In this series of articles we'll write about one Mario game every day for 30 days, each representing a different year as part of our Super Mario 30th Anniversary celebrations.
To paraphrase the great poet Dylan Thomas, for this run of articles celebrating the Super Mario franchise we will begin at the beginning. Super Mario Bros. on Famicom and then the NES revolutionised the industry in terms of both gameplay and commercial success, with its impact in North America - particularly - often referenced as 'saving' the video game industry. That can always be disputed, to a degree, but a key inarguable fact is that the original Super Mario title was - and remains - hugely important to Nintendo.
Often considered the trigger point for the boom in sidescrolling platformers (as well as the wider industry), its arrival on the Famicom and the NES in North America in 1985 (and then Europe in 1987) brought quite a departure from the original Mario Bros., an arcade-centric single screen experience. The key leading figures were Shigeru Miyamoto, naturally, and also Takashi Tezuka, another highly recognisable and valuable member of Nintendo's core development team in the modern day.
Super Mario Bros. established a template that, in many respects, is still stringently followed today both within Nintendo's franchises and in many other platformers. Eight worlds, each culminating in boss encounters, allied with a simple narrative. Gameplay and design were the key factors, both of which have contributed to the title's ongoing value and prestige within Nintendo and beyond.
In an Iwata Asks for New Super Mario Bros. Wii, some of this design principle was explained. What seems like a simple approach in the modern day was innovative and remarkable for its delivery in the early 8-Bit era, establishing Mario, Miyamoto-san and Nintendo within the broader industry. The excerpt below explains the principles at play on the very first screen.
Iwata: At that point, even if you panic and try to jump out of the way (of the mushroom), you'll hit the block above you. Then just at the instant where you accept that you're done for, Mario will suddenly shake and grow bigger! You might not really know what's just happened, but at the very least, you'll realize that you haven't lost the turn.
Miyamoto: But you'll wonder why Mario suddenly got larger.
Iwata: You'll try jumping and see that you can jump to higher places and smash through the ceiling, so it'll be clear that you've become more powerful.
Miyamoto: It's at that moment that you first realize that the mushroom is a good item.
Iwata: That's the reason why it's designed so that whatever you do, you'll get the mushroom.
Miyamoto: Of course it's because we wanted the player to realize that this item was different from a Goomba.
Iwata: When I first realized that this had all been designed with that purpose in mind, I was really taken aback. When you tell people who weren't aware of it that the start of Super Mario Bros. was designed with this intention, it's rare that they won't be impressed.
Miyamoto: Is that right?
Iwata: It's not as if it was me who came up with it, but I've gone around bragging about it to plenty of people! (laughs)
Though its successors would trump it on a technical level, as an early NES title (though it was actually later in the lifecycle and a pre-Famicom Disk game in Japan) Super Mario Bros. delivered notable successes within limited hardware. In another Iwata Asks for the Super Mario 25th Anniversary, conducted by Shigesato Itoi, Miyamoto-san explains the smaller scale nature of a project such as Super Mario Bros, and how creating the fantasy world of the Mushroom Kingdom necessitated simple design decisions.
Miyamoto: Yeah. (laughs) When I came up with Mario, I probably drew up like one other option. A rough sketch. In pencil.
Itoi: So...options A and B. (laughs)
Miyamoto: Yeah, I didn't have any ulterior motives, such as to draw one another just to make the one I liked look better to be chosen in the end, I just ended up drawing two somehow. After all, at that time, I was making the artwork and plans practically all by myself and only after everything was all finished we would ask, "How are we gonna sell this?" In other words, no one checked my work. The programmer was happy only if I just drew something and took it to him.
Itoi: So you just polished up option A.
Miyamoto: Yeah. But we were making the software for the NES system back then, so there were also capacity limits.
Itoi: Oh, right.
Miyamoto: Having said that, however, even when we are facing such limitations as capacity constraints, if anything bothers me, I would really apply myself to it. For example, deciding to have Mario enter a Warp Pipe from the top. Having him cross in front of it from the side wouldn't work.
Itoi: Oh, I see.
Miyamoto: And you know how you suddenly go underground after you clear World 1-1?
Miyamoto: I thought it was strange how Mario was already standing there underground when that level begins. Why is Mario, who just passed in front of a castle, standing underground? I couldn't fit in a sequence showing him falling underground, so I decided to have him just plop down from the top of the screen, and-surprisingly-that was just fine. If someone had said, "You should provide a little more detail here," it would have turned out differently.
Upon its release in North America, in particular, the pop culture and games industry impact of Super Mario Bros. truly took hold. The NES became a sales phenomenon, and for many years the 40 million+ sales of Super Mario Bros. - helped by hugely popular hardware bundles - made it the biggest selling video game of all time. Wii Sports ultimately trumped that record courtesy of its bundling with the Wii in the West.
Though the original Mario Bros. is a notable part of Nintendo's history, and that of its iconic mascot, it was Super Mario Bros. that launched the IP into the public consciousness and became a key driving force for Nintendo. Its power-ups, shortcuts and platforming tropes would evolve into maintaining an extraordinary hold over gaming culture. Right down to Koji Kondo soundtrack, the seeds planted and developed from this title have grown hugely throughout the world.
It will, of course, be integral to marketing for Super Mario Maker. The level creation tool is being tied to an Anniversary of the game, naturally, and the original will see quirky new life in user-created stages that utilise the classic's template. Many are still drawn to its charms, despite the evolution seen in Super Mario Bros. 3, the revamped physics of Super Mario World or the HD sheen of New Super Mario Bros. U. It says much for its design that even now, 30 years on, it can be hugely satisfying - and challenging - taking on a run of the game either on a retro system or the Virtual Console.
Super Mario Bros., perhaps more than any game before it or since, defined the Nintendo identity and established its place in pop-culture. Without this particular smash hit the gaming world would have turned out rather differently.
A classic in every sense of the word.