Monday, November 11, 2013

NES Replay: Super Mario Bros.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1985
One of the biggest and most pointless arguments around is if there's a "Citizen Kane" of gaming. Most people who argue about this have no idea what a "Citizen Kane" of gaming would even look like, or even why Citizen Kane was a big deal.

Just so that we have a little bit of background, here's why Citizen Kane was important: A lot of early movies were adapted stage plays, and few of them actually took advantage of film as a medium. For example, on stage, you can't have flash forwards and flash backs, cross cuts and camera angles. You merely watch the story as it is written. Many early sound films were like this, showing the story as it was written with little flair.

Citizen Kane, on the other hand, took full advantage of film as a medium for storytelling. It was one of the first movies that took all the disparate elements that made up cinema (sound, music, staging, camera angles, lighting) and put them together in a cohesive whole.

However, here's the most important thing: It did this all in a film that was marketed to and watched by the masses.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one: If we're talking about a Citizen Kane of gaming, the only game that can apply for this role is Super Mario Bros. It's no contest.

There were certainly games before Super Mario Bros. that had one part of the whole video game experience. There were games with good music, and games with good controls, and games with good level design. They hadn't been combined into a cohesive whole to the extent that they were done in Super Mario Bros.

An enormous amount of thought went into it. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer of Super Mario Bros., realized that this would be the first video game that many people would play. A lot of people may not be interested in breaking out the instruction manual, so he knew that he had to draw on basic psychology to get people to understand the rules.

Let's look at the first level to see what kind of psychology is involved and how the player is gently trained by the game.

First, the character is left on an empty screen. Normal logic would dictate that the player should be in the middle of the screen, but instead, Mario is on the left side. That means that there's so much more space to the right than the left, which encourages the player to move to the right. However, if they move to the left, they will not progress. Therefore, they now know they only have one choice: Go to the right.

The first enemy, a Goomba, comes at you directly. With its brown color and downturned eyebrows, you instinctually understand that this is a threat. A first-time player will try to avoid it, but will probably end up dying. That solidifies the threat in their mind.

However, there's something of note with the timing of the Goomba along with the first '?' block. Many times, first-time players will jump to avoid the Goomba and hit the '?' block on the way. The chime noise that comes from the block is pleasing and didn't kill the player, and the timing of the jump will cause the player to land on the Goomba's head, killing him.

Now the player understands that '?' blocks are friendly. The enemies are deadly, unless you step on their heads.

The next '?' block holds a mushroom, but its brighter colors in contrast to the Goombas brown color makes it appear more welcoming. The mushroom moves away from the player, but then runs into the nearby pipe and comes back at them.

It moves too quickly for a novice player to avoid. They may make an attempt to avoid it, but right over the player's head are several blocks. If they jump to avoid the mushroom, they'll hit their head on the blocks and bounce right back down to the ground, making it almost inevitable that the player will touch the mushroom. When they touch the mushroom, the player grows larger.

So now the player understands that anything that comes out of '?' blocks is good. There are two more of them in this area, so the player naturally wants to get them. Because of that, they get some time in a safe place to practice jumping.

After that, they're sent to the right. They have to jump on top of a pipe. They're now practicing directional jumping in a stress-free environment. The next pipe is a little taller and there's a Goomba on the other end, and the next pipe is a little bit taller with two Goombas on the other side. The player now has been able to practice jumping over objects.

It's highly likely that they'll take damage in this area. Since they're large, they'll more than likely be shrunk down to smaller size. Now the player knows that when you take damage as a large player, you get shrunk.

After this practice area where the player can get used to jumping, they're now at their first real jump test. It's a small hole with a long run-up, which allows the player to possibly use their forward walking momentum to clear the jump. However, if they jump too soon (which happens more than you think), they find an invisible 1UP mushroom that they didn't know existed. Now they know that there are special secrets that can be invisible.

More than likely, though, they'll fall in the hole the first time they attempt the jump, which teaches them that holes are deadly.

When they cross the breach, There's another '?' block. Goombas drop down from the top of the screen, and a player will probably hit the '?' at the same time a Goomba on top of it just because of the timing. The Goomba dies as a result. Now the player understands that you can kill enemies by hitting them from underneath.

What comes out of this '?' block is a flashing flower. Now that the player knows that good stuff comes out of the '?' blocks, they'll naturally want to get the flower. They don't grow any bigger, but they've changed colors. The player will be confused as to what has changed.

The player might start pressing buttons. At this point, they'll discover that the B button spits fireballs. The player gets excited by this and may start moving forward while pressing B. They discover that this causes them to run faster, which in turn causes them to drop into the pit in front of them.

However, now the player will restart from right around the same point in the level. Now the player knows that they if they get far enough in a level, they're able to restart from the level's midpoint. They'll be small, though, so there's a pretty strong penalty for death.

