Happy Birthday to Mario: Video games’ plucky, portly, plumber-hero

My earliest memory of Mario was watching him die.

To be fair it was my sister playing, not me. Still, seeing him crash into an enemy and turn to the camera with shrugged shoulders (accompanied by that famous “doodleoo” sound), before bouncing off screen, was the funniest thing to me.

But of course, I was like five years old, so just burping was enough to crack me up.

It was Christmas of 1989 when our family got our first Nintendo system, and packed-in with it was the Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt combo game…

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Technically my sister was given the NES (and with it, Super Mario Bros) as a Christmas present, but so as not to leave the baby of the family out, I was given my own game to play and enjoy…

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I’m still amazed at the intensity of the rage those 8-bit sprites were able to elicit from my five year old self.

Playing “Ninja Turtles” on the NES, I never got past the level right after the infamous water stage. Bored with dying so much I turned to Super Mario Bros. My sister rarely played the thing and it wasn’t long before I moved it into my room (without her even realizing it). Playing it day after day brought with it daily revelations; You can jump on top of the stage in world 1-2 and run to a secret warp pipe that takes you to world FOUR! You can defeat the boss at the end of the castle with fireballs!

There were always secrets to be discovered, and blatant lies to be told on the playground. I remember one kindergarten friend of mine swearing on his mother’s grave (she wasn’t dead) that it was possible to jump over the flag pole and die. “It’ll say sorry Mario jumped too far when you die!” he insisted. But no, there’s an invisible wall that prevents it from happening. There was nothing preventing us from swearing up and down that it was possible to jump the flag pole, play as Luigi at the same time as Mario, have everlasting starpower, and so on.

But then one day I handed the controller to my brother who randomly jumped into the air and *pop* a question block appeared out of nowhere, distributing a free one-up.

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My life was never the same again.

The little blue plumber has changed a lot over the years. Even his iconic look—the red and blue outfit, with matching hat, distinctive mustache and work boots—was never really settled upon until Super Mario World came out in 1991. In his first appearance, in the arcade game Donkey Kong, he had red overalls and a blue shirt. The colors were flipped for the hop-and-bop arcade game, Mario Bros., and when he finally starred in his own side-scrolling adventure, the Mario of Super Mario Bros. had red overalls and an olive colored shirt. Mario 3 even put the plumber in black overalls and a red shirt/hat.

The limitations in the early games meant Mario was limited to just three colors. His skin was one color, his shirt was another, and the last color had to apply to his overalls, hat,  mustache, sideburns and mullet (oh yes, it’s a mullet). The SNES was able to output many more colors than the old machines, and so Mario finally adopted (in-game at least) the look that would define him forever. Big white eyes with cartoony pupils, white gloves, brown worker boots, and the little circle-M on his hat all became standard for the hero of the Mushroom Kingdom.

It wasn’t just his look that took some fine-tuning in the early years. The gameplay was revised multiple times throughout the early games. The first Super Mario Bros. game had tight controls when running and jumping but some things needed refining. Jump lightly on a trampoline and you will rocket to the top of the screen, but if you land on it mid-sprint you can expect a simple “boing” to toss you forward, usually right into a bottomless pit. The level design was also very basic in the original side-scroller. It’s still a very “arcade” experience, with a gauntlet of enemies to jump on and coins to find (yes find because they weren’t littering the screen the way later games would have them) in order to increase your high score. While the levels are remarkably straightforward (or maybe, right-forward), there are hints at the creativity the game’s designers would soon discover as its norm: The world 7 castle stands out as one that almost ruined video games as a hobby for me…

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The level challenges you not to run at full speed and try to Sonic the Hedgehog your way through it. If you do you’ll probably take the wrong path and end up in a loop of the first screen, running through it over and over until the timer runs out. You have to figure out the puzzle and move with a little more deliberation in order to advance to the end. It was clever and unique and a real sign of things to come.

The debate rages among nerds as to whether Mario 3 is better than Mario World or vice-versa. I’m not going to fight you on it, but Mario 3 is the winner and you’re stupid if you disagree and should just go ahead and admit that right now.

