Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Super Mario Bros. - Getting to Know the Legend
My introduction into a world of strange and wonderful things.

Though I had been playing video games since 1981, I didn't actually own my own system until late in 1988, when on Christmas of that year I found an NES waiting for me under our tree. Until that time, I had grown up mainly playing games on my brother's Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, with an occasional visit to the arcade, where a friend and I would have a go at games like Double Dragon, Rampage and Rolling Thunder. While I of course enjoyed my time with games, particularly the social aspect of them, I didn't really take them seriously; I regarded them as a novelty--more or less an activity in which I'd partake when all other entertainment options were exhausted. This is way before the Internet or even widespread cable TV, mind you, so my limited options included going to the park, drawing monsters, or continuing to throw my G.I. Joes into the highest-setting ceiling fan, where they'd usually explode on contact. 

Well, it seemed hilarious at the time.

Even though I operated from within my still-tiny bubble, I wasn't oblivious to the NES' existence, since my friend Dominick from four blocks over owned one, and I had been enjoying its game-selection since he introduced me to his system in late '86. Still, these were games from the NES' early years--titles like Ice Climber, Balloon Fight, Pinball and others I had already experienced in arcades, like Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Mario Bros. These games weren't much different from the Jumpmans, Hard Hat Macks, and Megamanias I had been playing on the 2600 and C64. While I always had a lot of fun with the NES' arcade-style games, I was content to leave them in the role of "games I like playing at friends' houses." It was the bigger, more-complex titles like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda that I found most intriguing but still not so much that I was convinced that I needed to own one of these boxes right now.

As the years went on and I'd played our existing game libraries to the point of fatigue (since the 2600 was long dead in terms of releases and my brother had since moved on from collecting C64 titles), the NES started to look quite tempting, mostly because my two closest friends had the system and were always introducing me to new games--titles like Dragon Power, Adventure Island and Mickey Mousecapade, which I found to be a lot of fun despite of their respective reputations (I can be a little kind sometimes). Ultimately, more out of a sense of wanting to belong, I asked my parents if they could get me an NES for that upcoming Christmas. 

Now even though I was a bit overpriveledged, I wasn't a greedy person and would never ask for anything that exceeded a certain price-range, so I felt a little bad when I asked my parents for an NES (since, I believe, it was still retailing for about $200). Certainly there was no way I was going to ask for both an NES and any of the games I'd seen prior, even though I deeply desired to own one. Though I had regret for not even feebly attempting to suggest a game, things actually worked out great, since I now found myself with a copy of the newly bundled Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in, with which I was looking to spend more time, and I had also gotten The Legend and Zelda and Metroid from my aunt and grandmother (an inseparable pair who somehow, amazingly, knew that I was getting an NES!). 

In truth, Super Mario Bros. wasn't even on my mind when I asked my parents for an NES, and there were two reasons for this: To start, I wasn't informed enough to know that the system even came with a packed-in game; and I had asked for an NES specifically to gain access to other, more-recent titles like Contra and Double Dragon, with the newly released Bionic Commando in my periphery (and, naturally, I never even purchased either Contra or Bionic Commando, since I had by then played the former to death at friends' houses and could never get into the latter due to its weird controls). You could say that my ownership of and eventual fondness for Super Mario Bros. was an unexpected, fateful byproduct of my lust for everything else but.

Super Mario Bros. was to me, in 1988, the video-game equivalent of the film The Godfather--a classic production that had years earlier already been established as an all-time classic but one I had only experienced in pieces. The puzzle was incomplete, to which I previously alluded, because I had only played the game at friends' houses, since I hadn't yet gotten my own NES. My experience with the game was limited to jumping and stomping my way through the first few worlds, where otherwise I watched on as friends tried their luck at clearing the stages of World 8, attempting as much thanks only to a large helping of warp zones. So I already knew a lot about the game even though I couldn't yet grasp its full scope.

So that Christmas morning of 1988, I excitedly brought my new NES up to my room, hooked it up to the TV (with much trouble, since I had no experience with coaxial cables as compared to the 2600, which had a switch box whose connectors had to be clamped down using screws), and began enjoying my first more-personal session of play with Super Mario Bros., which was instantly engulfing. Even three years after its release, it still held true as a magical experience and had far more substance than I originally thought; it very much qualified as a new game as far as I was concerned (no offense to pack-in sibling Duck Hunt, which also had its charm). Its cheery nature belied a particularly high level of difficulty, what with its long, tricky jumps and Hammer Bros. onslaughts, but I didn't mind--the game controlled so well and had such a well-calculated scheme for its progressive difficulty that I was already enticed enough to want to visit its world again and again. Though, any such designs would have to wait until the next day, since we had to head out to my aunt and grandmother's house for Christmas dinner.

Super Mario Bros. quickly came to occupy a large space in my mind. I played it virtually every day, splitting my time between both it and The Legend of Zelda (I only spared Metroid limited attention, since I didn't understand what it was). Despite giving it my best effort in trying to progress through the game in its natural order, my earliest treks through Super Mario Bros. usually stuck to the coward's route--mainly the warp zones in Worlds 1-2 and 4-2. Still, it wasn't long before I was capable of reaching and taking down the mighty final Bowser, provided I could get a hold of a Fire Flower in 8-1 and retain it all the way to 8-4. With much practice, I eventually became skilled enough to complete the game by traversing all 32 of the game's well-designed levels; not many of them were aesthetically different (with only simple palette changes to create nighttime levels and snowy textures), I was aware, yet they were all memorable due to their thoughtfully crafted platforming challenges. Whatever the case, Super Mario Bros. was certainly making my early days of console ownership a special time; for my many journeys through its wondrous, imaginative world, it became a deeply embedded staple of my youth.

