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

How We Know The Segale Story

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with Segale personally, let’s get back to basics. How do we know that Mario Segale was Nintendo’s landlord? And how did the world hear about the Mario naming story to begin with?

To clear up the landlord issue, we simply have to dig into historical records. Thanks to the online US Trademark database, we can easily find Nintendo of America’s address in the early 1980s, and guess what? It matches a building owned by Mario Segale. So Segale was definitely Nintendo’s landlord in 1981.

As for the story, we have to trace it back to its roots in our culture. It first gained wide attention thanks to journalist David Sheff’s provocatively-titled 1993 book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children.

Yes, that’s really the title.

To explain the following passage, we must set the scene. It’s 1981, and Nintendo’s struggling American branch, Nintendo of America (NOA) has rented a warehouse in Washington as its headquarters. NOA is about to distribute Nintendo’s new Donkey Kong arcade game in the United States.

The game stars an enormous gorilla and a pudgy red and blue protagonist Nintendo nicknames “Jumpman,” who is a carpenter by trade (Mario did not become a plumber until the Mario Bros. Arcade game in 1983). Minoru Arakawa, President of NOA, badly needs a hit game to save his troubled American operation. It seems that Donkey Kong will do the trick.

Here is Sheff’s exact telling of how Mario got his name (I quote from page 109 of the 1994 edition):

They were trying to decide what to call the rotund, red-capped carpenter, when there was a knock on the door. Arakawa answered it. Standing there was the owner of the warehouse. In front of everyone, he blasted Arakawa because the rent was late. Flustered, Arakawa promised that the money was forthcoming, and the man left.

The landlord’s name was Mario Segali. “Mario,” they decided. “Super Mario!”

It should be noted that there are three problems with Sheff’s account: one, there’s a reference to “Super Mario,” a character power-up idea that only came about in relationship to 1985’s Super Mario Bros. on the Famicom, so the entire NOA staff wouldn’t have spontaneously exclaimed “Super Mario!” in 1981.

More notably, Sheff misspells Segale’s name as “Segali.” In my mind, this was likely a transcription error from a verbal interview that Sheff conducted. Thanks to Sheff’s one-letter mistake, the Internet is littered with tens of thousands of erroneous instances of the “Mario Segali” spelling in Mario origin stories, further confusing the issue.

Third, Sheff’s story implies that Segale barged in just at the very moment when NOA was deciding what to call Mario. This is almost certainly a dramatic exaggeration, since later, less sensational accounts favor the “gradual nickname” version of events.

From Sheff’s work, the story eventually made its way into a popular video game history book, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent. Kent tells the tale on page 159 with a decidedly more level head than Sheff. I’ve added paraphrased replacements in brackets for clarification:

[Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi] called his son-in-law [Minoru Arakawa, president of Nintendo of America] and told him that a new game was coming that would make Nintendo one of the hottest game companies in American arcades.

The news could not have come at a better time. [Nintendo of America] had nearly bankrupted themselves, and Arakawa was having trouble covering the costs of his floundering operation. Around this time, Mario Segale, the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse, visited Arakawa to complain that the rent was late. After threats and angry words, Segale accepted Arakawa’s promise that the money would arrive shortly. Arakawa later immortalized Segale by renaming Jumpman, the carpenter in Donkey Kong, Mario.

I recently asked Kent about the source of this information, and he says he likely took it from David Sheff’s book originally, but he’s fuzzy about it because he wrote it twelve years ago. Kent is sure, however, that he ran all of his Nintendo chapters past both Howard Lincoln (legal counsel for NOA in 1981, later Chairman) and Minoru Arakawa. They had no complaints. I contacted Minoru Arakawa myself, but he declined to be interviewed on this topic.

Interestingly, neither Sheff nor Kent say that NOA named the character Mario because of a physical resemblance to Segale. That element of the story seems to have come from interviews with Shigeru Miyamoto, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

With these dramatic, simplified stories in mind, it might be obvious why (aside from associations with a childlike cartoon character), Segale isn’t itching to step out and claim the limelight as Mario’s inspiration. Put yourself in Segale’s shoes: would you be happy about the antagonistic role you played in this classic tale of overdue rent? Furthermore, in Sheff’s account (the first one that caught the eye of the press), it’s almost as if Nintendo was mocking Segale by naming their character after him.

Ah yes, mocking. That brings us to another reason Segale might not be too thrilled with Nintendo’s mascot: the exaggerated Italian stereotypes baked into Nintendo’s one-note Mario character. In modern Mario games, the character delivers plenty of simple-minded one liners (voiced by Charles Martinet) in a very thick, very silly Italian accent. (Think: “It’s-a me, Mario!”) At least Mario isn’t constantly seen scarfing down pizza and pasta–unless you count the entire run of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show.

Nintendo Remains Quiet

Unless Nintendo officially acknowledges Segale’s role in the Mario origin story–and unless Segale steps out and talks more about it — this tale will continue to retain more than a hint of legend and lore. In my research, I have never found a reference to Nintendo of Japan officially acknowledging the Mario Segale/Mario character connection. The possible reasons for Nintendo’s behavior range from conspiratorial to mundane.

I suspect (and this is pure conjecture on my part) that Nintendo is reticent about making the Segale/Nintendo connection publicly due to possible legal or financial implications of using Segale’s first name, Italian heritage, and likeness for its extremely lucrative video game character. You might recall the “I’m still waiting for my royalty checks,” quote from Segale, which, while portrayed as humorous, probably didn’t inspire confidence in Nintendo.



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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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