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How the American Civil War Created Super Mario: ‘For Want of a Nail’

By Tom Anderson

Consequences in Alternate History

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For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Many of you will be familiar with that proverb, which is often quoted in relation to alternate history (AH). Many AH scenarios certainly exploit the idea of a small initial event having huge consequences, as in the proverb. For example, in our timeline (OTL) General Lee of the Confederacy sent Special Order 191 in 1862, during the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War, only for a copy to be found, wrapped around three discarded cigars, by a Union officer and the intelligence exploited by the Union. Well-known alternate history author Harry Turtledove wrote a series of books, beginning with “How Few Remain” (1997) based on the conceit that Special Order 191 were never-lost; hence the series is nicknamed ‘TL-191’. The lack of intercepted intelligence allows General Lee to win victories that eventually result in the independence of the Confederate States of America, setting world history on a dramatically different direction.

However, I find it equally fascinating to find unexpected historical connections which mean that a small initial change can result in other relatively small changes--things far more minor and less obvious than wars going a different way--but in fields which, at first glance, would seem completely unrelated to the initial change. It is fascinating to consider how elements of our culture we take for granted ultimately depend on tiny, subtle consequences of unrelated actions, sometimes stretching back years, decades, centuries. This is the first of a series of articles in which I will attempt to map these glittering chains and webs of consequences and show what underpins the society and culture we live in today. To do so, I will naturally exaggerate for dramatic effect: in reality, if a successful author was inspired to write a book in OTL by (say) a building that might not exist in another timeline, he might well be inspired by something else in a similar way and still be successful. However, I will present consequence chains in a more all-or-nothing fashion as I find that more thought-provoking.

One final note before our first example: the ‘butterfly effect’ is a concept often invoked in AH, but unhelpfully people often mean different things by it. Strictly, what I am describing here is not the true butterfly effect, as it is a series of direct, traceable consequences: if A led to B led to C, then removing B means C cannot happen. The truy butterfly effect is a chaos theory concept which, in an AH context, basically means that if the Duke of Somerset put on his left sock first rather than his right this morning, the King of Siam might win rather than lose at the roulette wheel a minute later: that any change immediately resets all random chances, regardless of any direct connection. A strict interpretation of the butterfly effect would suggest that any tiny change of the type I am about to suggest would mean that an artist born 100 years after the event that inspired him wouldn’t be born anyway, rather than be born but not then inspired by the changed event. But that’s boring so we’ll ignore it for the sake of this discussion.

For our first example I’ve picked a deliberately bizarre-sounding case. How did the American Civil War lead to Nintendo icon Super Mario? Read on and see.

Lewis ‘Lew’ Wallace was born in 1827 and served in both the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. He rose to become the youngest major-general in the Union Army at the time. His best-known actions were his controversial decision not to attack at the Battle of Shiloh, and his defensive fight at the Battle of Monocacy. Later he became a politician and diplomat, but was most famous for his writing. In 1880 he wrote the best-selling Christian novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”. Already you, the reader, may see how history could have changed if this man, whom you probably did not know before reading this, had died in one of those battles before he could begin his career as a writer. “Ben-Hur” was hugely popular and was filmed many times, most notably in 1925 and 1959 featuring an iconic chariot race that greatly influenced Hollywood. So without this seemingly obscure American Civil War general, we already know the film industry would look very different. But what’s that got to do with Nintendo? (Which, incidentally, was founded in Japan just nine years after “Ben-Hur” was written, in 1889, initially as a company that made playing cards).

Lew Wallace’s success as an author inspired one young fan, an illegitimate, fostered London boy born into poverty named Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman. When he enlisted into the British Army for the Boer War, he chose to rename himself after his hero and inspiration: Edgar Wallace. After the war, he became one of the most remarkably prolific writers of thrillers and adventure stories in history, influencing many other writers and media beyond those I’ll discuss today (we may come back to him). The last project Wallace worked on before his death in 1932 was the script for the film “King Kong”. Although Wallace‘s contributions had little impact on the final script, he was brought on board by filmmaker Merian C. Cooper because of the commercial viability of his well-known name. Without that name attached to it, the film might never have been completed and released considering the economic circumstances at the time. As it was, it became perhaps the single most iconic motion picture of all time and was repeatedly remade, as well as helping to inspire Japan’s “kaiju” giant monster genre (most famously Godzilla).

Fast forward fifty years to 1981. Nintendo, now producing arcade video games, was attempting to expand to the American market, but had failed to sell a game cabinet called “Radar Scope” and now had many unused cabinets. They were also in talks about obtaining the licence for ‘Popeye’ which we may return to in a future article, as that involves another fascinating chain of events. In the end, though, young first-time game designer Shigeru Miyamoto produced a game with original characters—but, as he stated later, clearly influenced by “King Kong”. Indeed, the game was named “Donkey Kong”, the peculiar name due (according to one story) to Miyamoto looking up English synonyms for ‘stubborn’ in a dictionary. It was one of the first video games to have anything that could be called a plot, with the great ape Donkey Kong kidnapping a Fay Wray-like woman (referred to simply as Lady, later Pauline) and taking her to the top of an assembly of girders that evoked a burnt-out version of the Empire State Building. (Universal Studios would sue Nintendo, unsuccessfully, over this—in a trial in which it came out that Universal themselves had lost the rights to the King Kong copyright without realising it!) The player controls a carpenter known as Jumpman, as the game mechanics are about jumping accurately over gaps and barrels which Donkey Kong throws. Due to the blocky graphical limitations at the time, Jumpman was given a moustache and large nose, a cap to avoid having to animate his hair, and red and blue overalls. According to possibly apocryphal legend, he was renamed ‘Mario’ as part of a deal when Nintendo were facing demands for back rent from a warehouse landlord named Mario Segale.

The game was a huge success, the defining example of the arcade platforming genre. Miyamoto swiftly gave him a brother, Luigi, so that the next game (“Mario Bros”, 1983) could be two-player. Matching their overalls, Mario and Luigi were made plumbers rather than carpenters, and had to hunt turtle-like enemies in the sewers of New York. When Nintendo chose to bring out a home console (the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System) both characters returned, not for single-screen arcade-style platforming, but a side-scroller that defined all future platforming games: “Super Mario Bros”. The popularity of the game helped the NES capture the market after the Great Videogame Crash of 1983, and with the decline of American console manufacturers, videogames became known as ‘a Japanese thing’ in the eyes of many. Mario remains the most well-known video game character of all time and, of course, Nintendo still makes Mario games to this day, most recently “Super Mario Odyssey”.


And there is our first chain of consequences, from unlikely start to end:

- If Lew Wallace had been killed at the Battle of Shiloh (1862) there would be no “Ben-Hur” (1880);

- If there was no “Ben-Hur”, there would be no Edgar Wallace;

- If there was no Edgar Wallace, there would be no “King Kong” (1932);

- If there was no “King Kong”, there would be no “Donkey Kong” (1981) and therefore no Super Mario today.

Could one Confederate bullet in the wrong place have erased Nintendo’s mascot from history? As noted before, this is unrealistic because it ignores the butterfly effect. But, I hope, it has made you think about the consequences that blossom from every tiny decision we make, every day of our lives.

This series will return with more examples of consequence chains. Stay tuned…



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