They've done that all without on-screen prompts or an extensive manual. That's pure psychology. In less than 100 paces, the player knows everything they need to know in order to succeed in the game. They've also learned the basic steps for platform games: Forward movement, shooting, jumping and powerups.

That's pretty incredible, isn't it? None of this was by accident either. In a tremendous Iwata Asks article, Miyamoto explicitly explains that these things were planned in order to teach players about video games in general.

So a lot of thought went into the level design. What about the music?

The Super Mario Bros. theme, written by the venerable Koji Kondo, is so iconic that we could all probably hum it in our sleep. However, here's something crazy: As good as the Super Mario Bros. theme is, Nintendo took great pains not to overuse it. How so?

If you play through the first world from levels 1-1 to 1-4, you'll may not notice how often the music changes. First, you'll hear the musical theme that everyone associates with Mario in level 1-1. Then you'll hear a victory theme when you complete the level. Then you hear the underground music in 1-2, then the Mario theme again, then the victory music. In 1-3, you hear the Mario music again, then the victory music. Then you get the castle theme in 1-4, after which you hear different victory music when you beat Bowser's first incarnation.

The music switches nine separate times with six different musical tracks. That's an incredible amount of variety, and helps players not to get sick of the Mario theme, especially considering that novice players will spend the majority of their time on that level.

The Mario theme is also incredibly complex. Have you ever tried to play it on a piano? If you haven't, you should try it some time. You'll be shocked at how much you have to move your hand around the keys, and how often it switches to sharps and flats.

There are several distinct parts to the song too. You have a brief intro, then the main theme. Then the track switches into a minor key for a couple of chords, then switches to something that almost sounds like a countermelody. Then it goes back to the minor key, then loops back to the beginning. That's an insane amount of detail for one track.

Why is the track so detailed and complex? Because the music is part of your reward for staying alive. It's an intangible benefit that the player gets from survival.

The music in levels 1-2 and 1-4 is a lot simpler. By the time the player reaches 1-2 and 1-4, they understand the rules and controls well enough that they're concerned more about forward progress than the music.

There's something else we need to discuss about the music: The ingenious way that Kondo uses the noise channel on the NES' sound chip. The NES' sound chip was able to use five channels concurrently. Three of them generated musical tones of varying pitches and volumes, and one channel was meant for brief samples. The fifth was a noise generator, which could output static sounds.

The cymbals and scratches that you hear in the Super Mario Bros. theme are all generated from the noise track. Kondo used those static sounds to act as percussion.

This wasn't a new idea. The Commodore 64's sound chip was more flexible and also enabled composers to use noise tracks, and the composers who worked on the Commodore 64 had figured out how to make the noise tracks sound like percussion. However, with the astounding worldwide popularity of the NES, this brought "chiptunes" to the masses in a way that the Commodore couldn't. (Sorry, Commodore 64. You are not forgotten. /pours one out)

Next, we need to talk about how expansive Super Mario Bros. is. We forget about how many levels are really in Super Mario Bros. because the majority of people who play it today use warp zones to complete it quickly. However, for early players, completing Super Mario Bros. meant powering through 32 levels of a progressively harder difficulty.

Unlike other platform games like Pitfall!, there's a ton of variety from level to level. For example, the water levels changed up the entire control scheme for a level. Some, like the excellent 2-3, had you run like crazy while Cheep-Cheeps flew at you from all around. Some were simple mazes, like 5-4 and 7-4. 8-3 is the archetype for every future penultimate level in platform games, and 8-4 is the archetype for every future final level in platform games.

So how did they manage to squeeze so much detail and so many varied levels into one game with only 16K of available memory? Simple: They reused stuff like crazy.

For example, the bushes on the ground and the clouds in the sky are the same exact item, just layered and recolored from white to green. Here's a comparison:

You may have been aware of that, but you may not have been aware of this one, and it's pretty mindblowing: You know the music that happens when you jump on the flagpole at the end of the level? They reused it in another place. You know where?

The music that players when you jump on the flagpole is the same sound that plays when you pick up a powerup, just sped up. Take a listen:

There's so much more about Super Mario Bros. that can be unpacked and dissected: The brilliant parabolic motion of Mario's jumps, the ingenious warp zones, the way the physics feel natural while still being fun, the way that Nintendo carefully avoided having sprite flicker, and the way that different enemies play with the rules throughout the game. Whole books could be written about nothing but the design of Super Mario Bros.

That's what truly makes Super Mario Bros. incredible. It was one of the first games that felt entirely professional, with no wasted space or added junk that didn't need to be there. It was a monumental achievement, a masterpiece at a time where nothing less would bring gaming back to the forefront. It was exactly what gaming needed when it needed it. It's the most important game ever made and deserves every ounce of the respect it's earned.

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