On This Day: How Super Mario was originally meant to be Popeye

·3-min read

This article has been produced as part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

Video gamers are well used to alternate universes, but even they might struggle to get their heads around one in which the medium’s most recognisable character is… Popeye.

Yes, that’s right, the sailor man, who is strong to the finish because he eats his spinach.

Had things gone a bit differently, his face could have adorned millions of games cartridges across the world for the past 40 years.

A Super Mario statue in a store
Super Mario Bros anniversary 1985 Source: Getty Images

Imagine the titles… Super Popeye Bros, Super Popeye Kart, Popeye Paint, Super Popeye Land, Super Popeye World… the possibilities were endless.

However, that would have been harsh on a certain red-capped, blue-overalled, moustachioed plumber called Mario.

On this day 36 years ago, Super Mario Bros was released in Japan on the Famicom console, which underwent a few tweaks to become the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the US.

Needless to say, after its initial release on 13 September, 1985, Mario went on to become a cultural phenomenon.

Before Donkey Kong and Mario, Nintendo tried to nab the rights to Popeye, but ended up creating their own character based on him instead. (Getty)
Before Donkey Kong and Mario, Nintendo tried to nab the rights to Popeye, but ended up creating their own character based on him instead. Source: Getty Images

But not every beloved character arrives fully formed, and Mario was no different. Being a plumber wasn’t even his first job. But more on that later.

You have to take a warp pipe back in time a few years before Super Mario Bros took over the world to get the whole backstory.

Super Mario Bros, of course, wasn’t Mario’s first video game appearance.

Famously, that came in 1981’s Donkey Kong, Nintendo’s arcade platformer that revolutionised gaming.

For one, it had the game’s villain in the title - players didn’t control Donkey Kong, the aim was to defeat him.

And that was achieved by avoiding the never-ending barrage of barrels and oil drums he would fling down from the top of a construction site to stop anyone from saving kidnapped damsel in distress Pauline.

A LEGO Super Mario Nintendo Entertainment System toy set on display at the Taipei International ACG Exhibition in 2020. (Getty)
A LEGO Super Mario Nintendo Entertainment System toy set on display at the Taipei International ACG Exhibition in 2020. Source: Getty Images

There was only one hero for the job. And his name was… well, actually he did’t have a name, not in the original Japanese version at least.

He was just a little red ball of pixels who would do anything to save Pauline. And because he worked on a construction site, he was a carpenter.

While unnamed in Japan, he later became “Jumpman” (does what he says on the tin), before someone had the bright idea of naming him Mario.

A star was born.

And yet it all could have been so different.

During Donkey Kong’s development, Japanese company Nintendo was in a legal battle to nab the rights to American cartoon character Popeye - the pipe-smoker with the big muscles - because the company thought he would be the perfect protagonist for their barrel-dodging game.

Popeye had been around since 1929 and Japanese developers saw how popular he remained in the US market, so thought bringing him on board would make for a surefire hit.

Video game designing legend Shigeru Miyamoto was then creating his first title, and he used Popeye as the basis for Jumpman, and his nemesis Bluto as the inspiration for Donkey Kong.

In the end, the rights to Popeye were never secured, so Nintendo ploughed ahead with its own original ideas. The rest is history.

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