Hit of hits.
Beyond a classic.
The game that helped restart an industry’s dead heart.
These are only but a few statements that can accurately describe this gem of a video game, but even then, that isn’t enough to describe the awesomeness of it, let alone its significance to the world of video games.
In fact, without this game, the industry – no, the entire world itself – would be much poorer without it.
But what is it exactly about this game that makes it a classic, and just why is it that even after thirty years, it still resonates with gamers?
Well, to better understand this, let’s go back to the beginning.
It is the year 1986, and Nintendo’s American division had managed to bring the Family-Computer (or Famicom) to the U.S. in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System, but it was only a moderate success, given that they had only released it in two test markets at that point: New York City and Los Angeles. Although the end results of those tests weren’t smash hits, they were enough of a success that Nintendo of America decided to go ahead and go nationwide. What they needed though, was a lynchpin; Something that could be used to sell the NES in such a way that people would buy the system just to play that game, if nothing else.
Fortunately over at Nintendo’s Japanese headquarters just such a game was on its way, and it all started one year before…
Jumpman Goes Super
By 1985 Shigeru Miyamoto had given his character Jumpman quite the evolution since Donkey Kong (1981). Originally he had made him a carpenter who chased after a gorilla, and then in 1982 Miyamoto officially changed his character’s name to Mario for Donkey Kong Jr. with his occupation changing to that of a plumber one year later, as well as gaining a brother named Luigi in the co-op game Mario Bros. Up until this point Mario had appeared in games that only had one screen and that was it. Even if the scenery changed, the action remained contained to one screen. However, with this upcoming game that would become Super Mario Bros., all that was about to change.
Well, it is true that we do have these closets in Japan with sliding doors and behind those doors it is very dark and I remember as a child being kind of afraid of that darkness. Or even going into the mountains as a kid and finding caves and whatnot – that sort of exploration lingered in my memory until later on in life when I did started making video games – it kind of came back into play in my imagination. And so Mario then became the perfect game for kind of this jumping around and active expression – and just the motion on screen really became the best game for that type of action.
Drawing heavily on his own childhood, as well as the experience he had gained since working on Donkey Kong, Miyamoto and his team of developers set to work on creating a game that would maximize the technology of the Famicom, and boy would it. Instead of containing the action to one screen, this game would take Mario out of that usual environment and place him in a much bigger world. Instead of climbing ladders and moving on platforms, Mario could now run through a colorful, wide landscape with giant mushrooms, caverns and castles. As one could imagine, there was no way to fit all of that in one screen, so instead the camera would follow Mario as he made his way through this two-dimensional world. Arnie Katz, who was the editor of “Electronic Games” at the time, dubbed it a “side-scrolling” game. Now SMB wasn’t the first ever side-scroller, given that games like Defender, Super Cobra and Scramble pre-dated it by several years, but the action, sense of humor, and cartoon-like graphics made the game stand out from what had come before. Not only that, but the idea of a game having Easter Eggs – a concept created by Warren Robinett in 1979 with the Atari game “Adventure” – was taken to a whole new level with Super Mario Bros. Not only could you find hidden items in certain places as you make your way through the game, but you could also find shortcuts to other worlds – i.e. Warp-Zones – and even a hidden underwater level that had no end.
But not only was the action and look of the game amazing, but the music itself was also an ear-grabber. Despite having very limited tools to work with at the time, composer Koji Kondo was able to make magic in such a way that players would find themselves wanting to hum/whistle the music as they’re playing. So infectious are these themes that even now to this very day you could whistle any theme from Super Mario Bros. and people will recognize them instantly. Granted, while Kondo didn’t set out to compose songs that would be timeless three decades later, he nevertheless composed music that would be exactly that three decades later.
Once the game was finished, Nintendo Company Limited (NCL) released the game in the arcades and was a tremendous success. As a result, Nintendo’s developers decided to create a home version which wasn’t a direct clone of the arcade game, but it was close enough to the original. And in one bold maneuver, Nintendo made the decision to package the game with the Famicom. The end result was such a massive success that Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo of America (NoA) President Minoru Arakawa decided to do the same thing in the U.S. It took a few months to create an American version of the game, but once it was complete, Nintendo was able to package it in with the NES just before NoA went national by the end of 1986.
So going back to one of the early questions: what is it about this game that makes it a classic? Well, I would say that Super Mario Bros. is a classic because it took the best concepts of video game creation and combined them all into something that none of us had ever seen before. This is all the more impressive when one considers that video games were still in their infancy and there were still many development concepts that hadn’t been discovered yet, let alone evolve into what we know today. Once this game came on the scene, other game developers wasted no time in trying to emulate the styles/concepts for their own games. Not only that, but given that the video game industry had crashed just a few years before made SMB very much an eye-opener to consumers, especially kids. This game helped prove that video games were not some passing fad. This was an entertainment medium that was here to stay, and Nintendo – a Japanese playing card/toy company that very few people had heard about at that point – set out to prove it, and as the years would go by they more than proved it, with plenty of other games and characters to follow. However, Super Mario Bros. would be the game that set the stage for what was to come.
But I believe the reason why this game resonates so well with gamers the world over – myself included – is that it shows that no matter what kind of concept you have as a developer, the number one thing you need to create a game above all is to make it fun, for it’ll be that specific element that will capture the player’s imagination. Once you have that, the rest will follow.
Happy 30th Anniversary Mario!