Not so long ago, the idea of a video game franchise selling five million units would have been unthinkable. With the explosion of gaming worldwide, now a single game in a popular franchise can expect to move well over 10 million units. As with Hollywood films, there are stars that can move more units than others. Here we'll take a look at the colorful characters that propelled these games to success.

In Pictures: Consumer "Fads" That Never Faded

Methods and Measurement
Unfortunately, Mario has never filed a tax return, although he has held jobs as a plumber, adventurer, race car driver and professional tennis player. This makes it a little difficult to measure the earnings of any one character. Instead, we'll go for the less-ideal method of using the total sales for video games featuring these high-powered stars.

Furthermore, we're going to make a big assumption about the relative worth of the video games sold. In order to factor out the fact that inflation has made the value of a single video game much higher than back in the '80s, we will assume that all video game units are equivalent, so the only important measure is how many units these characters have sold. Now that the technical talk is over, let's get to the rankings.

5. Have Sword, Will Travel
The "Legend of Zelda" series by Nintendo (OTC:NTDOY) stars green-clad adventurer Link, and establishes a theme for the top five: longevity. While Master Chief of the current hit game "Halo" may one day top this list, but the long history of the Zelda series, started in 1986, has helped sell more than 59 million units. Like another elite star, Link is almost always seeking his princess and defeating whatever foes he meets along the way.

4. An Epileptic Nightmare
Introduced by Sega (OTC:SGAMY) to compete with a certain Italian plumber, "Sonic the Hedgehog" shot onto the scene and quickly powered its way up the popularity scale. To date, the game's high-powered hedgehog hero has sold more than 75 million units, often in games where the primary goal is to rip through level after level in a blue blur. Because the colors flashed so rapidly on this game series, it is believed that it may have triggered seizures in susceptible children. But despite the risks, Sonic is still around even though Sega's days as a console maker are over.

3. The Voice of the NFL
Former NFL player John Madden's career as a TV commentator ended in 2009, but his flamboyant delivery lives on in the "Madden NFL" video game series by Electronic Arts (Nasdaq:ERTS). Currently, sales for the series are creeping toward 80 million units sold. As with many video games, the Great Recession has taken some of the steam out of the market, but it seems that gamers are coming up with the cash to live out their football fantasies, complete with Madden's trademark tones.

2. The Sparkling Squeak
With a name combining the Japanese onomatopoeia for sparkling and the sound a mouse makes, Pikachu is the most recognizable character in the "Pokemon" franchise, which is owned by Nintendo. At more than 193 million units sold, Pikachu is bigger than just video games; its vast interests include games, shows, comic books, figurines and much more. This electric mouse-like creature's unusual business earned Pikachu a spot on the Forbes list of top-earning fictional characters. A list, coincidently, led by another yellow fellow with a penchant for honey.

1. "It's-a Me, Mario!"
Debuted in the 1981 arcade game, Donkey Kong, and known only as "Jump Man," Mario has had the longest, most successful video game career in history. This tiny plumber with the 12-foot vertical has been getting Princess Peach out of scrapes for years, as well as taking on different roles in more than 200 appearances. This has helped him move more than 200 million video game units. And don't assume the little guy's gut is slowing him down either - the latest version of "Mario Kart" for the Nintendo Wii was one of the top-selling games in 2008 and 2009, while "Super Mario Bros. Wii" is heading for top territory yet again.

Bottom Line
A good character is nothing if the video game isn't fun. That said, many of the top-earning video game characters have brand power that rivals those of pro athletes and movie stars. Their releases are greeted with more anticipation than many Hollywood blockbusters! Best of all for the companies who own them, these unique characters will never age, demand higher pay or end up in bed with a succession of blond mistresses. Well, Mario might - if he ever gets tired of rescuing Peach. (Find out how to invest in this industry in Power Up Your Portfolio With Video Game Stocks.)

Get a rundown of the latest financial news in this week's Water Cooler Finance: Greece Attacks And Google Hacks.

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