Brick by Brick: The House that Mario Built
The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1985 and retailed for $199 in the United States. The standard package included an 8-bit graphics console and two classic game controllers. Other bundles featured the NES Zapper along with the supported NES game Duck Hunt. If you were one of the luckier kids, your parents shelled out a few extra bucks for the Deluxe Set which featured all the above but also included the optional R.O.B. or, Robotic Operating Buddy.
Nintendo released 17 launch titles, the first of 30 ‘black box games’, and they included 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, the aforementioned Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan’s Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, Stack-Up, Tennis, Wild Gunman and Wrecking Crew. But of all these games, gimmicks and accessories, it was Super Mario Bros. that put Nintendo on the map, selling a record forty million units worldwide and becoming the best-selling game of all time for a single platform for approximately three decades, until Nintendo’s Wii Sports took that title.
With Super Mario Bros. 3 turning 30 today, let’s look back at the history of the three original Super Mario games released on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Mario remains the most recognizable character in video-gaming but before Super Mario Bros. came along, he played a supporting role in Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, the 1981 arcade hit drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye, Beauty and the Beast and King Kong. The young graphic artist who’d never designed a game in his life decided that story would come first and the gameplay would be designed around it. After losing the license to Popeye, Miyamoto decided his Sailor-Man would become Jumpman, a carpenter leaping barrels and scaling a construction site to rescue his girlfriend Lady, who is kidnaped by a giant ape. Lady was renamed Pauline, Jumpman became Mario and the ape was, of course, Donkey Kong.
Miyamoto developed the scenario and designed the game alongside Nintendo’s chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, and the damsel in distress scenario would provide the template for countless video games to come. Donkey Kong was the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form, and like 1980’s Pac-Man, it employs cutscenes to advance its plot. Miyamoto changed the industry by using graphics as a means of characterization, and since its original release, Donkey Kong’s success has become firmly rooted in American popular culture. Miyamoto’s characters quickly appeared on cereal boxes, television cartoons, and dozens of other places and a lawsuit brought on by Universal City Studios, declaring that Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong, only further helped keep the ape in the spotlight. Jumpman barely registered but Kong became so popular that in the game’s sequel Donkey Kong Junior, Mario was given the backseat and played the role of a whip-wielding protagonist who kept Kong’s son captive and repeatedly tortured the poor lad (just one of the many times Nintendo and Mario have angered the good people of PETA).
Mario is Given the Spotlight
In 1983, Mario was finally given his own video game, so long as he could share the spotlight with his younger brother Luigi. The game, of course, was Mario Bros., a platformer in which the Italian American plumbers, set out to defeat creatures invading New York City from the sewers below the Big Apple. The inspiration came from Joust, an old-school co-op game where players worked together in order to progress through levels by defeating groups of enemy knights riding buzzards. Sure it was just a supporting role and sure the game isnt’ necessarily loved in modern-day — but it was the start of something big, and nobody, including the execs over at Nintendo, could foresee just how big it would become.
In 1985 Mario got his big break. He and his brother Luigi left New York City behind and headed to the Mushroom Kingdom to star in a new sidescrolling adventure. Super Mario Bros. essentially pioneered the side-scroller as we know it and set the template for countless games that followed. It was such a huge success it helped Nintendo “save” the video game industry and would go down as one of the best and most influential video games ever made. Mario became the official mascot of Nintendo and the rest, as they say, is history. Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine a video game industry today without Super Mario Bros. Here’s the title that single-handedly revitalized the gaming industry and solidified Nintendo as the King of the video game market. Decades later, and Super Mario Bros. holds up as well today. In fact, Gamers are still discovering its secrets, and thanks to plenty of ports, it continues to charm new generations of kids.
The Genius of Super Mario Bros.
While the vast majority of early video games were largely designed by the programmers coding them, Super Mario Bros. was instead made by Shigeru Miyamoto, an artist first and foremost, who graduated with a degree in industrial design. As with Donkey Kong, character, and story mattered most. Players would play as Mario, accompanying him on his journey through the Mushroom Kingdom and his quest to rescue Princess Peach from the vicious Bowser, King of the Koopas. Miyamoto made Mario his go-to character, a plump, awkward Italian American who could easily fit into any 8-bit graphics. Overalls made his arms more visible and his thick mustache appeared clearer than a thinly sketched mouth. He was given a hat so Miyamoto could sidestep designing hair and a big nose to accentuate Mario’s look. Technical limitations may have played a huge part in how Mario looks but thanks to these limitations, Miyamoto was forced to think outside the box and the end result is something that has proven to stand the test of time.
