn't always this way, as he began his life as a faceless, pixelated player in a simple arcade game. Here is a brief history of Super Mario's genesis from nondescript protagonist to iconic global brand:
1981: Mario first appeared in the arcade game Donkey Kong, under the name "Jumpman." The game pitted Jumpman, a stout carpenter, against a giant ape (Donkey Kong), with our jumping hero attempting to rescue his girlfriend Pauline from Kong's clutches. Pauline would later be replaced by Princess Peach — quite the royal upgrade.
1982: Mario appeared in the arcade game Donkey Kong Jr., where he played the role of antagonist, capturing Donkey Kong and forcing his son, Donkey Kong Jr., to rescue his father. Nintendo may now regret casting their widely-beloved brand icon as a villain.
1983: Mario Bros. was released in arcades, marking the first game with Mario as the title character. This game introduced Mario's brother, Luigi, and the brothers worked together to defeat enemies in the sewers of New York City. Nintendo also transitioned Mario's profession from a carpenter to a plumber. Mario has remained a plumber ever since.
1985: Super Mario Bros. was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which became one of the most popular and influential video games of all time. This game established many of the franchise's core elements, such as Mario's ability to jump on enemies, the Mushroom Kingdom, and Princess Peach. I'm sure Mario appreciated the change from New York sewer system to Mushroom Kingdom.
1992: Super Mario Kart was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The game introduced the racing format to the Mario universe and allowed gamers to choose from a portfolio of characters within the Mario franchise.
1996: With the release of Super Mario on Nintendo 64 in 1996, Mario made the leap to 3D gameplay. Leveraging the Nintendo 64's upgrade graphics, Mario's moveset expanded significantly, including various jumps and the ability to punch and kick.
1999: Super Smash Bros. marked Mario's first appearance in a crossover game with characters from other franchises. Super Smash Bros. allowed gamers to choose from a roster of Nintendo characters, like Pikachu, Link, Luigi, and more.
Over the years, Mario has been constantly reinvented, adapting to new game formats and designs. His character has become the face of Nintendo and an enduring emblem of pop culture. The overwhelming success of The Super Mario Bros. Movie further cements the character's staying power in a constantly evolving media landscape.
Super Mario, A Franchise of Prolific Output.
When I think about Mario, and his unprecedented longevity, I often imagine a gaggle of Nintendo executives in the 1980s and 1990s. At some point, Nintendo likely faced a decision regarding resource allocation across their various gaming franchises. Should they build their brand around Donkey Kong, Link, Diddy Kong, or Pokemon? Well, somehow, these hypothetical executives decided to invest significant resourcing in a jumping plumber with a lovable mustache and goofy voice.
Perhaps there was no explicit decision to support Mario's character over other series, but, whatever the reason, Nintendo has been wildly prolific in developing the Super Mario franchise. According to the Guinness World Records, Super Mario holds the title of best-selling video game character, with 657,460,000 units sold, as of September 2020:
This total focuses on Mario-branded titles (where his name headlines the game) like Mario Kart and Mario Strikers. This means that the Guinness count understates the scope of Mario's commercial impact, as our beloved plumber holds the record for video game appearances with over 250 titles (both within the core Mario series and crossovers titles):
If you're a video game lover (or even a passive video game enthusiast), you've probably had numerous chances to play a game featuring Mario. And let's say you love one or more of the 250+ games that include Super Mario, and you've played that game countless times. Well, that adds up to hundreds or even thousands of hours of Mario consumption. That's a lot of brand affinity.
Mario, A Versatile Character of Global Appeal.
Sure, Mario is a popular video game character, but a passionate group of gamers doesn't singlehandedly drive over $1.2B in movie sales. So what aspect of the source material made this movie capable of blockbuster ticket sales? The answer likely involves Mario's unique global appeal and his character's gameplay flexibility.
Super Mario is an international brand akin to Nike or Starbucks, capable of immediate worldwide recognition. In fact, a November 2021 YouGov survey of four western countries revealed an absurdly high rate of monthly Mario gameplay:
And while this survey only covered a limited set of western countries, we’d likely find numbers in this range for other regions — especially when you consider Nintendo is based in Japan.
