Ah, the mage. The word is defined as “a magician or learned person” according to the Oxford Dictionary, with its origin being in the Latin word magus, which comes from the Greek word magos.¹ It is described as a word that was archaic by the late 19th century but has since been revived by fantasy games.² According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the following words are all synonyms for mage: charmer, conjurer, enchanter, magian, magician, magus, necromancer, sorcerer, voodoo, voodooist, witch, and wizard.³
With such a vague definition to begin with and many words considered to be interchangeable, we first set out to define precisely what a mage was. Someone suggested that they were a student of magic, not necessarily just someone who uses magic. Another noted that there are cases where people are naturally gifted, but normally it is a teacher who imparts knowledge on the student of magic after they show some natural inclination. As it turns out, defining what a mage is isn’t exactly an easy thing. Depending on who you ask or which books you read, there may be no difference between a wizard and a mage, or they may be vastly dissimilar.
For the purpose of this article, we have opted to define a mage as a practitioner of magic derived from supernatural sources. Within this definition, we consider “mage” to be interchangeable with “sorcerer” or “wizard.” We are, however, excluding magic users such as necromancers, witches, or warlocks for the time being. While the textbook definition does indicate that the words witch and warlock are synonyms of the term mage, that is not so accurate in the gaming industry nor in the world of fantasy literature, where the former terms are associated primarily with dark magic, and the latter are generally practitioners of light or element based magics.
Once we had defined a mage, I then embarked on the quest to find the first mage. One of the first suggestions was someone jokingly asking, “Is Mario a mage? Could he have been the first mage?” To answer that with certainty, we have to look at his skills throughout the games. Mario was first introduced in the 1981 video game Donkey Kong, where he was originally referred to as Jumpman, but was renamed Mario in subsequent games due to the resemblance between Jumpman and Nintendo’s office landlord, Mario Segali.⁴ In the original game, the objective was simply to get Mario (or rather, Jumpman) up the ladders and walkways in order to rescue his girlfriend from Donkey Kong. There are no special skills, just the ability to jump and move around. Upon further investigation, the other early games in which Mario appeared, such as Donkey Kong Jr., Mario’s Cement Factory, and Mario Bros. do not offer skills or controls beyond basic movement. However, when I arrived at the 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System title Super Mario Bros., I discovered that Mario has the ability to shoot fireballs. This power is granted by obtaining a Fire Flower, although, in the later title Super Smash Flash, fireball becomes a standard move.
So let’s break this down: Super Mario Bros. is hardly the first video game, but Mario does throw fireballs in it. One must then ask the question: “Just because you can shoot a fireball, does that make you a mage by default?” If we return to the original definition, a mage is a practitioner of magic that comes from supernatural sources. Surely a Fire Flower would be considered a supernatural source, and we could extrapolate from there that in later games he gained the ability to make fireballs on his own. The animation for Super Smash Flash shows Mario making the fireball in his hands. It seems reasonable enough, then, that he could be the first mage.
While the first game featuring Mario was released in 1981, video games have their origins more than 40 years earlier. In 1940, a computer designed by American physicist Edward U. Condon was put on display at the New York World’s Fair that played the game nim, where the objective is to avoid picking up the last matchstick.⁵ While the game seems irrelevant to the topic at hand, it did serve to introduce a broader audience to the idea of computer games, even if still at a small scale. Naturally, with many other titles to explore and analyze coming since, the quest to find the first mage will take time. I look forward to sharing this exploration quest with you in future articles, so stay tuned for more!