Of Spinach and Shrooms

The secret to Popeye’s strength is not a well-kept one. Everyone knows that he’s “strong to the finish ‘cos he eats his spinach”. But the reason for his affection for this leafy green is more obscured. One popular myth claims he’s in it for the iron.

The myth goes like this: a 19th century German chemist misplaced a decimal point on a nutritional table, prompting the iron content of spinach to be grossly over-rated. This putative ferric potency of Spinach then convinced cartoonist E. C. Segar to make it the go-to food for his character Popeye.

This story has been promoted by many well-respected journalist and scientists as an example of the influence small mistakes can have, and the importance of checking your facts. Ironically, the story itself is spurious. It has proliferated because none of it’s promoters bothered to fact-check their allegory about fact-checking. James Sutton has the full story here.

Vitamin A, Exhibit A!

Vitamin A, Exhibit A!

But there’s another popular working man with a vegetable super food. It’s a-Mario, and he always eats his mushrooms. While not as widely cited as the Spinach story, Mario’s penchant for fungi does come with its own popular myth. Like Carroll’s Alice, people seem to think that Mario is on drugs.

Mario S. Thompson say: "We can't stop here, this is Koopa Country!"

Mario S. Thompson say: “We can’t stop here, this is Koopa Country!”

And the claim seems to make sense. How else can you explain all the bizarre features of the Mario series? A game about a fat Italian plumber who stomps turtles, rides dinosaurs, can fly, eats magical mushroom and plants, climbs into pipes, hops on clouds, and dresses up like a raccoon? What was Miyamoto smoking?

The Mario universe is a bit like an M.C. Escher print. Looking at the big picture, you see paradoxes: impossible rooms and objects with nonsensical geometry. But when aspects of the picture are inspected closely, you find that each individual section makes sense. So it is with Mario – every quirk comes with a reasonable explanation. No LSD-laced sake required.

Allow me to answer some of the oft-poised questions that, left unanswered, make Mario seem like a drug trip. You’ll find that each weird-ass element has a totally logical explanation.

  1. Why is he Italian?Originally Mario was called Jumpman. The name highlighted the all-new feature that his game Donkey Kong implemented: jumping. Nintendo’s American branch decided to change Jumpman’s name when localizing the game. The named him Mario after Don Mario, their building’s landlord. One colorful story claims that Don Mario barged in on one of their brainstorming sessions, demanding rent money for the month, but this tale is yet unconfirmed. However, once dubbed Mario it only follows that he’d have Italian blood.
  2. Why is he a mustachioed plumber?In his first appearance, Donkey Kong, he was actually a carpenter. This was decided since the game was set on a construction site. Graphical limitations imposed by the size of his sprite made it hard to distinguish arms, hair or facial features. Thus, Mario was given overalls to define arms, a cap to hide his hair and a mustache to cover his face. His second appearance, Mario Bros (Not to be confused with the NES title, Super Mario Bros), was a game in which monsters continually came on and off screen for the player to battle. To facilitate their exits and entries, the game’s stage was laden with large pipes. And who works with large pipes? Plumbers.

    And who looks like a plumber? Bob Hoskins.

    And who looks like a plumber? Bob Hoskins.

  3. Why do mushrooms make him grow?Mario was first planned to be large-size for the whole course of his third appearance, Super Mario Bros. But while developing the game the programmers were bug-testing the game with a smaller version of Mario, so they could move about more easily. Then they decided to use the bug-test mode as part of the actual game, and have players be able to grow and shrink. A mushroom was chosen to symbolize this transition, because of Japanese folk-tales about men eating mushrooms and growing in size. Whether these folk-tales were referring to psychedelic mushrooms is up for debate, but Mario was not.
  4. Why does he battle turtles?In Mario Bros enemies could not be jumped on directly. Instead the gameplay consisted of hitting enemies from below to flip them over, and then booting them from the side to finish them off. Turtles seemed a natural choice for role, since once flipped over they would be vulnerable and could not reset themselves easily. But upon further reflection, Miyamoto thought it strange that landing on a turtle would do Mario harm. To rectify this he included the turtles, now dubbed Koopas, in the game’s sequel, but allowed them to be stomped on directly. And they’ve been standard baddies every since.
  5. How come he can walk on clouds?At first Mario was going to ride in a cloud for one of the levels of Super Mario Bros, firing missles and dodging enemies in shmup-style gameplay . Cloud-riding is another Japanese folk-lore thing, as gods and spirits in Japan are often depicted as riding in one. Mario’s cloud-ride proved too taxing for the design team’s resources, but they had already drawn up cloud sprites and made a few sky areas. Rather than let them go to waste, they let Mario run around in the sky. (Eventually he did get a shmup level in Super Mario Land, albeit in a jetplane instead of a cloud.)

As you can see, pretty much every strange thing about Mario and his universe came from some limitation of design, or to fit in with some new gameplay. Visual or narrative aspects came from the games themselves, rather than the other way around. In fact, this may be a large part of Mario’s success. Never did the developers worry if something made sense with the game’s story. Instead, the game was made sure to work, and to be fun, and the rest was filled in as it came.

If they had worried about consistency, they might have been compelled to make a new character to be a plumber, another who ate mushrooms, another who was a doctor, and so on, losing the brand power that Mario was able to achieve. By reusing him for a variety of settings and game genres, regardless of ‘sense’, they were able to build the most successful franchise in gaming history.

And one hell of a wardrobe along with it.

And one hell of a wardrobe along with it.

There’s one last aspect of Mario I was saving to explain, because oddly enough, he got it from Popeye. And that is his mission. Nintendo was originally developing Donkey Kong as a Popeye game. Mario was Popeye, Donkey Kong was Bluto, and Pauline was Olive Oyl. But they couldn’t obtain the rights to make it, so they altered the sprites, and Mario was born. So while Popeye and Mario’s diets are both misunderstood in different ways, their quests to save a damsel in distress are one and the same.

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