Monday, 13 September 2010

Feature: Super Mario Bros & 25 Years Of Mario

Today, Monday 13th September, marks the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and in celebration of the occasion we will be running two special features here at IQGamer over two days. Yesterday we took a brief look at the defining NES gaming system, and today we look at Super Mario Bros and the Character himself.

It’s easy to blind you with stats about how successful Super Mario Bros and the Super Mario series of games has become. The character itself is one of the most famous and recognisable faces in the developed world, and his impact has been felt across more than one generation, as families open up their children’s lives into the world of videogames, and of course Mario. Indeed, the character is not only one of the worlds most enduring, now being far more popular, and dare I say more recognisable Mickey Mouse to the youth of today, but one which transcends boundaries of age, race, gender, and time. Everyone it seems loves, or knows about Mario.

The original Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System alone is the second biggest selling game of all time, with a whopping 40 million copies to its name – that’s like the equivalent to how many Xbox 360’s have been sold worldwide so far, only missing out on first place to Nintendo’s other global smash-hit, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. What makes this feat more incredible is that it happened in the 1980’s, long before videogaming was a mainstream leisure activity, and the PlayStation a blink in Sony’s eye.

Some of the most familiar, iconic imagery, and recognisable sounds of today come from this 25-year-old videogame – a testament to the impact it had, and continues to have on the world. When you see children, teenagers, and fully grown adults sporting a Mario mushroom t-shirt, and your dad humming the first level theme tune to Super Mario Bros you know something extraordinary has happened. To put it bluntly, Mario the character, and Mario the game was, and continues to be a worldwide phenomenon.

Although these days his success is far more restrained - the brand has dissipated ever so slightly as more and more younger games are weaned on the likes of Call of Duty and Halo, rather than fun, family-friendly platform games. Still, the impact he had cannot be understated, and continues to be felt to this day.

The brainchild of one Shigeru Miyamoto, the original Super Mario Bros was a revolutionary step forward in game design. Pretty much most of the concepts that hold together traditional platform games can be traced back to this very one title. The use of power-ups, a scrolling playing field, secret pathways, and different environmental physics depending on whether the character was either underwater, on icy ground, or on normal solid, were all concepts that had never really been explored before - certainly not to the extent of Miyamoto’s classic. Hardware restrictions, development costs, along with the desire to keep game prices low held back these kind of forward-thinking ideas until the NES, and SMB delivered them in spades.

The basics of Super Mario Bros gameplay was simple. The title saw Mario progressing from the left to the right hand of the screen, collecting golden coins and jumping on the heads of any enemies, whilst also navigating a series of ever more tricky platforms and traps laid down in his path by the nefarious Bowser. It sounds pretty basic by today’s standard. Although back then there was nothing else remotely like it. Most platform games were either single-screened affairs, or featured a move from one screen to another, rather than the continuously flowing nature of Nintendo’s title.

SMB also had some extremely clever level design ideas that even a decade after its release, was still not being matched by its rivals. Warp pipes lead Mario into secret areas containing either more coins, or another power-up, and also acted as a quick level skip counteracting the lack of a battery-save option in the cartridge. The most familiar of these is contained in world 1-2, in which it is easily possible to break out above the confines of the normal stage design, avoiding most of its perils before leading you to a secret room featuring three warp pipes, each teleporting you to later worlds, congratulating ardent players skilled enough to discover this.

Moving platforms, rotating rows of fireballs, underwater sections, and icy whether conditions all changed how certain areas would play, thus not only increasing the game’s challenge as a result, but also providing players with a sense of wonderment and adventure not seen in other comparable, early 8bit platformers. All these things we now tend to take for granted, but back then all of this was revolutionary stuff, and was executed with exemplary precision.

The game also opened up the concept of having ‘power ups’ enhance the main character’s abilities, making him bigger, invincible, being able to shoot fireballs from his hands. But to be fair, there’s no need for any further explanation as most of you already know about the ‘Super Mushroom’ and Fire Flower’ power ups, the use of the Starman, the concept of hidden power-ups, and other such design ideas, many of which are still considered part of the basic blueprint for the 2D platformer.