Putting aside its star, Super Mario Bros. featured something that many games of the time didn’t have. It was populated with a plethora of unique enemies including Goombas (a species of sentient mushroom/owl hybrids), Koopa Troopas (a fictional race of turtle-like creatures), Koopa Paratroopers (flying Koopatroopas), Buzzy Beetles (turtle-like creatures with fireball-resistant shells), Piranha plants (that attack from within pipes) and the Hammer Brothers, a pair of giant twin-brother turtles who attack Mario by tossing hammers and jumping between rows of bricks. On the other levels, you’ll find Bullet Bills (giant bullets), Lakitu (a mysterious turtle who rides clouds through the skies) and underwater creatures like the unpredictable flying Cheep-cheep fish and annoying Bloobers (squids). Of course, the most formidable opponent of all was Bowser– a creature inspired by the turtle-demon kappas of Japanese folklore and awaits in the final castle of the game in Level 8-4. For modern gamers, this might not seem like a big deal but for a game released in the early 1980s, Miyamoto and his team went above and beyond when including as many characters as they could possibly fit into one cartridge.
One of the most amazing aspects of Super Mario Bros. is the game’s extraordinary level design in which Mario or Luigi must walk, run, or jump through various roadblocks throughout the levels comprised of bricks, underground pipes, menacing oceans, and foreboding castles. Miyamoto’s motto was that a game should be easy to learn but difficult to master – one of the defining aspects of Super Mario that made it popular amongst dedicated gamers and casual players alike. Each castle grows increasingly difficult, and there are hidden warp zones that transport Mario or Luigi to higher levels – but if a player takes the incorrect routes, he will be transported back to the beginning of the level. Meanwhile, the clock ticking down at the corner of the screen becomes your biggest enemy. Chases and races are key ingredients for spicing up games and a race against time is perhaps the most exciting, suspenseful kind. Nothing creates on-screen tension like an impending deadline or clock that counts down to the final seconds. In Super Mario Bros. time will eventually run out, resulting in inevitable death.
Super Mario Bros. is celebrated for its intricate levels, colorful characters, and intuitive controls, but Koji Kondo’s sinister soundtrack is rarely discussed. Sure, just about anyone who’s played the game can whistle or hum the catchy theme song, but I’m referring to the complex score that elevates the game to a whole new level. Unlike any game before it, Super Mario Bros. wasn’t scored by a computer programmer – instead, Nintendo hired a talented composer. Kondo wrote the six-song musical score using only small pianos and yet still managed to create rich musical tapestries despite the limited resources. Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. score not only redefined video game music, but it still resonates thirty years later. It’s easy to take Kondo’s work for granted but had Nintendo not hired a professional composer, the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack might have comprised of nothing more than odd soundbites and background noise.
Super Mario Bros. quickly became synonymous with the Nintendo Entertainment System and helped the NES become the top-selling console of its time. The video game crash of 1983 was officially over, and the famous brick-busting duo became household names. Super Mario Bros. is one of the most iconic video games ever conceived due to the sprawling level design, clever enemy placement, hidden secrets, optional sub-routes, superb physics, legendary soundtrack, and gorgeous sprite-work. All that was needed next, was a sequel.
Super Mario Bros. 2 Can Stand on its Own Merits
Nintendo wanted a sequel to Super Mario Bros. and they wanted it fast, both for the Japanese market and for the North American market. The Japanese version eventually became known as The Lost Levels, but Nintendo reportedly decided this version‘s difficulty exceeded North American skill level and asked Miyamoto to develop an entirely new game for the players in the West. Only Miyamoto was busy focusing his attention on finishing The Legend of Zelda for the Famicom and so they needed a quick and easy solution. They found one in Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic) – a game that followed a family of four on a quest to rescue kidnaped children in a strange fantasy land. What started out as a prototype for a vertically scrolling, two-player, cooperative action game, was re-branded. Super Mario Bros. 2 sold ten million copies and was the third highest-selling game ever released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Nintendo Power listed Super Mario Bros. 2 as the eighth-best game on the NES.
Yet, despite these sales and the critical acclaim, many gamers now look back at Super Mario Bros. 2 as a terrible attempt at a Mario game. There are no pipes to warp through, no bricks to smash, no Bowser, and no more stomping on enemies. The story is different, the graphics are different, and the game even controls differently, but I believe that Super Mario Bros. 2 still holds merit.