Mario 3 is, in a word, brilliant. As great as Mario World is, Mario 3 takes the cake for me by virtue of its sheer randomness. Playing it makes it seem as though the level designers were at the peak of their creative prowess; they implemented so many random and clever concepts it would be exhausting to run through them all. The game offers 90 levels of 90 second bursts of genius creativity. And “90 seconds” is being generous. It’s hilarious to look at some of the stages that gave me nightmares as a child, only to see that they could be completed by a skilled player in under a minute. Some of the most infamous levels from that game, for me took an hour of combined play-throughs to finally beat them. There’s the “chasing sun” level in world 2, which is only eight screens long and features maybe 6 enemies tops, but killed me a dozens times in my younger years before I finally even tried kicking a turtle shell at the darn thing. The “diagonal scrolling platform hopping level with fireball-trailing bowling balls with nasty big pointy teeth of doom” level, just before the World 5 airship, gave me such fits as a child I still get nervous as I approach it today. It’s world-6 sequel added falling-donut platforms and slippery ice, and was the first time I ever literally threw my controller across the room, shaking my NES and causing me to face the dreaded “red blinky light of death” (and wiping all the progress I had made thus far).

I don’t even want to talk about the horrors of World-7 (pipe world).

The difficulty of the worlds was perfectly balanced in a way Nintendo has never been able to duplicate. You could die a hundred times but it was always your fault. The game was never cheap. That’s evident by how easy it is to beat a level in hindsight. Once you actually see the black screen that signaled your completion of the level, you couldn’t help but think “that was easy” because once you know what to do, you can breeze through the level in a minute, making you look like a superstar player to anyone who just walked in and didn’t see you shaking with anger at the previous 50 deaths you incurred perfecting your run-through.

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That’s not to say Super Mario World is a distant second; it’s a very close competition between it and Mario 3. Mario 3 offers 90 brilliant short stories, each one based on one or two basic concepts. As the game progresses the concepts require more and more precision and offers fewer safety nets, but if you master the controls and are patient you can always complete the levels in short-order. Mario World, on the other hand, is a 96-level novel that requires you to use every tactic you pick up along the way, and sometimes subverts your better instincts the deeper into the game you go. World’s levels are longer, taller, and more secret-filled, but lack the “leave you wanting more” charm that Mario 3’s short levels had.

Still, I had a childhood’s worth of memories playing Mario World. Searching for every key, backtracking from Chocolate Island to the “Top Secret Area” just to grab a few one-ups and a cape, finally, after years of searching, discovering the secret exit to the fortress in the Valley of Bowser, giving me instant access to the final fight, and of course, beating SPECIAL and changing the season from spring to fall; the game was filled with discovery, challenges, and most of all: Personality: It’s still the game with the most expressive Mario character.

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Name any other Mario game that lets you look up and down to the beat of the castle theme.

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Mario’s transition to 3D turned him into a different animal entirely. I first played Mario 64 on Christmas morning 1996. Initially I was…disappointed. I was too old to be instantly wowed by 3D gameplay, and I was too young to appreciate the technical mastery of that 3D gameplay. Instead I saw a Mario game that didn’t really feel like a Mario game (at least at first). The levels had very few of the classic Mario enemies. There were a couple goombas, thwomps and piranha plants, and there was that one koopa troopa that you could race; it was a “platformer” in that you were required to run and jump on things in order to advance in the level, but it was wholly different from the games I’d grown up with. Indeed it was such a departure that it spawned its own sub-genre, the “3D Adventure.”

Though today it’s regarded as a pioneering game, I actually gave up on it about a day after Christmas and traded it in for StarFox64. I wouldn’t come back to it until it was on the Wii Virtual Console, and even then I was never crazy about it. There’s just something about the camera control, the odd mix of polygons and sprites and the “replay the same level multiple times for different objectives” formula that has never sat well with me.

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I had the same indifference toward Mario Sunshine. It improved the graphics, the controls and the camera but the addition of the almost-exclusive tropical setting was a turn off. I wanted to go back to the Mushroom Kingdom. I wanted another 2D Mario game. And that’s when Nintendo, finally, agreed that the time was right.

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Now I’ve talked before about my dislike of the “New” series. To quote myself

…for a Nintendo game, it’s a far cry from the sublime brilliance of Mario 3 and Mario World. It also lacks the raw fun-but-challenging gameplay of the original Super Mario Bros. The New series is unoriginal and uninspired. The same “wah wah” music is in all the games. The same floaty 3D controls on a 2D plane. The same flag pole goals. The same “multi-colored bricks for platforms” and the same koopa kid boss fights.

