I skipped this in my alphabetical listing because, frankly, I wanted to finish 1985 with a game that did not suck. Super Mario Bros. spawned the most successful video game franchise in history. You noticed I didn’t say, “probably” or “one of” anywhere in that sentence, and it isn’t because I am biased (though I probably am): Mario is, empirically speaking, the greatest video game franchise of all to this day. Though its impressive 40 million units sold is due, in no small part, to it being bundled with the console, many of the sequels continue to be worldwide best-sellers to this day. To this day. When I say “to this day” I mean “it still moves preposterous numbers of units when sold without any changes on virtual console.”
I could go on gushing about this. I could wax eloquent about Mario’s origins, his first appearance, or any of that crap that people talk about when Mario is presented in a blog. In fact, I think I will.
In this game, you’re Mario, a magic plumber who consumes mushrooms and flowers to gain superpowers and save the Princess of the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser, King of the Koopas, a clan of evil turtles and mushroom men. If you didn’t realize that, you should really do a bit of research and learn a little about your geek heritage.
Now, while all of the above might sound, I don’t know… “absurd to a ludicrous degree”? “Drug-inspired”? “Another way of saying ‘crazy’?” “All of the above”? Let me assure you that in certain contexts it all makes sense. The Koopa Clan, for instance, are a reference to the Kappa, a kind of legendary turtle-goblin from Japanese mythology. The mushrooms that make you grow (and, in some of the sequels, shrink or die) are inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Mario himself is named after the landlord of one of Nintendo’s US warehouses, Mario Segale. His moustache was because Miyamoto couldn’t make a pixel mouth he liked, his hat was because the hair looked stupid, and the colors (red overalls and blue shirt) were to make him stand out onscreen. Mario was a plumber because part of the gameplay takes place underground and he kind of looked like a plumber (although, judging from other games in which he stars, he’s probably more of a general contractor). Luigi was named after a pizza parlor named “Mario and Luigi’s” because, why-the-hell-not, and his colors were chosen to make him visually distinct from Mario (because his debut game, Mario Bros., featured simultaneous multiplayer). The piranha plants were the result of the observation that the pipes kind of look like flower pots, goombas were a last minute addition and are based on shittake mushrooms, and Lakitu… where the hell did Lakitu come from? Nevermind… point is, Mario was an accident: a perfect storm of closed-circle memetic mutation developed more by accident than anything else.
Also: proof there is a loving God.
The original Super Mario Bros. is now dated – one cannot, in good faith, deny this simple truth-fact. The physics are a little sticky and the graphics are imperfect and lack a lot of the energy and charming imagery of the later games in the series. The power-ups are linear and, although useful, not all that interesting. That’s all my critiques: the game’s failings pretty much end there.
Let’s talk sound: Mario all but defined what video games should sound like. It gave us some of the greatest video game music of all time – music that everyone remembers; music that can be remixed and reprised in each game without losing its impact; music that orchestras can and do play at concerts. It gave us beeps and boops that synced well to the action and didn’t make us want to puncture our eardrums – not the constant droning noises of some games, nor the modern “realistic” crash and bang of the later consoles, but a peppering of sound to remind us that, yes, we are playing a video game and enjoying it very much, thank you. In short, the sound was precisely what it ought to be, nothing more, nothing less.
Let’s talk controls: in an era where there weren’t many buttons on the pad, not only did Mario use its space prudently, it had room to spare AND kept the whole thing intuitive! Even its quirks are endearing – I often spend my entire game running, mostly because I’m too impatient to walk through levels. The run button is the same as the “throw fireball” button. Because of this, my muscle memory firmly believes that “let go of the ‘B’ button momentarily” is what triggers the fireball. Mario so thoroughly codified the controls in platform games that games that dare to foolishly transpose the A and B buttons now suffer naught but my vengeance and hate. Its controls were so intuitive that even on the Super Nintendo – where there were four buttons on the main pad – they continued to use a two-button scheme.
Let’s talk secrets: there are so many more than people remember! It was entirely possible to go through the game never realizing that there are pipes that you could duck down into, vines you could climb up, hidden blocks you could get things from, or warp zones you could use to skip levels. You might never realize that there’s such a thing as a 1-up mushroom or that turtle shells turn upside-down if you jump on a green turtle just as it goes over a ledge. Then again, it was entirely possible to discover each and every one of these things on your first run-through, especially if you read about most of them in the manual (which you probably didn’t – who wants to read books about video games?).
Let’s talk errors: you may be familiar with the old programming cliché that bugs are just “accidental features.” In Mario this is generally regarded as true. Did you know, for instance, that the game determines whether you landed on top of an enemy by whether Mario was ascending or descending at the moment of impact? Try it: jump up to eye level with a jumping turtle, then, as you come down, ram it face-first. Did you know that if you run into the side of a block stacked on another block with pixel-perfect accuracy, that you can vault off it or pass through it (the former being integrated as a feature in New Super Mario)? Again, play around with it. Did you know that if you manage to get into a warp pipe before the game tells you where it goes, you go to the secret 0 world that’s due entirely to a programming quirk? Don’t try it – just YouTube it.
Do I seem a bit like a fanboy? Well excuse me – this is only the game that launched the most enduring video game legacy to date: the game that introduced two generations and counting to an unlikely hero who was, for a time, more recognizable to American youth than Mickey Mouse. I really feel I’m entitled to be this way.
John’s Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0. Not all my esteemed colleagues agree with me, but I really feel that this game has endured the test of time and earned my first flawless rating of the blog.
Lord Nightmare’s Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0. I don’t care if there have been better platformers since – you run around as this plumber guy and you grab a mushroom and grow really huge and you grab a flower and start throwing fireballs at everything and you jump on things heads and they die and you go down these pipes and go to completely different worlds and… wait… is this a stoner game? I think my whole childhood was just rewritten.
Dark JCO’s Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0. The princess is nice, and Luigi’s ok, I guess, but Mario is a jerk! When I was a kid I lived next door to Mario. He was all, “Hey! Stay away from my pipes,” and I’m like, “What? It’s a jungle gym!” Then he starts throwing fire at me! Do you know what that’s like? Mario is a jerk!