Outside of the highly praised and revolutionary gameplay it was Koji Kondo’s memorable score which is perhaps one of the most recognisable pieces of music in today’s popular culture. Even people who have never played any of the game will often sight the tune as ‘ the theme from Super Mario’, something all the more apparent when you that the catchy, first level theme has been released in various forms from mobile phone ring tones, to being modified and used as an example of generic videogames music for TV advertisements.

The game’s iconic western boxart is also one of the most highly recognised in the world. The image of Mario, drawn in 8bit pixel art, and blown up onto the front cover of Super Mario Bros shows the quirky, simpler nature of early designs that often donned games outside of Japan. By contrast the artwork for the Japanese release is altogether more in-keeping with the rest of the series, featuring both Mario and Luigi, along with Bowser and his minions taking centre stage on the front cover.

A mock-up below shows us just what the North American and European releases of SMB would look like with the Japanese art replacing the familiar 8bit styled design most of us remember so vividly.

Super Mario Bros biggest success though came from the fact that the game was so incredibly simple to play, and controls being so much more responsive than other comparable titles released at the time. It was seemingly easy to pick up and play, but incredibly challenging in later stages, testing even the most ardent gamers to the limit. The game was always fair however, with that fine line between success or failure down to the player’s own swift reaction times and ability to read, and then take advantage of the situation.

I remember first getting a hold of the game with NES in 1988, and quite frankly it was like nothing else I had played. Sure, I had owned other single-screened platformers - even ones that saw you moving between different screens, but nothing as smooth or quite as polished, expertly designed as SMB. For the first time since the likes of Pong popularised gaming in the home on the Atari 2600 VCS, this was a giant leap forward, the next true evolution of the medium. Well, for platform games that is. Nintendo would continue to expand and perfect other gameplay concepts and ideas in future titles, like Metroid and Zelda, although some of the groundwork was laid down firmly here.

Going beyond the game itself, many of the imagery found in Nintendo’s worldwide smash has made its way into popular culture. T-shirts featuring the 1-up mushroom are commonplace; TV advertisements all too often shamelessly rip off the theme tune and ideas behind the series thus to represent gaming as a whole, whilst the mere use of blue, denim overalls screams Super Mario whenever an unlikely sole may be happening to wear them.

Mario’s biggest legacy by far however, is with the NES in helping to transform the videogames industry into what it has become today. It largely helped take an industry left on its last legs after the 1983 videogames crash, and revitalised it, perhaps driving it forward further than any other title had done in the years before. That’s not to discredit earlier successes by the company, or some of Atari’s, Ultimate’s or even Activision’s hits of the day, but SMB moved beyond those, forming many of the gaming concepts present in all 2D platform games today.

So far Mario has starred in games selling an excess of over 210 million units to date, and has constantly been the driving force behind reinventing what can be seen as possible in a videogame. With each subsequent sequel the series added multiple routes, gameplay incorporating advanced visual effects, the first real, fully 3D (in terms of both gameplay and graphics), interactive platform world, and the use of physics and gravity like never seen before, all of this combined with some quirky humour and some of the most finely-crafted gameplay mechanics to date.

To talk about everything that the Mario series has brought to the table would take all day, and several thousands words more than anyone would care to write in one week, let alone in a few hours. To keep it short, the original Super Mario Bros transformed the industry we loved forever, and the series has a whole has been constantly redefining itself, never afraid to change direction or push the boundaries into new areas. And amongst all this, the character himself, a once two-toned carpenter originally known as Jumpman, has become one of the largest entertainment properties worldwide.

It has been exactly twenty-five years today since the ‘worlds favourite videogame hero’ appeared in Super Mario Bros, released on the 13th September 1985 in Japan, and we, along with hopefully the entire industry, salute him, and those responsible for his creation. Hats off to Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo, everyone at the team at EAD, and of course Nintendo. Here’s to another 25 years of gaming magic.

1 comment:

  1. A very informative article about Super Mario. Good Job!