Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

The Little Plumber That Could

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It was 30 years (and one day) ago today that the video game Super Mario Bros. premiered on the Famicom (aka NES) console in Japan.  We also got it over here in America the same year, but at the time the bookkeeping on release dates of games was quite poor.  If you really want to learn the messed up system and why we cannot exactly pinpoint the release, please check out Frank Cifaldi’s amazing piece on the topic, but suffice to say the Nintendo official October 18, 1985 release date is suspect.  Controversy over when the plumber exactly appeared is an academic’s interest at best because there’s no denying that since 1985 we now have a video game equivalent to Mickey Mouse.  Even more interesting is that beyond being a marketing giant and notable face for the company Nintendo, Super Mario Bros. was neither the first appearance (or even the second) of the plumber, but it was the most important one starring him.  In fact, I might even say it was the most significant video game in history.

Humble Beginning

nes_deluxe_set1985 was a terrible time for home console video games in America.  The crash of 1983, which really affected games in 1984, had come and gone leaving in its wake a slew of discounted useless software and the fear of bankruptcy to anyone working in the field.  Atari had been dethroned, stores of all kinds were left with unsold merchandise, and the Cabbage Patch Kids were the hottest item on the block.  It looked like video games were dead.  Then a new challenger from Japan approached, using terms like “entertainment system” and just about anything to avoid calling it a video game to push this newfangled hardware into toy stores again.  If you weren’t buying toys back then, allow me to explain that at a K.B. Toys or F.A.O. Schwartz you would frequently see these all-in-one combo toys that had guns, controllers, and various other things that might interface with a game board, boombox, and rarely a television.  Thanks to R.O.B., a full Casio keyboard, and the way it was marketed, Nintendo managed to sneak a new video game console into the American market and we ate it up like crazy.  Whether it was planned or not – although knowing Hiroshi Yamauchi and Howard Lincoln it most likely was – this killer new hardware needed a killer software title.  That title was action platformer Super Mario Bros.

smb_startBefore Super Mario Bros. the concept of the scrolling screen was quite the rarity.  Almost all games – arcade, Atari, microcomputer – moved either within a static screen or moved screen to screen, requiring the whole thing to momentarily refresh.  Super Mario Bros. didn’t do that, it scrolled.  If you watch the title screen for a few seconds, the game knows what you are expecting and uses that preconceived notion to play a trick on you.  Mario stands still as the title screen proudly shows off the name of the game and a coin blinks for a few seconds, but then something crazy happens as Mario begins to move to the right and the title screen is forfeit behind him.  If you were like me and owned a Commodore 64 at the time or had relatives with an Atari or ColecoVision it was like nothing you had ever seen before.  Couple that with the fact that graphics, while archaic, got just close enough to the console experience of the time to trick you into believing that the two were similar.  Go back and look at Donkey Kong on the NES, it’s sure a lot closer to the arcade version visually than anything that came out before it.  Not only that, but Super Mario Bros. was the pack-in title for almost all of the first half of the NES console’s life cycle and the consistent demo game in department stores.  It was smart because it not only offered a new experience, but it also used this experience to convince you that only the NES could do it and it did so by going face to face with the competition in stores.  If you saw Super Mario Bros. before 1988, you had to have it.

Genius Game Design

smb_starIn addition to these significant distinctions from the competition, Super Mario Bros. excels because it is the quintessential reference tool for significant game design and even holds up today.  You don’t have any tutorials, no explanation, and frankly you are not expected to live.  When Mario comes up to the goomba, you might not know what to do, but if you touch it you die and the first lesson of the game is learned.  Those who watched the attract screen for the game may have seen the demo jump on top of the goomba, but if you had to learn that the hard way you now know that leaping on an enemy is one way to defeat them.  Later on the game presents enemies that aren’t so easily thwarted, but that basic lesson can get you through the first few worlds without an issue.  The same can be said for power-ups (mushroom, fire flower, star) as they are all present in the first level and you get just enough enemies to test these items out but not enough to overwhelm you.  The game also anticipates different paths you may take or things you might try.  If you jump around like a madman all over the place you may find a 1-up after the third pipe, which is the game telling you “good idea, try that more in the future.”  If you try to duck into pipes, most won’t go anywhere but one in the level takes you to an underground area with a bunch of coins.  Those that identify the concept of rewarding behavior for a good job will then deduce that the game is encouraging you to try this as well.  Pits are handled in a similar fashion, with the first one possible without any momentum, but by the end of the first level (or possibly the second, I forget) you need to learn that the physics of the game require a running start.  The end of the level even brings you to a flag where you can test various heights to discover the different point totals.

