Thursday, January 5, 2017

Super Mario Bros.

Gaming before Super Mario Bros. was not exclusive to dark backdrops accompanied by blinding neon or an absence of jumping maneuvers, but they were certainly pervasive enough to define what we call the third generation of video games. Games had only begun to invent the likes of parallax scrolling and side-scrolling movement, but to one Shigeru Miyamoto, gaming began to settle a little too comfortably into dark screens and arena-based repetition.

While Nintendo was hardly exempt from these styles of games--look no further than the famous likes of Donkey Kong and Balloon Fight -- Miyamoto refused to be outdone by imitators encroaching upon what he envisioned as his pioneering work; that is, jumping games. His answer was to develop an ultimate swan song to the Japanese Famicom--about to be superseded by the Famicom Disk System-- by combining the philosophies behind Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. (jumping), Excitebike (side-scrolling), Balloon Fight (floating in the air; or in this case, the sea) and Devil World (control of a larger character).

What's ordinary and by-the-book today was set to be revolutionary in 1985: an open, side-scrolling game bursting with color and crossed land, air and sea. Us Americans probably wouldn't know it from the cover -- whereas the original Japanese box art (seen above) was illustrated by Miyamoto himself, the American release disguised its glorious setting via yet another black-themed package (its odd composition also became something of an in-joke: ever stop to think about how Mario's about to fall in lava?)

Perhaps it was for the best; I mean, who could've expected such an explosion of color with a cover like that? Even better, it merely frames how Super Mario Bros.'s innate design resonated immediately with the world at large. The presence of player empowerment and visual feedback is the very same design philosophy that illuminated proto-open world in The Legend of Zelda, or when 1996's Super Mario 64 stunned 2D veterans with the realization that, yes, you can climb that mountain in the distance.

Over thirty years later, Super Mario Bros. remains as much of a masterpiece. We've since seen its ideas improved and expanded upon by the likes of Super Mario Bros. 3, World, and the New Super Mario Bros. series, but its innate sense of pick-up-and-play still enchants newcomers to this day. It's all about the jumping, really; whereas arcade heavy-hitters like Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. may feel clunky today, it's amazing how Super Mario Bros. runs as fluid as it did back in 1985.

Look no further than level 1-1--the famous standard for all opening levels in gaming-- to see why. It's evident from the very first question block you see that Super Mario Bros. is a game that rewards via jumping: you will hit that block, because it's gold and shiny and everything attractive. Out pops a coin; you want more, but a stray Goomba is honing in on you. Jump over that guy (or stomp it flat!) and pop another block; out comes not a coin, but a mushroom, which is meticulously designed to reach you....yet it grants not death, but growth. You can jump higher, and can take one additional hit before reverting back to Small Mario.

Unlike the army of platforming clones that would follow after its release, jumping in Mario feels sublime not because it follows preordained path or is at the mercy of wonky physics, but because it takes everything from acceleration, momentum and weight into account. Jumping after holding the dash button, for example, will send Mario flying into an soaring arc. Tapping the jump button lightly will make him hop an inch. Observant players recognize a necessary balance: you know you won't succeed without the big jump, but you shouldn't use it all the time lest you careless fall into a bottomless pit.

Because the controls feel so perfect, experimentation is inevitable. The player's habit of jumping everywhere may unearth a hidden 1-Up Mushroom. Landing on a Koopa Troopa's shell bowls over enemies. Careful precision and timing with dashing/jumping will land Mario on the flagpole goalpost's very top (and, with very careful consideration to the timer, lead to bonus fireworks!). All of are varying difficulty, but Nintendo's subtle education for what's actually essential is vital. Just look at the block formations below: the first leads leads nowhere so players learn to dash and jump over its ilk, which prepares them for its fatal twin.

This isn't even getting into the other mechanics introduced via the first level: the Warp Pipe, which leads to underground coin-filled hideaways and let you skip half the level; the Fire Flower, which again transforms Mario, but this time into a fireball-spewing visage of orange; the Starman, which renders Mario invincible and demolishes any enemy that dares touch him (not to the mention introducing the famous samba theme).

And underneath all that lies the ultimate question: how do I utilize all this? Will diving underground and skipping half the level just to nab coins really lead to the most points? Will grabbing the Starman interfere with my Koopa Shell-kickin' skills? How do I trigger the fireworks at the end of the level via flagpole? Why not ignore the Super Mushroom and play through the entire level as Small Mario for a challenge? Or, heck, why not the whole game?

Now, such freedom in play and player choice are hardly unique to Super Mario Bros. itself: the likes of open-world games, fighters, shooters, horror survival, life simulators, and strategy games all possesses their unique traits of flexibility and the like. But how many of those are accessible as just running and jumping? What renders Super Mario Bros. so special is its accessibility, and that the first level is this inviting is no coincidence: it was one of the very last made in development, constructed with all the knowledge obtained throughout development.