This time around, players were given the option to play as four characters: Mario, his brother Luigi, the mushroom retainer Toad and the pink-clad princess, Peach. Each character has their own unique abilities and the pickup and throw mechanic were fresh for the time. Mario possesses his usual strength, speed and jumping skill while Luigi can leap further, carrying him past long vertical distances. Miyamoto also made him noticeably taller than Mario, and Luigi no longer looked like a clone of his older sibling. He now had his own distinct personality and character traits. Meanwhile, Super Mario Bros. 2 made Peach and Toad stars as well. Toad’s best asset is his reflexes, allowing him to pick up enemies and throw vegetables faster than the other characters. And Peach can hover in the air, making her easier to control when bouncing from platform to platform. It seems like minor changes but in retrospect, these decisions help expand the Super Mario universe and add character to the supporting cast. Another novelty of Super Mario Bros. 2 is, its enemies. Even though it wasn’t originally meant to be a Mario game, many characters making their debut (such as Shy Guys and Bob-ombs) became staples of later games in the series. And the use of bombs to clear roadblocks – magical keys to open locked doors – and potions to open portals to bonus worlds – all made for a refreshing change to the usual Mario formula. Regardless of not being originally intended as a Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 2 is able to stand on its own merits and remains a true classic.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is a Timeless Masterpiece
It didn’t take long before Miyamoto finished his work on the Legend of Zelda and returned to serve as the director overseeing Super Mario Bros. 3, a proper sequel in which everyone’s favorite Italian plumber embarks on a quest to save Princess Toadstool and the rulers of seven different kingdoms from the antagonist Bowser and his children, the Koopalings.
Super Mario Bros. 3 had a ludicrous marketing campaign that included that famous commercial in which the camera zooms out from space to reveal the population of North America huddled together in color-coordinated outfits to create a mien of Mario, all while chanting his name. But the commercial was just a big tease. It didn’t reveal any game-play and Americans wouldn’t get their first look at the newest Mario title until the climactic final battle in the Hollywood film, The Wizard, about a trio of kids who make their way to a national Nintendo video game championship for a grand prize of $50,000. Its inclusion in The Wizard served as a sneak preview and generated a high level of anticipation in the United States prior to its release. Many called the movie a 90-minute commercial for the game – but if that was the case, it was the most expensive piece of advertisement ever made. And it worked.
By 1993, the game had sold 4 and 7 million units in Japan and the United States respectively— and in the United States alone, the game generated over $500 million in revenue for Nintendo. In 2008, Guinness World Records listed it as the best-selling video game to be sold separately from a system and reported worldwide sales of over 18 million copies, including the ports. Super Mario Bros. 3 remains the highest-grossing non-bundled home video game to date, having grossed $1.7 billion, adjusted for inflation. But money aside, Nintendo promised and delivered the best 2D platformer of all time.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is Full of Innovation and Surprises
Super Mario Bros. 3 was critically acclaimed and with reason; there is not a fault to be found anywhere in the game. For its time, the game was beyond anything you could ever dream. Super Mario Bros. 3 is a masterpiece – a perfect video game with eight worlds and 70-plus ingenious levels of side-scrolling awesomeness. One world is packed with giant renditions of every character, others feature underwater adventures and some take you through spooky castles and dungeons. As you move ahead, you’ll discover that each level contains optional paths that lead to shortcuts and extra lives hidden away.
The best thing about the game is the power-ups and various suits you can use inside the levels. These include the super leaf which turns Mario into Raccoon Mario, letting him fly, glide, and tail whip – and the fan-favorite, the Tanooki suit, which gives Mario the same abilities as the super leaf, but also lets him briefly turn into a statue protecting him from danger. Meanwhile, the frog suit allows you to swim very quickly underwater and jump higher while on land, and the hammer suit turns Mario into Hammer Mario, letting him throw powerful hammers and block fireballs by crouching.
In Super Mario Bros. 3 Mario could now slide down hills knocking down enemies who get in his way and the powerups from the original game also make an appearance. Also new to the series was mini-games and an overhead map screen to track progress and collectible warp whistles (much like the one Link used in Zelda II) that teleport you to later worlds in the game. In addition, is the music box that puts enemies on the map to sleep and the anchor used to stop the Koopaling’s airship from flying off around the map so that you don’t have to chase it. Jugern’s Cloud allows you to skip a level and Kuribo’s shoe, easily one of the most beloved power-ups in Mario history can be found in only one level! The familiar Mario sound effects are present and accounted for, along with a batch of new musical compositions concocted by Koji Kondo and dozens of new enemies like Boom Booms, Boos and Chain Chomps make their very first appearance in the Nintendo universe.
Super Mario Bros 3 is often considered to be the best video game of the 8-bit generation. In my opinion, it is, and it is also the best game in the Super Mario series. It’s a timeless masterpiece, full of innovation, surprises and will forever stand the test of time. It also became the NES swan song. Super Mario Bros. 4 would emerge under a new name and on the Super Nintendo System instead – but that’s something I’ve saved for a second article.