How did a
Popeye the Sailor Man would be the influence behind the Donkey Kong arcade game which would introduce us to Mario and propel Super Mario Bros., and Nintendo to worldwide success.
It’s amazing how one incident can completely change the trajectory for a company and an industry. If Popeye had never been created we would not have had Mario and the original NES might not have had the success it did. Super Mario Bros is the #1 selling game of all time by far and it propelled the NES into a new era of video games after the great video game crash of 1983.
Let’s look at how all of this came together and how Popeye led to Super Mario, and that means going back to the story of both of the. We’ll start with the oldest one; Popeye was created in 1929 so that seems to be where to start. Except it’s not. Nintendo, as a company, predates Popeye by another three decades…
The History Of Nintendo
Now obviously Nintendo isn’t making video games in 1889 but it’s when the company was created. It started out as a playing card company in Kyoto, Japan. The trading cards they created were called “Hanafuda” which meant “flower cards” and there were a number of games you could play with them. It’s the reason you see the use of flower power and fireballs in Super Mario as they come from these old card games. (check out my
These old cards were first printed on bark – if you can believe that – and they started making them out of plastic in 1953. One big moment happened in 1959 when they were licensed to start printing cards with Disney characters on them. They were able to sell 600,000 packs that year and went from calling themselves the Nintendo Trading Card Co. to just Nintendo.
Nintendo started to dabble in other products even making vacuums at one point. They branched out into toys and also into electronic games. They created a mechanical arm called the “Ultra Arm” that sold 1 million units and even a solar powered light gun in 1973.
You would see that pop up a little later…
Their electronic games and toys were catching on big time and they started to get involved in arcade games which were becoming more popular. This is where the story now crosses with Popeye and before that, let’s look back at the history of the spinach loving sailor.
The History Of Popeye
Popeye the Sailor was created by Elzie Crisler Segar and first appeared in the daily King Features comic strips on January 17, 1929. Popeye started as a one-eyed sailor who got his “luck” by rubbing the head of something called the “wiffle hen”.
Olive Oyl even predates Popeye when she appeared in the “Thimble Theatre” from the New York Journal on Dec 9, 1919. This strip lasted for a decade and the appearance of Popeye was just supposed to be a one off as he had been hired by Olive’s brother, Castor Oyl. Eye roll…
In this first appearance, Castor hired Popeye to captain a ship to a casino where Castor was trying to win against the crooked mob owner. Castor would get his luck from rubbing the hairs of that wiffle hen. Basically they had to make a run for it and Popeye ends up getting shot multiple times but only survives because he rubs the head of the Whiffle Hen.
What the hell was going on in the late 20s?
So Popeye was actually based on a real guy named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel who lived from 1868 to 1947. Was I the only one who never knew this?? Even Olive Oyl and Wimpy were said to be based on real people who all lived in Chester, Illinois, the home tome of Segar.
Anyway, the character of Popeye was a big hit and due to the reader reaction he was brought back. He became more and more popular and ended up getting a bigger role. Kind of like Steve Urkel would on Family Matters.
Popeye and Olive Oyl would become a hot and heavy thing and when Segar died in 1938 different artists were used to take over the strip. They would bring back some characters that had only been used once including Bluto, who started as “Bluto the Terrible” who was a large muscle-bound nemesis to Popeye who was always trying to steal Olive Oyl.
Keep that in mind too…
The Influence Of Popeye
So Popeye is becoming a big hit and is said to be the influence behind a lot of the superheroes we know today. Remember, Popeye predates pretty much all of them, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman etc.
Popeye wasn’t a Superhero per se, but has all the elements that made up a traditional superhero story. There was the brave hero, the damsel in distress and the brutish adversary. You can see how Superman mimicked this same dynamic.
Popeye as a character was also becoming immensely popular. The first animated cartoons started in 1932 and comic books were big sellers. There was the made for TV cartoons from the 1960s that came out and then a series of regular TV cartoons were commissioned. Bluto needed to be changed to “Brutus” at the time due to some copyright issues that came up with Paramount.
On September 9, 1978 “The All New Popeye Hour” debuted on CBS Saturday morning cartoons. It was an hour long show made by Hanna-Barbera Productions and not long after the feature film with Robin Williams was made.
So Popeye was a pretty well-known, and hot commodity. For a new upstart video game company this seemed like the perfect theme to put into a new arcade video game.
Nintendo Gets Started In Arcade Games
Shigeru Miyamoto was a video game designer that worked for Nintendo and has created some of the greatest games ever made including The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, and F-Zero. He was originally hired by Nintendo as a toy designer but would become the companies first artist.
