Asian Architecture, Italian Plumbers
Our Look at Super Mario Bros. and Other Classic Platformers
Join us for our second look at the graphic design and evolution of games. Today we review Asian Architectures & Italian Plumbers: the Mario, Sonic, Ninja Gaiden, MegaMan, & Castlevania franchises.
The classic side scrolling platformers of yore are responsible for many a young nerd baller’s obsession with video games, and at least one of these holds a place near and dear to many of the older nerd hearts. From the mainstream to the obscure, these 2-D platformers shaped the way we look at video games in every aspect. But for now, let’s look at what these games did and achieved in their graphic presentation and how that tied into the gameplay.
I want to preface this with a brief overview of the time period these games inhabit, and what sorts of precedents they follow and set for future games. Prior to the ’80s was arguably the Stone Age of video games. Platforms like the Intellevision, Colecovision, or the Atari 2600 were the home consoles of the time, and they were rough. The best-known platforming game of this ancient past was Pitfall, a notoriously difficult game to play because of its poor controls. Building something better than a game with poor controls probably sounds simple but it’s not, especially when you are dealing with brand new technologies. Not to mention, knowing something is “bad” doesn’t mean you know what will make it “good.” With so few real precedents set, games like Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden were essentially free to chart their own path for platforming. Their different approaches to a similar genre are very easily seen; while they share some mechanics, they do not play similarly at all — which will be covered in greater detail in their sections. We will see that, despite being presented on the same console, these games have drastically different visuals. This variance on visual presentation is both art and function — creating visual information within their own palettes that, while it might deliver the same message, did so in ways unique to each game. The way that Mario jumps is different from the way Simon jumps, or the way Ryu jumps, or Sonic, or Mega Man. It’s one mechanic that serves the same function in each game but looks and behaves differently in each one. Mario’s jump is both a maneuver and an attack, while Mega Man’s or Simon’s is a maneuver that can be timed with an attack — which incidentally requires a few more frames of animation. Every character in these games takes damage from foes or obstacles, but none of them in the same way. Each one gathers or picks up items, but those items are quite different, not just in look, but in their in-game functions. The one game on this list much further ahead, Sonic the Hedgehog, benefits from these older platformers setting the expected conventions for difficulty, themes, and visual style while also putting its own unique spin on the genre. Despite each of the differences, a player who is experienced with platforming games can pick up any one of these and very quickly understand them. The ability to be able to pick up and play one platformer or another is quite deliberate. The various developers of these games could have intentionally tried to do things contrary to one another, but they didn’t. This isn’t just a recognition of the adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”; it’s an acknowledgment to the audience that a gameplay experience that draws on other games makes a new game easier to pick up and enjoy. Yes, you might expect similarities between games of the same genre, but again remember that these are literally among the very first, and that expectation didn’t necessarily hold at the time. By setting these precedents, these games shaped the future, not just of platformers, but of gaming as a whole.
Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985)
The cream of the crop, one of the most successful video game franchises of all time spawned from this simple and entertaining side scrolling classic. You play as Mario, an Italian plumber, out to save Princess Peach from the clutches of the diabolical King Koopa (or Bowser, depending on who you ask) [ 1 ]. This game is 32 levels of high jumping, fireball shooting, Goomba stomping fun.
Given that the game designers of the day only had 8 bits to work with, creating anything with the sheer amount of visual assets of Super Mario Bros. is truly amazing, not to mention how well each element is introduced to the player. Right from the start, you come across the question blocks, which beg that you interact with them in some way, given their strange appearance and promise of something unknown. Upon jumping into them, as is one of the moves of your available two buttons, an item pops out, in this case a super mushroom, as an immediate reward. Most likely by chance, you will also learn that you can hit and break other blocks, which surround the the question block. With the super mushroom obtained, your character — Mario — will grow large, after which you will run into your first foes, and (probably) stomp on your first Goomba. You might also learn that colliding with an enemy takes away your power up, and that a second collision leads to losing an extra life. No tutorial needed, no instruction manual read, just like that you know the basics of the game, all thanks to the visual information you are fed. New elements are slowly introduced over the course of the game to allow the player time to adjust. This sort of thing may sound like par for the course now, but keep in mind that this game was among the first of its kind, and essentially set this trend for all platformers thereafter — and if we’re being honest, future platformers that strayed from this formula feel arduous to play.