It's a seamless transition from discovery to play, as echoed in 1-2 (the first Underground Level), yet another captivating case of flexibility via the importance of brick-breaking. We already learned that bricks were breakable via Super Mario's jumps, but now here's a level essentially composed of bricks hiding coins, 1-Up Mushrooms, and even shortcuts leading to the Warp Zone. But moderation is key here; smashing bricks may be fun, but with the timer ticking down, you shouldn't dawdle for long.

And from there it becomes more of a subtle tutorial. Floating, interconnected platforms that respond to your weight are initially placed over towering cliffs, but eventually suspend over no landing points. Castles are armed with spinning firebars that gradually grow in size, complete with perilous mazes. Bullet Bill Cannons are visually introduced before they learn to fire off-screen, the first Hammer Bros. strategically hop up and down from floating brick blocks (could that be used to our advantage?), and yes, it's possible to knock out Lakitu from his cloud the moment he's spotted.

Note how many of the above involve enemies. What's beautiful about Super Mario Bros.'s cast of minions is how they aren't merely obstacles to be dodged, but tools for success. Koopa Troopas and their shells are a favorite secret weapon, but how about stomping on Goombas propelling us to greater heights? Could other enemies be used the same way? And who's to say Bowser's invulnerable to fireballs?

How we tackle all this is up to us. Miyamoto once described as Super Mario Bros. eventually becoming "our game": as muscle memory settles in, we opt for the best routes available for us. We
grow the courage to try new things; accordingly, the game becomes comfortable enough to throw new surprises once the shock of the first level wears off, and so it becomes an engaging learning process for the game's duration.

Easy to learn, hard to master: the creed of difficulty that defines the best of games. As it's an 80's game, it should come as no surprise that Super Mario Bros. is rather tough. The game's experimentation and discovery arises as a response to the game's difficulty, which can't be surmounted easily. There's the underwater levels with bastard Bloopers, for instance, and whereas  there is a way to rid of them and their Cheep Cheep cohorts (a certain power-up, perhaps?), that you're at the mercy of swimming physics not only restricts your movement options, but renders Mario all the more vulnerable to losing his only means of defense. Hammer Bros. and the castle mazes are also beatable nightmares, yet they, too, will likely give players a thrashing before a solid, formulated strategy is developed.

But that's okay, because Koji Kondo's music keeps us coming back for more. Perhaps the first famous songs in gaming, Kondo was conscious of the limited sound options for the Famicom/NES--only five channels!--and labored over songs that wouldn't irritate the player. Such songs would not be action-packed techno, but instead colorful songs that would encourage the player and never grow old.

And what gaming song is more immortal than the Main Theme (less commonly known as the Ground Theme)? Infectious from the very first 8-bit note, the Latin-based theme conveys an instinctive rhythm that can't be anything but an explosion of exuberant, light-hearted activity. That it never wracks on our nerves is vital: we're driven to action immediately after Game Over.

But why exactly is that? Perhaps the secret lies in how Kondo actually based the song on Mario's movement. Through the rhythm of player control, the music is the ultimate mastermind behind our enjoyment. From the moment Super Mario Bros. starts, it becomes a song that sets into your bones. 

In contrast, the Underground Theme doesn't inspire the same sense of wonder, but its short repetition and comparatively muted nature belies an instant earworm. (That, and, well, it's not as if a dreary underground is supposed to sound all that lively, anyway) While future iterations would install percussion-filled back-beats and the like, the original steady beat hollowed by silent intervals is somehow just as fun to hum along as its jolly counterparts.

Jolly as in the lovely Underwater Theme above. A wondrous waltz that, while perhaps betraying the treacherous waters which it accompanies, frame Mario's underwater movement as if echoing an actual dance. It too channels its Ground Theme counterpart in how they instill that very same player-moving rhythm.

All this grants it an all-too vital identity: that everything is fun. Obviously, this is not to say that previous arcade/video game efforts weren't such, Super Mario Bros. ups the ante by having "fun" be the theme of everything in it. Even putting the controls and gameplay aside, the colors and setting are fun to watch and absorb. The scenario of two plumbers rescuing a princess and her entourage of mushroom-capped retainers from evil turtles is as delightful as it is bizarre. The music is meticulously crafted to keep us engaged and hum along.

There's a reason why Super Mario Bros. saved the industry from the market crash: it's a game about inviting people. There's no barriers: only a prevailing sense of "I can do it, too," that can be applied any which way you want. Yes, it's challenging, but it possesses a power that makes you want to try one more time. That it would introduce the world to the denizens and world of the Mushroom Kingdom is only secondary to its revolution of bringing people back into the world of gaming.

