Remembering Bill Kunkel: Make Mine Mario!

I was able to get the chance to work with Bill Kunkel in the late 2000s through a couple of freelance opportunities, and it led to further opportunities where I was able to personally work with him on other projects.

For those unaware, Bill Kunkel is considered the “grandfather of video game journalism,” launching “Arcade Alley” as a column in Video magazine along with Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley. The popularity of this column led to Electronic Games, the first video gaming magazine published in the United States. He would eventually work for other magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and Tips & Tricks, and he also provided design for specific versions of games such as Batman Returns (SEGA CD) and Bart’s Nightmare along with other games such as the computer game MicroLeague Wrestling.

Bill was happy to stay in touch with me over a couple of years, and I got my single opportunity to see him in person at the VGXPO event held in Philadelphia in 2009. He was scheduled to host a panel during that event, and when the other panelists did not show up, I was taken aback that he asked me to join him on the panel.

I spent the time at that event taking in the sites, shopping for games and looking for interesting things to write about. In hindsight, it’s very unfortunate I never thought of getting a photo with Bill – my one chance I ever had to do so.

I was fresh out of college and I was working at a retail side job about a month before I got my career job that I hold to this date. Sept. 4, 2011, I received a phone call at my workplace notifying me that Bill was no longer with us.

It was very sudden news that came out of nowhere for me, and sometimes I think about how tied up with college, my first son and my career I was at the time, which hindered my foresight to find a way to meet up with Bill at least one more time. I’d always schemed in my head to find ways to get him to another convention or event to share his experiences or drag him along to an arcade that featured a mix of old and new game titles. However, through a little of “this and that,” the meetups never materialized.

Still, I keep in my collection a few of the items he signed for me, which includes a copy of his book “Confessions of a Game Doctor.” One time he gave me an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly that he worked on – December 1993. It isn’t autographed or anything, but, coming from his personal collection, it’s an issue that always sits on the very desk I use to create my content.

Earlier this year I was doing a comb-through of my Google Drive documents to see if I needed to back up any of those files, and I stumbled upon a file I didn’t recognize. It was something I didn’t remember creating, but, in reviewing the file I realized that was because I didn’t create it – this file was material that was created by Bill.

With it being more than a decade later, I couldn’t tell you why I have this file. I couldn’t tell you what publication or website it was intended for, either. No matter what the source would have been, I would have to imagine it no longer exists in 2021.

When I came across this file a few months ago, it hit me that Sept. 4, 2021, would mark 10 years since Bill Kunkel passed away. After some thought, I figured one way I could honor Bill and keep his achievements in people’s minds was by publishing this feature about Mario. So, without further ado, here is GemuBaka guest writer Bill Kunkel:

mario

Feature: Make Mine Mario!
Subhead: From Supporting Player to Videogame Superstar
Byline: by Bill Kunkel

Although this may surprise some of our younger readers, that videogame veteran with the wings on his cap and this big mustache wasn’t always known as Super Mario. No, in a story that has occurred over and over through the history of show business, Nintendo’s leading man and company mascot started out his career as a straight man to a monkey — and there was certainly nothing “super” about him.

Back in the early ’80s, a struggling Japanese arcade game manufacturer, Nintendo, was desperate to reverse its minimal and already-fading fortunes with a coin-operated (AKA, coin-op) game it called Donkey Kong. The game was relatively simple in concept, as were most games of that period: a big gorilla escapes from the circus, taking the obligatory female hostage with him. Pursuing the ape in hopes of saving his girlfriend is a scrappy little roustabout named Mario. The game was structured as a vertically-scrolling climbing game set on the skeleton of a building under construction. Mario must run across each horizontal level, climb to the next level and so on until he reaches the top of the screen, where Donkey Kong roars triumphantly. Of course, DK was not about to sit there and get captured, so he starts rolling barrels down the girders, which Mario must successfully vault in order to keep from being knocked back to the base of the screen. As the game continued, DK began using flaming barrels, making the task more difficult. And then, just as Mario was about to reach his objective, wham, Donkey Kong would ascend to the next screen up!

The game was a huge hit, both in the arcades and on home computers and videogame systems such as the ColecoVision. Donkey Kong went on to become a big hit, even getting his own animated TV series (complete with a character called “Donkey Kong Jr.” who had the capability of human speech and delivered the battle cry: “Monkey muscles!” before leaping into action).

Mario, alas, languished in semi-obscurity. Apparently the Donkey Kong incident had cost him his job with the circus, because in his next appearance, he joined up with his brother, Luigi, and they were now plumbers, moving through the sewer system in Nintendo’s coin-op game, Mario Bros. This game didn’t exactly catch on, and it looked as if Mario and Luigi’s brief stint in showbiz was at an end.

Then, in 1986, Nintendo brought its NES (Nintendo Entertainment System), an 8-bit videogame console, to North America. The NES eventually became the most successful videogame system in history, selling over 30 million units, worldwide. And Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius who had created the original Donkey Kong game, had never forgotten about his little plumber. Now the Mario Bros. were back, and they were not only successful, but Mario was quickly becoming the company’s visual mascot.

In 1991, Nintendo launched its next-generation, 16-bit game system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the early products were mostly upgrades of hits from the NES. So, the humble Mario Bros. became the Super Mario Bros., and starred in one of the most successful videogames ever produced. In fact, Super Mario World was the game which came packed with the SNES, virtually guaranteeing that the whole world would become familiar with their Italian plumber.

Since then, Mario and brother Luigi have hosted a successful children’s TV show (with Mario portrayed by former wrestler Captain Lou Albano) and even got to front a big-budget film, Super Mario Bros. (1993), in which veteran English actor Bob Hoskins (Mona Lisa, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was the unlikely choice to portray our hero. Of course, the movie also used John Leguizamo to play Luigi. The film tanked, but not before it generated a small selection of toys and other collectibles (posters, lobby cards, scripts, set photos, etc.).

But the bulk of cool Mario memorabilia is actually produced by Nintendo. The company has always produced a wide line of toys, dolls, keychains and other collectibles, most of which are both attractive and very well made. There are even bean bag characters, including an excellent Super Mario figure and a smaller version hooked to a key chain.

These days, Mario can fly, grow to enormous size, and perform a wide variety of amazing stunts. But he earned it; this character paid his dues. In fact, you could literally say that he started and the bottom and had to climb his way to the top (flaming barrels and all)!

—Bill Kunkel

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Categories: GemuBaka Feature

Author:indiesnack

Indie Snack is a video gaming Web site focusing on independent developers and game releases. Indie Snack will also soon have services made available to independent developers to include tools aiding them in public relations and game marketing.

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