The adventures of Super Mario have, undeniably, been the most famous and acclaimed game series of all time since their beginning with Super Mario Bros. Though its vast influence and pedigree have marginally declined in recent years, the games changed the entire landscape of gaming and are still some of the most beloved electronic adventures ever.
But, really, what makes them so good? What are the meat and bones of this series, that make it so appealing, and remain appealing? That's a question that's been asked many times and answered almost as many, but I say that it's never too late to get a word in myself. So, in this here essay I'll be analyzing the original 2D Mario series in detail, focusing on their shared elements and features that have kept them unique, and yet familiar, for so long.
To prevent this essay from getting too broad or convoluted, it will be referring exclusively to the two-dimensional games in the Super Mario platformer series. Specifically:
Super Mario Bros. (1985) [SMB] Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels (AKA Super Mario Bros. 2) (1986) [SMB2J] Super Mario Bros. 2 (AKA Super Mario USA) (1988) [SMB2]* Super Mario Land (1989) [SML] Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990) [SMB3] Super Mario World (1991) [SMW] Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992) [SML2] Super Mario All-Stars (1993) [SMAS] New Super Mario Bros. (2006) [NSMB] New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009) [NSMBWii] New Super Mario Bros. 2 (2012) [NSMB2] New Super Mario Bros. U (2012) [NSMBU]
*Though Super Mario Bros. 2 was not originally released as a Mario game, I'm still counting it because it's still officially considered one, it influenced the following games in many ways, and it was intended to be a Mario game initially.
I will not analyze the 3D Super Mario games (Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, and Super Mario 3D World), previous games featuring Mario (such as Donkey Kong or Mario Bros.), the Mario Kart games, the Mario Party games, the Mario Sports games, the Mario RPG games, or any further spinoffs.
I will use only a limited number of images in this essay, primarily if I need to refer to one in order to make a point. This is partially because I assume that the reader is already familiar with the series, and partially because the first time I tried to upload this, half of the pictures just refused to show up.
*Ahem*! With that out of the way, let's get on with it! We'll start with the most basic of Mario elements: the game design itself.
PART ONE: THE MECHANICS
For this part of the essay, I'll be referring back repeatedly to this famous video of a Super Mario Bros. speedrun by Andrew Gardikis...
...because I feel that it is a great example of how the game's (and by extension, the series') controls are put together and the varied ways the player is able to use them.
In Super Mario, jumping is put entirely in control of the player. Refer to the video above: When leaping over and across the pipes in the opening seconds, Gardikis performs a very short jump, then a slightly longer jump, and then a very long jump, all by holding down the button for longer periods of time. Now, imagine if he couldn't do that- if Mario were to jump to a fixed height every single time A was pushed, no matter how hard or soft. The game would have been unplayable! Not only was implementing this feature a smart move for practical reasons, but it's also a clever way of exploiting people's natural behaviors while playing games. The first time you ever encountered those pipes, you also performed longer and longer jumps, right? Even though you weren't certain that it was possible, you instinctively assumed that it was, because you associated longer button presses with longer actions.
Furthermore, observe the moments at around 2:00 in the video, where Gardekis is able to perform a complex series of stunts by essentially spinning Mario around, jumping forward and backward in repeating motions. The ability to jump backward as well as forward, and to reverse your direction in midair, are fundamentally important to the design on Super Mario. You are easily able to correct yourself if you make ill-timed jumps. A good number of lesser platform games have failed to include this feature, locking you in one single direction when you jump, and they're all the worse for it.
Similarly, the ability to run faster using B is ingenious. When you first discovered it, you probably used it every chance you got. Gardekis, certainly, uses it almost constantly. But for the less skilled player, constantly running all the time becomes a slight hindrance. Sure, you can run over small gaps and can jump longer distances, but it also becomes a bit harder to stop and you can be sent running into enemies if you're not careful. Some puzzles in the game require methodical planning, while others require running at top speed; thus, you must use the B button wisely, rather than constantly.
