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Old 11-03-2011, 10:10 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario 3D Land is due arrive in a week, and to mark the occasion of a new "true" Mario game, I'm pulling together some Mario retrospectives I've written over the years to post here. Some have never been published online before, like this one.


The thing about Super Mario Bros. was the blue sky.

Make no mistake, the game did just about everything right, none necessarily more important than the other. The skills and powers were great; the controls were perfect; the enemies were varied and interesting; and the level designs brought all these things together in a single, complete package. But it was the clear blue skies that set the game apart from its peers.

Before Super Mario Bros., games tended to have bleak, black backgrounds. Certainly that was the case on NES: practically every game to predate Mario appeared to have been set in the inky blackness of outer space, or in a cavern, or something. Even color backgrounds seemed bleak, lacking any sort of detail besides a flat chromatic void. In Super Mario Bros., the skies were a brilliant cyan punctuated by bits of fluffy white cloud. The only black backgrounds to be found were the ones that were actually set in a dungeon or at night. The darkness was meant to be oppressive. It was a deliberate design choice, a palette selected in a conscious attempt to communicate that Mario had descended into a more dangerous place than the open vistas of the Mushroom Kingdom's overworld and watery depths.

The blue of Mario's skies and seas was perfectly complemented by the game's sound effects. The noises Mario made as he adventured—and it was indeed Mario who created the game's soundscape, as few enemies actively made sound except when being squashed, kicked, or burned by Mario—created a rhythmic syncopation that unified the background music with the on-screen action. The effects, designed by composer Koji Kondo, weren't terribly far removed from the primitive beeps and bloops of games that had come before. In fact, they were considerably more simplistic than the audio featured in many contemporary titles. Sampling wasn't unheard of, and certain home consoles and computers even offered voice synthesis modules. Journey: Escape had a looping audio tape of the band's music built into the machine. Dragon's Lair and other LaserDisc games even streamed live audio from disc.

By comparison, Super Mario Bros. was little more than banging a couple of rocks together, technologically speaking. Somehow, though, the tones and tunes Kondo developed for the game worked in an almost transcendent fashion. Everything was harmonious: The springing sound effect of Mario's leap, the cash-register chime of collecting a coin, the terse squirting noise of a fireball: Each became an accent for the upbeat calliope melody that framed Mario's picaresque. The open, ascending tones of the game's most common effects neatly embodied the grand, optimistic spirit conveyed by those blue skies. It was an amazing package. There was a sense of limitless adventure in those fluffy (if curiously shrub-like) cumulonimbus; a feeling of determination and heroism in the music; a spirit of unbounded potential in each of Mario's actions.

It's easy to forget, these days, just how boundless Mario's quest truly seemed. The Mushroom Kingdom was little more than a linear obstacle course to the end, but its linearity was still a step ahead of most of the competition, whose games were single points. In a time when most games had three or four unique screens that looped infinitely, Mario's 32 levels of varied and changing challenges was downright enormous. Mario wasn't the first smooth-scrolling action game to have appeared on the scene, being predated years before by the likes of Moon Patrol and Scramble. Granted, those games featured forced scrolling, but even then, Mario wasn't the first game to allow for scrolling run-and-jump action at the player's discretion, either. However, its antecedents on that front—most notably Pac-Land—were still hampered by the stilted action of the classic arcade. Pac-Man controlled like the missile base in Space Invaders, moving left and right with a pair of buttons rather than with the joystick whose value he had iconified in his debut.


Not Mario, though; he enjoyed the full range of movement available with a four-directional controller. Certain features in Super Mario Bros. would almost seem like they had been added simply to show off how much more versatile Mario was than his peers if not for the fact that they had precedent in his previous outings. Hidden vines appeared from unmarked blocks to lead Mario off the screen into secret zones, marking the only time the climbing skills so integral to the first two Donkey Kong games were employed in Super Mario Bros. Ducking with a downward controller motion had value, too, thanks to the green pipes that had been drawn directly from the original Mario Bros. and littered the landscape, leading to alternate routes and bonus rooms. In later levels, they even represented the way forward.

