It’s-a Mario! A look back at the greatest franchise in gaming.
Little Big Man
The moment Sony’s PlayStation hit the market in 1994, the SNES became dangerously behind the times. Nintendo upped the pace on the Ultra 64, its own fifth generation console, and Miyamoto took the opportunity to step forward with a few requests.
First-person shooters in 3D arenas were standard fare, but five years toiling on Mario FX taught Miyamoto that third-person gaming in a three dimensional environment came with a unique problem: where to put the camera. Moving around in a 3D space complicated everything. Linear stages could use a fixed camera, and early builds all supported the approach, but Miyamoto was adamant. Players wanted the freedom to explore, so they needed a camera they could manipulate where necessary. That required a different type of controller from the one Nintendo had stuck by for over a decade.
They were charting new territory, and Miyamoto made sure to ease players in. He introduced the whole camera concept by making it part of the story; your “seasoned cameraman” was a Lakitu on its flying cloud, filming your adventures instead of hurling bombs your way as per usual. Angles and camera modes were mapped to the new controller’s new buttons, while an analog stick opened up Mario’s range of movement. The normal repertoire of jumping ballooned with crouch jumps, triple jumps, wall jumps and backflips. More than that, Mario could now casually walk around instead of bat-outta-hell running everywhere, allowing him to tip-toe past some enemies. R&D4 tested everything on a flat, featureless grid by making the 3D Mario model chase and nab a yellow rabbit nicknamed MIPS, after the CPU chip. A dozen inspired levels were then crafted around Mario’s new moves and the plot’s “Easter egg hunt” conceit. Every detail was scrutinized. Linear sections funneled players to boss battles, but the emphasis fell on free-roaming discovery without any time limits. Puzzles elements took on greater significance as well. Mario wouldn’t just navigate his environment… he’d have to solve it, too.
Mario also found his voice when actor Charles Martinet crashed the last audition of the day. Told to do a plumber from Brooklyn talking to children about videogames, Martinet ignored his instinct to play it gruff and New Yawk, instead unleashing a babbling high-pitched ramble about how to “make a-pizza pie.” His tape was the only one sent to Nintendo.
A freshly renamed N64 finally debuted in 1996 with a scandalously non-bundled Mario game at its side. PlayStation had an eighteen month head start, but when players plugged in a Super Mario 64 cartridge and a fully rendered Mario announced “It’s a-me, Mario!” Sony’s advantage temporarily vanished. Nintendo’s powerhouse franchise was back. Miyamoto had delivered the most groundbreaking and technically advanced game of its time. Also one of the more purely joyous gaming experiences ever devised.
Drawn to Peach’s castle by the lure of free cake, Mario found bigger-than-ever Bowser had come calling first and stolen 105 of the castle’s 120 Power Stars. Mario 64 opened with a danger-free level to acclimatize gamers to a new kind of game, and then jumped right into the castle’s many paintings on a mission to recover the missing stars. It was a lot of work for cake, but a smooch on the nose from Peach clearly made up for it.
Every jump was punctuated by a “Yah-HOO!” This was a guy happy in his work, glad to be of service. And why not? Every task, from man-cannoning into Whomp’s Fortress to grabbing Bowser by the tail and throwing him into bombs felt great to pull off, and every new world led to a uniquely interesting challenge. Hats were the new power-ups, allowing flight and various levels of invulnerability. In fact, Mario doffed his cap on a regular basis throughout the game; Miyamoto had finally broken down and given his plumber a ‘do. The dev team even managed to smuggle MIPS the bunny into the final build as both a Star objective and a boon to speed-runners looking for glitches to exploit.
Super Mario 64 remains one of the most acclaimed videogames of all time, setting down standards every 3D platformer that followed still adheres to. A planned sequel would’ve added multiplayer, but Super Mario 64 2 never materialized past a one-level demo.
Instead, a Mario 64 port to the DS eight years later made Luigi, Wario and Yoshi playable characters, and Mario added three more durable series to the N64’s legacy. Super Smash Bros. gave Nintendo an all-star arena fighter that stood up to the best in the genre. The Mario Party series put multiplayer party mini-games on the map, while Paper Mario brought plumber and friends back to RPGs with a nifty gimmick: 2D paper cutout avatars in a 3D world. Good as they were, none turned Nintendo’s fortunes. The Game Boy’s successor, Virtual Boy, tanked despite support from Mario Tennis and Mario Clash, and the decision to go with a pricier cartridge-based system over the PlayStation’s CD games put a huge dent in N64 sales. A Famicom Disk-like zip drive-inspired add-on, the 64DD, failed. Nintendo fell well behind Sony’s monster machine.