And when you're running, Mario both starts and stops gradually rather than instantly. This helps to aid more complicated maneuvers. If you were to take a running jump, for example, but let go of the B or left D-pad buttons as you jumped, you're still moving at that speed you were at a moment ago. If Mario came to a standstill instantly, you'd have to try the run again.
The different speeds are best represented by SMB3's P-meter, where Mario's gradual speed increase is represented by a bar that grows the faster he runs, though most later games nixed it for whatever reason. The traction mechanic was expanded upon in The Lost Levels, where Luigi specifically takes longer to slow down so as to compensate for his higher jumping power.
The patience and care that went into Super Mario Bros. is visible even down to its graphical design. Take a look at the screenshot below.
The sizing of Mario and the objects he interacts with in Super Mario Bros. (and the rest of the series, all of which use roughly the same dimensions) is extremely important. Mario is almost exactly the same height as the blocks and the Goomba, but is slightly thinner in width. This way, it's possible for him to hit both at several different angles. The objects surrounding Mario are large enough that, even if the player missteps slightly, he'll still hit it. Though Mario becomes twice as tall when he becomes Super Mario, he retains a similar width, to ensure that this feature remains.
I'm using Super Mario Bros. in particular to describe the whole series because, for the most part, its mechanics stayed exactly the same in all later games- with the exception, unfortunately, of Super Mario Land,easily the weakest game in the series.
Now, I think that Super Mario Land is a fine game. It's got some pretty good levels, feels nice and Mario-y, and is a good way to kill an afternoon. But I also feel that it's a perfect example of how easy it is to screw up the Mario formula. Take a peek at this screenshot:
The first problem, as you should notice right away, is that Mario is too large. Compare this image to the image above, from SMB- There, Mario is the same height as the blocks and Goomba and somewhat thinner, but in SML, he's taller than them and they are somewhat thinner than him! This, as you would expect, makes it much more of a challenge to properly hit blocks; whereas Mario could jump into one with ease in other games, in SML he is forced to basically stand still from directly under them. The enemies being smaller than Mario makes jumping on them more of a challenge, and the worst part is, it's much easier to end up getting killed by the Goombas by accidentally jumping in front of them instead of on top.
Beyond graphical missteps, SML displays further problems. The controls are far more slippery and inexact than they are in SMB and later games. Mario's gradual slowing down is absent; no matter how fast he's running, he stops dead in his tracks almost instantly as soon as the player lets go of the button; and when he jumps, it takes him much longer to turn around (and it sometimes isn't even possible at all). In both cases, this makes it harder to properly time your behavior and to fix mistakes you've made, and will needlessly cost you some lives.
Want more? Take a look at this speedrun of SML, similar in many ways to Gardikis' of SMB:
See 0:56. Mario falls very fast, doesn't he? I'd say it takes him about half a second to fall from that one platform to the next. Now look at 0:25 of the SMB video- Mario falls from around the same height (give or take), but it takes him nearly a full second to hit the ground. You'd think that half a second wouldn't make much of a difference, but it does- that half a second gives Mario a lot of time to spread out his fall if he's falling fast enough. Compare that to SML, where Mario falls so fast that he lands only a few "feet" (obviously, not literal feet) from his starting point. Now, remember that a few of SMB's (and many of SMB2J's) levels have moments that involve falling through tight spaces, pressing hard against the D-pad so that Mario can just barely land on a tiny sliver of the ledge below. In these situations, using SML's falling speed would have been disastrous!
Again, these aren't a dig on Super Mario Land- far from it. It's a good game. But, again, it serves as a demonstration of how exact the Super Mario design really is- even Nintendo themselves managed to screw it up by making a few tiny mistakes.
This, I think, is the secret to Mario's success, and to his many imitators' failures: Everything about the series is fine-tuned to perfection. Not only in mechanics, but in everything- like, say, its items...
PART TWO: THE ITEMS
Question Block The Question Block is the container for items, and its design is brilliant. Were it a simple blank yellow color, without that question mark, players may have been inclined to simply walk on past it at first sight; but with that question mark, the block suddenly becomes a mystery, and everyone loves a mystery. What's in that block? I've just got to find out! And so, even a block that seems out of reach absolutely must be grabbed. This also ensures that a new player learns to hit the blocks, and find their first power up...
