The True Face of Mario

Uncovering the fascinating true story behind an iconic character's origins--and why nobody likes to talk about them.

By  |  Sunday, April 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm

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



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44 Comments For This Post

  1. ediedi Says:

    Incredible the amount of work put into harassing a guy who might have looked like a cartoon 20 years ago. Amazingly, him or his family didn't want to be contacted about this story of Pulitzer-prize magnitude…

  2. Jerry Says:

    Great story – so does this guy get residuals for using his likeness?

  3. Won Says:

    Although you state that Super Mario was probably not the name initially thought of by the staff at NOA, I think it is very plausible. “Super” is a common term for building superintendent. “Super” Mario, now it all makes sense, along with Marios love of coins.

  4. DrJP Says:

    Great article!
    BTW: Does anyone know how Luigi got his name?

  5. Jason Says:

    There was an Italian restaurant near the Nintendo of America headquarters named "Mario & Luigi's," and Luigi was named after that pairing of names in the restaurant title.

  6. Codejoe Says:

    The Pizza Parlor is accurate and "Miyamoto observed that the word ruiji means "similar" in the Japanese language, and that Luigi was designed to have the same size, shape and gameplay of Mario"

  7. Marc Says:

    Ohhhh, any good age progression artists out there?!?

  8. Gordon Says:

    Ironic that the landlord’s last name was “Sega”le.

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    "Phil"–As Benj's story notes, Mr. Segale's role in this story has been on the public record for decades–it's been reported in books, in The Seattle Times, on countless gaming sites. It's in Wikipedia. Nintendo personnel have talked about it (albeit without using his last name). And because of his impressive success in his profession, he's a public figure.

    Mr, Segale sounds like an admirable guy, but the genie can't be put back in the bottle, and I don't think we're required not to write about a figure in history (yes, even video game history) because he prefers to keep a low profile.


  10. The Truth Says:

    Actually, Nintendo has never openly talked about the origin of Mario's name. It's never been confirmed by Nintendo or the Segale family. It's probably not even true, and that's why he wants to be left alone.

    The rumor (and the reason for people thinking it's true) was originally started by one guy named David Sheff, who wrote a book in the early 90s called "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped An American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children". Although the author interviewed Shigeru Miyamoto for the book, he never once asked him about the origin of the name Mario, and he even spells his name wrong throughout the entire book. (Sigeru)

    That hardly sounds like a legitimate source of information. Every other source that has ever sited this rumor as being true uses that book as a reference. I honestly believe that this isn't true, but Nintendo just likes having that fun origin story behind the name, so they don't correct people. The real truth will probably be lost to because of this rumor.

  11. exist i. dont Says:

    Great. He wanted not to be associated with Nintendo’s mascot, and now *everybody* will know about him, what he does, and where he lives. You ruined his business and his life now. Way to do responsible journalism.

  12. Person Says:

    That's what I was thinking this whole article.

  13. Guest Says:

    Your paranoia is showing.

  14. Apes Ma Says:

    Yeah, *everybody* is gonna read this article. Relax, this story has been known for at least 20 years, I remember reading about it in the old official scandinavian Nintendo magazine and many times since.

  15. Harry McCracken Says:

    Unhappy commenters: You have the right to your opinions. I will point out, however, that there are thousands of examples of this story being discussed on the Web–often inaccurately–and by attempting to get it right, Benj was primarily analyzing known facts, some published by media outlets a lot bigger than Technologizer. It’s not a new story, but rather an attempt to take an accurate and non-sensationalistic look at an old one–one that involves a gentleman who’s something of a public figure even beyond this story.


  16. Tony Reed Says:

    Mr. Segale is really Thomas Pynchon, right?

  17. Jordi Says:

    The reason the character Mario has a moustache, is that it is much easier to draw a moustache in the limited amount of pixels they had available, than it would be to draw both a mouth and a nose.
    That really is all there is to it originally.

    I think that this “Jumpman” with overalls and a moustache somehow looked Italian to the NoA guys, and with the “real Mario” around as their landlord, they just took the logical step of applying an Italian name to an Italian-resembling character.

  18. Phil Says:

    This is real bottom-of-the-barrel journalism. This poor guy is doing his best to stay out of the spotlight (and you even acknowledge this in the article!) yet you persist in dragging out every last bit of detail you can scrape up on him. If this man doesn’t want to be known for this, why do you persist in harassing him? To drive hits to your website? For shame.

  19. Burt Reynolds Says:

    Why so much whining? It’s not like the IRL Mario is going to be hassled much over this. I’m sure there’s thousands of people driving to his house to ask if he had a mustache 30 years ago. You’ve ruined his life and business? Man, I bet he’s asked about this in person after this World Famous Article has been published less than once.

  20. PJ Says:

    Ok, so please settle a long time argument for me.

    How does Mario Segale pronounce his name?

    Myself and the rest of New York say Marry-o, while the rest of the counrty/world says Mar-eo. Only argument I have is that I know Itlians named Mario and they say Marry-o…and Mario Lemuiex…thats it.

