How Mario’s Plumber Career Was Inspired by Manga Characters

Mario may be the world's most famous plumber, but the character's secret manga roots suggest he's always been a gig economy worker.

Mario has had roughly as many jobs as Homer Simpson over the years, but in the hearts and minds of millions, he’ll always be a plumber. As the recently released “Extended Cut” of the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie reminded us, Mario has even previously relied on his plumbing abilities to topple empires and save the princess.

Mario being a plumber is one of those facts that has become so common over the years that many of us probably never stopped to ask, “Wait, why is Mario a plumber in the first place?”

The answer to that question is actually quite odd and requires you to take a trip back to a time when Mario wasn’t a plumber. Yes, I’m talking about Mario’s debut in the 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. Though the human in that game was initially an unnamed protagonist later referred to as Jumpman, he was eventually officially named “Mario.”

Of course, at that time, Mario wasn’t a plumber but rather a carpenter. While it makes sense that Mario would be a carpenter in that game given that Donkey Kong takes place across various construction site settings, it was still odd to see an arcade hero of that era be assigned such a normal real-world job. As it turns out, though, designer Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Mario’s relatively normal profession to be one of the character traits that helped him stand out from the protagonist pack.

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“I was trying to use the technology available at the time to produce a distinctive-looking character from a small number of pixels, and that resulted in Mario,” said Miyamoto in a 2020 interview with CNN. “We wanted him to be someone who might live near you, and not a superhero.”

Well, that helps explain why Mario was a carpenter, but why did Nintendo decide to make him a plumber by the time that 1985’s Super Mario Bros helped change gaming forever?

The answer to that question is a bit more complicated. One common story that has been referenced by various retrospectives over the years suggests that a colleague informed Miyamoto that Mario’s design made him look much more like a plumber than a carpenter. Try as I might, though, I can’t find the name of that colleague nor can I find an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto in which he tells a similar story himself. That doesn’t mean it’s not true but rather that this may be one of those pieces of internet legend that hasn’t been especially well documented. If anyone does have a direct quote for that story, be sure to share it in the comments below.

What I can tell you is that the design of 1983’s Mario Bros. arcade game is absolutely at least partially responsible for Mario’s career change.

“With (1983’s) Mario Bros., we brought in Luigi and a lot of the game was played underground so we made him to fit that setting,” said Miyamoto in a 2010 interview with USA Today. “We decided he could be a plumber. The scenario dictates his role.”

That last line is really the key to this story. It seems like Miyamoto always intended for Mario to be a “gig economy” participant whose job would change based on whatever scenario he was in. Apparently, the idea was a carryover from the days when Miyamoto aspired to be a manga artist.

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“My original goal was that I really wanted to use Mario in a lot of different games,” said Miyamoto in a 2010 interview with Time. “It’s sort of common among the popular culture in Japan that a creator will take that same character and have him will appear in different manga [comics]. It’s also sort of like, maybe, Hitchcock appearing in all his movies. It’s sort of cool to have that character appearing here and there, whether or not they have a large role or not.”

While that doesn’t quite explain how Mario found the time to become a carpenter, a plumber, a doctor, a race car driver, a golfer, and a referee (among many other things), it certainly seems like Nintendo always intended for him to take on various jobs. As for why Mario is still a plumber in so many games, the logical answer is that many of those games feature pipes, underground settings, Luigi, and some of the other elements that inspired Miyamoto to make Mario a plumber in the first place.

That’s why so many people were surprised to learn Nintendo updated Mario’s profile page in 2017 with a statement that read “All around sporty, whether it’s tennis or baseball, soccer or car racing, [Mario] does everything cool. As a matter of fact, he also seems to have worked as a plumber a long time ago…” While that doesn’t necessarily conflict with what Miyamoto said about Mario before then, some saw it as a sign that Mario was no longer a plumber.

However, Nintendo did a bit of course correction in 2018 when they updated Mario’s profile page once more with a new line that roughly translated to “occupation is plumber.” Of course, Bowser also referred to Mario as a plumber in Super Mario Odyssey, so it feels like we’re at a point where Mario is a plumber most of the time but isn’t above working a few side jobs when the opportunity arises.