Mushroom Kingdoms to Galaxies, and Back
Mario, Nintendo’s Iconic Mascot, Still Bounding to New Platforms
This series will examine famous video game series. More precisely, it will trace their evolution and influence on other aspects of popular culture. The first entry in this series will take on aspects from Nintendo’s mascot series, Mario.
For those of you curious about my age, if someone says “video games,” the first thing that pops into my head is “Mario.” On a personal note, while my father owned an Intellivision, the NES was the first I would call “mine.” I was far from alone—at the height of Nintendo’s dominance in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mario was more well-known to U.S. children [ 1 ] than Mickey Mouse.
Super Mario Brothers
For this article, I’ll be sticking mostly to “mainline” games in the Super Mario Bros. series. While Mario appeared in games prior to 1985’s U.S. release of Super Mario Bros [ 2 ], it’s this game that catapulted Nintendo and its plumber into the mainstream. It’s also the game that established the formula that the series would follow.
So Super Mario Bros: it’s a simple game in concept with a “save the damsel in distress” plot. The damsel in question is Princess Toadstool, named “Princess Peach” in Japan (she would later take that moniker in the U.S. as well, but the Mushroom Kingdom’s Witness Protection Program, as we’ll see, is worthless), and she rules over the Mushroom Kingdom. The kidnapper is Bowser, a dragonesque creature. The challenge is a side-scrolling platformer, where Mario runs, jumps, and swims his way through eight worlds to rescue the Princess.
The game itself, while not very long, is challenging, and still holds up pretty well today. One artifact of its time is the fact that three of the 32 stages are maze levels; there are multiple paths and/or doors to choose from, and picking the wrong one sends you backward in the level. Mazes in some form were a staple in game design in the ’80s and ’90s—interestingly, they survive in the form of Ghost Houses in today’s Mario games.
Super Mario Bros. was also one of the first games to have a “cheat code” built in. A player was able to press start while holding down the A button after a “game over” to continue at the beginning of the furthest world they had reached.
Super Mario Bros. 2
From here, things take an interesting turn. There are two editions of Super Mario Bros. 2, and each started a trend in its own way (said trend wouldn’t manifest until years later in one case). First, we’ll look at the “true” SMB2: the Japanese version.
The Japanese version used the same engine as the original, meaning that Mario’s mechanics are the same, as is the core gameplay. This Super Mario Bros. 2 also introduced Luigi’s distinct gameplay characteristics—namely, he can jump higher than Mario, but has less traction. It also introduced poison mushrooms and backwards warp zones. There’s also wind in some levels. At its core, though, this Mario 2 is a DLC-based sequel. Aesthetically, it’s very similar to the original game, in a way that wouldn’t be repeated until the New Super Mario Bros. series years later. The game looks and feels like “Super Mario Bros: The Expansion Pack,” particularly in its difficulty. The challenge of the game meant that Nintendo went looking for an alternative SMB2 [ 3 ] for North American audiences.
The second game came in the form of a modification to a game released in Japan as Doki Doki Panic. The U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 involved Mario taking a journey to the land of Sub-Con, to defeat an evil being named Wart. Mario, Luigi and, for the first time, Toad and Princess Toadstool, do this by running, jumping, and throwing vegetables at things. This game established several trends of its own. The first was the tendency for a second game in a series to be markedly different from the first, which would manifest itself in Zelda, Castlevania and, to a lesser extent, Metroid. The second trend was for Mario, the “all-around” character in terms of abilities, to be the worst in the game when it came down to it. In many games that came after the U.S. SMB2, the “average” character winds up overshadowed, as one of the characters with a marked strength takes center stage. In the case of this game, whether it’s Toad with his running and lifting speed or Luigi/Princess Toadstool with their jumping abilities, the non-Mario characters are both more fun and more useful than the alleged star of the game.
In this version of the game, instead of just jumping on your foes, picking up things—including enemies—and throwing them at said foes is an integral part of the gameplay. Every boss in the game is defeated in this fashion, be it by using objects in the boss’s room or projectiles that the boss itself gives you. Additionally, there are a number of stages that have vertically scrolling sections. Prior to SMB3, any vertical scrolling was limited to going from one screen to another directly above it.
Super Mario Bros. 3
The radical experimentation phase of the second game in a video game series was largely a late-’80s/early-’90s phenomenon, as seen in the games mentioned above. The 1990 American release of Super Mario Bros. 3 marked a return to what status quo there was in the series at the time. Bowser was at it again, this time turning the rulers of seven worlds into animals with the help of the debuting Koopa Kids. The gameplay is much closer to the first game—gone is the vegetable throwing and carpet-riding of U.S. Mario 2.