Furthermore, Mario's global scope has grown in recent years, with the percentage of Mario sales attributable to non-US markets increasing from 50% to 60% between the 2000s and 2010s.
Further buoying the character's universal appeal is Mario's highly dynamic range of gaming formats. The Mario Franchise, and its spin-offs, cover a broad spectrum of gameplay designs capable of luring players of varying preferences.
Want to drive as Mario? Then try Mario Kart! Want to fight as Mario? Then pick up a copy of Super Smash Bros.! Want to solve puzzles with Mario and his friends? You'll love Mario Party! And want to do some good old fashion Mario jumping? Then partake in one of Mario's traditional platform games (i.e., Super Mario Bros.).
Examining Mario-branded games by genre, we find the franchise to be highly unique in its diversity of gaming format:
Nintendo has avoided pigeon-holing the Super Mario character, allowing the franchise to evolve its appeal to a broader set of gamers. As a result, Mario exists as the Rorschach blob of video gaming — he can be anything to anyone, anywhere, and do whatever you want.
The Epic Failure of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. Movie.
So now that you understand the exceptional commercial success, global reach, and dynamism of the Mario character, you're probably asking yourself how it took so long for the franchise to hit the big screen. Well, it turns out Mario made his Hollywood debut three decades ago.
Released in 1993, Super Mario Bros., was a live-action film adaptation of the Mario franchise. The film was panned by critics and underperformed at the box office, grossing approximately $20 million in the United States (against a $42 million budget).
The film's storyline and setting diverged significantly from the video game's whimsical and colorful world. Instead, the movie presented a darker, dystopian version of the Mushroom Kingdom, which did not resonate with fans of the games. Many iconic elements from the games, such as Mario's signature abilities and familiar enemies, were either absent or drastically altered in the film.
Take Mario's nemesis Bowser for example. Here is what Bowser looks like in Mario video games:
And here is Bowser's depiction in the Super Mario Bros. movie:
Somehow a bunch of well-paid Hollywood executives decided to spend $40M adapting a beloved video game property into a bizarro combination of I Am Legend, Goodfellas, and Who Framed Roger Rabit? — and then decided to make this movie live-action. Unsurprisingly, viewers greatly preferred the 2023 animated Mario adaptation that faithfully honored its source material. It turns out that video game enthusiasts want an adaptation that looks like the game they enjoy.
Final Thoughts: Will there be More Video Game Adaptations?
PC Mag recently wrote a piece entitled "Super Mario Bros. Movie Is Powering Up Other Video-Game Adaptations," arguing that the film's success, and the success of The Last of Us, would encourage Hollywood to create new franchises around existing gaming intellectual property (IP). I agree that an acceleration of this trend is inevitable. People like to pay money to see stories about familiar characters, so video games represent a new tranche of IP for content mining.
For some, this may be welcome news. You may feel a deep connection with characters from Fallout or Grand Theft Auto and want to see these stories adapted for other media formats. So congratulations, you will get at least five Grand Theft Auto movies over the next two decades (which sound like an edgier version of Fast & Furious).
But what if you're tired of low-effort movie adaptations and franchises? What if you want to avoid seeing ten Fruit Ninja movies throughout your lifetime? There is hope. Sure, The Super Mario Bros. Movie performed unbelievably well despite poor reviews. But if this piece has proven anything, it's that Mario, and the Super Mario franchise, are an anomaly in the gaming world. The only thing that could ruin a Mario adaptation is if creators essentially rejected every element of the franchise's identity — which filmmakers somehow achieved in 1993.
Maybe I'm right, and blockbuster video game adaptations will be a short-lived fad — a copycat trend challenging to replicate outside of Mario's inimitable global brand. Or maybe I'm wrong, and gaming adaptations will become a Hollywood mainstay.
For cinema's sake, let's hope Mario proves an exception once more.
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