Nintendo’s first arcade game would be called “Sheriff” and it came out in 1979. The game was also known as “Bandido” and it was a Western style of game. It involved controlling a county sheriff who would have to protect the town against bandits. There is also a captured woman, so he has to protect the town and also rescue here. You can see where this is going I hope.
People liked it but I don’t think it was a runaway success. Miyamoto was the art designer for Sheriff and the first game that he would actually work on was “Radar Scope” from 1980. It was a kind of “Space Invaders” style of game and involved a new type of hardware that had some good possibilities for other games.
Radar Scope did OK in Japan but when they excitedly launched it in the States, it didn’t go over well. Nintendo was now left with warehouses filled with thousands of these unbought cabinets that they thought was going to be a huge hit when launched in the United States.
Bringing Popeye To Arcade Games
The head of Nintendo America was Minoru Arakawa, and he was actually the son-in-law of the Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi. He begged his father-in-law to provide him with a new game that could be swapped over into all those unused Radar Scope cabinets. This would be Nintendo’s last shot at making it in America as they were facing financial disaster.
Yamauchi was desperate and asked every Nintendo employee for ideas that could be turned into a video game and Shigeru Miyamoto spoke up with an idea. Miyamoto was more aware of American culture and noticed how popular Popeye the Sailor man was. His idea was to create a video game based on the three main characters. He thought a simple love triangle between Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl would work as that has been a very familiar premise from the TV shows. Thinking back to the game Sheriff, there would be a woman that would have to be rescued, and that was the basic premise for the game.
People would recognize Popeye, and the other characters, and would already know the backstory and “love triangle” aspect. It would be a quick introduction into the world.
But they couldn’t get the rights to Popeye. They were screwed.
Or were they?
The concept was still a good idea but now Miyamoto would need to swap out the characters and come up with his own. He needed to use the brutish Bluto as the main villain and he took inspiration from Beauty and the Beast but then embraced King Kong as the perfect beast/villain. He thought that Bluto could swap out for a giant ape easily.
Olive Oyl would be a woman needing to be rescued but they would call her “Lady” and then “Pauline”. This came up when they were talking to the Nintendo warehouse landlord Mario Segale. He had mentioned that the warehouse managers wife was named Polly and Polly, or Pauline, might be a good name.. And instead of Popeye he would use a carpenter that he would name “Jumpman”.
With the story in place he had to design the game. But his original ideas including multiple sizes and levels and catapulting characters across the screen were too complex to program. He then thought of using sloped platforms with barrels that would have to be jumped over. But instead of just one screen like PACMAN there would be some variations between screens.
A four-person team programmed the game and they would call it Donkey Kong. This was the first time that a story had been developed before the programming of a video game. Usually the game was programmed and then they would throw together some sort of theme or story.
They sent it to Nintendo of America for testing. And the sales managers hated it.
They were more focused on games that were based on mazes or shooting and this was completely different. But Nintendo was screwed. They had to get something out there and they had to make use of all the Radar Scope units that were just sitting there burning a hole in their pockets.
So they put it out there and you know what happened.
The Success Of Donkey Kong
So Donkey Kong is a massive success after it came out in 1981. It was one of the first versions of the “platform game genre” and one of the first that featured characters that could jump. The game used the full on “damsel in distress” theme with Jumpman trying to save her from the kidnapping. Jumpman was designed in red overalls and a red cap which was a sort of “everyman” look in Japan at the time. They tried to design a mouth for him but they had such few pixels to work with they could only end up giving him a moustache…
So with Donkey Kong being a blockbuster hit they immediately started on a sequel releasing Donkey Kong Jr in 1982 and Donkey Kong 3 in 1983. They would make one notable change, however; Jumpman was now given a new identity and a new name. Remember the warehouse landlord from before? They would use the name Mario from Mario Segale. They would also give him a brother named Luigi and turn them from carpenters and plumbers.
They also gave Mario some superhuman abilities including being able to fall from any height while being unharmed.
So Nintendo is now a huge player in the arcade game, um game, but they are thinking about the home video game market too.
The Video Game Crash Of 1983
It’s hard to think of a time when video games pretty much disappeared. Atari was King of the Mountain obviously coming out of the 70s and into the 80s. The video game industry was on fire with other companies like ColecoVision being in the mix too. In 1982 Atari was pulling in a crazy $3.2 Billion a year.
But then the E.T video game came out.
Now this isn’t the single tipping point that derailed an industry as there was a lot leading up to it. Video games were starting to get a bad name because anyone could put out a game for Atari as they never did any quality checking or approval. This meant that there was a flood of disappointing and almost unplayable games out there that were frustrating people and causing returns and backlash.
