Super Mario Bros.
You can’t talk about the NES without starting with Super Mario Bros. The NES basically saved video games (see the crash of ‘83) and Super Mario Bros was the game that most propelled the NES to success. There is no need to argue the brilliance of SMB. It is on every best of all time list, was the best selling game ever for more than two decades, and is a cultural touchstone. Who doesn’t remember their first time playing SMB? I remember my first time. I was less than five years old when I first held the controller, sitting in my fathers lap as he helped me stomp that first Goomba. Still, if I am going to celebrate the NES through some of its greatest games I know, I have to start with Super Mario Brothers.
SMB was the first modern console video game; it transcended the simplicity of the Atari generation and forever changed the hobby. The graphics, which now look primitive even for a NES game, were well above what the NES competitors had at the time and still possess a classic charm. They are simple, but there is elegance in their simplicity. The game appears simple as well. One button jumps; one button runs. Maybe of the most important mechanic in SMB is momentum. I do not know if it was the first platformer to feature momentum, but is certainly did it better than any game before, and maybe better than any game since. Pressing the B button the player makes Mario run. Jumping while running allows the players to jump much farther than if they were standing still. This adds a huge layer of complexity to what appears to be a simple game. It is no longer only necessary to only avoid the obstacles, but to avoid them at a high speed is one wishes to successfully traverse the levels. And the levels are brilliantly designed. Sometimes easy, occasionally hard but never cheap, Mario’s levels are a perfect balance between being easy enough for everyone to play and still requiring skill to master. Then there are the power-ups, a Mario series staple. There is the mushroom that doubles Mario’s size. Its simple and cool and has become the focus of thousands of terrible “Mario is on drugs” jokes. Then there is the fire flower, which gives Mario another offensive option other than jumping on the heads of his enemies, which is great for the enemies with spiky heads. Then there is the limited but great star, which makes Mario invincible for about 15 seconds, allow the player to tear through the level. The power-ups on SMB are simple compared to later Mario games, but they are still pretty great.
My favorite memories of SMB are the castle stages. The black and white castle with the lava and fireballs was more than its simple graphics. More so than other NES games, the castles in SMB felt dangerous. As you neared Bowser, King Koopa as he was called in those days, his fireballs started coming at you from nowhere, which was terrifying to a five year old. When you got to him and he was as big a big Mario and you could match him fireball for fireball if you had a fire flower it was an epic showdown. More likely you reached him small and it was David vs. Goliath, and the choice was either jump over or run under to cut the bridge. And after you beat him the immortal words of “Thank you Mario, but our Princess is in another castle” came to deflate you. The quest is not over, it has just begun. While story is not any NES games strong point, there is something timeless about Mario’s fairy tale quest.
Almost equal to importance to the gamely when talking about Super Mario Bros. is the music.
Each and every one of SMB’s few tracks is a video game classic. Nothing captures the feel of NES quite like SMB’s music. The Castle music is suitably ominous, the underwater stages feel aquatic and two thirds of the population at any given time have the main theme song as their ringtone. What’s even better is how the music speeds up as you run out of time reaching the end of the stage, causing panic to set in. Knowing that the clock is ticking down, a player can’t help but put a little speed into their actions. The run button is held down harder than necessary, question block that might contain power-ups are left forgotten as the player sprints to the end. Pure Joy.
Truthfully, though, SMB is eclipsed by its sequels in almost every way. But still its legacy defined the console and its genre. This is the reason that platformers were called “hop and bop” games for so long; that is what Mario did. Every game of that genre since SMB is a response to it. Sonic took the momentum and literally ran with it, while later Mario games backed off that dead end (really people who ask why Sonic games are not great anymore need to realize that Sonic games were never more than good) for a greater focus on the power-ups. SMB’s legacy cannot be overstated. It is a big part of the reason your grandparents, and maybe your parents, refer to all video games a Nintendo games. In the late eighties more children recognized Mario than Mickey Mouse. Yes Mario was, and maybe is, more well know than Mickey Mouse. It set the tone for all the games of its generation, and despite its relative simplicity, only Nintendo themselves ever surpassed it on its own turf. And while lesser game franchises fall by the wayside, the Mario juggernaut continues forward nearly as strong as ever. Just recently the nearly perfect New Super Mario Bros. Wii was released to critical and popular acclaim and any gamer with a brain is anxiously awaiting Super Mario Galaxy 2. The Mario brand is as strong as ever. In another 25 years, I have no idea what video games will be like, but if I had to bet on one series still being around, my money’s on Mario.
To finish up lets do the Mario.
Note: all pictures taken from vgmuseum.