Mario – Cutting Edge or Surprisingly Average?

There is one thing which has always puzzled me. Mario Brothers. A household name, and yet as we reflect on the early Mario games we might even say that Nintendo didn’t introduce anything new. The style was certainly not cutting edge and by no means set the standard for the genre. Why was it such a success? Super Mario Brothers (the side-scrolling version most remember) was actually released in 1985, by which time platform games were already mainstream and this almost seemed old-hat. Games like Activisions Pitfall (1982) which was a great success in selling 2.6 million copies. Why is it that Mario is the one history remembers and Pitfall isn’t?

Perhaps it will help to see the genre in context. In the beginning Nintendo released Mario Brothers, (1983) which was a two-player, single-screen game with a very linear style. It was a format similar to Joust (1982) and designed to compete against games like this and other very simple coin-op arcade games in the early 80’s. Except there was a slight twist – we recognise Mario from a previous game, Donkey Kong. Perhaps we might look to include this as one of the early ancestors?

By the time the iconic Super Mario Brothers was released in 1985, Nintendo’s actors had something few other games did – a history. They had outlived their previous games to be re-incarnated. And with this history came a stronger sense of identity. But Shigiru Miyamotos Mario Universe wouldn’t stop there. Super Mario Brothers 2 allowed the user to choose between four characters and seemed to introduce more of a story-like element. Perhaps one of the biggest clues in the theatre surrounding the character selection screen? Then came Mario Brothers 3, only this time there were maps! The user could select a path through this psychadelic fantasy world that was on offer, and the game no longer seemed so linear.

Psychadelic Fantasy World that was on Offer

Super Nintendo - Super Mario World

By the time Nintendo were starting to establish themselves as major players in the industry, the new Super Nintendo / Super Famicom was launched (almost especially) for Super Mario World in 1990.

The name said it all. Super Mario World. The universe had continued to grow. And – interestingly – it almost seemed as though the computer itself had simply become a means of storytelling. This was a complete role-reversal for the one-off games with a limited lifespan designed for one system. Here we now had characters that would live on beyond the hardware they were featured on, only to be reincarnated with ever more colours, pixels and detail.

Super Nintendo - Super Mario World

On completing the games, the ending now regularly featured long credit sequences where the baddies would be re-introduced for one last bow. Perhaps this exploiting the fourth dimension is some of the subliminal tricks used to help give the characters that depth? To let you know that you will likely see them again in the next incarnation of their world. Perhaps this is the spirit we need to keep in mind when looking for the significance of the theatre curtains in Super Mario Brothers 2 and 3.

This – I believe is where Marios X-factor lies. This process had helped turn the very characters names into household names. Everything from childrens’ pajyamas to alarm clocks. It even had it’s own cartoon spin-off series! The Nintendo 64 – again – was released almost specifically for Mario 64 which tried to combine the better elements of Mario 3 with a map the user could wander around in, and straight-forward platform levels. Except now the Universe was three-demensional and new ideas could be tried out.

New Technologies To Retell an Old Story

Super Nintendo - Super Mario 64

Even today, several decades later this pattern is continuing with Nintendo now looking to use the newer technologies in the consoles to find a way to tell the Mario story using it.

The characters had managed to leave the computer and become real in perhaps a similar way to reading a novel. It offers a window to an alternate world which we imagine might continue even when we arn’t playing.

Very different to the games on the atari 2600 where you would switch them off and go play in the street with your friends.

Nintendo Wii - Super Paper Mario 64