But Super Mario Bros. 3 is much more than “Super Mario Bros: The Second Expansion.” New to the series is a degree of freedom to explore various levels—the game is still broken up into eight worlds, but each has its own map, allowing multiple paths to be taken through them. Each world also has its own theme—one is an ice world, for instance, while another features giant enemies. This is not necessarily new, as there were examples of this in the original SMB, but never to such an extent. Also new to the series are a plethora of unique power-ups, like the tanuki suit or the feather cape. Several of them allow you to fly for a limited time, a mechanic that would carry over into many other games in the series.
While it was bigger and better than the first two games and offered a continuation option from the beginning of the current world should you receive a “game over,” SMB3 was still an all-the-way-in-one-long-play game. It wasn’t until the first 16-bit entry in the series, Super Mario World, that being able to save your progress would become standard.
Much like Super Mario Bros. 2 U.S., the location changed again, this time to a place called Dinosaur Land. Bowser has once again spirited Princess Toadstool away to his Valley in this new terrain. Mario and Luigi were this time aided by a dinosaur species named Yoshi. Yoshi adds another new dimension to the “classic” Mario gameplay, as he can swallow enemies to get them out of your way. There are also different colored Yoshis that have different abilities when swallowing Koopa shells.
Super Mario World: Yoshi and Beyond
Super Mario World is broken up into seven zones, in the same vein as Mario 3. Those worlds, however, make a much more cohesive “overworld” this time, meaning you can freely travel back and forth between worlds you’ve already conquered. The branching paths, this time determined by alternate exits within stages, span multiple zones. This culminates in the fact that there are two branches to the final level, one of them allowing you to skip half the stage. Additionally, there are two bonus zones of sorts, and completing the second one causes the cosmetic elements to change into some kind of Alice in Wonderland trip. Koopa Troopas, for instance, become Mario bobblehead robots.
While the trappings of the game have expanded, the actual level-to-level gameplay is simplified compared to its predecessor. Gone are the plethora of power-ups—outside of Yoshi and the temporary Starman, you’re down to a Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Cape Feather this time around. Mario 3’s inventory system has been pared down to a single reserve power-up. As a trade-off, that power-up can be deployed anytime in a level, rather than on the overworld map.
Super Mario World also heralds the first time a spirit of “graphics showmanship” invaded the series. There are portions of the game, such as the expanding and contracting keyholes, and the giant Boos, that are meant to be demonstrations of the SNES’s Mode 7 technology [ 4 ]. Mode 7 was a way for the SNES itself to easily scale and rotate sprites, and while this wasn’t the most egregious launch example of its potential—Pilotwings was a Mode 7 tech demo disguised as five mini-games—it does show a differing focus.
If Super Mario World was an evolution of Super Mario Bros. 3‘s aesthetic, its sequel would be a radical departure. In contrast to the technology showcased in Donkey Kong Country, which pushed the graphics of the SNES to their limits by using 3-D pre-rendered art (a false rumor exists that Nintendo creative mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t like Donkey Kong Country, when he in fact worked closely with developer Rare on it [ 5 ] ), Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island uses a hand-drawn coloring book style in its graphics. The plot is also a radical departure in terms of overall story. There are no princesses to be found here, and Mario isn’t even the main character. He’s also not an adult; rather, the game begins with a stork on its way to deliver the baby Mario Brothers to their parents. Kamek the Magikoopa attacks the stork mid-flight and manages to kidnap Baby Luigi. Baby Mario, on the other hand, falls onto Yoshi’s Island, and the Yoshis go on a relay to reunite Mario with his brother.
Yoshi’s Island: A Mario Game with Very Little Mario
Yoshi’s Island does away with the multiple paths through levels and worlds, in favor of having six worlds with eight levels each. You have to beat each level before moving onto the next one, but you can go back and revisit levels you’ve completed at any time.
Why would you want to do that? Because this game introduces in-level collectibles that determine your score for that level. Each level has 20 red coins and five flowers to collect. These combine for 70 of the possible 100 points in each level. The remaining 30 points are determined by the seconds remaining on your life counter. Instead of a traditional life meter that decreases when you get hit, contacting an enemy in the wrong way results in Yoshi and Mario getting separated and the timer counting down. If it reaches zero, Toadies swoop in and whisk Mario away, and you lose a life. Getting 100 percent in all the levels in a world unlocks an extra level. Do that and you’ll unlock one of the bonus games that you sometimes find hidden in the levels, to be played repeatedly.