Super Mushroom The Super Mushroom is the most basic and most essential of the Super Mario power ups, and the "building block": it's the only permanent one you can find as Small Mario, and you need to have it in order to grab the others.
Collecting a Super Mushroom gives the player nothing more than a bit more destructive power and one extra hit - one measly little hit! - and yet it makes you feel stunningly powerful. That one hit makes all the difference, as it means that you don't have to fear your every encounter with an enemy- you're safe as long as you still have the power. But that "so long as" is essential: even though the player feels safer, they're no less cautious. One false move will send them straight back to being a tiny weakling, and nobody wants to lose that awesome crushing power. So the player, even when they're at their strongest and healthiest, is still careful not to make a false move.
Fire Flower The Fire Flower is, in SMB and SML, the final piece of the puzzle. That strength found in Super Mario is bolstered by the further ability to shoot fireballs, giving an ever more awe-inspiring sense of power. Monsters that seem unkillable before, like Piranha Plants and Spinies, now fall to your mighty blasts. The desire for self-preservation remains, because the power can still be lost- especially, crucially, in SMB, SMB2J, and SML, where a single hit will send you straight back to small Mario.
Keeping yourself equipped with the fireballs acts as its own reward. As the game goes on, you begin to encounter tougher enemies, and it feels incredible to best them with a flick of your hands alone. Destroying SMB's Bowser without touching that axe seems impossible to the lesser-skilled player, but to those who have earned the Fire Flower and used it wisely, it's easier done than said!
The new addition to the formula provided by Super Mario Bros. 3 is the greatest and smartest element that the series ever produced following the original SMB. The Super Leaf (SMB3) or Feather (SMW) is an alternative to the Fire Flower, not another expansion, and adds a small strategic element of choice. Flying Mario and Fire Mario provide their own distinct advantages: Fire Mario has a strong, ranged attack (Flying Mario has only a pitiful little whip), but Flying Mario can fly! The system of choice was further improved upon starting with Super Mario World, which allowed the player to keep an item around for later use, thus allowing a skilled player to switch between the two power-ups on the fly.
Although the Super Mario series has largely improved upon itself as the years have gone by, there is one instance where I feel that it has regressed. Starting with the Western release of SMB3 (and continuing from the Super Mario Advance series onward), getting hit as Fire or Flying Mario will send you back to Super Mario, rather than the regular small Mario. This is a major misstep. By making the game easier in this way, a good amount of the tension is lost; it's much easier to regain a power-up if you'll remain so close to it once it's lost, and personally, I've found myself behaving far more carelessly than I ought to while playing the later games in the series.
Starman The Starman is a challenging concept to implement, being something that turns the player literally invincible, but Nintendo succeeded admirably. The issue is solved by giving the invincibility a strict time limit: only ten seconds of power, so you'd better use it wisely. The player stays on edge during those tense few moments, as they don't want to waste them: best to keep moving, to ensure that they'll get the farthest they can... but not so far that they'll end up falling into pits, which still kill!
1-up Mushroom The appeal of the 1-up Mushroom is its rarity. Finding one, especially when you aren't expecting it, gives off a delightful feeling. You're always looking out for the next one, and you'd do well to keep looking, because those things are quite rare and hidden in the most hard-to-reach places.
Unfortunately, later games got this mixed up by being far too generous with 1-up mushrooms (NSMB was the worst of it, which loved to give them away in bulk), allowing you to save after every level, and/or saving the number of 1-ups you have even after the game is turned off. If you have 130 lives, why should you be worried at all any more? For that matter- why have a lives system at all? Why not just allow for infinite retries?
Super Mario World, the first game to allow saving, dealt with this well: Even though you can save, this actually DOESN'T affect the 1-up system as bad as it did in NSMB- not only can you only save after the end of each world, the number of lives also resets to 5 if you turn the game off, so you're always low on 1-ups when you start. Unfortunately, this idea for some reason didn't catch on, and was even removed in the Game Boy Advance version of the game.