Even now, I still feel bound to my own direction of playing it. I only grab the first Starman if I time the first Koopa Shell kick just right. The secret coins and 1-Ups in the first underground level are never missed. I never bother with the Warp Zones, choosing to instead gradually accumulate all the coins and 1-Ups coming my way. I still roar in exhilaration as I plow through my favorite level: 2-3, where Mario dashes across a series of bridges while avoiding leaping Cheep Cheeps.

I've only beaten Super Mario Bros. twice in my lifetime, but in all the countless attempts I've made to do so, I've more or less tackled it the same exact way. Perhaps it's time for a change? Even now, when I skip by it on the NES Classic Mini menu, I think to myself, "maybe I can." If only I had the time, I say, but I still hear it calling.

Like its NES counterpart The Legend of Zelda, that I can still find new ways to play more than thirty years after release is nothing less than sheer wizardry. What makes Super Mario Bros. gaming's most well-known masterpiece is not merely for what it defined, not merely because it revived the industry: it's because even after this time, we can still approach it and go, "I can do that."


  1. Though I will freely admit Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 are probably "better" games, I haven't replayed either of them nearly as much as this game. Fate has a large part in that, as does the game's shorter size, but the reasons you highlight are probably the main ones.

    What struck me most about this review was how, since this is a game that's been analysed to death, that you didn't try to rival your larger reviews. By doing so, you focused on unusual takes on the game's accessibility. I think of how the specific design choices in the first level, thanks to many interviews with Miyamoto and co., have been broken down to the rationale behind every decision. You nodded lightly in that direction, but didn't delve into it more then you had to, and it was a pleasant surprise.

    Really, though, it's just a marvellous game. Oftentimes, people will point to debut entries in classic Nintendo franchises and how they're outclassed today and little more then curiosities. Kirby, Metroid and even Zelda are victim to this. But Mario's debut entry is still stellar in it's own way even compared to recent entries - only the first Pokemon games strike me as being similarly timeless in that regard, though for entirely different reasons.

    It does all boil down to that sense of control and jump. It's how I feel about the change in Kirby from Boss Endurances to The Arena - sure, the latter is superior, and I wouldn't want them to revert to the old copy ability-less way, but that doesn't deprive them of their merit one bit. Likewise, the physics might be improved in Bros. 3, World, the New seres and so forth, but it was born in a great enough state that it barely matters.

    I'll wrap up with one anecdote: I had to use the warp pipes the first time I beat the game. It wasn't until I could do the 8-level route at a good enough state that I could then complete all 32 levels in one sitting, which I haven't yet felt the need to do again, as that was on my last playthrough of the game. Perhaps I should return soon enough and see how I fare in that area...

    Anyway, really stellar review, Anthony. Not as much to say on my end as it wasn't long by any stretch, but it was simply splendid. The style of yours has really refined over the two years I've been following you, and it's now something I really enjoy since it's so refined while still being so personal. Plus, you've proven you're more then capable of writing more in a more commercial style as proven by the various articles on other websites. So, hey, you have variety in your styles. That's something, eh?


    1. I actually did use a lot of interviews and the like as sources, so I was trying not to come across as too descriptive. One thing that drove me crazy was this one video Kondo demonstrated regarding the Mario theme and its relation to movement and I spent forever looking for it but couldn't find it (I *think* it was in an Iwata Asks, but no luck...).

      I think I mentioned this before but as I'm aiming to have a more consistent review schedule, it's going to be a natural result reviews will grow smaller. For this one, I aimed for a 2000-word limit and just barely rose above that. Regardless of what I just said, the next few I'm planning are probably going to be very meaty, so look forward to those.

      And thanks for the style comment; we've come a far way from me taking over six (or was it seven?) articles talking about this one game, right? Something definitely tells me you'll be delighted at what I have coming next; you'll freak!! I'm still in shock myself.

    2. Oh, I'm sure you did use sources. What I more meant was that there are tons of interviews where Miyamoto and co have broken down the design choices of that first level, and all the interviews have the exact same words. Thus, it's one of those things so many review and articles present as 'new' news even though everyone knows it. It's like when a video of "Top 10 Facts You DIDN'T Know about X" actually has facts that are common knowledge within the fandom. But you avoided that pitfall. In short that's what I meant.

      Oh I remember the whole review schedule thing. Doesn't stop me from commenting on your gradual stylistic change though does it? Your original Super Mario Bros. articles are actually among the few I haven't read; them and the Kirby's Adventure ones, since you yourself said it was rubbish. I only looked at the Mario Kart DS of your old retrospectives. We all change in our own ways, hopefully for the better. I've shrunk down the number of points I make in a video while keeping the length the same, due to explaining more and talking less frantically.

      I'm sure I'll freak, though I've gotten used to doing that around here, so it might not be as much as you'll think, ha. Something also tells me you'll be delighted at what I have coming tomorrow, given your connection to it. But I won't say no more.