His face might not be recognisable but for millions of gamers around the world, Charles Martinet’s voice was probably the one they heard when playing a Nintendo video game for the first time.
Martinet attended Middle East Film and Comic Con in Abu Dhabi last weekend thanks to his connection to the gaming industry. A tall man with white hair down to his chin, Martinet, 66, speaks in a tone that doesn't immediately give away his ties to the gaming world. However, in a split second, he lets out a familiar, high-pitched, “It’s-a me, Mario!”
For more than 30 years, he’s been the voice behind the most famous Italian plumbing brothers in gaming history: Mario and Luigi. It's a role that he takes seriously and one that he says he has no plans of walking away from — at least not anytime soon.
“I’m going as long as I can. I’ll know when I can't and I don't sound right and I'll be the first to say it. But the wonderful thing about a voiceover talent is you last so long."
Martinet didn’t originally set out to be a part of the video game industry when his friend told him there was an audition for a job in Las Vegas and that he should crash it.
“I said, ‘buddy, there's no way I would ever crash an audition. I'm a professional actor. Where should I go?’,” he says with a sly smile. “And I don't know why. But I left the beach and I went, and I crashed this audition.”
He made it at the last minute, just as the casting directors were putting away equipment and asked if he could read for the part. He was told he was auditioning for the role of an Italian plumber from Brooklyn named Mario for a gaming system called Nintendo.
Back in 1990, Martinet hadn’t heard of either. Although the character of Mario first appeared in the Donkey Kong video game in 1981, it would still be a couple more years before Mario would be the star of his own game.
Given the clues about the character, he just decided to go for it, speaking about Italian food in a high-pitched accented voice that would soon become synonymous with the overall-wearing, red capped plumber.
Originally, when Martinet heard “Italian plumber from Brooklyn”, he had a different voice in mind but soon realised that it would be too rough to be suitable.
“The idea of a character talking was incredible at the time. But I wanted to do something that would be nice in case there were children,” he says.
Instead, in that moment and with about 20 seconds to get ready, he drew inspiration from a past character he played in William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew but made his voice sound younger.
He then proceeded to audition with that, discussing different Italian food combinations until the tape ran out. He was given a “thank you, we’ll be in touch” and thought that was the end of it.
After his 1990 audition, he wasn’t sure if it would amount to much. In the following years, Martinet voiced Mario at video game trade shows, in which people would walk up to a television that displayed a 3D Mario head that moved around the screen and he would talk to them. He was able to see them via a hidden camera and facial motion capture helped sync his voice to Mario's movement on screen, a revolutionary idea at the time.
“This was a one-off job for me. You know, to go to Las Vegas and work. And I thought, well, that's great,” he says.
“We had so much fun with the character that we did it again and again and again, for five years until I got a phone call: ‘Mr [Shigeru] Miyamoto would like you to play Mario in a video game?’ To which I said, ‘Marvelous’.”
While he made his video game voice debut in 1995’s Mario’s FUNdamentals, most fans of the franchise may have heard Martinet’s voice for the first time in a milestone Mario game that was created for the Nintendo 64 and released in 1996: Super Mario 64.
It would go on to be praised by critics as well as players. It was named the Game of the Year by members of the gaming media including Electronic Gaming Monthly, Game Informer and the Golden Joystick Awards. It was also the bestselling video game of 1996. During its first three months on sale in the US, it sold more than two million copies and is still regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.
While some may wonder if playing the same characters for so long would get stale, Martinet says that it never does. He says he knows that Mario and Nintendo have been a part of so many people’s childhoods and that it means a lot for him to be part of that too.
“It's really absolutely spectacular. It's such a joy. And it makes it such an honour for me to play a character that I know is something that people love.”
He believes the appeal of Mario and Nintendo is that, not only is it a game franchise that's nostalgic for so many around the world, but also one that follows a simple formula that most people can relate to.
“Life is like a video game. You play and your character evolves and develops and you end up defeating the monsters and rescuing the princess, and you realise you are a hero the whole way.”
Scroll through the gallery below to see all the Super Mario games created: