Mario, Popeye, and Overcoming Failure
Updated: Feb 4
Mario is one of the highest grossing, most recognizable video game characters of all time. Outside of the dozens of his own games, he has appeared in over 200 other games as well. Although I doubt anyone could have predicted Mario's success and impact on the world, his designer definitely did not. In reality, Mario was initially a disappointing replacement to his original dreams and desires. Shigeru Miyamoto was a designer for Nintendo, and in 1979 produced a widely disliked arcade game called "Sheriff." His game was basically a failure in an industry that was barely taken seriously. He was essentially a joke within a joke. Then, right after his failure came the amazing success of Pac-Man in 1980. This could have been motivation for him to quit, to give up, to realize he's just not that good of a designer, and to walk away. However, he was determined not to let this be his downfall and he set out to make a game even more popular than Pac-Man.
He wanted to be the man behind a bestselling video game. His plan involved less innovation, and more capitalizing on properties he knew were a hit. He set his sights on Popeye! The comic strip and cartoon character had been going strong for over 50 years and had been revitalized and brought into the attention of the world with a live action portrayal by the comedic legend Robin Williams. Shigeru did everything he could to get Nintendo the rights to Popeye so that they could produce this amazing game he envisioned, but sadly, much like his game Sherriff, it wasn't going to be a success. His original plan was to create a jumping adventure game where Popeye had to climb up levels dodging obstacles to get to the top and rescue Olive Oyl from his burly nemesis Bluto. King Features, the company that owned the rights to Popeye just wasn’t feeling the value of allowing their property to be in the hands of the budding video game industry. Once again, Shigeru Miyamoto was face to face with failure.
I'm writing this because I'm pretty sure you have been in a place like me where you feel like every step forward is met with opposition. It’s like every time you try to accomplish something, the whole world is against you. Here's what I'm here to tell you: keep pushing. I know it's hard, I know opposition sucks, Keep going. God teaches us frequently to keep going, because in all reality we just can't see the whole picture from our perspective.
"But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” 2 Chronicles 15:7.
"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." - Galatians 6:9.
"Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." - James 1:4.
Shigeru kept pressing on even though he faced repeated defeat and frustration. He was happy with the game concept and decided he would just have to create a villain, hero, and damsel of his own to replace Bluto, Popeye, and Olive. He wanted to maintain the same triangle dynamic but at the same time not be completely obvious that he was just using placeholder archetypes for the characters he actually wanted to use. He eventually settled on his dynamic, and on July 9, 1981 his game was released. His game that used cheap home- made knock offs of beloved cartoon and film characters, and had every reason to fail, only it didn’t.
His substitutes for the characters he wanted were Donkey Kong, Mario, and Pauline. Mario exists today because King Features didn't believe in Popeye being a video game commodity. The most iconic character in video game history exists because a man failed multiple times and was forced to persevere to achieve his goal. Slow clap for Shigeru. While I know Popeye still exists, he is more the remembrance of long gone generations of cartoons, while Mario is still thriving. There are very few people in the world that don't know the perky plumber. Donkey Kong is also equally recognizable and has developed a great name for himself along the way. Even Pauline made a big comeback in Super Mario Odyssey as the mayor of New Donk City.
When Shigeru created these characters, I don't think he believed he would be changing the world. I don't think he believed he would be creating one of the most successful and iconic characters of all time. I don't think he expected his substitute Popeye to become legend. What he wanted was to create a successful video game, and against great odds and in the wake of failure, he not only met his goal but far surpassed it.
You probably have some choices and actions in front of you right now that might look to you like they are second best. You might be facing some situations that seem like cheap substitutes for what you actually desire, but please understand that though it may not be what you originally wanted, that doesn't mean it can't be far greater than you ever imagined. Don't give up. You could be that one moment of endurance away from your Mario moment, even if you can't see it. Shigeru didn't see his coming, but it was waiting to unfold before him.
You may not be able to see what God is unfolding before you in your life, but please believe, He's not against you. He's not your enemy. He loves you and wants the best for you.
"Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." - Proverbs 19:21
"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." - Jeremiah 29:11-13.
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." - Romans 8:28.
Within a year of Donkey Kong's release, it was so popular and so successful that King Features had a monetary change of heart and decided to allow Nintendo to make a Popeye game. At that point people didn't respond as positively to the game because it was too similar to Donkey Kong. While this is a story about the success of Shigeru, it's equally a story about the failure of King Features. They were presented an opportunity and passed on it. Imagine what the world would have been like if Popeye would have been made instead of Donkey Kong.
Nintendo may never have become the company it is today. Video games may never have become the hit that they are. We can't know that outcome, but what we do know is what happened when Shigeru didn't give up. I hope the world also gets to hear the story of what happens when you don't give up too.