Coins Coins go hand-in-hand with the 1-up Mushroom, as they both have the same singular function: to give the player 1-ups. Coins, unlike 1-up Mushrooms, are common, but they have the same magnetic pull- they're irresistible to grab! They're big, bright, shiny, and make an absolutely wonderful sound when you pick them up. Even if the player wasn't aware beforehand of the 100-coins-to-an-extra-life rule, the allure of the coins still compels them to pick them up, and they'll find out on their own.
Yoshi The addition of Yoshi was another smart move in that he works differently from the other power ups: you can jump off him and on him at any time, and even getting hit only knocks you off temporarily. And as useful as he is, with his tongue and powerful legs, he still has disadvantages, such as how he can't climb vines or enter castles. In short, he truly feels like a living animal, a buddy rather than an object, which is an impressive feat for a video game character.
The seven items listed above, in my view, are the only ones that a good 2D Super Mario truly needs. Simplicity, in anything, is key, especially in a game series that is capable of being so fiendishly complex in its design. Sure, SMB3 had, say, the Tanooki Suit and Hammer Suit, but what are those but upgraded Raccoon and Fire Marios? What use is the Frog Suit beyond a small few levels? What are the Mini and Mega Mushrooms beyond simple gimmicks?
As I said: simplicity is key, and future Super Mario games would do well to avoid being too complex with their item choices in the future.
PART THREE: THE ENEMIES
Super Mario has featured hundreds of different types of foes over the years, but only a few have returned from game to game. Why? Because silly enemies like Chargin' Chuck serve little purpose other than looking funny, while the long-running baddies have an important function that's essential to the core gameplay.
Goombas teach the player how the play the game: running into them kills you, and every attack will kill them. In SMW, they were replaced in this function by shell-less Koopas, which are similarly the first enemies encountered and can be defeated by every attack.
Koopas are the next step up: Fireballs will still kill them, but jumping on them only makes them hide in their shells, making for both a useful tool and a display of how not all enemies are insta-kill able.
Buzzy Beetles are Koopas, but they can't be hurt by Fireballs, adding an extra layer of challenge (especially in SMB1's Second Quest, where they replace Goombas).
Spinies work as the polar opposite of Buzzy Beetles: they can be killed with fireballs, but not with jumps.
Paratroopas work as tools (use them as springboards to jump to higher areas) as well as regular enemies, and can be converted to Koopas if you want to use their shells.
Dry Bones use their familiar design to surprise and scare the player: Although they look like Koopa Troopas, you CAN'T use their shells, and they get right back up no matter what you throw at them.
Bob-Ombs, again, act as both enemy and tool, since you can use them to destroy other enemies in the same way that it can destroy you (and this is brilliantly displayed by their attacking you!).
Bullet Bills move incredibly fast, forcing you to be quick, but they work like springboards just as Paratroopas do.
Piranha Plants serve as a unique sort of enemy that doesn't move around, and that make you more cautious around pipes, since they always might have one inside.
Podoboos serve as an instant indicator of the toughness of the level they're located in, since they're only found in castles or fortresses and are almost always the first thing you encounter in the level.
Boos are unique in that they require a more advanced strategy to evade them, sometimes forcing you to constantly switch your direction to ensure they don't follow you to closely, and since they're nigh invulnerable you can't get rid of them.
Bloopers and Cheep-Cheeps are the underwater threats, proving that you're unsafe no matter where you are; Cheep Cheeps can be felled with you scientifically-inaccurate fireballs easily, but since Bloopers move around a lot, they're harder to deal with.
Thwomps are a shock when you first see them and what they do, and from then on, their every appearance is a nail biter as you cautiously work to get past them.
Hammer Bros. serve as a prelude to Bowser, since they move the same way he does, and they're so hard to pass through that you're practically forced to fight them.
