In the beginning there was Pong. The masses were intrigued, poking and prodding at Pong in wonder, seeing what might be the future but was probably a fad. Pong was interesting, but Pong was soon forgotten. Until Pacman, and Space Invaders, and Caterpillar, and all the original quarter chomping cabinet games of old. The arcade game was born of ingenuity and the disposable income of an increasingly stagnant generation with money to burn.
Nintendo’s success in video games was born of a desire to cash in on these experiences, seeing the success of Space Invaders and Asteroids by companies like Taito and Atari. Nintendo’s prior history, nearly 100 years old in Japan, involved making household toys and playing cards. They saw electronic games as a major new market and were intent on being apart of it.
The first product was Radarscope, pandering to the shoot and fly by action of existing games in the marketplace. It was a massive failure and so Nintendo turned to Shigeru Miyamoto to craft something special that would appeal. It was Miyamoto who, after taking ideas from shows like Popeye (and a license that fell through for Nintendo) and utilizing the everyman hero, crafted Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong was released to eager quarter heavy pockets and Nintendo of America made nearly 100 million dollars in the first year alone.
Donkey Kong did many things differently that made it successful. Not only did it stray from the usual shoot-em up concepts of previous games, it introduced levity and light hearted music to the industry that it hadn’t yet seen, with actual characters and a villain. Kids nationwide were willing to overlook the mistranslation of whatever it was the Japanese company was trying to call their barrel throwing ape, and sucked the game up eagerly. (There are theories that it was originally Monkey Kong, Kong for King Kong, and was misspelled somewhere along the way…doesn’t really matter at this point though does it?)
And Mario? If you can’t see the parallels to the Popeye license in the game, you’re not paying much attention. A plucky working man must fight an apelike (or an ape) to retrieve his lady love, displaying super human strength. Mario was yet to be named in his earliest outing, and as he wielded his hammer of justice, he found fans the world over. Ironically, the name of Nintendo’s mascot was originally Jumpman, a surprisingly practical name, no? There’s a story that the character’s name was changed because of his similarity in appearance to Nintendo of America acquaintance Mario Segale. Whatever route he took to his name, the Mario we see and love today is the same one from 1981, short overalled, Italian and mustachioed.
In 1983, Mario returned in his own adventure. After someone pointed out that he looked more like a plumber than a carpenter, his profession was accordingly changed and Mario as we know him today was born. Luigi also made his first appearance here as Mario’s brother and rival in jumping dumping and taking out koopas, goombas, and other bad guys for maximum points. The original arcade Mario Bros. showed up in arcades hot off the heels of Donkey Kong’s success, but didn’t have quite the same success itself. It was in fact a stage in which video gaming itself was dying. Atari’s home consoles were overpriced and not producing and the idea of arcade gaming was being segwayed in favor of these at home gaming attempts. Companies bankrupted and nothing was seen for almost 2 years as a result.
It was Nintendo itself that would successfully breach the barrier between the arcade and the living room again, single handedly reviving the dying industry and saving video gaming as we know it.
With the launch of the Famicom in Japan in 1983, Nintendo executives decided that they needed a killer piece of software to sell consoles. They turned back to Miyamoto and his goofy plumber for a new start and he delivered. Released in 1985, Super Mario Bros. was a revolution in home gaming. It redefined the technology in home gaming at the time and created the Mushroom Kingdom as we still know it. The goofy ideas that floated Donkey Kong and Mario Bros a few years before were released in earnest in Super Mario Bros and born was the mushroom chomping, pipe warping antics of Mario and his brother Luigi. The invention of the platforming genre as well as the lengthy at home, sit down gamin console made Super Mario Bros one of the top selling games of all time, sending Japan and the US into Mario madness, creating an atmosphere willing to accept and support Nintendo no matter what. The video gaming age was not dead, it was just born. And Mario led the way.