In terms of Mario (or Luigi) himself, the sprite on the screen offers a plethora of visual information to the player. Regular Mario is small and drawn in a sort of super-deformed chibi style and can’t take any hits before being eliminated. Super Mario is large, looking more like an actual person, can reach higher blocks than regular Mario, and take one hit, which transforms him back to regular. Fire Mario’s clothes change to a white over red color scheme to represent his new power to shoot fireballs; taking a hit as Fire Mario reverts him back to regular (ouch!). The Fire Mario form displays incredible power, despite that the fireballs themselves have a short range, as these projectiles can eliminate most foes instantly from a distance.
In addition to the sprites, there is the Heads-Up Display, or HUD as it’s commonly called. This is a feature in many video games of all genres. Mario Bros.’ HUD displays the character name (Mario or Luigi), points accumulated, coins accumulated, the stage number, and the time remaining to complete the stage, all in very plain white text. A simple graphic element, to be sure, but no less important for the information it conveys. From the HUD, the player will discover that collecting 100 coins grants an extra life. This is where the biggest flaw of the HUD comes into play — it does not display the current total of extra lives; that information is only shown on the world transition screen. This was rectified in later Mario titles, and does not impact the game play overmuch, but should have been included the first time around.
If there’s one big gripe to be had with the original Mario Bros., it lies in the final stage, World 8-4. To complete in the stage, you must use the pipes to progress, rather than just moving Mario (or Luigi) to the right. Moving to the right results in an endless loop, and you will either run out of time or eventually fall to one of the stage hazards. You can discover this with experimentation, of course, and there are some visual clues, such as hitting an empty hallway. However, these clues don’t point you in the right direction; they only tell you that you’ve done something wrong. This can lead to a frustrating end to a long play-through (as it did for me), particularly if you haven’t used any of the hidden warp pipes in previous stages to skip ahead. Even so, this game remains a fun and interesting challenge.
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991)
The premier platformer for the Sega Genesis console, featuring a fast running, hard spinning, blue-spined hedgehog out to stop the evil Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman, depending on who you ask) [ 2 ]; Sonic set a lot of trends. This game had the benefit of the 16-bit engine of the Genesis, and the graphic presentation is reflective of such. It’s one of the first games to feature vibrant, moving backgrounds, and pseudo-3-D elements in its objects. The stage variety is fantastic, giving players both a taste of the high-speed action that a super-speed character should have, and places that require a more calculated approach, where the player needs to control that super-speed carefully or suffer the consequences.
The 16-bit sprite of Sonic is responsive, smooth flowing, and occasionally amusing. When he starts his running animation, he goes from a walk to a jog, to a run, and finally to a super speed run where his legs look more like a rotating wheel, and his hair spines flow in the breeze created by his speed. If you stop Sonic for longer than a few seconds, he’ll tap his foot impatiently and will break the 4th wall to stare at you, in your direction. When he takes hits, he’s knocked slightly backwards with an expression of pain on his face, his collected rings flying everywhere. He also has a spin-up animation that makes him look like a blue buzzsaw, and his jumping animation has a similar effect as he flips through the air. Even his stopping animation, where he slams his heels into the ground and skids to a halt, is satisfying to watch. Overall, Sonic’s sprite is quite pleasing to the eye and gives a lot more characterization than earlier systems were capable of.
Although it is a more visually complex game than earlier platformers, Sonic has a simplified HUD. It displays a cumulative score, a time counter for total time taken (each act of a zone having a time limit of 10 minutes), a ring counter, and an extra life counter at the bottom left corner. It’s not an overwhelming amount of information, just enough to keep the player informed, and it’s really all that is needed. About collecting rings, this game follows the previously set trend from Super Mario wherein collecting a hundred rings will grant an extra life; however, it is also advantageous to stay below a hundred rings, as having fifty or more rings opens up a bonus stage at the end of each level; and the collection of a hundred will set the counter back to zero. While stages tend to have more than a hundred total rings that can be collected, it is not always enough.
Of course, more bits also means more variety in items, enemies, and intreractable objects as well, and all of these visuals are nicely interactive and give ample amounts of information as to what they do. Part of this lies in the simplicity of the design. For example, the Shield power up looks like a shield when it’s contained in its item box, and when activated becomes a bubble-like shield around Sonic himself. The Power Sneakers look like a pair of Sonic’s shoes and increase his speed. It’s all designed to be intrinsic, not requiring any exposition to understand. This intrinsic nature is also showcased in the many boss battles with Robotnik, and while they can have many elements to keep track of, none of them feel overwhelming or like the game is cheating you. Visually, this game is a strong first outing for the Genesis, and an easily memorable classic.
