How does Nintendo protect the image of their saintly plumber? A Super Mario historian tells us

In his new book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, Jeff Ryan examines the history of the video game manufacturer using the company's unassuming corporate logo Super Mario. We spoke with Ryan about how Nintendo has crafted this de facto global video game spokesman, who's become venerated by millions.

Sadly, we didn't learn anything about Mario worshippers on par with that (supposed) Russian Gadget Mouse cult, but we did discover that the set of the Super Mario Bros. movie was a weird place to work.

Given that Mario's an international symbol à la Mickey Mouse, are there arcane guidelines or ethos governing how Mario's image can be used?

When I went to Nintendo to ask for interviews, they have a very strict "no book" policy. It's weird because if I was asking some questions for a magazine or a website, they'd say okay, but not for a book. They actually sued a previous guy who wrote a book about Nintendo and put Mario on the cover — they sued Random House, so that's why if you look at the cover of my book, you'll see that Mario is wearing gloves, but he's the little Mario who doesn't wear gloves. That counts as original — if you remember your NES sprite construction, they were limited to three different colors, and there are seven different colors on this Mario.

How does Nintendo protect the image of their saintly plumber? A Super Mario historian tells us

But there are guidelines for everything else. If you want to make a Legend of Zelda t-shirt or something, Nintendo will say no because they want all licensing efforts to go through Mario. For 20 years, they've turned down an estimated millions of dollar to focus on the Mario brand. They specifically decided, "We're going all in to push Mario, he's our face. Even though Link is popular, we're not going to push him."

For example, it seems really obvious to make a Mario theme park. You could palette swap Disneyland with other Nintendo properties like Link and Kirby, but Nintendo doesn't do that because it would be too easy. They want to come up with something original to do with the amusement park construct, but no one's come up with that yet.

There's a philosophy Nintendo has about technology and creative uses which basically means, "Don't use top-shelf parts." When they're selling the Wii, they're making a profit on the Wii from day one. Normally hardware companies don't do that. They make their profit along the line and find ways to make things cheaper. Nintendo is cutting to the quick and making profits right off the bat.

For example, when the Super Mario Bros. movie came out, the person who was originally cast was Tom Hanks. Nintendo got rid of Tom Hanks because he wasn't considered a bankable movie star. He wasn't worth the money! The Super Mario movie was the product of three different forces trying to make three different movies and all meeting together on the film set. There were the screenwriters who were trying to make a PG-rated action-comedy like Ghostbusters. Nintendo was trying to make a G-rated movie, and the directors of the movie — who made Max Headroom — were trying to make Blade Runner. They wanted this dystopian world. And nobody could agree what film they were making!

Yikes. Any crazy stories from the filming of the Super Mario Bros. movie?

Filming went long, it was a miserable shoot. There was drunk driving on the set. Bob Hoskins broke his finger because John Leguizamo crashed the van they were in because they were drinking scotch all day long.

Nintendo has never licensed another game for a movie. They didn't understand that people don't care that much about Mario. People don't play Mario games because they love plumbing. They're playing it because Mario is their avatar.

Speaking of avatars, what do you predict is next for Mario as the corporate icon?

I was making some predictions about the Wii U. It turned out to be a touchscreen tablet. I found all sorts of data to prove that it would be a hologram, and I was wrong. But I sincerely believe that Nintendo is working on a hologram machine. It's too expensive and too wonky right now, but I think within five years, they will put together something you can put on your coffee table that has a light construct of Mario running around — he'll jump on your hand and you can move him around your living room.

Is there any psychological profile that is shared among Super Mario cosplayers?

Not really. I met five Marios over one weekend at GenCon. You need a real mustache and you need a real gut. If you're an in-shape guy, you shouldn't be Mario.

Jeff Ryan's Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America is in stores now from Portfolio/Penguin.