It would be difficult to start any conversation on the best games ever made without mentioning a portly Italian plumber from the Mushroom Kingdom. So much has already been said regarding Nintendo’s most famous title, Super Mario Bros. in the past, but one question can be asked regarding the legacy of this popular title: “Why?” Why was the game so successful, and what would turn Mario into the gaming equivalent of Mickey Mouse? The answer stems from some aspects of Super Mario Bros. that few seem to grasp—that is to say, the importance and impact the game had on both gaming culture and business that has never waned for nearly 30 years.
It is more than the archetypal platforming experience, although that is certainly part of it. It is more than a catchy musical score and pristine control-schemes wrapped in a colorful package. It is more than just a video game being really good as well; the external factors as to why Super Mario Bros. became this pinnacle of the gaming industry are not limited to just the 8-bit pixels we have come to know and love, but the practices of a game company that wisely used the tools available to them to achieve greatness.
See, to fully understand the success of Super Mario Bros., we need to look at the time period in which Super Mario Bros. was created. As a successor to the 1983 arcade title Mario Bros., developers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka decided to design a game for the Nintendo Famicom system in Japan that would serve as their swan song for the machine. By the mid 1980’s, Nintendo was beginning to focus on the Famicom Disk System, a gaming console that would have played floppy disks instead of cartridges. The goal was, in Miyamoto’s words, to create “a game that fully utilized the Famicom hardware.”
The initial design for the game would involve the character of Mario in a side-scrolling shooter. Original specs of the game, revealed by Nintendo in 2010, showed a different control scheme allowing Mario to shoot projectiles and rockets as the primary game mechanic with the A button, while the B button allowed Mario to run- jumping would be done with the up directional button instead. Mario would also use kicks and punches as part of the fighting mechanics, moves that would later be added to the Super Smash Bros. titles.
While the original plan for Super Mario Bros. (dubbed Junior Mario Bros in the design papers) was more action heavy, some aspects of the design remain intact in the game we know today. One bonus round, involving Mario flying in the sky, is a remnant of the original plan of Super Mario Bros.; the game would have been divided between ground combat and sky combat. The backgrounds were designed purposely to push the limitations of the Famicom, creating a diorama-like feel that allows Mario and the other character pop in both light and dark colors, an unusual move at the time because all black backgrounds were common.
Miyamoto and Tezuka shifted gears on the project, later focusing on the jumping mechanics and the idea of “multiple lives” per try as a new gameplay aspect. Through this, the shooting controls were partially scrapped; their only remnant is the fire flower attack. The running and jumping controls were tweaked, designed to simulate Mario having a bit of weight and drag in-game, and the entire control scheme was made simpler and more accessible. Added into the game were mushrooms that allow Mario to grow, effectively giving the player two lives per try instead of one, while simultaneously creating new gameplay mechanics in the platforming genre.
In fact, the placement of mushrooms, enemies, and question blocks became paramount for the title. Miyamoto stated in an interview with Eurogamer (the video below): “We simulated what the player would do. If a suspicious enemy appears, the player would need to jump over it. And again if they have a question block, they might want to try and tap that as well. When they see a coin it’ll make them happy and they’ll want to try again.” The first mushroom that makes Mario grow, in fact, is designed to be difficult to avoid, so that the player can be a part of the game mechanics. The entire first level of Super Mario Bros. is essentially a tutorial of the entire game, purposely getting the player ready by introducing the game mechanics.
Super Mario Bros. had several innovations to its own design. The doubling up on lives was just one aspect that allowed more longevity for players, especially those used to playing arcade platformers that where predominantly “one-hit death” games. Also building upon the variety of the stages in Donkey Kong, Miyamoto wanted to create unique worlds that felt both large and impressive for his audience. Through this, Miyamoto and Tezuka designed scrolling screen mechanics as a major aspect to the game, giving players a sense of size and distance to reach their goal instead of static, unchanging screens.
To be clear, Super Mario Bros. did not invent the side-scrolling platformer. That honor goes to the game Jump Bug, an arcade title released six months after Donkey Kong, which was the first video game to use horizontal scrolling of screens. After Jump Bug’s release, a number of high profile arcade titles emulated the mechanic, including Namco’s Pac-Land, Sega’s Flicky, and Taito’s The Legend of Kage. However, Super Mario Bros. and Sega’s Adventure Island were the first side-scrolling platformers on home consoles. It should also be noted that Miyamoto wanted to make Donkey Kong a side-scrolling game but was unable to due to the limitations in the software at the time.