When I first played Sonic back in the ’90s (I’m old), I found some of the levels frustrating, particularly the Marble Zone. It’s a big change of pace from the fast running of the Green Hill Zone, requiring patience that my younger self did not have. Revisiting it as an adult, it’s not nearly so bad as my first impression made it out to be. I didn’t grow into a follower of the Sonic franchise, but with the disappointing showings of its most recent games, it’s not a bad idea to go back to the classics to wash the bad taste out of your mouth.
Ninja Gaiden (NES, 1988)
Coming back to the NES, another great is Ninja Gaiden. The story of a young man named Ryu, born into a ninja clan, out to discover what led to his father’s death [ 3 ]. Visually speaking, the way that Ninja Gaiden presents itself is quite amazing. Firstly, the game itself has a very smooth frame rate, enabling Ryu, his enemies, and on-screen projectiles to move without a perceivable clipping or stop-motion type action. This was quite the feat to achieve on the NES, and even the most well-known titles like Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda couldn’t quite do it. How exactly this was accomplished, I do not know, but I like it.
Let’s look at Ryu himself. His movement is stylized as the Hollywood stereotypical ninja archetype, and the game does this well. He has quickly pacing feet with a still upper body; when he jumps, he front flips rapidly. His standard attacks are fast forward slashes, each time drawing and sheathing his blade, which his jump attacks add variation, from spinning his sword with his flips (with a power up), to jumping straight up and executing the same quick cut. His projectile power ups also reflect this archetype: the traditional throwing stars, Windmill (boomerang) stars, flames and fire wheels are all representative of classic ninja techniques both mundane and mystical [ 3 ]. This ensemble of graphic elements helps the character feel both sleek and effective.
Ninja Gaiden’s HUD is very similar in style to Castlevania; displaying score, health, time, stage number, boss health, lives remaining, ammunition and secondary weapon type. It’s rather a lot of information, and probably could have been cut down slightly, or presented in a less clustered way so that it took up less of the retail space of the screen. Nevertheless, it conveys the relevant information properly, and doesn’t take away from the game overall.
Setting wise, Ninja Gaiden takes the player through several interesting locations: city streets, mountains, jungles, and finally an ancient forgotten temple. While the background colors and construction are simple, each stage adds enough visual variety to keep one from getting bored, along with a wide array of enemies for different, exciting challenges. Also of note, this is one of the first games to feature full length cut scenes! In the modern age of video gaming, cut scenes are par for the course, but in the days of the NES, there was little to no story exposition in games, and having such a feature set Ninja Gaiden apart from the rest.
Compared to these other titles, I probably enjoyed Ninja Gaiden the least. I don’t say that to mean it’s a bad game; in fact it has many of the qualities I like in an early NES title. It’s perhaps because I’ve never been a fan of the series, so my nostalgia goggles are off. It wasn’t not fun, just not as fun as the others, at least for me. Even so, I give the game high marks, and certainly fans of the newer titles should give this one a shot.
Mega Man (NES, 1987)
Continuing down the NES platformer line, we have Mega Man, one of the most popular franchises of all time, and a personal favorite. Who doesn’t like a platformer featuring rogue robots that shoot plasma or throw bombs at each other? The story of Mega Man is, as one might expect, quite simple: “Rock was created by the brilliant Dr. Light to be a lab assistant and a son. But when Dr. Light’s partner, Dr. Wily, stole their six new Robot Masters and tried to use them to take over the world, Dr. Light remodeled Rock into the warrior known as Mega Man” [ 4 ].
The first entry to this series was quite simple graphically, but it made great use of every asset. Mega Man himself has a simple but smart visual presentation. His two-tone blue body, along with his flesh toned face, paints a picture of a machine that is supposed to be as close to a man as possible. This visual is complemented by the way he moves — he runs, arms swinging like a regular person would when jogging. When he jumps, his facial expression changes to represent a very human effort or exertion. When he’s hit by a hazard or enemy attack, he flinches in pain, his eyes closing and mouth open. This is in stark contrast with previously mentioned titles such as Mario Bros. or Ninja Gaiden, where the facial expression of the character basically never changes. Lacking this doesn’t take anything away from either of those games, but rather having dynamic facial expressions in a game where you are playing a robot both gives the player great visual information and makes for quite the interesting philosophical discussion. Many future titles, like the previously mentioned Sonic The Hedgehog, have included main characters with vivid facial expressions, though Mega Man may indeed be the first to do so.