In summary, the “New” series is too shallow, too derivative, and too easy. Having said that, had the followup game offered the kind of innovation to the formula that Mario 3 did to Mario 1, and what Mario World did to Mario 3, then I wouldn’t complain as strongly. Instead, every subsequent followup in the “New” line of games, has retained the same cookie-cutter design. There are minor changes, and of course graphical upgrades as it moves from system to system, but it’s the same shtick, without any of Nintendo’s 80’s-90’s brilliant level design.

That could be because, for the first time in the history of Mario’s video game development, the creators were not starting each “New” game from scratch, the way Miyamoto and Tezuka started Mario 3 from scratch and Mario World from scratch. Instead, the “New” creators at Nintendo EAD-Kyoto worked from a “Mario template” that allowed them to plug in pre-designed models (and tweak them as needed) into the game instead of creating all new models of characters and environments. This has sped up development time but at the cost of a blander, “same ol’ same ol'” presentation.

Playing the games with so little variety feels more like work than fun. But maybe I’m just old. What I wanted most out of the original New Super Mario Bros. was for the followup to surpass it in a big way. I wanted the formula shaken up a bit.

Instead Nintendo went back to 3D and gave us Super Mario Galaxy, a game that would go as far away from New’s 2D setting and style as possible.

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And yet, despite how “out there” that game was, after playing it for a while, it was the first game—for me—since Super Mario World that felt like a Mario game, even more than New Super Mario did. The fact that it was in 3D felt more like a visual style difference than a total gameplay change. Running and jumping, the platforming challenges, all of it felt like a 3D conversion of the 2D formula in much the same way Metroid Prime felt like a perfect 3D conversion of the 2D Super Metroid. The sequel was somehow even better than the original, with crisp platforming challenges and new costumes that required thinking and care in how they were used in the excellently-designed levels.

For a time it seemed like Nintendo would settle into a rut of alternating between overachieving 3D games like Galaxy and underachieving 2D “New” games, but instead they shook things up with the release of the 3DS. Instead of being developed by EAD-Kyoto, Mario 3D Land (and its WiiU followup “3D World”) were created by Nintendo’s EAD-Tokyo, the same team of wizards behind the Galaxy games.

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As much as the Galaxy games felt like Mario Games, the 3D Land/World games play like 2D Mario games. There is a linearity to them that none of the previous 3D games had. Even though the cat-powerup is not as surreal and game-changing as the racoon suit or the super cape, it’s offset by the crazy amount of variety in each level, which hearkens back to the days of Mario 3. The games still retain a full 3D playing field, but the camera tends to force you to play the game like a 2D experience, in a sort of quasi-2.5D style.

But it works, because Mario was made for 2D experiences.

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Where the character goes next is anyone’s guess. There have been four “eras” of Mario games over his now-thirty year history: 2D Platformer, 3D Adventure,  3D Platformer, and 2.5D Platformer.

He started out in a simple side-scroller with tight controls, and his creators found their groove just in time for the 3D revolution to take him to places that—while interesting and revolutionary—never really meshed with the history of the character. Then, just as soon as Nintendo realized how to make a proper 3D “Mario” game that retained the feel of the 2D games, the company returned Mario to his 2D roots, albeit with results not as remarkable as their earlier output. Now, with two games in the “3D Land/World” series under their belt, Nintendo has created a game that meshes the best of both the 2D platformer and the 3D adventure, with the tight controls and great design of the 3D platforming Galaxy games.

Fans have been curious what Nintendo will do with their next Mario game on their next home console (codenamed: NX). Will they return to the 2D world they innovated and resurrected? Will they release another Mario Sunshine-esque 3D adventure game, or maybe the long-desired Mario Galaxy 3? “Super Mario 3D World 2” is a mouthful, but maybe another game in that style is in the works as a NX launch title.

Mario has been many things in his history: A carpenter, a plumber, a (quack) doctor, a boxing ref, go kart rider, tennis player and a golfer. But the games he stars in have always been about one thing: Whether its the low-key Super Mario Bros. or the mini-bursts of genius in Mario 3; whether it’s the big scope of Mario World or the 3D revolution of Mario 64; whether you’re smiling your way through Honeyhive Galaxy or gritting your teeth while attempting Champion’s Road, Mario games have always been about putting new gameplay ideas and mechanics to the test in a polished and fun environment.

For thirty years now Mario has been entertaining the masses, and even though Nintendo has blessed us with a new Mario Maker game (wherein we don’t play as Mario; we play as Miyamoto creating Mario), Mario gamers will always be eagerly anticipating our next opportunity to visit the Mushroom Kingdom and play the hero with “the little plumber that could.”

Here’s to another thirty fun-filled years!

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