It’s-a Mario! A look back at the greatest franchise in gaming.
A Series of Tubes
Early videogames were largely designed by the programmers coding them. Shigeru Miyamoto, on the other hand, was an artist by training. His approach was an artistic one. The games he designed were so different from everything else simply because he didn’t really know what he wasn’t supposed to do. That left him free to explore, and exploration soon became a part of his games.
In Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., he created the first true platformers, and now he wanted to expand those concepts. Early on, Miyamoto played with the idea of making Mario and Luigi bigger and smaller as they gained and lost power-ups. Progression would be linear, but a little exploration and experimentation would reveal hidden items, rooms, and shortcuts. If you saw a blocked-off chamber, it was always somehow accessible once the right blocks were smashed.
Careful attention went into creating the Mushroom Kingdom’s challenges. Miyamoto wanted the player’s experience to be consistently good and constantly evolving… always interesting, never overwhelming. Enemies balanced threat with whimsy. “Mushroom traitor” Goombas and pokey turtle Koopa Troopas got their comeuppance when Mario (Luigi for Player two) stomped on them or punted empty Koopa shells in their direction. Power-ups turned him into giant-sized Super Mario, fireball-throwing Fire Mario, or made him temporarily invincible. Finding and collecting coins earned you extra lives and a ticking clock kept you moving. Pipes and warp zones let you skip ahead or skip entire levels. Miyamoto packed bright, colorful levels full of secrets to find, every inch stamped with his genius and set to Koji Kondo‘s immediately catchy tunes. Even the springy buzz of Mario’s jumps pleased the ear.
Miyamoto spent so much time perfecting Mario, he was forced to put R&D4’s other major project – The Legend of Zelda – on hold, and cede much of Wrecking Crew, a Famicom game staring the brothers Mario, to others.
In October 1985, the Famicom, by then redubbed the Nintendo Entertainment System, went to America in several forms — one of which included a R.O.B. the Robot-less Super Mario Bros. bundled in the box. Arakawa found exactly one unenthusiastic distributor willing to gamble a limited stock in their New York stores as a test run. Expectations weren’t high. That fad was over. Everyone expected the NES to sit on the shelves and stay there right through the upcoming holiday season.
Only it didn’t. Word got out about a system that blew Atari away, and the amazing game that came with it.
The plot wasn’t deep, but it became the basis for virtually every Mario game to follow. A highly unpleasant turtle-dragon named Bowser (a.k.a. King Koopa, a play on the turtle-demon kappas of Japanese folklore) kidnapped Princess Peach (a.k.a. Princess Toadstool) and conquered the Mushroom Kingdom. Tiny Mario leapt chasms, stomped foes, and traversed eight huge worlds rushing to her rescue. You couldn’t help but feel the little guy had a lot of heart.
All paths led to a fight with Bowser over a lava pit and eventually to Peach and a chaste reward… i.e. a nice “Thank You, Mario!” Anyway, heroes expected rewards. Mario was just a working stiff, doing what needed doing.
Super Mario Bros. was a sheer joy to play, and soon bore out Yamauchi’s philosophy. By February, tens of millions of Nintendo systems sold across the U.S., nearly every one representing a gamer playing Mario. Bundled or otherwise, a record forty million Super Mario games sold, ten million more than the nearest competitor even two decades later.
The videogame crash of 1983 was officially done, all thanks to a plucky little Italian plumber. A sequel was obvious, but that’s when things got tricky in every conceivable way.