Ducking was also the gateway to Super Mario's myriad hidden depths, which were a huge factor in the game's enduring popularity for so many years. Mario was bursting with secrets and tricks that teased gamers with the possibility of an infinite array of undocumented features waiting to be discovered. It was up to gamers to learn these techniques for themselves, or to pick them up from their cannier classmates.

The first chance players really have to put Mario's hidden talents to use occurs about a third of the way into World 1-2. At this point, most people have collected Mario's power-ups, the Super Mushroom and Fire Flower respectively, and (given the unthreatening nature of the game's enemies to that point) have almost certainly managed to retain them. Before long, however, they experience a game-stopping conundrum: The nature of the Super Mushroom is to double Mario's height, meaning he's too tall to run through narrow passages a mere single block tall. Yet midway through World 1-2, that's exactly what you encounter.

Significantly, amateur or unskilled players won't even realize the problem here. They'll have taken a hit or two and reverted to original Mario form, or else they'll have totally missed the power-ups altogether. These players can breeze straight through the narrow gap in their miniature form without a care in the world. More capable gamers, however, will find themselves stuck unless they jump into the bricks adjacent to the small gap—Super Mario can smash bricks with his fist, clearing a way over the gap. But there's another route, one that isn't immediately obvious, but is effective nevertheless. Mario can duck, and Mario can run. When he stops running, the inertia of his momentum will carry him forward slightly until he comes to a complete stop. By combining these two facts—running and ducking—you can run then duck at the last moment to slide Super Mario into the gap and, if you time it right, right out the other side. If you don't time it right, well, Super Mario can still break himself free by jumping, even while ducking.


This combination of abilities and factors was absolutely the height of unprecedented video game sophistication in 1985. It represented the combination of multiple design factors—some innate, some variable—to turn Mario's ability to duck (a seemingly superfluous skill anywhere besides a pipe) into a subtle but practical technique for navigating seemingly impassible areas. It also ensured that Super Mario didn't lack any of his smaller self's abilities, establishing the results of a Super Mushroom as an upgrade across the board. And it's introduced in a clearly deliberate fashion that's nevertheless woven so deftly into the fabric of the game that few would even notice.

Of course, Super Mario Bros. is reknowned for marrying game to tutorial in such a way that most people never even suspected they were playing with training wheels on. This was a Nintendo hallmark in the NES days, but Mario did it even more effectively than Metroid. Where the latter used its first power-up to train players to scroll the screen both left and right, the former's World 1-1 introduces players to just about every significant game feature in a single, simple level. You're confronted with obstacles both passive and active (in the form of pipes and Goombas, respectively) that force you to learn to jump. All four power-ups are presented through enticing, flashing blocks (or in the case of the 1UP, in an invisible block). You can duck into a pipe to collect coins, kick a turtle and learn about the dangers of rebounding shells, and blast through a row of Goombas while invincible. Every inch of World 1-1 teaches you all the basics you need to know to complete the game. It is the perfect introduction, which is undoubtedly why it's been mimicked and homaged countless times, from the blatant theft of The Great Giana Sisters to the metatextual snobbery of Braid.

And it was all set beneath that glorious blue sky. The sophistication of the level design, the harmony of the audio, and the surprising ability to combine actions for the player's own empowerment heralded a new era of video game design. Set beneath the blue of the sky, it all hinted at the medium's infinite potential—the possibilities of an as-yet-unimagined future.