Unlike its console cousins, Mega Man does not have a complex HUD. It displays a score (which in later titles was scrapped), Mega Man’s health bar, his energy bar if a special weapon is equipped, and the stage boss health bar when the boss appears. It also does not operate on gathering and maintaining power-ups. Instead, you gather a series of different powers from the eight robot masters that you can switch between, along with one additional power found in the Elecman stage. Each of these powers changes the type of attack that Mega Man produces from his Mega Buster arm cannon, and each one deals increased damage to one of the other masters. This allows a knowledgeable player to defeat the eight masters in a pre-planned order, using each of the special weapons effectively against the master who is weak to it. These powers also have a visual representation on Mega Man himself — his body changes to different color schemes depending on which power he is currently wielding. Apart from looking cool, this allows the player to easily remember which power they currently have equipped.
Stages are varied and challenging, but each platform challenge is easy to understand. The moving platforms in Guts Man stage, for example, will drop off at certain points in their travel paths. This is shown by a break in the line they travel on, so that the player can be prepared to jump when the time comes. Of course, these jumps are fast paced and require some practice before getting across. Similarly, in Iceman’s stage, there are disappearing and reappearing blocks. These blocks come and go in patterns, and while jumping from one to the next is technically simple, it’s a challenge of timing and skilled movement to advance. Again, we see how much can be gleaned from just visual information provided by the game as it acts to allow the player to show more strategy in battles.
While there aren’t any power ups to pick up in Mega Man, there are other item pickups that will make his day brighter. These one-time use items are consumed on pickup and each one offers its own benefits. Small health tanks, large health tanks, special weapon energy tanks, extra lives, and extra point beads all make appearances in every stage, either found on their own or dropped by defeated enemies, who burst into small white explosions when they are destroyed. Each little graphic, while mysterious at first, is quickly identified upon use, and over repeated exposure it is easy to memorize which is which. Normally this sort of thing would irk me, as an intrinsic understanding of visual elements is most often better than trial and error. However, discovering what each item does happens quickly enough that it does not impact overall game play, and it could be argued that this little bit of mystery makes sense. After all, what is intrinsic to a machine would not be the same as what is intrinsic to a human.
It should be said that Mega Man is a difficult game, particularly for first-time players. The movement is tight but takes getting used to, as do the screen transitions, and while Mega is not a pushover, he’s not invincible. Enemy attack patterns must be learned through a lot of trial and error — this is especially true on the stage bosses. When I played, I had the toughest time with the first Wiley stage boss, the Yellow Devil. You have a very small window to do damage to his red eye before his body comes apart and shifts to the other side, piece-by-piece. Oh, and you can’t be hit by any of his 19 (I counted) body pieces or you’ll take serious damage. This guy was a huge pain.
Despite the sometimes-frustrating challenge of Mega Man, I really enjoyed playing it. It has aged very well for an NES game, and any fan of the current iterations of Mega Man should give it a try.
Castlevania (NES, 1986)
The classic gothic horror-inspired platformer, Castlevania is the story of Simon Belmont, who is on a quest to slay Dracula and end his reign of terror. This is another franchise that has spanned the entire gamut of console evolution and the first entry in the series is as visually powerful as the last.
Firstly, the game has a short introduction sequence where the hero walks up to the gates in front of Dracula’s ominous castle, setting the tone of the game quite nicely. The sprite of Simon Belmont is visually simple, looking like a man with long dark hair, dressed in a medieval tunic and boots. He doesn’t run, but marches with determination across the screen. His whip attack has a wind up and release, requiring the player to time each attack carefully when engaging. The secondary projectile attacks, however, have no wind up, making them quicker, but ammunition is limited. There are throwing knives, throwing axes, boomerangs, holy water, and the stopwatch, and each has different uses. The knives only fly in a straight line and stop once they hit something. The axes are arced upward and fall upon foes, not stopping till they go off screen, allowing them to hit many targets. Boomerangs, as you might expect, fly outward and come back, allowing them to his several targets in a line, sometimes twice. The holy water creates a column of fire in a single spot, causing massive damage to any foe caught in it. Lastly, the stopwatch lets the player freeze time for a few seconds, letting them get superior positioning, or to avoid deadly traps. In all these secondary weapons, the player is treated to a font of visual information, allowing them to discover the best uses of each one without the need for reading the manual.
