Mario, Pac-Man characters ushered in video-game mania

By Darnell J. Compton of The News-Sentinel

Who would have guessed a mushroom-toting plumber would have become a cultural icon to '80s teens?

Although video games were born in the '70s with Pong, the Magnavox Odyssey and Atari, they became a way of life to Generation-X teens who spent their after-school hours defeating King Kuppa and finding secret passages throughout Mario's world.

"At that time, video games were revolutionary," said Lee Lopresti, video-game enthusiast and employee at McVan's Video Game Trader, 3926 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Yes, there are stores devoted to video games and gaming systems. There are video-game centers in department stores, toy stores, malls, pawnshops and video rental shops.

By the 1980s video games had become a mainstay of American popular culture. Atari led the home-arcade market in the late '70s and early '80s with "Space Invaders," "Centipede," "Defender," "Asteroids" — and one of the first video-game icons, "Pac-Man."

Joe Trzynka remembers getting a sore thumb from playing those games. As an employee at McVan's, he has customers ask for them on occasion. "I remember it was $20 to $30 for an Atari system," Trzynka said. Now gaming systems cost $150 to $200.

The Pac-Man character starred in a host of games and sparked a number of spinoffs. It had its own cereal, lunchbox, books, figures, games and puzzles, and even inspired a novelty hit song, "Pac-Man Fever." Its popularity has endured — it makes cameo appearances in '90s games such as "Mortal Kombat."

When arcade graphics became hotter, slicker and more advanced than Atari's, home systems declined in popularity. But by the mid-1980s, another character with a familiar Atari face was ready to steal the show.

The home-gaming system returned to prominence with Mario — a man and his mushroom — first introduced to the world in Nintendo's arcade classic "Donkey Kong."

Video games became even more marketable with movies, billboards, commercials, magazines and competitions dedicated to video-game fanatics, Lopresti said.

"When you think of Nintendo, you think of Mario," said Lopresti, who has played Nintendo since he could hold a joystick. "When you see Mario, you think of Nintendo."

Lopresti remembers late nights pretending to be asleep in front of a turned-off but still-warm television set, a Nintendo system turned to the side to conceal the red "on" light from his parents. When they would leave the room, he would turn the tube back on, grab the controller and continue fighting the spike-backed Kuppa.

"I loved it," Lopresti said.

Occasionally, people stop by McVan's and ask if they still have the old beige-over-gray boxed Nintendo — two generations removed from the popular Nintendo 64 of today — and buy a couple of games for nostalgia, Lopresti said.

"It's a hobby," he said. "If they like doing it, it doesn't matter how much it is, they will play it."

Indeed. Nintendo, introduced in the United States in 1985, was the largest-selling gaming system during the mid-1980s. Part of Nintendo's success was getting game makers to agree to use Nintendo's system only, preventing other systems from having the same games.

Nintendo agreed to reimburse $25 million to consumers in 1989 after attorneys general accused the company of price-fixing, David Sheff writes in "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children."

By 1990, however, more than 19 million households owned a video-game system. Mario in his '80s heyday was in many ways as big an icon as Michael Jackson, with more than 13 million copies of "Super Mario Bros. 3" sold in the United States and Japan in 1989.

"I don't think anyone meant for it to be this big," Lopresti said. "But it was going to happen."

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