Mario is a phenomenal icon not only of video gaming, but of multimedia as a whole. Pretty much anyone who plays video games knows who he is. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t play video games knows his name. You can probably find him on your shelf of games. You can probably find him on a friend’s shelf of plushies. He’s all over social media. He’s all over the world. This plump, Italian (ex-)plumber is identifiable anywhere and everywhere, and what did he do to earn that fame? He runs and jumps. That’s the gist of it, anyway. Reflecting on that as Super Mario Odyssey’s release lies just around the corner makes me wonder… how has such a simple franchise remained so popular and phenomenal over three freaking decades?
It’s because the games are great. See ya’ll next time!
- Don’t implode!
For real though, even though everyone already loves the guy for good reason, I thought it’d be fun and worthwhile to nitpick exactly what earns Mario the Super prefix, at least in my very enthusiastic yet detail-dwelling eyes. To that end, I’ve decided to start a series of monthly blogs covering and analyzing my personal experiences with this franchise, from my first playdates with him to the latest. And yes, that’s going to include a look at Super Mario Odyssey, since I’ll have played it long before this series gets up there! Note that this focuses on my personal experiences and memories over the years, it’s not a complete review of each individual entry of the series. Expect many games to be skipped or abridged, depending on my experiences with them. I’m planning a total of 7 of these, including Odyssey’s.
Now that we have all of the exposition out of the way, let’s dive right into the obvious, yet classic starting point; Super Mario Bros for the NES.
That Nintendium box was a part of my childhood as long as I can remember. As far as the official Cedi canon is concerned, the stork could have dropped off the NES with me at my parents’ doorstep. I don’t recall how else it got into our house. Saying that makes it all the more sad to think about our NES’s death. A-Anywho, I played a handful of excellent and memorable games on the system, most of which were of the courtesy of our babysitter from the time. But one of the very few NES games we bought for ourselves was a 2-in-1 cart of Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. And while I loved the latter too, the former must’ve been the first game I ever pressed the start button for.
We bought other NES carts later, and I’m happy we did, but we probably didn’t need to. SMB alone could have possibly kept me occupied for my entire early childhood.
The game was unlike anything I had ever seen before on the TV. Everything was so blocky. The sound was weird, if catchy. But most of all, I was controlling it through the rectangle with buttons in my hands. That control is what got me hooked on the game. I was moving Mario through levels, dodging hazards, running under blocks, throwing fireballs at enemies. This is all stuff we take for granted now, but for a three-or-four-year old discovering this media, it was like magic.
Like any arcane art, I had to practice it to truly understand it. Why, in particular? Because the physics of the game felt so nuanced. I’m prone to rambling and raving and gushing about momentum and movement in platformer games, and this game is probably one of the biggest reasons why. Most of my experiences with games other than the NES at this point had to do with PC point-and-click adventures, so the sense of a game putting you in direct control left a strong impression on me. Especially since I wasn’t the only thing trying to control my character; physics were, too.
Mario had a weight to him that constantly threw tiny Cedi off guard. He slides a little while after you let go the d-pad, depending on how fast he’s running. He jumps in an arc, his ascent slowing gradually followed by an accelerating descent. These tiny game mechanics changed everything. Everything about how you play the game is dependent on this sense of momentum. They affect the accuracy of your jumps over pits. They emphasize the importance of your surroundings to build up speed. They make timing treacherous leaps all the more challenging.
Too challenging for a tiny Cedi to ever see to the game’s completion.
Yup. I never beat the original Super Mario Bros. Not in my childhood, and I’ve yet to really buy the game again since the console broke, although writing this makes me want to ammend that. Only ever got to World 5, maybe 6. But I loved it, and I still love those memories. I found a joy in constantly striving to brave the perils of the Mushroom Kingdom. In trying to wrap my head around the rules of my plumber’s weighty momentum. In learning what to anticipate next. And in discovering secrets and tricks to help me along the way.
We can ramble all day over whether that obscure secret design mentality is more archaic or charming these days, but in that game’s case, it was undoubtedly a wonderful thing! Through my many attempts to push my progress just a bit farther, I stumbled across hidden areas and invisible power-ups a plenty. Each one felt like a new treasure worth Mothra-knows-how-much. They were a thrill to discover, and a pleasure to exploit on subsequent attempts. I needed every single life I could get my hands on to progress further, so in that sense, they were priceless to me. And back in the ages before level select screens? The Warp Zones were not only amazing finds, they were huge blessings!
Super Mario Bros, in many ways, embodies what I love today about arcadey experiences. The idea of being content (if somewhat salty) with failure, as long as I keep pushing forward to improve upon my skills and performances bit by bit. The gradual discovery of new tricks or nooks and crannies to use to my advantage. The satisfaction of rising scores and progress. But really, it was a window into what I love about gaming as a whole; fun. Pure fun distilled into colorful pixels, pleasant sound design, and above all else, engaging controls and level design.
My memories with Mario’s ventures since then became more sparse. I never owned a SNES. I had a Game Boy Color, but all I ever really played on that was Pokémon Gold and Link’s Awakening DX. I was able to play a Nintendo 64 at my uncle’s place, but my experiences with that are really sparse beyond just playing Mario Party 2 alone and a little Pokémon Snap. I wasn’t going to be able to take a deep dive back into the plumber’s adventures again until years later, when I finally got my hands on a then-current console, the Nintendo Gamecube. Which begged the question… would Mario still be fun in his new escapades there?
The short answer you already know. The long answer is what I’ll give you this November!