It’s-a Mario! A look back at the greatest franchise in gaming.
In Another Castle
Super Mario Bros. became the last time Miyamoto could direct every last element of a game himself. His responsibilities overseeing R&D4 ate up his time, and severely limited his participation in the sequel. Out of necessity, his attention turned to finishing Zelda for the Famicom Disk System.
The FDS was essentially an external disk drive that plugged into the Famicom. The games were cheaper, the disks held five times the memory cartridges did, and the results impressed. Zelda was the first Famicom Disk game. Super Mario Bros. 2 would be next.
Visually, it looked exactly like its predecessor, but it was harder… much harder. Smooth level designs were replaced by insanely tough obstacle courses, occasionally requiring a split-second bounce off a Koopa to clear extra-wide gaps. Latter stages were cannibalized from “Vs. Super Mario Bros.”, a largely redesigned arcade port of the original. Adding to frustrations, some mushrooms were poisonous, some warps sent you back instead of forward, and inclement weather regularly kicked Mario off-course in mid-chasm jump. Waiting at the end of every boss fight, Mario found a trussed-up Toad — Princess Peach’s mushroom retainers — grateful for rescue, “but our princess is in another castle!”
Nintendo decided Mario 2’s difficulty level exceeded North American skill level. Rather than risk the franchise’s popularity, they canceled its stateside release and looked for an alternative. They found one in Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic), a game Miyamoto actually spent more time on than Mario 2.
It followed a platforming family of four — each with Mario-mirroring abilities — on a quest to rescue kidnapped kids in a strange fantasy land. If that wasn’t close enough, the playable characters corresponded nicely; Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad were built on Brother, Mama, Sister and Papa’s models. Luigi got his first distinctive character traits in the original Mario 2 (longer jumps, less traction), and now he got his first original character model as well. Building on Mama’s model made him noticeably taller than Mario, too.
Of course, Doki Doki Panic wasn’t a Mario game and it didn’t play like one; no hidden secrets, no Koopas, no Bowser, no Fire Mario, few power-ups of any kind, and strangest of all, no more stomping enemies. They (or various fruits and veggies) were hefted up and hurled into other enemies. Mario defeated final boss Wart by tossing fruit into its mouth, choking the giant frog, and the whole game turned out to be Mario’s dream.
American gamers enthusiastically jumped on the Doki Doki Super Mario Bros. 2, unaware of the switch. In retrospect, it became the series’ big aberration, but both Mario 2s found huge audiences through various ports. The Japanese version became The Lost Levels in later collections with the more problematic elements cleaned up. Doki Doki Mario 2 got a complete overhaul to launch the Game Boy Advance, making it feel more Mario while keeping the unusual gameplay intact.
By an interesting quirk of timing, Doki Doki Mario 2 originally released stateside in October 1988, the same month Japanese gamers were playing Super Mario Bros. 3. Americans wouldn’t get their first look at the newest Mario until the climactic final battle in a Fred Savage movie – The Wizard – two years later. And then it didn’t hit stores for another two months.
Miyamoto became intensely involved on Mario 3 from conception onward. He wanted new ways to power-up Mario, initially by changing him into a centaur and other mythical creatures, but the first sketch that really stuck showed Mario with a raccoon tail. New gameplay possibilities opened up, and Miyamoto went with them. Mario’s wardrobe further expanded with Frog and Tanooki suits, giving him flight, swimming, and stealth abilities. Miyamoto complemented those powers by creating ingenious levels around them, arguably some of the best levels ever designed for a videogame.
Dozens of new enemies like Boom Booms, Boos and Chain Chomps impeded a quest to rescue seven kings from Bowser’s seven bratty kids, the Koopalings. Naturally, this was merely a diversion so Bowser (now with a mane of red hair) could once again make off with Peach. Also new to the series, mini-games that bestowed power-ups, a handy map screen to track progress and collectable Warp Whistles (bearing a striking resemblance to the one Link used in Zelda II) for those wanting to skip to the end. Not that many did, outside of speed-runners. The incredible amounts of secrets to discover in every level encouraged a complete play-through, and then complete replays to see it all.