None of Super Mario Bros.' advanced features would have worked if its underpinnings hadn't worked on their most fundamental levels. The instructional playground of World 1-1 would have been meaningless if Mario had moved like Pac-Man before him, or even as he had in his previous outings. Much of what made Super Mario Bros. work was its extraordinary control physics. Today, 'physics' vis-a-vis video games is generally taken to mean the way developers feel compelled to assigning gravity to objects so you can stack crates, or the way a dead enemy instantly turns into a floppy ragdoll. In the case of Super Mario Bros., 'physics' meant that Mario moved with a sort of realism... or if not realism, exactly, then a convincing impersonation of reality. Mario's actions were governed by a diverse, flexible, and internally consistent set of rules that made simple motion a joy. He could walk, run, and jump; he could leap while running to gain extra distance and clear difficult gaps, or duck to slide beneath ledges; pulley platforms in later levels would sink as they bore his weight and eventually drop free of their supporting cable, but they could be counterbalanced as well, serving as adjustable footholds. Mario could leap on enemies to defeat them, and the rebound from a jumping attack could then be harnessed to gain extra air time. A stomped turtle would retreat in fear, turning its inert shell into an object that could be kicked as a weapon that was deadly to Mario and monsters alike. Further into the adventure, enemies began to exhibit abilities that disrupted the game's basic tactics. Buzzy Beetles were fireproof and could only be defeated with fireballs, while Spinies were the exact opposite and would injure Mario if stomped on. The infinitely respawning Lakitu and his inexhaustable supply of Spiny eggs made it impossible to stand safely in one place, while the Hammer Bros. and their endless streams of projectiles demanded precise timing. Underwater, foes were invincible to the touch and could only be bested with fireballs, but the erratic and sometimes unpredictable movement of the squid-like Bloobers often made it safest not to try taking the time to line up a shot.

And then there was the King Koopa, Bowser, who seemingly waited for Mario at the end of every fourth level. Each appearance of Bowser is ever more difficult to master, as he adds new tricks to his repertoire with each encounter—here jets of fire, there a stream of Hammer Bros. projectiles—yet even so, the player always has multiple options to defeat him. A liberal application of fireballs (assuming you've somehow managed to retain your power-ups through the grueling gauntlet of Bowser's castle) will fell him. Alternately, you can sacrifice your power-up and run directly through him, taking the hint and penalty in return for a brief spell of invincibility that allows you to sneak past. Or, in the highly probable event that you're regular Mario rather than Super, you can employ steel nerves and good timing to leap over or run under him to touch the conveniently location axe at the end of the bridge and send Bowser plummeting into the lava below.


The latter is by far the most common approach to Bowser, but fireballs are the best. What makes fire so great isn't simply the ability to remain safely out of the King Koopa's reach or the poetic justice of fighting his fire with your own, but rather the tiny storytelling cue it reveals: Defeating Bowser with a fireball volley in Worlds 1 through 7 sends a completely different sprite plunging off the screen, revealing that each of the first seven 'Bowsers' is actually a minion in disguise. Like our Princess, our villain is in another castle. It's a small detail, and not easily seen; nor is it not intuitive. Even if you can reach Bowser while in possession of fire power, he can withstand several of hits before falling, which might lead one to assume that he's as fireproof as a Buzzy Beetle. But as with so many features in Super Mario Bros., those with the insight, patience, and skill to experiment were pleasantly surprised by a thoughtful Easter egg.

Not to say that the more customary approach of cutting the bridge with the axe didn't have its appeal, either. Besides the comical look of surprise on the villain's face as he drops, Wile E. Coyote-style, into a pool of scalding magma, the axe is also the key to one of the game's numerous fascinating bugs. Touch both Bowser and the axe at the same time while carrying a Fire Flower and you'll simultaneously beat the level and be penalized for the hit—sort of. When you reach the next level, you'll find that despite having been reduced to miniature Mario, you still have command of fire and will glitch into the Super Mario sprite when flinging flames.

Super Mario Bros.' myriad glitches and programming defects only added to the game's mystique. Who back then could have known which were deliberate secrets and which were simple errors? This was a game where you could break outside the apparent bounds of a level, scurrying along the ceiling to find carefully hidden pipes that would let you skip ahead to advanced stages of the game. Who were we to say the the so-called Minus World, accessed by glitching through a certain brick to reach that same Warp Zone, wasn't every bit as intentional? Even the deliberate secrets tended to be fraught with enigmatic errors: The 'infinite' lives trick in World 3-2 would eventually cause your lives counter to display garbage and ultimately even kill you. Director Shigeru Miyamoto has confirmed that the development team intentionally included the turtle-on-the-stairs trick as a quick and convenient way to build up a stock of extra lives. Yet the associated risk of death was an unavoidable programming limitation, not a moral Aesop to penalize players for being greedy.

