Few video game franchises are as recognizable as Super Mario. Almost everyone aged five to fifty, geek or non-geek, can readily identify the titular character, and, in most cases, several of his sidekicks. Having debuted in 1981 as Jumpman in Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, Mario and his franchise have had a long time to curry interest among the general public. Lately, another franchise has begun to achieve similar renown, and is doing it at a much faster pace than the stodgy plumber.

If I asked you to think of the one title that defines the mobile gaming experience, you’d probably come up with Angry Birds. It’s almost automatic, and it’s a testament to how soundly the brand has been burned into our subconscious. We have all had someone at one time or another ask: “Does your smartphone have the Angry Birds game on it?”

Angry Birds has been successful, and to describe the game’s meteoric rise to prominence as anything less than astounding would be inaccurate. On December 10, 2009, the first Angry Birds game was released, and, less than three years later, the game reached 500 million downloads. 500 MILLION. That’s a lot. To put that into perspective, as of 2009, all of the games in the Mario series have sold more than 210 million copies.

I’m not making this comparison to somehow imply that Angry Birds is a qualitatively better experience or that it is financially more successful than Mario, but rather to attempt to explain its almost inexplicable rise to the top. To do that, it is important to consider the amount of hours and eyeballs that have seen those Angry Birds screaming across the screen.

And how exactly has developer Rovio been able to accumulate all of those downloads in such a short time? Angry Birds has relied on a simple formula for its success: Be available, easy to understand, easy to play, and cheap.

Obviously, there is the less tangible aspect of character that comes into play and makes a mediocre game outstanding, but due to my inability to express such a key element in less than 2,000 words, we’ll instead focus on how the Angry Birds formula deviates from the one the Mario franchise used to become so popular.

What sets the two franchises apart, aside from the core gameplay, are two very important elements: price and availability. Sure, Nintendo had a hugely popular console, but Mario was still limited to the company’s hardware. Rovio, as a software developer, has the luxury to make to make Angry Birds available across all platforms. The inclusion of Angry Birds on Series40 phones highlights this desire to be ubiquitous. It’s also a move that paved the way for the franchise to establish itself not just on high-end smartphones, but even on advanced feature phones.

Most importantly of all, Rovio made the game available for either free or very cheap. This is an advantage that is purely a result of the age that we live in, and one that Rovio, and by extension Angry Birds, has enjoyed immensely. Due to capable smartphones and an increasingly common ad-supported model, downloading games such as Angry Birds is a no-risk endeavor for consumers. Even if the cost were to be taken to the side, the pure numbers overwhelmingly favor the smartphone model for establishing a game’s popularity. Nintendo sold just under 144 million NES, SNES and Nintendo 64 consoles since the release of the original console in 1983. To put that data into perspective, Apple alone has claimed to have sold over 250 million iOS devices since 2007, all of which are capable of running Angry Birds.

Counterfeiting has not in itself made Angry Birds popular, but it can certainly be used as a barometer for success. If it is indeed a viable measure, then Angry Birds has more than its beak’s worth. “There are a lot of Angry Birds products out there,” said Rovio President Peter Vesterbacka at the 2011 Beijing Disrupt conference, “but most of them aren’t officially licensed. Angry Birds is now the most copied brand in China, and we get a lot of inspiration from local producers. . . we have to be happy about the fact that the brand is so loved . . .”.

And the brand is loved, possibly the most loved since Mario. It has certainly achieved a Mario-esque level of recognition in a much shorter time. Due to the trends of mobile gaming combined with the brand’s skyrocketing popularity and accessibility, the next time someone asks, “Does your phone have Angry Birds on it?”, the answer will probably be yes.

Be sure to check out Joey’s counter-point, Please, Shut Up About Angry Birds.