Super Mario Bros. 3 fast became the second best selling videogame of all time, and the franchise’s NES swan song. Super Mario Bros. 4 would materialize under a new name, on a new console, and with new competition.
Mario already counted a dozen mobile games to his name at this point, mostly ports under the Game & Watch imprint. But now Miyamoto’s old mentor, Gunpei Yokoi, had invented a new platform: the Game Boy. Yamauchi wanted their star character on it. Yokoi’s R&D1 team went to work on the first original mobile Mario game in 1989… And the first Mario without Shigeru Miyamoto.
Super Mario Land gave gamers twelve levels of platforming goodness, including a few shooting sequences with Mario piloting planes and submarines. The story took him away from the Mushroom Kingdom to Sarasaland and another princess – Daisy – who needed rescuing from the evil clutches of mysterious spaceman Tatanga. On his return home in Super Mario Land 2, he learned it had been conquered by a new adversary named Wario.
Yokoi’s take on Mario helped the Game Boy surpass the NES as Nintendo’s best selling platform, and the game itself edged past Mario 3’s sales figures. That same year, a re-org changed R&D4 into Nintendo EAD (Entertainment Analysis and Development), giving Miyamoto responsibility over nearly all game content for Nintendo’s next console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. He went right to work on a Mario launch title.
Unfortunately, unlike the NES launch, Nintendo wasn’t the only game in town anymore. The SEGA Genesis had a two-year jump, and a mascot of their own. Sonic the Hedgehog came off as the anti-Mario… faster, hipper, attitude-ready. SEGA wasn’t shy about drawing the distinction, either. Genesis did “what Nintendon’t.” In a personality contest between the two, Mario was just too humble and selfless to be a badass, and that deficiency worried Nintendo execs. It even prompted Miyamoto to publicly admit his game suffered from a rushed production schedule.
Super Mario World arrived in 1991 alongside the SNES, and sold twice as many copies as the first two Sonic games combined.
Miyamoto’s mea culpa aside, Mario in 16-bit looked better, sounded better, played better than any Mario game before and sold better than all but the first. Nothing compared to knocking gigantor Bullet Bills out of the sky with a simple tap, or discovering the secret path to Star Road. Spin attacks combined nicely with Fire Mario firepower. Some blocks spun when hit to create revolving doorways. Bowser returned, as a proper nemesis should, and gamers were introduced to a Mario’s best friend, Yoshi.
The R&D1 design staff wanted Mario to ride a dinosaur ever since Super Mario Bros., but now the technology made it possible. Yoshi came in one size and all colors, with different powers and huge appetites. Players loved the new addition to Mario’s growing roster, so much so that Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island became a Super Mario game were Mario wasn’t playable. The focus was entirely on Yoshi ferrying helpless Baby Mario to safety.
It wasn’t much of a shock. Mario had branched across genres and game types since his first Golf game in 1984, to the point that by the mid-90’s, his name was synonymous with videogames in general more than with the stellar platforming titles where he made his bones. Mario played basketball, tennis, pinball, checkers, Go Fish, raced motocross and caught big air snowboarding down mountains. He was part of the Dance Dance Revolution. Dr. Mario prescribed Tetris-like puzzles, but Mario and Luigi also appeared in Picross and Tetris-branded games. Luigi searched for a missing Mario in riffs on Carmen Sandiego, and Mario himself taught numbers, letters, typing, painting, and sweater knitting.
Some genres he made his own. Mario Kart made pick-up-and-play gaming out of a deceptively complex racer in 1992, made more addictive by random combat power-ups. Guns and missiles felt passé next to homing turtle shells and lightning bolts that shrunk the competition to crushable fun-size. Successive versions would bump the action up to four players, and make kart-racers practically mandatory for platformer characters on every gaming system.
As far as his home genre went, things weren’t going so well. Miyamoto wanted the next “true” Mario game to take things to a completely new level, but after five years of experimentation and frustration, he decided it couldn’t be done on the current system. Mario and Luigi’s last adventure on the SNES instead broke them into RPG gaming with Legend of the Seven Stars.
Miyamoto’s failed project, code-named Super Mario FX, was intended to be the first 3D platforming game.