Its replacement, the GameCube, would be the first Nintendo console to launch without Mario.
Brothers in Arms
At Yamauchi’s direction, the GameCube was built to be the lowest-priced console on the market, and the easiest to develop for. His philosophy endured; he wanted a low entry point to the system, and a ton of fantastic games to match the PS1’s growing catalog. But as EAD’s director, Miyamoto habitually pushed weak projects back or cancelled them outright… or, in Mario’s case, both. He showed a tech demo in 2000 called Mario 128, involving that number of mini-Marios playing with gravity along a circular board, but quickly shelved it. Finished Mario and Luigi models ran around on his computer for years, but no game solidified around them.
Nintendo had plenty of muscle to fall back on. Luigi manned up for a Ghostbusters-lite romp through Luigi’s Mansion, the Cube’s top launch title. Super Smash Bros. Melee followed a month later. Mario had reached a place where multiple spin-offs branched off the main show, many featuring supporting characters and most becoming successful series in their own right. Developer Rare took gamers to Donkey Kong Country for years before Nintendo brought him back for DK vs. Mario and rhythm games. Yoshi got his own Island, while Wario brought his smarmy charms to Wario Land and WarioWare titles. New Paper Mario entries coexisted with Mario & Luigi RPGs (and villains like the awful Fawful, who had FURY!). Peach took time off from kidnappee duties to wield a magic parasol — and rescue the boys for once — in Super Princess Peach on the DS.
Nevertheless, the absence of a flagship Mario game hurt the GameCube. While concepts flew around EAD, a few excited programmers tinkered around with brand-new fluid physics code, building a rudimentary game involving a water pump. It took about three months before it dawned on anyone that this was meant to be the new Mario platformer.
And a radically different Mario platformer at that. Mario and Peach would take a break from the Mushroom Kingdom (goodbye Goombas) in a suburban setting, later changed to a tropical island resort. Instead of power-ups, action and puzzles revolved around a high-powered water cannon backpack. Ten candidates were narrowed down to FLUDD (Flash Liquidizer Ultra Dousing Device), not because it was anybody’s favorite, but it fit the setting best. The team set to brainstorming a full game’s worth of challenges for Mario and FLUDD to hose down.
As work continued, an era ended. Minoru Arakawa, the man who named Mario, retired after twenty-two years heading Nintendo of America. Then Hiroshi Yamauchi himself stepped down as president of Nintendo in May 2002, just a month shy of the new game’s release.
Super Mario Sunshine ended a six year wait for a successor to Mario 64. A few on the design team worried it drifted too far from type. Most believed it maintained a Mario style while expanding on the Mario gameplay.
Either way, Mario’s vacation on Isle Delfino ended before he ever got off the plane. His mysterious doppleganger had vandalized the island with a vile goop that naturally dispersed their 120 guardian Shine Sprites (Power Stars by another name). Swiftly convicted of the misdeeds, Mario was sentenced to literally clean the town up and recover the sprites. FLUDD was Mario’s only tool and weapon, and doubled as a jetpack to take the game vertical. While power-washing the island and various bosses, he unmasked the imposter: Bowser Jr. The little scamp framed Mario to “rescue” his “Mama Peach” from the evil plumber’s clutches, until a final battle at Bowser Sr.’s jacuzzi allowed Mario to rescue Peach for real. Again.
Mario Sunshine met near-universal praise on release, but after that honeymoon a few criticisms landed home. Some bemoaned a lack of the familiar… enemies, settings, power-ups. Some agreed the massive levels boasted superior design, but inferior variety. Mario Sunshine’s real fault was that it didn’t present a quantum leap in gaming the way Mario 64 did. Sales-wise, it did fairly well for a videogame and fairly poor for a Mario game, ending up second to Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. The Cube’s lackluster performance didn’t help.
Over the next few years, Mario added soccer to his repertoire and New Super Mario Bros., a spectacular reimagination of the original 2D side-scroller, showed up on the DS. Otherwise, ports of elder games and spinoffs carried the franchise’s weight. Mario 128 rumors surfaced periodically, but they were just smoke. That project had split years before. The mini-Marios turned into Pikmin, while the gravity mechanics became a core element for an entirely different Mario game… one that takes the little Italian plumber in an entirely new direction: up.