This complex mix of conscious design elements and accidental oversights was just the thing to foster obsession, and kids across America spent the better part of ‘86 and '87 formulating theories on how to conquer the endlessly looping Minus World and a heartfelt conviction that jumping over the flagpole would allow you to find the top-secret World 9. The game's direct sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2/The Lost Levels, actually did include a World 9 accessible by starting a second loop of the game after defeating Bowser, but since that never made its way to the States until years later, World 9 remained a myth of imagination (or the occasional well-informed player who had strange tales of a Mario game released only in Japan and was likely branded a filthy liar by his peers).


Super Mario Bros. was evocative. Enigmatic. Even its in-game elements fomented players' imaginations. Some people swore that its later stages, with their flat grey color schemes, were meant to be ice-encrusted worlds. Of course, they were no such thing; Super Mario innovated in a lot of ways, but slippery ice worlds wouldn't really come into play in platformers until the standards and rules laid down by this game had been adopted universally.

Rather, that greyness was more likely intended to foster a growing sensation of bleakness as you traveled further into Bowser's realm. The gorgeous blue skies and verdant shrubbery faded to less vibrant hues. The colorful mushroom platforms and pulleys took on tones of despair and lifelessness. Ultimately, players reach the final world and find that all four of Bowser's levels are drenched in the inky blackness of night, or gloom, or pollution. There, 30 levels removed from the game's inception, the blue skies are gone for good.

Yet as the light of day becomes the murk of evil, Super Mario Bros. doesn't sacrifice what made it so unique. The azure horizon is gone, but it's not forgotten; the memory of the wide-open spirit of the adventure's beginning continues to echo in the upbeat tune that continues playing throughout Worlds 8-1 through 8-3. It's more urgent now, as the level timers have grown increasingly brief and the music picks up its tempo seemingly as soon as you enter each stage, warning you of an incipient timeout. But it remains.

And when you finally enter Bowser's confusing, labyrinthine palace, a confusing maze of fire and darkness, even that calliope tune is replaced by a low, anxious theme. But Mario's leaps and stomps and brick punches and fireballs continue to create their syncopated sounds, echoing the memory of the field and water themes you know so well by now. Mario himself remains your link to brighter times and the seemingly unbounded world that you leapt into all those challenges ago.

The thing about Super Mario Bros. is its blue sky, you see. Even when it's out of sight, it's still woven into the very fabric of the game.





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Old 11-03-2011, 10:44 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

I never noticed that the game gets progressivly more bleak and lifeless as you progress, that's cool. Good aticle and a good homage to an amazing game.
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Old 11-03-2011, 10:57 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

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Originally Posted by Robot View Post
Rather, that greyness was more likely intended to foster a growing sensation of bleakness as you traveled further into Bowser's realm. The gorgeous blue skies and verdant shrubbery faded to less vibrant hues. The colorful mushroom platforms and pulleys took on tones of despair and lifelessness. Ultimately, players reach the final world and find that all four of Bowser's levels are drenched in the inky blackness of night, or gloom, or pollution. There, 30 levels removed from the game's inception, the blue skies are gone for good.
What game is this guy playing?

All of the levels in the 7th and 8th worlds, take place outside with the blue sky, excepting the castle of course.

The only grey level on the surface in the entire game is 6-3.
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Old 11-04-2011, 12:42 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

Robot hasn't been the same since Kong demodded him. Now it's like he's not giving his all for these random articles. Poor guy
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Old 11-09-2011, 05:58 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

Wait, Robot got demodded?! I'm gonna talk to Kong about this right now!
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Old 11-10-2011, 01:44 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario Bros.

Occupy RU!!!
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