Pokeys are hard to jump over and can't be killed with fireballs OR jumps, thus requiring a special strategy.
Lakitus (as well as the notorious Sun in SMB3) are a constant presence which you can't escape, and force you to keep moving instead of taking your time (naturally, they're almost always put in levels that have a secret in them); even if you kill them, which is hard to do, they'll just come back a few seconds later. Later games added an awesome sense of power by allowing you to ride in their clouds after you defeat them!
PART FOUR: THE DESIGN
In a strictly level-based game like Mario, the first level is crucial. It must teach the player how the play the game, but it has to play like an actual level rather than a tutorial mission. It must be easy enough to be completed by even a beginner, but it can't be too easy or it will set low expectations. Super Mario is a trendsetter, an innovator, and it has consistently created fantastic opening levels. Observe World 1-1 of SMB:
The very first screen is totally blank, making it as clear as possible that the only possible movement is to the right (In 1985, when nearly all games took place on a single unscrolling screen, conveying this clearly was important to prevent player confusion). So, naturally, the player moves to the right, and the sights of the blocks and Goomba confirm that it's the right action. The player should probably already recognize the nasty-looking Goomba as an enemy, but if they don't, getting hit by it immediately confirms it. So, either on the first or second try, the player jumps over it, and sees that they can squish it. Hitting those tantalizing "?" blocks reveals the items that they most frequently contain (coins and mushrooms). The mushroom's appearance is especially important, as the geography of the stage forces you to collect it, making it clear that it's a helpful item rather than another enemy. This was quite intentional- Shigeru Miyamoto discussed this in a few interviews.
A version of this specific opening setup was reused in SMB3 and NSMB, again featuring a single Goomba, a few "?" blocks of varying heights, and coins n' a mushroom.
The next part of the level is a series of pipes of steadily increasing height. Almost subliminally, these teach the player about the jumping mechanics: since each one is taller, they require continually higher jumps to reach them, thereby showing the player how high and how long they can jump. The pipe at the end leads to a hidden underground area with coins, revealing their existence right off the bat, ensuring that the player is always looking for more.
In the third part of World 1-1, the players first discover 1-ups and Fire Flowers...
...And in the fourth, we're introduced to Koopas and Starmen.
And after that level ends, the difficulty progression is steady. In many lesser imitators, the game difficulty is schizophrenic; either starting out hard and staying there, or fluctuating wildly between very hard and very easy levels. Not so, ho no, in Mario! There is always a very steady, wisely paced progression from "very easy" to "very hard" (or, in the case of the first New Super Mario Bros., from "very easy" to "a marginal challenge").
In addition to the main levels, there are the bonus stages. They're different in every game, but they've been present since Bros. 2 and show no signs of going away. Though the prize is almost always a 1-up, the mechanics have been consistently unique with each game, and sometimes the means of reaching them is different also. They're typically simple gambling games - most commonly a slot machine as in SMB2 - which are simple games by design, and thus are very easy to pick up on over a limited time.
It was easily at its finest in Super Mario Bros. 3, which had multiple types of games (the slot machine game and the card-flipping game), both of which were located on the maps and could be skipped if the player didn't feel ready to use them. In this way, you could save the potential bonus lives until you felt like you really needed them.
Beyond the all-out minigames, almost every Super Mario game also includes a little bonus chance at the end of every stage. Usually involving jumping, they allow you to gain a few extra points or even a 1-up: the flagpoles in SMB and NSMB, the panels in SMB3, the tape markers in SMW, etc.
Hidden within the levels themselves are all of those little secrets like Coin Heavens or underground coin treasure troves. These are essential to the design, because they encourage a player to slow down and explore. Instead of blasting through, you have to stick around and check out everything around you, so you don't miss any extra guys. So much of the game's mechanics are devoted to ensuring that the players experience the games to the fullest.
Super Mario is no ordinary video game series. It's the best series of all time, and it got there through laser-guided design choices and expert understanding of player psychology. Thanks to the smarts of the heads at Nintendo EAD, we'll likely still be playing this fantastic series for years to come.