Week 1, February 21st to February 28th
Game Played- Super Mario Bros.
This blog will be an exercise in firsts. This is the first week of my experiment, it's my first foray into reviewing games, and we'll be talking about firsts a lot. I want to start by talking about Super Mario Brothers as a whole, with a focus on the character of Mario. Part of the reason for me doing this blog is to explore gaming culture and it's roots, and Super Mario Bros. definitely falls under the category of “roots”. Super Mario Bros. was the game released with the NES and as such was the first game most people played on the NES. For a lot of gamers, the NES was the first console they owned, and therefore Super Mario Bros. would have been the first game they ever played. I think it's interesting, therefore, to examine this game to see where we came from, and then compare that from where I came from as a gamer.
I would be doing a disservice to Shigeru Miyamoto if I didn't start examining Super Mario Bros. by examining the design of the game, specifically level design. I hear the sentiment a lot that gamers have World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. hardwired into their brains. There are a lot of things we could contribute that to. It's the first level of a game where “Game Over” means “start at level one”, so obviously it will be the most-played level of the game, and thus the most remembered. You could also attribute the phenomena to the place Super Mario Bros., and thus it's first level, has in gaming culture. Super Mario Bros. is an icon of an era, and so most of the aspects of Super Mario Bros. are iconic. I think it has to do with the level design. Every part of World 1-1 is designed to inform the player about the game they're playing. In the first few seconds of the game, World 1-1 demonstrates that Goombas are bad, question blocks are good, eating a mushroom makes you bigger, and you can break bricks when you're big. The rest of the level teaches you other skills you need to know in a relatively risk-free environment. Bottomless bits are a bad thing. Hitting multiple enemies in a combo nets you more points. Koopa Troopas can be used as psuedo-projectiles.
Level design isn't the only thing I need to give credit to Miyamoto for. The mechanic design of Super Mario Bros. is simply elegant. I would say there are three basic mechanics to Super Mario Bros.: Mario can run and jump, Mario gets powers by eating mushrooms/flowers, and Mario dies if he touches an enemy/obstacle or falls into a pit. The sheer amount of content that Miyamoto and his team got out of those mechanics is one of the reasons Super Mario Bros. is so pervasive. The game itself is so simple, yet provides hours of endless gameplay.
Why is all this important to gamer culture? I think it tells us a lot about game design, and how the first generation of game enthusiasts experienced gaming in the beginning. Super Mario Bros. doesn't hold your hand. What it does do very well is explain the rules of the game, and slowly build up they player's skill level. This was a style of design that would prevail almost all the way to the emergence of 3D experience and many-buttoned controllers, and was for the most part how the first generation of gamers got into new games. It tells us how we developed our skills, it tells us where we started as a culture. The current attitude of gamers, which uses phrases like “true nerds” or “hardcore gamer” comes from this position, where in order to play a game you had to learn it. Completing a game meant the honing of multiple skills until you had mastered the mechanics put before you and using those skills to complete a challenge. I think that's what brings a lot of us into the gaming fold: we seek a challenge, and for a lot of us, games are that challenge, and when games don't offer much challenge, it clashes with our ideal of what games should be.
In all of these blogs, I'm going to try to relate the experience of the Nintendo generation to my own experience. I've mentioned it before in other places, but I think I'll bring up here my first experience with console gaming. My very first console was the Sony Playstation. I don't remember when we got it, but my parents bought it for me and my sister for Christmas, and it came with a whole bunch of games, one of which was Spyro the Dragon. Spyro was my “first game”. I love the sense of exploration you get from the collectathon nature of the gems. I love the level design, how much stuff the designers managed to pack into such a small space. Like Super Mario Bros., the mechanics of Spyro are pretty simple. Spyro can jump and glide from place to place, he has a charge, and he can breathe fire. Like Super Mario Bros., each world had a theme, with each level in that world being a variation of that theme. Comparing the two, I would say that Super Mario Bros. is more difficult to complete, but Spyro is much more time consuming to perfect. Sure, you could go through Spyro really quick, not really bothering with any of the treasure and just go from world to world, and you'll be able to complete it, but you won't get the reward for getting 100% of the treasure strewn about the place. It's a kind of self imposed challenge, which I enjoy immensely.
What do I think of Super Mario Bros. as a whole? I think it's a damn good game. Even today, the simple mechanics and charming aesthetic design still hold up. Mastering the mechanics is hard, and Mario sometimes controls very loosely (I've died more than a handful of times trying to stop him from sliding off a giant toadstool) and some of the enemies are hard as balls (I'm looking you at first Hammer Brother of world 5-1), but I wouldn't detract points because of the difficulty. Do I think it's perfect? No, I think that the execution of the mechanics is sloppy in some sections and sometimes the difficulty is just derived from throwing a bunch of shit at you at once. I do think that Super Mario Bros. has earned it's place as a touchstone of gaming culture. A must play for anyone wanting to experience gaming's history.
Final Verdict: 9/10