Never underestimate the power of Mario

When I was into video games as a young lad I remember receiving my first ColecoVision console. ColecoVision was the best video gaming system around in 1982 because the games themselves (somewhat) resembled the arcade versions.

At the time, the graphics were incredibly accurate and the joystick was a combination controller/keypad which was quite innovative. Games were coded onto cartridges that had to be inserted into the console and ColecoVision even offered two separate expansion controllers — a steering wheel for driving games and a super fast action controller for shooting games.

My favourite game at the time was Zaxxon. The game simulated three dimensional flying while shooting missiles and gunfire. It was among ColecoVision’s most popular games as it was the first one ever to display shadows and the first game ever to be advertised on television. Zaxxon went on to win the best game of the year in 1985.

Fast forward over a quarter century and the video game industry has exploded.

Here are a few statistics that will help shape the discussion.

Approximately 65 per cent of all United States households play console video games, with the average age player around 35 years old.

The most popular consoles worldwide by market share are: Nintendo Wii (95 million units), Microsoft Xbox 360 (66 million units) and Sony PlayStation 3 (62 million units).

And this does not include any hand-held devices (Nintendo DS, Sony PSP), internet-based games, mobile gaming or Facebook apps.

All in all, video games are big business. To put this into perspective, my favourite ColecoVision back in 1982 was one of only 2 million sold.

When it comes to economic impact, a big hit in the video game industry can provide just as much revenue (perhaps even more) than a blockbuster movie. You may recall a column I wrote a few weeks back in which I highlighted some of the big blockbuster movies of all time.

For example, Avatar (2009) raked in $2.8 billion worldwide, while Titanic (1997) took in $1.8 billion.

Those movies are way ahead of anything else except for franchise movies such as Harry Potter ($2.4 billion) and Star Wars ($1.9 billion). But, when it comes to video game franchises, the sales figures are altogether at a whole new level.

Take for example Mario, our favourite pudgy, Italian-American plumber with the blue overalls and red hat. Nintendo has repurposed Mario in dozens and dozens of games since his inception in 1981.

If we were to also include his super-version of himself, Super Mario (which came in 1985), the entire Mario video game franchise would have sold approximately 694 million units.

Let’s take a conservative estimate that each game costs $20 retail to purchase (when in fact it’s more). That means the overall revenue generated equals $13.9 billion. Of course, this amount destroys Avatar and sinks the Titanic in a big way.

If we went back a decade ago, the threat of video games to the movie industry would have been laughable. I can just imagine Hollywood executives saying “video games are just for teenage nerds in their basement.” These same executives spent the last several years crying foul over piracy. As if that was the only reason that theatre traffic had been falling.

Well, I know better. If my kids are future consumers of both industries, I can tell you this. Move over Dora and move over Nemo, because Pokemon and Zelda are coming through.