  21. Mario Says:

    Western New York says Mahr eo.

  22. anonymous Says:

    He pronounces his name Mar-eo.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    This is correct. It's Mar-eo, but spelt Mario…

  24. Kyle Says:

    It doesn't matter how Segale pronounces his name. In the games, Mario says, "It's-a me, Mar-eo!" Mar-eo is the proper pronounciation for the character.

  25. Peter M Says:

    The origins of Mario are simple: undisclosed. The more we know about Mario the less we will care about him. With no mystery comes little interest. It would be remarkably stupid to reveal "secrets" of Marios histroy because then articles like this would not exist, speculation and gossip would not flourish and the popularity of the awesome gaming icon would fade.

    @Harry: Writing about people who do not wish to be written about is a bit rude. We all need to respect the wishes and choices of others, within reason, and personal privacy is a human right. Documentation of fact and open discussion is one thing, but digging up information and publishing irrelevancies (not that I am saying this has been done here) is quite another.

  26. Aeg servis Says:

    great inquries. here is powerfull blog.
    This good comment : The origins of Mario are simple: undisclosed. The more we know about Mario the less we will care about him. With no mystery comes little interest.
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  27. fester Says:

    He’s 76 years old and incredibly rich, FFS, his life is not about to be “ruined” because someone talked about him on a website. Get a grip, people. It’s an interesting article, read it, enjoy it, and move on.

  28. Owen Says:

    All artists need inspiration, and the real mario provided it!

  29. Steven S Says:

    Great article thanks for the LoL.

  30. thelazyyu20 Says:

    I heard Luigi got his name from the Japanese kanji 類似(るいじ) meaning likeness; resemblance, similarity of another; in this case would be Mario.

  31. Ted Says:

    Nintendo of America did in fact publish an article stating that the company named the Mario character after the landlord of the Nintendo of America headquarters. As a kid in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had a subscription to the Nintendo Power magazine, which was where the article was published. Sadly, I recycled all those magazines probably 15 years ago, but I’m sure there are people out there who still have the particular issue where the Mario-origin story was published.

  32. Evelyn Reed Says:

    i used to do DIY plumbing at home at my work seems to be on par with regular plumbers.-*.

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  39. Miki Aksentijevic Says:

    I played mario uncounted times but never know the real story behind it… Excellent reads.

  40. The Truth Says:

    I still don't believe that this is true. This rumor was started by one guy, who wrote a book in the early 90s with absolutely no evidence to confirm it. Mario Segale has never confirmed this rumor, neither has Nintendo. I just can't bring myself to think this is true.

  41. makeityourring Says:

    MI love to play Mario game

  42. Paris Jada Says:

    When I was a child, I used to play Super Mario with my brother. It was really fun playing with him.

  43. Paris Jada Says:

    Now this explains a lot about Mario. I did not know any of these. This is so incredible. Well, I love Mario forever.

  44. Acquaintance of Mario S. Says:

    Hi, I myself have a number of photos of Mario, some of which show us together, but like (all, apparently) of his friends and family, I am inclined to keep them to myself.

    But I really stopped to first verify the story of the rented office space to Nintendo, and that they needed a name for their character and, thinking “Mario” was a standard American name, they just used his name.

    My direct understanding and perception is that Mario Segale doesn’t mind at all the fact that his name inspired such an iconic character, and that he shows humble pride in that fact in front of his grandchildren and close-knit adult circles.

    As the association DID happen by pure accident, Mario Segale can’t take a whole lot of actual ‘credit’ for his random-ish association, and I think he might be more ‘involved’ in the whole thing IF, somehow, he himself had helped to create this long-time association.

    Mario does amuse lots of people with the story of his namesake, but I’ve never seen him (stand as tall as I would WANT Mario Segale to stand, as a direct result OF such random association).

    Thankfully Mario S. has enough money on his own to be likely unaffected by any actual gain which could have somehow come from the character of the same name, but which didn’t…

    Despite how he is portrayed in absentia, by the media, Mario Segale is a kind and likable man who is most generous and appropriate toward various worker-bees in the world which surrounds him, and I’ve witnessed that many, many times over.

    Mario S. does indeed enjoy duck hunting and he usually has an open ear toward sincere individuals or groups who might need his assistance in selfless charitable matters.

    I have spent plenty of time with Mario Segale over the years and have always been proud to call him my friend.

    Though I must say that I myself would love a photo of Mario Segale standing beside, perhaps, an adult-sized cardboard cutout of his character namesake.

    Finally, let me just say that his date of birth happened in… the… first half of 1934. And as it is presently (newly) the 2nd half of 2014, well, you can probably do the math.

    I hope that Mario Segale might one day read this and consent to leave the world with a nice photo (or five-hundred-and-seventy of same) of the cartoon Mario beside his own photographed image.

    For the time being, at least, I’m honoring Mario’s (rather amazing) success at having so few photographs of his own likeness on the internet.

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