While a quick run through Super Mario Bros.'s utterly familiar world was and continues to be a worthwhile venture, I agree with anyone who says that it's too bad we can only have a "first experience" with it (or any outstanding game) once in our lives. While the game's pace and general design invites players to dash to the flagpole without much in the way of pause, some of my best memories were those initial playthroughs where I'd take my time and try to discover every warp pipe, uncover every Cloud Heaven, and attempt to bump every floating block--no matter its position or however ridiculous the jumping angle entailed--in search of 1ups, which in this era were actually scarce and thus highly desirable. Even if I'd already found everything, Super Mario Bros. made me feel like there just might be another secret hiding somewhere beyond those bricks. This sense of discovery--which we, the players, retained through the years due to the notion that there was always more to these games than we knew, as there was no one else in the world could tell us otherwise--disappeared as we entered the information age, which now serves to remind us that those days are gone forever.

Outside of only a few instances, I regret that I was never able to rope my brother or friends into joining me for a little alternating two-player action (maybe because watching someone else play isn't much fun, or maybe no one wanted to play as Luigi), but I was able to squeeze additional enjoyment out of the game in other ways. Helping friends discover and execute the infinite-1up trick or the minus-world glitch, for instance, was always a popular attraction, as were our desperate attempts to uncover a potential World -2. If, say, my friend Dominick spoke of "small-fire Mario," I would of course spend half a day trying to land at just the perfect angle as to make contact with both Bowser's head and the drawbridge lever at the same time, even if the resulting glitch was just a cheap, fleeting visual. Back then, non-game-breaking glitches (much like screen-flickering and slowdown) were tolerated and often accepted as a genuine part of the experience. Apparently agreeing with the sentiment, Nintendo never removed them from future releases.

The rest were just fun moments: Trying to jump over the flagpoles, convinced that secret treasures lay beyond the tiny castles. Making up lyrics to the music--the underground theme, for instance, becoming the "Happy Birthday, Paulie" song (a reference to the robot from Rocky IV). And of course, I'll never forget all of the hours I spent concocting pages and pages of my own Game Genie codes, the best of which produced floating Bowsers, additional minus worlds, severed Bowser heads acting as Goombas, randomly generated but unbeatable dungeons, and usually dry levels now flooded.

Super Mario Bros. was many things: It was the industry's biggest bread-winner. It was certainly the era's most influential game, spawning countless clones across the NES, rival consoles, and even home computers. And it set the standard in player-friendly controls in how it provided direct control over every slight, delicate movement of Mario's short and long leaps (though, I always found them to be a bit "slippery," particularly when landing). But to me it was the touchstone that illustrated how games could be more than what I experienced on our Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, whose standouts were often too arcade-like, too limited in terms of control and level design, or obtuse to the point of being incomprehensible (with apologies to Pitfall II: Lost Caverns, which should have served as a greater source of inspiration). Nothing against arcade-like games, for which I'll always have an affinity, but consoles needed their own identity, and Super Mario Bros. became their icon. For me, it definitely helped cement the NES as my favorite console, which it remains to this day.

What Super Mario Bros. represents in the current era are the sadly undervalued lessons as taught during gaming's formative years. Here we have a case of a company, namely modern Nintendo, not realizing that it had established the perfect formula with its legendary game in its very first try. Super Mario Bros. features a progressive difficulty curve that invites players to take their lumps, learn where and how they failed, and come back stronger. The core gameplay, fueled by a rock-solid control scheme and great level design, is the incentive for them to return again and again until they're able to overcome previous stumbling blocks. The point is that the player wants to get better, to make it farther than before and eventually work to achieve the final, ultimate victory. People don't want their hand held through the entire adventure, nor do they need to actually finish the game. Hell--people who have never completed the game love it and still play it regularly. As testament to this, Super Mario Bros. re-releases are always among the best-sellers, and it's without fail always the number-one downloaded game on any any incarnation of the company's Virtual Console services. That's not happening because people are simply nostalgic. No--it's because "simple to learn but tough to master" is an enduring concept; "anyone can win" is not.

Super Mario Bros.'s sense of challenge is one of the main reasons I return to the game as often as I do. Though I consider myself a highly skilled player, I always shudder as I load up the game, whence those same questions start creeping into my psyche: "Can I get past those two sets of Hammer Bros. on 8-3 without losing my Fire Flower?" "Will I be able to execute the perfect jumps needed to clear my way through the hammer-spray from those final four Hammer Bros. later in the stage?" "How can I get by that lone Hammer Bros. in 8-4 unscathed?" (By the way: Hammer Bros. suck.) But that's the appeal of it--you dread the confrontations to come but enjoy the ride so much that you want to see it through to its completion no matter what's thrown your way.

Games on the NES would come to look better (and as an arcade-goer, I'd already seen some amazing-looking games), they'd grow ever-broader in length and complexity, and they'd even successfully clone some of its mechanics, but the simple, whimsical aesthetics of Super Mario Bros., including its iconic two-instrument overworld theme, render a portrait of an unforgettable, timeless classic that still stands out today in an era whose machines are thousands-of-times more powerful than the NES.

Indeed, the old legends never die.


  1. You may have already seen it, but here's an article that illustrates well how much thought went into just the first part of the first stage of SMB:

  2. I've seen a couple of deconstructions of it, actually (like those written by Jeremy Parish and the like). It strikes me as a much more simple, relaxed time in game development, when you could spend years brainstorming ideas and crafting a game without fear of missing a deadline and putting your company out of business.

    Also, I've seen the previously mentioned VG Junk blog site many times. If anyone's digging through gaming's history vault, I'm there, be it Chrontendo, Game Boy World, or whatever Classic Game Room is doing.