Mario Takes the Stage Again

Even if you've never played a video game, have no clue what a joystick is, and the term "duck hunt" means little more to you than men in cammo, you know who Mario is. And whether you'll admit it or not, you probably even know his theme song.

For more than 25 years, this little overall-clad Italian plumber and his brother, Luigi, have graced the screens of arcade machines, living room televisions and portable hand-held game sets throughout the world, bounding through sewer systems, jungles, and now, with this week's release of the newest version for the Nintendo Wii -- Super Mario Galaxy -- outer space.

Mario, who was created by Japanese Nintendo game-designer Shigeru Miyamoto, is more than just a video game character; he is a cultural phenomenon.

In 1981, when Mario first hopped on to the screen at your local arcade, he was known as Jumpman because, well, that's how he got around. The game centered on an enormous angry ape called Donkey Kong, with whom Jumpman shared the video game's storyline. His mission was to rescue a girl who was taken hostage by Donkey Kong. The game went on to become the third most popular game of the decade and is regarded as the most difficult video game in history. Popular as Donkey Kong was, bigger things were on the horizon for Mario.

In 1982, Jumpman was renamed Mario and appeared in the sequel to Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. And in 1983, Mario was given his own game, "Mario Brothers."

Initially, the game met with little fanfare. By the mid 1980s, the once indestructible arcade revolution that had generated billions of dollars had reached its peak, and looked as if it was headed toward an inevitable "Game Over," taking Mario along with it.

But that all changed in 1985, when the first Nintendo Entertainment System was released. This new magic box brought the power and graphics of upright arcade games into living rooms and bedrooms across the world. And the game that came with every Nintendo was "Super Mario Brothers." While its "hero saves damsel" storyline was nothing new, "Super Mario Brothers" single-handedly revolutionized video games, breaking all sales records with more than 40 million copies. "Super Mario Brothers" was so popular that it still holds the title of the top-selling game of all time.

The game would define a new era in gaming. Even the video game inept knew about the pint-size plumber; Mario was everywhere. Certainly, there was more to this Mario mania than just the character. "Super Mario Brothers" was an industry revolutionizing game. It was the first ever to incorporate a scrolling screen, multiple levels and hidden treasures. Soon thereafter came "Super Mario Brothers 2" and "Super Mario Brothers 3" in 1988.

By 1990, according to a Nintendo national survey, Mario was more recognizable among American youths than Mickey Mouse.

As Nintendo made bigger and better game systems, it also made bigger and better Mario games, often bundling the latest Mario editions with their newest technology. Throughout the 1990s, Mario's adventures continued with "Super Mario World" and "Super Mario 64," the first-ever 3-D Mario game. In total, Mario games have sold almost 200 million copies worldwide.

Over the years, Mario has gone beyond the video game format, appearing on books, cereals, movies, even kitchenware. Mario has even graced the cover of Nintendo Power magazine a whopping 18 times, more than any other character. And, aside from his starring roles and branded products, Mario has appeared in more than 100 video games.

Finally this week, the wait is over for the much-anticipated release of "Super Mario Galaxy." In this version, Mario has gone bigger, better and more powerful than ever. With heightened graphics, added levels and a more complex storyline, Super Mario Galaxy, like its previous versions, is once again at the helm of innovative video game programming, inspiring other developers to rethink the way action/adventure games are made.

Looking at this latest addition to the Mario Brothers line, it's clear the Jumpman has a leapt a long way from his debut in Donkey Kong almost three decades ago.