Super Mario Bros 2 was born as a direct sequel to the first game with an entire new batch of levels, poison mushrooms and wind gusts. The game never saw release in the US though as it was considered too hard for fickle US gamers. The game did eventually see release in 1993 in the SNES Mario All-Star Collection as Lost Levels.
The game Americans know as Super Mario Bros 2 is in fact a completely different game that Nintendo acquired the rights to and inserted Mario and friends into. The result is a game that didn’t quite match up with any of the other Mario games. The game, while totally different from the actual Mario games was very popular in the US and introduced a variety of new features such as forward and backward scrolling on screen and greater freedom of movement. Plus the really cool floating princess feature. Likewise, the game was released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA.
And then there was 3. Super Mario Bros 3 was the most anticipated game of 1990, with the prerelease buzz enhanced even more by events like The Wizard (a video game centric film) in which the game was highlighted in a gaming contest before it had even been released. The game itself eventually became the best selling game of all time that wasn’t packaged with a console with 17 million copies sold. It introduced the map format, as well as the introduction of the suits that changed Mario’s powers to match certain conditions, and the epic boss battles throughout the game. The final world was huge and Bowser a step above and beyond the villains thus far.
In 1990, as Nintendo was preparing to release the Super Famicom, they looked to Miyamoto one more time for an epic gaming experience that would sell consoles and show off the power of their new console. He gave to them Super Mario World. Mario World took the formula created in Super Mario Bros 3 and enhanced on it in as many ways as it could. The introduction of Yoshi was hailed by many as genius and the inclusion of new methods to exit levels and unlock secret levels. Mario World held within it 72 levels, and 96 exits, many of those levels with multiple exits. The worlds all varied vastly from each other, offering sky exits, times when flying was necessary and when Yoshi was necessary, and the ever popular ghost houses with their multiple exits.
After the success of Donkey Kong Country, Nintendo set for itself new graphical requirements and Miyamoto’s sequel to Super Mario World was reworked into Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Considered by many to be one of the greatest (if not most popular) platform games ever made, it follows the adventures of Yoshi as he carries baby Mario around on his back in his quest to revive Mario to adulthood. The game introduced throwing attacks, jumping, floating, and flying, ramming, and even turn into a helicopter.
But, it was only a precursor to the next Mario release. Since Mario World 2 was released in 1995 only a year before the release of the Nintendo 64 it suffered the dreaded late console life shuffle and was mainly ignored. However, Nintendo came out swinging once again with a masterpiece technical demo to show off everything their newest console could do. Mario 64 was the first fully 3D realized game, and single handedly invented the genre as we know it today. With the introduction of the analog stick and non-linear play, players were given the option to choose which parts of the game they completed and how they did it. The game was a monstrous success and held every game even slightly similar up for closer inspection. Unfortunately for Mario fans everywhere, Mario 64 is considered the last true entry in the series as there has only been one Mario game since for a console, the Gamecube’s disappointing Mario Sunshine.
Mario Sunshine was an experiment in moving away from the normal aspects of the game. Mario and friends are on a vacation and run across a graffiti ridden island which Mario is given a water pack to clean up. It’s a wonderfully designed, fun enough game, but it fails only because it forgets what makes Mario Mario. The game itself followed the same design as Mario 64, with Mario trying to get all 120 shine sprites and clean the island of Del Fino, but somehow didn’t strike the same chord as each of its forerunners.
Mario Galaxy is now in development for the Nintendo Wii console, a game which looks to revolutionize once more the entire genre through use of the Wii Remote. The details are still sketchy, but the basic idea is that Mario is in outerspace, able to jump farther than ever before, as he attempts to rescue the princess. Sounds familiar, yeah? We’ll see how this one turns out.
Mario has found success in handhelds, television shows, movies, books, and a hundred different spin off games like Mario Kart, too numerous to list all of here. But as you can see, just from the main sequence games released on the major Nintendo consoles, Mario’s impact has been monumental, literally shaping the face of video gaming for 25 years.