Yoshi’s Island is Yoshi’s game, and it shows that the Mario series could survive even without Mario playing the starring role. Of course, Mario would have to grow back up sooner or later, and the next game in the series would see him visiting a whole new dimension. Super Mario 64 was one of two U.S. launch titles for Nintendo’s 64-bit console—[ 6 ] Pilotwings 64 was the other—and Nintendo put everything they had into it, going so far as to design the Nintendo 64’s controller to work perfectly with its control scheme. The game begins with Mario being invited to Princess Toadstool’s castle (here called “Princess Toadstool, Peach” for the first time in the States) for cake. When Mario arrives, however, there’s no one around. It transpires that the Princess has once again been kidnapped by Bowser, this time being trapped in one of the castle’s paintings. It also turns out that the paintings are portals to other worlds. To save Toadstool this time around, Mario has to travel into the paintings to recover Power Stars.
Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine: Mario enters 3-D
While the game is the first in the series to truly use the concept of a hub world, there’s a more substantial change as well. Super Mario 64 is also the first 3-D game in the series. To be clear, it wasn’t the first 3-D platformer: a PlayStation game called Floating Runner [ 7 ] predates SM64 by about five months [ 8 ] in Japan. It was, however, the first high-quality game of its kind on any console. Part of this was due to the use of the N64 controller’s analog stick, which allowed for a much finer degree of control in 3-D space than was possible with a directional pad. Indeed, Sony’s Dual Shock controller was released in late 1997 [ 9 ] as a response to Mario 64‘s success. Spyro the Dragon, among others, probably owes his existence to Mario 64, in much the same way Sonic the Hedgehog wouldn’t exist without the original Super Mario Bros. Other franchises attempted to follow in its footsteps as well. Infamously, Bubsy 3D and Earthworm Jim 3D tried and failed to capture the mascot-in-3-D magic. Of the companies that took the right lessons from Mario 64, Rare in particular ushered in their collect-a-thon era, with games like Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Kazooie.
Yoshi, Mario’s faithful steed, makes a mere cameo appearance once you acquire all 120 of the Power Stars, and Luigi doesn’t appear at all. However, the green-clad plumber would get his own GameCube launch game, Luigi’s Mansion.
While Super Mario 64‘s influence would be felt in the gaming landscape for years to come, the mainline Mario franchise itself took some time off after it. Nearly six years would pass between Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, the next proper Mario game. Super Mario Sunshine tells the story of Mario and Princess’ (here called Princess Peach) journey to Isle Delfino. They expect a relaxing vacation. Instead, Mario gets arrested and sentenced to clean up the island. You see, a vandal who looks a lot like Mario has been running around the island, dirtying it up. Mario is given the FLUDD Device, basically an industrial power washer, and goes about cleaning up the island, acquiring shines in the process. FLUDD can be used as either an attacking device, spraying foes and dirt with water, or a device to hover with, shooting the water at the ground to give yourself a boost.
Mario Sunshine is a bit more linear than Mario 64. In the older title, you would select a star to get, but could pick up any star in the course you could reach; Super Mario Sunshine restricts you to a set order in a course. Yoshi, however, does make a return to playable form.
At this point, the Mario series effectively splits into two branches—a 2-D series, a la the original Super Mario Bros. games, and a 3-D series closer to Super Mario 64. We’ll tackle the 2-D games in a moment, but first, its Wii time.
Super Mario Galaxy
In the mid-2000s, Nintendo released the Wii, the first system to feature motion-detection technology as a main method of player input [ 10 ]. Of course, with this new technology would come a Mario game that used it. Super Mario Galaxy featured exploring many tiny planets and flying from one “galaxy” to the next. The game’s plot is set up by a centennial Star Festival that Peach invites Mario to. During the festival, Bowser invades, and once again kidnaps Peach, this time by lifting her entire castle into outer space. Mario tries to save her but is defeated and winds up on a small planet. This planet is inhabited by Rosalina, whose Comet Observatory has had its Power Stars stolen by Bowser. It’s up to Mario to collect the stars, restore power to the observatory, and save Peach from Bowser.
