During the latest Iwata Asks, which focusses on the birth of the NES and the Super Mario series, Hiroshi Imanishi, who previously held the role of Director and General Manager for Corporate Communications Division at Nintendo, shed some light on why the company initially only licensed Mario for promotion.
“I think another big factor was the birth of the character business. Super Mario Bros. truly was the start of that,” Imanishi comments. “At the time, we didn’t have a department for licensing, so general affairs handled all that. Countless companies came with licensing requests – so much so that the person in charge couldn’t do anything else.”
However Nintendo’s President at the time, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was keen that the Zelda series didn’t receive such licensing so that they could continue to further establish the Super Mario Bros. franchise.
“But at the time, Yamauchi-san told me it was okay to license Mario, but that we mustn’t license Zelda,” Imanishi adds. “He said even if you license Zelda, there’s no way it could beat Mario. That’s why he said we shouldn’t license Zelda. So we only licensed Mario back then.”
Current Nintendo CEO and President Satoru Iwata discussed the reasoning behind such a decision: “That is a direct manifestation of Yamauchi-san’s idea that in entertainment, people’s popularity centres around just one thing. Nothing could come of having Mario and Zelda compete with each other in the character business.”
“But that’s how popular Mario was,” Imanishi responds. “One of the things that struck me when I first heard about Super Mario Bros. was how few pixels he was made out of. It would have been impossible to show his hair, so they had to make him wear a hat. In order to hide his mouth, they gave him a big nose and moustache. And made his clothes overalls.”
“The entire design is based on function, like making it easy to tell which direction he is facing,” Iwata interjected.
“That’s the way it was at first,” Imanishi closed, “but even as games’ visual capacities have increased, those basic lines have never changed. I think that may be why, even after 25 years, everyone still loves Mario.”