Mario: Into Dreams and Superstardom
By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
If you poll any number of longtime video game fanatics, chances are the NES game Super Mario Bros. would be on their list of classic, beloved games. Whether it is because of nostalgia, or because the game holds up well even today, SMB is what a “Classic Game” is all about. Today, I am going to talk about this franchise and why it means so much to me and to millions and millions around the globe.
FACE TURN: From Hero to Heel to Star
Mario made his debut in the arcade game Donkey Kong, where you controlled him, trying to avoid barrels and other obstacles that the big ape would throw at you in order to rescue a damsel in distress. Mario rescuing a fair lady… does that sound familiar? In the game’s sequel, Mario made a heel turn and kept Donkey Kong in a cage, and you (as Donkey Kong Jr.) attempted to rescue your Dad. Mario would go on to star with his newly introduced brother Luigi in Mario Bros, a wildly addictive two-player single-screen arcade game in 1983.
Mario hit it big, in more ways that one, in Super Mario Bros. on the then-new Nintendo Entertainment System home video game console in 1985. This game was pretty simplistic in every way imaginable… washed out 8-bit colors, music as repetitive as its enemies, and gameplay design so basic that many people are surprised to go back to it and find you can only scroll left-to-right without being able to backtrack as in nearly every other platform game released since then.
But there is just something so magical about a game that is this simple. And by simple, I don’t mean to imply that it doesn’t get insanely difficult towards the end. I can’t count the number of times I died trying to do the impossible 8-1 world where you literally had to race to the pole in a very limited amount of time or else start all the way back at the beginning.
Super Mario Bros. 2 came out a few years later and was met with very mixed reviews. As most know by now, the North American version of SMB2 was actually a little known Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic because the original SMB2 was (correctly, I might add) deemed too difficult for U.S. gamers, and too similar in tone and look to the original. Rather than punching ? boxes, Mario and friends were pulling veggies from the ground and tossing enemies at each other. I remember playing SMB2 for the first time and being underwhelmed, but it’s story (which turned out to all be a dream of Mario’s at the very end) grew on me upon reflection. And SMB2 also has some unique enemies exclusive to this game that have gone on to become major Mario staples in future games and spinoffs.
But Mario’s 2D sidescrollers hit their apex with Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES and Super Mario World, which launched with the Super Nintendo system. Both of these games were magnificent. SMB3 even had an entire movie built around it (“The Wizard”), and was the first game that I can remember that people really rushed to purchase upon availability. Super Mario World ushered Nintendo into the 16-bit world and, as it’s pack-in game, helped get that system off to a rousing start. It is kind of mind boggling that Nintendo hasn’t launched a console with a Mario game as a pack-in since then.
My memories of both games are some of my greatest memories as a gamer. I remember nearly screaming in delight and amazement as Mario first flew up into the air with the raccoon tale in SMB3… the first time I was launched up into the air from bouncing on one of those music note blocks… and meeting a friendly little green dino named Yoshi, who would go on to become my favorite character of all of the Mario games. I’ve said it before, but the core Mario series is just magic.
START YOUR ENGINES
You can tell a franchise is awesome when even it’s spinoffs become system sellers themselves. It took me a few months before I bite the bullet and bought Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo. I was looking at it with judgemental Asian eyes thinking that Nintendo was beginning to milk this series by doing weird incarnations and side games that would ultimately disappoint. But a real man can admit when he is wrong, and I was the most wrong about Mario Kart. I was also wrong about predicting the Wii would be a ridiculous flop, but that’s for another day.
I remember thinking the one-player racing game was up to snuff (although Donkey Kong was a dirty cheater), but the first time me and some friends got together to play – that is when I realized the people at Nintendo were geniuses. Who can forget those shell game battles? I know I can’t, and my blistered thumbs, late night gaming marathons and adult language I let fly with wild abandon were evidence of the fun I was having. Even though Nintendo recycles about half of their courses in each installment from previous games, it is still undeniable fun. So much fun that Mario Kart 8, along with another key title, are holding down the hopes to give the struggling current system (Wii U) the boost it needs to survive. Its a franchise that I love, unfair evil blue shells and all.
What is that other key title? Well that would be Super Smash Bros., a game that was a “Smash” hit when it debuted for the Nintendo 64. It was a recipe that so obviously spelled success, its a wonder they didn’t attempt it sooner. Take characters from beloved Nintendo franchises such as Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pokemon and others, and throw them into a fighting game with hilarious and unique moves inspired by their games, on levels straight from said games. You want to beat up Mario with Pikachu in Hyrule? You can do it. You want to fight as Zelda while Tom Nook from Animal Crossing watches in the background? You can do it. Words cannot express how fun these games are, and they are constantly the top seller for any console they are released for. The replay value on them is literally endless, as (up until this winter) Nintendo has refrained from issuing handheld versions of SSB, so there have only been three installments since 1999. That’s some amazing longevity and popularity for a series that can compete in sales with franchises that has a new sequel come out almost yearly.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the Wii opened up great new avenues by adding third party characters like Sonic and Solid Snake (from Metal Gear Solid) into the mix. This year, Mega Man finally joins the fight, much to the delight of millions.
My favorite character in the Smash Bros games is Yoshi. He’s pretty unassuming, but one of his moves allows you to gulp down your opponent and poop him out as an egg. Not the most powerful of moves, but one of the most hilarious.
MARIO’S LEGACY AND FUTURE
I didn’t even touch upon other spinoffs of the Mario franchise that I enjoy, such as Mario Party – despite its occasional inane minigame here or there, it’s still fun for me. The four-player New Super Mario Bros. series has revitalized the 2D sidescrolling roots of the series, while games like Super Mario 3D World shows he still has what it takes in the land of three dimensions.
But there is no denying Mario’s place in history. He is one of the most – if not the most – recognizable character in gaming today. Some of his games like Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 and Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii are among the best reviewed games ever.
However, there is a downside to such immense popularity. Many accuse Nintendo of pimping out Mario too much, and there is a point to that. It seems every year, there is a new Mario-themed game coming out somewhere – Mario Golf, Mario Sports Mix, Super Mario Sluggers, Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, to just name a few. There is so much Mario that some even think Mario Kart comes out too often, despite it being limited to just one installment per console cycle. How much is too much, when Nintendo could be spending that time into developing new IPs that it desperately needs? Then again, Mario still sells well, and his core games still continue to be of very high quality (the aforementioned Super Mario 3D World for Wii U is a prime recent example).
I firmly believe that Mario rescued the game industry after the collapse it suffered in the early eighties. I become dismayed when I read comments about how people can’t wait to see Nintendo go bankrupt and fold because most likely they don’t understand what Nintendo and Mario mean to the game industry. Mario games appeal to any age and gender demographic. You want a game that your significant other who hates video games will love? Look no further than Mario Kart. There is no simpler pick-up-and-play game than a Mario game, and chances are, once you pick it up you won’t be putting it down for quite some time.
Mario’s legacy can’t be denied. He is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the reason I am into video games. He is why I became excited about games again. There is just a fun sort of innocent value in Mario games that can’t be experienced anywhere else. And that is why I still love his games and a big part of why I love gaming today as an adult. And, going forward, the early buzz around Super Mario Odyssey is already at a high level that hasn’t been seen since Mario 64.
Love live Mario. Long live Nintendo. And what’s more, long live gaming.