Super Mario Galaxy uses two player-inputs (the Wiimote and Nunchuk) to control Mario. As in Super Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine, he moves about a 3-D field. The difference in Super Mario Galaxy is that he travels to various small spheres, each with its own gravity. Mario can, using stars suspended over the planets, fly from planet to planet, and hover over them as well. Mario has a spin jump activated by shaking the controller. Players collect Star Bits by pointing their Wiimote at them. This was also the first mainline Mario game to have a true 2-player simultaneous co-op feature, as a second player can collect the Star Bits for the first, as well as grab enemies.
Mario Galaxy is structured in a similar way to Super Mario 64, only this time, the hub breaks off into smaller hubs. These, in turn, contain galaxies which require a varying amount of Power Stars to reach. There are 120 in the main game, although you can beat the game with only 60—and indeed, the last 15 or so are unavailable until you do. Each galaxy has 3-5 stars to collect, and some of them have challenges attached, such as requiring you to speed through the level or complete a section of the level without being hit. Finally, collecting all 120 stars allows you to play the game again, this time as Luigi. Luigi plays as he does in the Japanese Mario 2—higher jumps than Mario, but with less traction. Getting all the stars as Luigi leads to one final challenge; completing this earns you some pictures that could be uploaded to the Wii message board until its discontinuation.
Super Mario Galaxy was an incredible success, becoming one of the top-selling and highest-rated games on the Wii. Plus, it was Mario. That meant that a sequel was inevitable. The initial plan was for an expansion of the original game, to be called Super Mario Galaxy More [ 11 ]. As the development team came up with more and more ideas, though, the development time increased, and the game became its own entity. Super Mario Galaxy 2 would grace the Wii three years after the first. This sequel once again begins at a Star Festival where Peach, in shades of Super Mario 64, has invited Mario to have some cake. Bowser attacks yet again, making off with Peach and escaping to the center of the universe. Mario is given control of Starship Mario, a tiny planet shaped like his head, and travels the universe to recover Power Stars, save Peach, and foil Bowser.
To do this, you travel through world maps reminiscent of Super Mario World or Yoshi’s Island. At the end of each world is a boss, either Bowser Jr. or Bowser himself, and defeating that boss opens the next world. Completing every challenge opens up a final, extra-difficult world. Yoshi returns in Mario Galaxy 2 after sitting out the first Galaxy game, and the co-op function has also been expanded. In addition to grabbing Star Bits and holding enemies, the second player can perform physical attacks and grab items for the first player, making them even more useful than in the first Galaxy.
Like the first game, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was a huge critical and commercial success. The logical thing to do, then, was to create a 3-D game for the then-new 3DS portable. About a year and a half after Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land graced the 3DS. This game combined elements of the 2-D games—Mario growing and shrinking based on power-ups, dying when getting hit as small Mario, jumping onto flagpoles to end stages—with the more free-roaming gameplay of the 3-D games. Once again, Bowser kidnaps Peach (I told you the name change didn’t help), this time after stripping the Super Leaves from the Tail Tree on Peach’s castle grounds. The Super Leaves give Tanuki abilities, and Bowser uses them to power up his minions. It’s up to Mario to save the Princess and get the Leaves back.
Making a return from Super Mario World is the ability to keep an item in reserve. Returning from Super Mario Bros. 3 is the Super Leaf that turns Mario into a Tanuki, allowing him to gently glide down from a jump using his tail. New power-ups include a Boomerang Flower, which lets Mario throw boomerangs. Mario has also learned to do a Barrel Roll and a Roll Jump, to cover ground and break blocks more easily.
The Wii U would expand this hybrid gameplay from a land to an entire world. Super Mario 3D World was released in 2013 [ 12 ], and Princess Peach manages to avoid being the damsel-in-distress this time around. Instead, Mario fixes a clear pipe, and a “Sprixie,” a creature resembling a fairy, jumps out of it. Bowser opts to change up his game plan and nabs the Sprixie instead, prompting Mario and company to jump into the pipe after him.
Similar to the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2, multiple characters are selectable, and each has their own abilities. Peach runs slower than her companions but can float in mid-air, while Toad runs the fastest but has the lowest jump height, to name two examples. Several new power-ups also debut, most notably the Cat power-up, which lets your character climb walls and dive at enemies.