There was also some more competition. There were other gaming units and the home computer was now starting to take off. The Commodore 64 was offering the ability to play games too but also do so much more. And the price points were starting to become more affordable.
When the E.T Atari video game came out in 1983 it set in motion, a snowball effect that would bring Atari to its knees. I have a full blog on this whole story if you want to check it out here, but here’s the quick rundown. E.T was made in only 5 weeks to get out in time for Christmas. It was one of the most disappointing and frustrating games ever created and led to a ton of returns and horrible word of mouth.
They would sell 1.5 million of them but produced over 4 million. It was official, people were pretty much over video games. In one year Atari lost $536 million and they would drop from that $3.2 Billion in 1983 to only $100 million by 1985. When E.T came out their value dropped by $1.3 billion and they would be divided up and sold by 1984.
This is a monumental crash and even though E.T is not solely to blame, video games were not really of interest to toy manufacturers anymore.
The Nintendo Entertainment System
It seemed like a risk but Nintendo had introduced the Famicom in Japan which was the predecessor to the NES and it was going over well. There was no telling if this would catch on in North America because companies wanted nothing to do with video games. It seems crazy to think but manufacturers didn’t want to touch them and big companies like Hasbro and Mattel had been so burned by the video game crash they had no interest.
Launching the NES was going to require a pretty epic game and they would go back to a carpenter turned plumber to be one of the flagship games for the new system. Arcade games have always been big, but they were only about getting high scores. With Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto had introduced the idea of story into a video game and he wanted to take a new approach with the NES games. Instead of just focusing on a high score there would be more of a focus on game play and theme.
Everyone was already familiar with Mario from the Donkey Kong games and those previous years served as good advertising for a new game from a new system. It was a brilliant idea because it’s like it was a carry over from the arcade to a new home video game system. You already know what Mario and Luigi were all about but now you get to see them in their whole new world. (theirs, not Aladdin’s..)
There was also the Mario Brothers arcade game that had been out in 1983. The Super Mario Bros. world was actually designed first without their inclusion. The prototype of the game just had a simple pixel square move around the screen and it was suggested to use Mario as the sales from the arcade game were still going strong. The game would include “super mushrooms” and this gave way to the name “Super Mario Brothers”.
Releasing Super Mario Brothers
Super Mario Bros had a few good innovations which would help with its success. The first world of Super Mario Brothers – world 1-1 – starts off simple as a way to get familiar with your surroundings and build up your skills. This was another great idea to ease people into game play and let them build their confidence and learn the mechanics of the game.
The other big things was the music. Music in video games had been pretty crappy up to that point and Super Mario would change that. The music, and sound effects, would be an integral part of the game and would create a mood and atmosphere to the different levels and conditions.
So you put together a new concept, new game play, and a familiar character and you’ve got the perfect combination to launch a new game system.
Super Mario Bros. would come out in Japan in September 1985 and then launched in North America later that year and into 1986. I don’t need to tell you it was a massive hit, and the NES changed culture and the childhoods of every kid in the 80s. The game, and system, relaunched the video game industry from the crash of ‘83 into a whole other level.
Super Mario Bros. would become the best-selling game of all time selling over 40 million units. The success of the original NES would also lead Nintendo to create:
- The Super Nintendo
- Game Boy
- Nintendo 64
- Game Cube
- Nintendo DS
- Nintendo Wii
- Nintendo Switch
Game wise Mario would have a ton of sequels and spinoffs such as:
- Super Mario Bros. 2
- Super Mario Bros. 3
- Super Mario Land
- Super Mario World
- Super Mario 2: 6 Golden Coins
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Sunshine
- Super Mario Galaxy
- Super Mario Bros Wii
- Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Super Mario 3D Land
- New Super Mario Bros. 2
- New Super Mario Bros. U
- Super Mario 3D World
- Super Mario Maker
- Super Mario Run
- Super Mario Odyssey
- Super Mario Maker 2
Yowza. And this doesn’t even include things like Dr. Mario, Mario Kart’s, and all the iterations of him in the original sports games like Tennis.
Wrapping It Up
So the disappointment over not being able to license Popeye for an arcade game pretty much led to a whole other path Nintendo would go down that would transform them, and the video game industry, forever.
You’d never think that the spinach eating sailor would be the influence behind the game that would lead us to Super Mario. If they never had to come up with the new concept that became Donkey Kong it’s hard to say where the video game industry would be today.
And the greatest moment of my life – the first time saving the princess in 1986 – would never have happened.