smb_warpIt’s a crash course in the basic principle of the game and tells you so much in a so little time.  That’s not to say you’re ready to tackle the entire game from this point and there’s still much to learn – like how those fireworks popped up or even the necessity of breaking bricks – but it’s a crash course without so much as one line of text.  The modern gamer may get frustrated with a pacing that could take more than 3 lives and plenty of trial and error before figuring out how to beat the first level, but back then we had never seen this before and we had plenty of time to try again and get comfortable.  Heck, some of us had pumped dollars into Donkey Kong without so much as a clue how to beat the first level.  This sequence impressively continues as the game does with the second level (1-2) introducing the warp zone – provided you know where to look and how to get up there – as well as some of the meaner tricks of the game.  It keeps going and really doesn’t stop until you conquer world 4-4, which is really when the tutorial becomes the test.  If you have never played Super Mario Bros. without utilizing warp zones, I highly recommend giving the first 16 levels (1-1 through 4-4) a try because they are masterful at accumulating skill sets while keeping the gameplay enjoyable.  It’s learning that doesn’t feel like learning.  Beyond that the testing portion of the back half of the game can differ from awkward puzzles to flat out ludicrous platforming precision.  I had never honestly beaten the game by conquering all 32 levels before a couple of years ago and now that I have, I’m glad I did.


super_mario_worldSuper Mario Bros. may have been the progenitor of many things, including the series itself, but it definitely wasn’t the last.  While there are some differing opinions, I feel the changes of the awkward Super Mario Bros. 2 (which has a perfectly good explanation for its weirdness, mind you) and the finesse of Super Mario Bros. 3 are just iterative forms of the same concept.  It isn’t until Super Mario World that you start to see real change.  With the 16-bit prowess of the SNES on the horizon, Nintendo chose to yet again show off what it’s then powerhouse mascot could do on the new console.  Super Mario World, like Super Mario Bros., is as much a showpiece of the SNES as it is the next generation of Mario’s platforming.  I know, I know, Super Castlevania IV is a much better demonstration of all the SNES had to offer, but Super Mario World is the most digestible.  It shows, too, how many gamers list it as their favorite Mario game as well as favorite title of all time?  It really is a different ball game if you break it down.  Everything from the first round of enemies you face, to Yoshi’s presence and mechanics, to the awkward cape and spin moves that can make you do unthinkable things in the platforming world.  Yep, Super Mario World is as much a breath of fresh air as the original.

super_mario_64This same formula continues yet again on the N64, but I don’t really feel this one needs any explanation.  Aside from ushering in Nintendo’s 3D polygonal generation, Super Mario 64 also won because the game’s formula smoothly transitioned into the third dimension whereas his largest competitor of the time, Sonic, sadly did not.  I don’t think Nintendo much cared what Sega or Sonic were up to, but the effect was the same nonetheless.  As time has gone on Super Mario titles have had varying degrees of popularity and quality, but that surprisingly hasn’t stopped Mario from being the cultural icon he is today.  It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play the next Mario title on Wii U/NX or if I even care about the myriad of side projects like Mario Kart and others, because I still have a Mario doll and/or figure in every game room I ever set up.  I can’t help it, the plumber is larger than life.



I think there are better ways to appreciate Mario on his 30th birthday than the game – albeit a great game – that we received (as well as the subsequent amiibo).  Mario Maker is sure to rush back the nostalgia, allow us to do things that only crazy hackers of the past had done, and usher in a new generation of gamers that can fall in love with his style of game again.  That said, I regret that we couldn’t get something a bit more special like a rom hack on the Virtual Console – one that only Japan got for the 25th anniversary – or maybe even a documentary from Nintendo.  I don’t honestly know what the best idea would be, but I do know that a retail release of a “make your own fun” game was not what I had in mind.  Still, I think the best way to celebrate the 30th and definitely one of the most significant, is the original Super Mario Bros.  I have an approximately 1 hour video of my entire (and eventually successful) attempt to play through the game without warps here, but you’re probably better off turning on your nostalgia and giving the original a go – on an NES if you can – for old time’s sake.  Why not?  It’s only the DNA for which almost every game today is based.

The opinions expressed here are that of the writer, Fred Rojas, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gaming History 101 or its other contributors.

Written by Fred Rojas

September 14, 2015 at 11:00 am

One Response

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  1. Great post. My nostalgia for the older Mario games (1 through 4/World) has created my recent addiction to Super Mario Maker.


    October 4, 2015 at 4:34 pm

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