Mario Returns to 2-D
At this point, let’s step back in time a bit and return to the 2-D branch of the series. New Super Mario Bros. is a deliberate throwback to the gameplay of the NES Super Mario Bros. games. Once again, Peach gets herself kidnapped by Bowser, and once again, Mario has to save her. Doing so involves running and jumping through worlds, similar to the original Super Mario Bros. This time around, though, there are some new power-ups, including a Mega Mushroom, which causes Mario to grow so large as to take up the entire screen, and a micro mushroom, which shrinks the plumber and allows him to walk on water. Also hidden in each level are three Star Coins. Collecting these unlocks alternate pathways and allows you to save your game.
One other fun element of the gameplay is that enemies will move and hop in-time with the music. If you don’t know it’s coming, it can throw you off; if you do, you can use the extra bit of height afforded by an enemy jump to get yourself onto an alternate path.
The enemies moving in time with the music would be carried over into the Wii sequel to NSMB, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. In this game, Princess Peach gets kidnapped from her own birthday party, when it transpires that a giant cake wheeled into the castle actually hides the Koopa Kids and Bowser Jr. Mario, Luigi, and two Toad retainers run off to save her. The big innovation here is up to four-player simultaneous gameplay, as Mario, Luigi and the Toads can all occupy the same screen, which can lead to cool strategies (or, more likely, hilarious hijinks such as throwing your friend off a cliff). The Star Coins make a return here as well; here, collecting all of them opens up levels in the ultra-difficult World 9.
The 3DS would also see another New Super Mario Bros. game. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was released in late 2012 [ 13 ], and features a plot (Kidnapped Peach! Bowser at it again! Film at 11!) and gameplay (running and jumping using pretty much the same power-ups as the first NSMB) extremely similar to the first New Super Mario Bros. game. Indeed, one staple of the New Super series is their extreme aesthetic similarity to each other. Not since the original Super Mario Bros. to the Japanese Mario 2 have graphics and sounds from previous games been so flagrantly re-used from game to game. The games are still fun, but have an uncharacteristic-for-Mario sameness to them.
The final game in our discussion today, New Super Mario Bros. U, was released for the Wii U in 2012. In this game, Bowser dispenses with kidnapping Peach, and opts to simply take over her castle a la Super Mario 64. Once again, Mario, Luigi, and the Toads, after being thrown far away, try to get back to the castle to save the princess.
The big innovation this time around is the integration with the Wii U GamePad. In multiplayer mode, an additional player can use the GamePad instead of a Wiimote. Instead of directly controlling a character, the player using the GamePad can create platforms for the others, as well as incapacitate enemies, similar to the second player options in Super Mario Galaxy. Additionally, colored baby Yoshis return from Super Mario World, with each color having a unique ability once the Yoshi grows up. In 2013, a spinoff game, New Super Luigi U, was released. This installment featured short levels redesigned for Luigi’s increased jumping height and reduced traction.
Besides the mainline games discussed here, I omitted the Super Mario Land series, a series of Game Boy games that would spawn Wario Land as its own series. There’s also Super Mario RPG, which became the Paper Mario series, and any number of sports and racing spinoffs starring Mario and his friends, of which the eight-games-and-counting Mario Kart series is the best known. Meanwhile, the most current Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey for the Nintendo Switch, is ubiquitous and available enough to not need a thorough explanation. The Mario series has many, many games in it, not even including the spinoffs I just mentioned. Its influence on games and gaming culture is undeniable. And, as we’ll see in subsequent articles, this is not the only Nintendo franchise to leave its handprint on the industry.
- “The Mario Bros. have transcended media, Happy Meal Toys, Small and Big Screens. They are The Industry Juggernaut.” free-images.com/display/mario_luigi_figures_funny.html Free-images.com. Alexas_fotos. Pixabay.
- “Humble beginnings have led to great heights.” Shutterstock. HAMBURG, GERMANY – Feb 28, 2021: Super Mario Bros Cartridge for the Nintendo Entertainment System and a Controller for the NES One of the most famous games in the world! shutterstock.com/image-photo/hamburg-germany-feb-28-2021-super-1944178036
- “Vintage gaming up close: Donkey Kong by Nintendo.” Screenshot. Donkey Kong. Nintendo NES.
- “Close up of modern gaming. Mario’s come a long, long way since then.” Screenshot. Super Mario Galaxy. Nintendo Wii.
Marc Dziezynski has lived a life furnished by art, from ages past to modern forms. He has leveraged this into a storied career in IT, as an Application Analyst for a Financial Technology firm. Some of the fields he has dabbled in include live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, music, art, writing, and game design. He’s also put in his time as a staffer in the local Connecticut convention scene, as well as traveling to others in the area. His professional blog can be found at http://emptyeye.com.
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