Speaking of ammunition, let’s go over the HUD. This was the first game that I ever played with such a complex HUD to it. We have score, time, stage number, player health, enemy health (which is the stage boss health), hearts (which are ammunition), and p to represent extra lives. As I mentioned previously, Ninja Gaiden has a similar HUD, but Castlevania came before it, and while both HUDs do a similar job of information display, Castlevania suffers from one additional flaw — using hearts to represent ammunition [ 5 ]. As a kid, I thought at first that hearts were health. That is an intuitive, and moreover, classic graphic associated with health, even in the real world. Of course, I learned by playing and gathering hearts that they were ammunition, but I still think this was the worst design choice of the game. That being said, once you become accustomed to what the hearts are for, you stop noticing this design error, and it doesn’t detract from the overall gameplay.
The stage designs, all being parts of Dracula’s castle, are all reflective of the classic horror movies featuring the well-known villain. While the background is mostly brick, there is enough variety in additional elements to make up for it. This includes ruined drapery, hanging moss, bits of crumbling brick that reveal the inner wall, gothic-style windows, chains, and piles of bones. After climbing upwards in the first two stages, the third stage is set on the parapets of the castle, giving the player a view of the night sky. You plunge into the depths of the castle, moving through an underground cave network rife with water hazards. Dracula’s stage features a complex clock tower puzzle, where the player must navigate moving gears to progress. All these visual background elements combined make for quite the adventure, even with a limited color palette that is necessitated by the gothic nature of the game.
The enemy sprites all accentuate the horror feel. There’s the classic skeletons, ghouls, bats, and ghosts, as well as a plethora of less traditional but just as revered horror enemies: fishmen, fleamen, medusa heads, ravens, bone dragons, and living armor. Each one presents its own challenge, and none of them should be underestimated. While the game does introduce these enemies in progressive fashion, it does so without hesitation or restraint, ramping up the difficulty of the game with each new enemy. I personally recall many a frustrating demise at the hands of these horrors of the night. You might be leaping forward from a platform in the underground only to be knocked backwards into the abyss by a fishman or attempting to cross one of the many gaps in the upper levels only to have my hopes dashed by a medusa head. All this goes on while you try desperately to retain as much health as possible in the gauntlet before Death’s boss battle. Each stage’s foes bring their own confounding and exhilarating experiences. Speaking of, the end level bosses follow this same scheme of horror movie monsters, but bigger and badder: a giant bat, a huge Medusa head, twin mummies, Frankenstein’s monster, Death itself, and, of course, Dracula. Each visual representation of these classic monsters is both intuitive and imposing, easily creating a feel of desperation as the player, a mere mortal man, tries to destroy these terrors from beyond.
As a whole, these five impressive titles have brought joy to many households. They’ve inspired future generations of game designers who were able to learn from both the successes and mistakes made in each entry, and they pushed what was thought possible with the technology of the day to its limits. While graphically simple by modern day standards, these games still hold up to modern titles because of how well their limited graphics were used.
- “The Original Trilogy of Mario Bros on the NES took the graphics from basic to as far as the hardware could be pushed.” shutterstock.com/image-photo/taipei-taiwan-february-20-2018-studio-1065532736
- “The side-by-side evolution of the character is a showcase of our chipset revolution.” economist.com/christmas-specials/2016/12/24/how-super-mario-became-a-global-cultural-icon
- “Even in humble 8-bit architecture, Ninja Gaiden represented an dramatic expansion in storytelling.” destructoid.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/539135-NESninjagaiden.jpg
- “Sonic’s growth has been no less dramatic.” NintendoCentral. YouTube. youtube.com/watch?v=gEHcEc-Wwn8
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
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- Paugh, Miranda. “Mega Man.” MMHP, The Megamaster, 11 Dec. 2002, mmhp.net/GameHints/MM1.html.
- Kalata, Kurt, and William Cain. “Castlevania (1987).” Castlevania, Kontek.net, castlevaniadungeon.net/games/cv1.html. Accessed 26, December 2019.