You know what makes a game great? Well, lots of things can make a game great. But a really good place to start is when that game offers you an experience you’ve never had before yet makes the learning process totally intuitive.
Take Super Mario Bros., for example. Back in 1985, it was a game like nothing before it. Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka set out to create their farewell to cartridge-based games — the Famicom Disk System and The Legend of Zelda were right on the horizon and would greatly expand the boundaries of their design possibilities — and in the process it invented a genre.
Super Mario Bros. had only the loosest connection to Mario Bros., the game to which it ostensibly served as a sequel. You controlled Mario, you could run and jump, and you had to punch bricks and dodge turtles. Familiar elements like pipes and fireballs showed up in new forms, but the scope and size and objectives had grown by tremendous leaps in the two years since the original Mario Bros. And the “Bros.” part of the title felt almost like a lie, since the previous game’s cooperative format vanished altogether in favor of alternating play.
The feel of Super Mario was where it truly differed from its precursor… and from every other game that preceded it. Mario had always been at the fore of platform gaming, but he felt so terrestrial in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Here, he didn’t. Mario didn’t simply jump; he leapt. A single press of the jump button would send Mario flying into the air, but not in the rigid arcs of other platformers. You could control Mario’s jump, altering the direction of his movement in mid-air to a certain degree in order to tighten up a running jump or give a standing jump a hint of forward motion. The length for which you held the jump button determined the height and length of Mario’s leap. Starting from a dead stop, jumping from a walk, and jumping from a run all resulted in different kinds of jumps.
Mario’s jump felt lively. It felt dynamic. It was liberating and exciting and made Super Mario stand apart from other platformers. He practically flew across the screen, giving him a sense of motion that games had never properly explored before.
Miyamoto had (at Gumpei Yokoi’s insistence) reluctantly allowed Mario to survive falls from great heights in Mario Bros., and it opened up the game’s design. But Mario Bros. still contained its action within the bounds of a single screen, so Mario (and Luigi) still observed strict limits to what they could do. With Super Mario, those cramped dimensions opened wide. No longer did Mario navigate a single-screen complex of platforms but rather a succession of obstacles along an expanse of ground that spanned dozens of screens in each level — and each of the 32 stages was laid out differently than the last.
Oh, right, they weren’t called “stages.” Nintendo called them “worlds.” And indeed they were. Not “boards,” not “levels” — worlds.
For comparison: Stage 1 of Mario Bros. (top), World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. (bottom)
The scrolling run-and-jump design had precedent in several earlier games like Irem’s Moon Patrol and Namco’s Pac-Land, but it felt more like something under the player’s control here. Mario was more capable a hero than Pac-Man or the moon-patrolling buggy, with a number of skills under his belt beyond simply moving forward and running. The stages often featured multiple paths, numerous hidden secrets, a variety of obstacles, and some devious enemies.
It was a massive action game, far more complex than anything anyone had ever played. And so, it had to teach players to play as they went.
Images courtesy of VGMuseum and VGMaps
9 thoughts on “Anatomy of Super Mario: X. Super-sized”
I’m curious about to learn more Yokoi’s input into Mario Bros. That fall damage decision seems like a pretty fundamental design choice, and essentially opens up the genre. At that point in Nintendo’s history, did Yokoi have the authority to call the shots over Miyamoto like that?
I don’t think it was a mandate, exactly. I believe they were co-designers on the game.
Gumpei Yokoi never got as much credit as he deserved, I think. He was the lead designer of Metroid, was he not? You can add that accomplishment to all the trendsetting hardware he created for Nintendo throughout the 1980s.
Yokoi has received plenty of credit. And the only hardware he created in the ’80s were Game & Watch and Game Boy… for which he has, again, received plenty of credit.
Yay! Anatomy of a Game’s back!
On the subject of alternating play, I really, really miss those days. I might be alone in this, since most people seem to consider a multiplayer being no fun at all unless everyone gets to play at once, but games where I could take turns with my friends made for some of my fondest childhood memories. It’s one of the reasons I don’t care much for the New Super Mario Bros. series: I feel like the screen is too cluttered and too difficult to navigate when you’ve got four players at the same time. Although, I don’t really mind Smash Bros., so I guess it’s an adventure/platformer thing.
Mind you, the original SMB did turn-taking the “wrong” way by having the game switch to the next player only when the current player died (so if you’re playing with a pro, you may never get a turn), but Nintendo quickly fixed that with follow-up Mario games, and the All-Stars remake. (Hmm, come to think of it, in the Japanese SMB 2, did players switch turns when one died, or when they completed a stage?)
Arguably SMB got the inertia and jump physics just right, however there were so many platformers that also had a very specific feel to them, good examples being in the vein of Wonder Boy/Adventure Island while bad examples like Psycho Fox/Magic Hat etc. I would love to one day see a detailed compare/contrast of all the major platformers that had specific (memorable) jump/movement physics. You already pointed it out in the Castlevania Anatomy series, but there are Mega Man, Revenge of Shinobi, Contra, etc.
I might be the only gamer in existence to think this, but I always found the SMB jump physics to be off-putting, specifically, the inertia needed to move horizontally once you jumped straight up. It is the reason I never really enjoyed Mario games since, except SMB2, where I could play as the princess and avoid the “jumping” altogether.
“Back in 1985, it was a game like nothing before it.”
Unless you count Pac-Land. :}
Seriously though, even that felt kind of confined next to Super Mario Bros., despite the scrolling stages. Pac-Man just wasn’t given much to do besides run from one end of the stage to the other, stopping only to munch fruits and the occasional monster.
I mentioned Pac-Land. It wasn’t a patch on Super Mario Bros, though. It didn’t even have a joystick — you controlled it with left/right buttons, like Space Invaders.
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