Thursday, March 10, 2011

The 25th Year of Super Mario Brothers

Super Mario Brothers game for the NES was released on October 1st, 1985. It was created by the very famous Shigeru Miyamoto who also created Zelda and Star Fox. This is the best selling game of all time until 2009 (thanks to Wii Sports). I know, Wii Sports taking the record is kind of anti-climatic, but understand the time period and you'll no longer be so upset. Super Mario Brothers was one of the original Nintendo Entertainment System classics. Not only is it one of the first games to be released on it, it revived a dying--if not dead--United States Gaming World. Atari began struggling monetarily in 1983, and it didn't recover. The Famicom--for lay men I'll call this the Japanese equivalent to the NES, though it was out before the NES--was doing extremely well in Japan, but in North America the Atari simply wasn't holding up. Nintendo was originally in talks with higher ups in Atari, but then took on the task themselves in creating the Nintendo Entertainment System, which clearly needs no backdrop. You know what it is. And you know what Super Mario Brothers is. This game brought gaming back to the United States, and for that, we are all forever grateful.

So now that you understand just how important Mario is to the gaming world, let's talk about game play. In some respects, the game maintains a classic, arcade feel from its arcade origins: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and most similarly to Mario Brothers. The top of the screen has Mario's name (or Luigi if playing as second player), points, number of coins, the level, and, of course, time. They are even listed in a very arcade-style format, simply at the top of the screen in that boring font. Though most of these elements remain in later Mario games, they become much less prevalent and remove that arcade-style. It's great to see the progression from arcade game to serial, elaborate-level-platformer, and here it's still at that curious in between stage.

Being that it's in the in between stage of arcade and level-game, it's also an early experiment in level design. The game is what I like to call a Minimalist Masterpiece. All of the levels are very similar when talking about level design and sprites. Often times the game uses the same images but changes the color. This is most obviously notable in the underworld levels where everything is the same as on land except blue. And the background is simply and easily all black. Underwater levels are very intriguing, because they're the only time the game really steps out of its standard sprites and level design. The color changes are also just enough in order to give a different feel, whether it's suddenly at night or the trees are white to imply snow. The castles are very different, but because there are eight of them, they start to blend in memory due to how similar they are to each other. Generally it's about adding or changing only subtle things. More lava openings, more spinning fire sticks, more enemies, less power ups, etc. Though the changes are purely essential, and aesthetically it's very redundant, it at no point becomes frustrating. It's the same way with the underground levels and ground levels: adding pipes, blocks, enemies, etc. On the ground levels they make the final staircase more complicated by simply removing one or two rows of blocks/land, making it a careful platform ending. Again, it is just enough that it never gets frustrating. This is probably due to the well-designed progressive gameplay and difficulty.

Let's talk less about design and more about actual playing. First: the time is way too fast. Though it starts at four hundred seconds, it counts down about three numbers per second. I'm not kidding, watch that timer go! Though this is improved in Super Mario Brothers 3 and then starts at three hundred, the time hardly ever will run out on you in SMB3. Here, in the original, it's definitely a possibility, and when that time speeds up, you're already down to about ninety "seconds" on the clock. The music speeds up so fast it feels like you're going to have a heart attack. It really presses a feeling of urgency, and it provides just the right amount of difficulty. Unfortunately, the controls are still a bit stiff. Ducking is almost useless due to how difficult it is. If you bump left or right while holding down, you will stop ducking. There's nothing more frustrating than pressing down and watching Mario just take a Bullet Bill in the face. Mario's physics are in some ways too realistic. He struggles to gain momentum, especially mid jump, and he is also stiff in trying to slow down or stop. Turning around isn't an exact science of just pushing the other direction on the D-pad. When Mario jumps the opposite direction, he often just jumps backwards. Sometimes this can save you and you're able to shoot that final fireball, but other times you're trying desperately to turn around and shoot at an enemy that got behind you, and it results in some epic fail. These controls get even more frustrating underwater, trying to swim around all the Cheep-Cheeps while dodging Bloopers (aka Jellyfish) that follow you. Although, Mario walking on the ground underwater is still very fluid, unrealistically so, and makes for an easy way through, especially when without power ups. The only other useful element to the stiff controls is that Mario can wiggle the screen forward, since this is before Mario could go backwards in the level. This can be helpful in getting a cannon on or off screen so you can focus your efforts on only a specific number of Bullet Bills.

