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Monday, January 13, 2014

NES Replay: Mario Bros.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: June 1986
What made Mario a more enduring character than Pac-Man or Pitfall Harry? How come we’re not playing Pitfall Harry Kart 7 or Super Pac-Man Galaxy today? After all, those original games were just as popular in their day as any Mario game, if not more so.

I would argue that Mario endures because he feels a little more real. Even when he's battling a giant fire-breathing turtle/dragon in a fiery inferno, he still feels like an everyman. How come? Because Mario has a backstory.

In order for a player to identify strongly with a character, we need to know something about them. This sounds like a stupid thing to get hung up on with a video game character, but it’s important. Any bit of information at all will help. Anything at all.

Want some proof? Consider this: Why is Pitfall Harry jumping over scorpions? Why is he climbing on alligator heads? Is he looking for something? What’s his ultimate goal? What about Pac-Man? What’s he doing in the maze? Why is he getting pills? Why is he being chased by ghosts? Their games may have been great, but since their motivations were unclear, the characters themselves weren't important.


The only information that most people have about Mario is that he's an Italian plumber. That down-to-earth description makes Mario into someone that players can identify with and helps Mario succeed as a character where other characters failed. His motivations are almost always simple too: Rescue the princess / girlfriend / person.

Donkey Kong, first released into the arcades in 1980, laid down the idea for Mario but called him Jumpman at first. Donkey Kong Jr., in 1981, famously put Mario as the villain. It wasn't until Mario Bros., first released to the arcades in 1983, that Mario was given his famous job.

So how exactly did Mario become a plumbler? It all started from a gameplay idea. Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi came up with the idea of Mario being able to jump from platform to platform in a level, and that morphed into the idea of hitting enemies from below. From there, they asked why he would be killing enemies in that grim environment, and came up with a story about Mario having to clean out the sewers. And why would Mario have to clean out sewers? Well, he's a plumber! Bang!

A lot of other details about the Mario series came from Mario Bros. When looking for an enemy that could be hurt from below but not above, Miyamoto and Yokoi thought about using turtles. The design of the turtles is awfully similar to Koopa Troopas, and in future revisions, that's what they became.

Also, why are pipes green in Mario's world? The background color in all of Mario Bros.' levels is black. A grey colored pipe wouldn't really stand out against that background, so to make the pipes visible, Miyamoto selected green. In future games, it just sort of stuck.

So we owe an awful lot to Mario Bros. With all that being said, is it a fun game? Not really.

As we know by now, there's a fundamental difference between arcade games and in-home console games. In an arcade game, the point is to survive as long as you can and attain the highest score. On most home games, though, the point is forward progress.

Mario Bros. was built from the ground up for the arcades. Every level's layout is virtually identical. The only thing that changes from level to level are the enemies, and with only five different enemies, it doesn't take long for Mario Bros. to become a grim march to the end.

Other things work to Mario Bros. detriment. When Mario Bros. launched in 1983, Nintendo was apparently still experimenting with different jumping physics. Mario Bros. has less in common with the smooth jumping of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., and a lot more in common with the funky physics of Ice Climber. Combined with the drudgery of playing through level after level of the same old thing, Mario Bros. is pretty painful.

The good news is that it's found a second life of sorts as a bonus in other games. It was included as an Easter egg in Super Mario Bros. 3, then included in all of the Super Mario Advance games and a few others. It works much better there, as a smaller game that can be played for a few minutes and then discarded.

Maybe Nintendo can go back to it someday and rework it, maybe make it a little more varied or entertaining. Until then, it's more important for what it added to the Mario series as a whole than for how it plays.