Super Mario Bros Main Character Started Out as a Big Black Square.

A portion of an Iwata Asks: Vol. 2 interview with Iwata-san, Tezuka-san and Nakago-san…
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Iwata: How did Super Mario and Zelda come about in the first place?
Tezuka: The initial concept behind Super Mario was that we wanted a dynamic, athletic kind of game that would be set on land, sea and air and that would feature a large character.
Iwata: I’ve heard that the original plan was to have a huge Mario.
Tezuka: Right, we wanted a Mario that was twice the size of the regular one. But I don’t really recollect whether or not we’d decided to use Mario from the start.
Iwata: Do you think you could try to remember? (laughs)
Tezuka: I’m certain that at the start, we had a 16 X 32 pixel square that moved about…
Nakago: At first, you moved a square object about a single non-scrolling screen.
Iwata: Really? So it all started with a square object that you could move around a single screen?
Nakago: That’s right. At the time, having a square that moved was groundbreaking. SRD had experimented with a square object that simply moved in a wave-like manner.
Iwata: And that’s where Super Mario began?
Nakago: Right. That’s why at that time, you couldn’t even jump.
Iwata: And why did that square object become Mario?
Tezuka: I more or less remember this one! (laughs) Next door to the development room was the Sales and Marketing Division. The head of that department at the time was a pretty approachable guy, and though it might be hard to imagine it happening nowadays, I got him to show me the sales figures.
Iwata: At that point, you were a new employee who had just joined Nintendo.
Tezuka: Right. I was still in my first year at the company.
Iwata: So a new employee just went up to the head of the Sales Division and asked to be shown the sales figures?
Tezuka: Well, at lunchtime I’d often wander to various places and chat to people from other departments. So I’d become friendly with people that way. Anyway, I was shown the sales figures and I saw that although Mario Bros. on the Famicom19 had been released over a year previously, it was still selling consistently well.
Iwata: So you saw those sales figures and a light bulb lit up above your head?
Tezuka: Right. I thought: “This Mario is pretty popular.” I recall that I mentioned to Miyamoto-san that Mario was selling consistently well and he said, “Mario seems like the way to go.”

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I've been playing Nintendo since the 90s!