The hit detection in this game is biased in the game's favor. You have to be very precise in hitting Bloopers with fireballs, especially due to the stiff turning around. Piranha Plants can't be hit with the fireball unless completely out of the pipe. If they are coming out or going in they will not die. The fireballs also have to be dead on. They can basically scrape off an enemies' scalp and keep bouncing towards you. When firing at any enemy, though most notably a Hammer Brother, if they are at all on the edge of the screen or slightly off screen, the turtle shell or fireball will go through them and they will take no damage. When you're small, this is extremely frustrating, because you're running with the turtle shell trying to clear these enemies. The turtle shell goes right through them and then you charge into them and die. It's also completely unfair because when cannons or Hammer Brothers are slightly on screen, they can still throw hammers or shoot Bullet Bill. And hammers can hurt you even without touching you, because the handles seem to have the same unofficial size that the head does. What a load of crap.

Before I mention strategy, my final complaint is that jumping at ledges is somewhat tempermental, which can result in failing to get 5000 points at the flag or worse: a cheap death. Most Mario players won't cry over losing a life, but the first game is different. Lives are harder to come by in this game unless you either A: know where to find all 1ups and/or secrets, or B: take advantage of the 99 lives trick. For me, either one would have been cheap, so I went in cold. In this style, coins and lives actually begin to matter. I found myself actually stopping to get the ten coins in certain blocks, slowing down to pick up all the coins in the air, etc. Since green mushrooms aren't easily found, I collected coins to gain extra lives with 100th coin. In this way, it was actually easier for me to beat the game playing through all the levels rather than using the warps to skip from 1-2 to 4-1 and then from 4-2 to 8-1. Also, while each world and fortress gets harder, it doesn't become a truly complex and strategic game until world six or seven (for me, it's seven, but it depends on the gamer). In world eight, power ups dwindle down and start becoming very rare or hidden. It is possible to start small and end up with the fire power in 8-3, but it's hard because both power ups are by the Hammer Brothers. The final fortress is a labyrinth of several looping sections with several pipes that can either help you advance or send you back. Most Mario games don't have the maze-like quality which is more a Zelda thing, but damn did I love it. It was just the right amount of hard. If you get there with fire power it's even harder. My first time through I made it but small. There's no power ups in this level that I've found. My adventure involved timed jumps and speed runs to get past that final Hammer Brother/Lava Pit/Jumping Fire Ball before Bowser.

Bowser is somewhat disappointing, just being another--slightly more difficult--King Koopa (where if you want you can just shoot fire balls at him until he dies), but it was the first game. They did really well with what they had, and the game hit perfectly the slow progression of difficulty. After beating those last few levels, when you go back to the first few, it hardly feels like the same game. You've grown so much, and now you're ready for the second quest. First, however, I want to mention that this was before Nintendo games really understood how hard the gamer had it, and didn't think to really give the gamer much in the way of pleasantries even once at the end of the game. The Princess is waiting for you and she just stands there and says, "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over. We present you a new quest. Push Button B to select a world." It thanks you and then tells you to do it again. That's it. And the second quest is, well, mostly the first one with more enemies. The other major difference is there are no Koopa Troopas anymore. They are all replaced with Buzzy Beetles. You may not think this changes much, but it really does. You can't hurt them with fire and this is before you can pick them up, so if you kick them it can sometimes add more trouble than it destroys. Otherwise, it's the same. More enemies and perhaps more glitchy as a result, but the same game. Even if you beat it, too, the Princess still says the same thing, so it's not really worth it.

And that's Super Mario Brothers. Takes you back a little, doesn't it? It's a great game and amazing for its time. It saved video games for the United States and brought Nintendo into the forefront. This game (among other Mario games) has been released, re-released, and re-re-released so many times it's painful to recount. It was re-released on the Super Nintendo in Mario All-Stars, fixing some of the hit detection problems I mentioned but about 99% the same game with 16-bit graphics and a MUCH better ending involving being given a mushroom (if small) and the Princess is in a cage. She also runs up and hugs you, and then a bubble pops up where we see her kiss Mario (or Luigi). It also says, "The Kingdom is Saved!" And at the end of the second quest it no longer mentions the second quest, and instead simply says "Hurrah to our hero Mario!" It was also re-released on the Gameboy Color known as Super Mario Brothers Deluxe and included all sorts of special features including a Challenge and Versus mode. It also had a basic map screen. In 2004 it was released for the Gameboy Advance as a Classic NES Series where, unlike the other re-releases, it contained no graphic updates or adjustments, maintaining even the original glitches. It's available on the Wii (downloadable) and is slated to find a place even on the 3DS, complete with original graphics and glitches. Needless to say: this game truly will never die. And I haven't even mentioned any of its sequels and spinoffs. Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario Brothers, 8-bit Nintendo, we thank you for all your hard work and the wonderful revival of the gaming industry. We are forever in your debt.


Super Mario Brothers on Wikipedia.
Super Mario Brothers on TV Tropes.
SMB on GameSpy.
SMB on Gamespot.

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