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Monday, December 2, 2013

NES Replay: Wrecking Crew

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1985
Almost as soon as the phenomenally successful Donkey Kong launched, Nintendo knew it was onto something. Nintendo finally had what no other video game hardware company had: A marketable mascot that they could put anywhere.

Mario clicked almost immediately with players. He was easy to identify with his red and blue outfit. The overalls and boots he wore made him a working-class character, and you could put him anywhere and he would mostly make sense.

Now, there were other mascots before Mario. Pac-Man's face was one of the most recognizable in the world for a time, but he wasn't a very flexible character. He's just a yellow disc with eyes, and in drawings he has stubby arms and legs that aren't visible in the game. Take Pac-Man out of his game's context, and he makes no sense whatsoever. What made Pac-Man popular wasn't Pac-Man himself, but the game around him.

Plus, try and picture Pac-Man in a different environment. For example, how would Pac-Man look playing golf? How long are his arms? Are his arms attached in the middle of his body? Then how will they reach out to look like a normal golf swing? Will they be able to wrap around his body on the follow-through swing? How will he lean over the ball?

What about putting Pac-Man in a platform game? Well, what's would he be doing in a platform game? That’s not really his thing. Why isn't Pac-Man instead running around in a maze? Why can he jump here but not in his normal game? Where do you incorporate the ghosts? Where does Ms. Pac-Man fit in all this?

These are the sorts of questions that Nintendo didn't have to ask with Mario. They didn't have to try and come up with any complicated stories or explanations for Mario because you could stick him into literally any game and he'll fit. In most games, Mario’s motivation is as simple as, “Rescue the princess,” and you know what? That works. That’s all he needs. You could have him jumping, climbing, playing golf, or even go-karting. He just fits. He's a chameleon in blue coveralls.

An early example of Mario’s flexibility was Wrecking Crew, an early puzzle-platformer. In Wrecking Crew, Mario uses a large hammer to knock down walls and destroy ladders while avoiding enemies. In a nice touch, Mario can't jump because the hammer he's holding is too heavy. That means you have to pick your route carefully in order to complete each level. Otherwise, you could get trapped with no hope of escape. However, unlike some other games of the time, it feels fair in a way that some arcade games didn't.

Wrecking Crew was built for consoles, and it shows. Since it's a little slower paced than other games of the time, cheap deaths are rare. When you die, you can usually understand where you made the mistake and adjust accordingly through your next playthrough. There's also a level creation system in Wrecking Crew, but it once again requires the Famicom Data Recorder.

There's a big reason that Mario is such an enduring character, and it's on display in Wrecking Crew: When Mario is the main character in a game, there's a good chance the game's going to be good. There's an expectation of quality in Mario games that you don't find with a lot of other mascots, so you know that you can buy any Mario game and enjoy yourself. That's something that's carried Mario (and Nintendo) through some lean times.

Nintendo learned early on that Mario can fit in any game they want to put him, but if you're going to put him in a game you had better make sure the game is good enough to bear his name. Wrecking Crew is a ton of fun, and demonstrates that commitment to quality.

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