The design changes to Super Mario Bros. were critically important as they would help the game achieve great success once it was released. What is often overlooked, however, is the external factors that attributed to Nintendo’s success. The game was to be released in the Summer of 1985, but Miyamoto had the title delayed for three weeks to polish the game and add new features. The delay also coincided with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the U.S, which was Nintendo’s attempt at entering the American market after the Video Game Crash of 1983.
The Video Game Crash of 1983 is an infamous time in gaming history. Many attribute the massive failures of Atari titles, such as the console release Pac-Man or the colossal failure of E.T, as root causes, but they are symptoms to the bigger problem. In truth, the Crash of 1983 is really an issue of saturation and the bubble bursting; there were too many gaming consoles; terrible, sponsored games being made; and overall poor business decisions by the CEOs of companies, such as Atari, attributed to the collapse. To put it in perspective, in 1983 revenue sales were roughly $3.2 billion. By 1985, the revenue for video games would drop to $100 million, roughly 97% less than it was two years prior.
Due to the “dead” market in North America, Nintendo had a hard time convincing stores to carry the NES system. Ironically, in 1983 Nintendo was in the process of making a deal with Atari to release the Famicom system in North America. Nintendo was willing to sell the rights of distribution to Atari, meaning the Famicom would have been an Atari distributed machine. The reason the deal was never struck was due to Atari itself presuming Nintendo was breaching contract with them. CEO Ray Kassar found out that rival company Coleco created an unlawful Donkey Kong prototype for the Adam C.E.S computer and pulled out of the deal after blaming Nintendo for two-timing.
Nintendo would eventually threaten to sue Coleco for using their product unlawfully, but this left them without a distributor in North America. The game market was also nearly dead by this point, which prompted Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi to create their now infamous software licensing program, and the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” brand on each box. Realizing that a game system is no longer an option though, Nintendo had to think of new way to market the Famicom, now renamed as the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Famously, Nintendo marketed the NES as an entertainment package—essentially, a toy—in order to ease retailers that were afraid to carry an already dead product. Because the Video Game Crash of 1983 only affected North America, Nintendo changed their marketing strategy to reflect this view of the “entertainment system” for consumers, delaying the release of the full launch of the NES to 1986, while soft launching the system in New York in the Summer of 1985 and partnering with a toy company, Worlds of Wonder, to help market their “entertainment package” in the first year.
The primary way to ease retailers’ fears was to bundle the systems with extra accessories; the most famous of which was R.O.B the Robot. R.O.B. was used as a mascot in the early days of the console’s life and was enough of a toy to allow retailers to carry three different bundles of the NES system in their stores. The first was a bare system for $89.99. The Deluxe Set included R.O.B. and the game Gyromite, as well as two zappers and the game Duck Hunt, for $139.
R.O.B. the Robot was essentially the smokescreen that allowed Nintendo to publish a new gaming console in North America, easing the fears of retailers now skeptical of the video game market. The pricing of the two bundles also contributed to the eventual popularity of Super Mario Bros. It is unknown what the official release date of Super Mario Bros. is in North America, with sources citing it around November 1985 to as late the hard launch of the system in 1986. What is known is that in 1988 the R.O.B the Robot bundle was quietly phased out in favor of the “Action Set,” which included a zapper and the dual Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge for $149. By then, the dominance of Super Mario Bros. was already set; the Action Set created the precedent for future companies regarding re-releases of games and bundles.
There is one more bundle that was released for $99, which included the NES system and a copy of Super Mario Bros. Nintendo’s decision to bundle the game alone with the system also helped boost the sales of not only the system, but the popularity of Mario as a whole. As Miyamoto stated in a 2010 interview, “We all felt that having people play this would be the best way to show that the NES was really an entertainment system. So we bundled the game to make sure everyone would play it.” It was good business sense to have such a game as an essentially free demo to what the system brings to the table, and in doing so, Nintendo would eventually set up the business model that the industry uses to this day. The company would also continue this tradition of bundles up to the modern day; Wii Sports is now the best-selling game of all time, with 81 million copies sold worldwide, thanks in part to its inclusion in almost every Nintendo Wii bundle ever produced.
Prior to this, Super Mario Bros. held the record with only 40 million copies sold around the world, but that is still a testament to the game’s eternal popularity. Nintendo had good sense to bundle the title with the system, which allowed consumers to not only play the system out of the box, but also to experience in most cases, their first video game ever played. Many may not see this as an innovation, but by making the game accessible, it allowed Super Mario Bros. to be consumed by a generation now hungry for more.
Call it luck or fate, but the sly business sense of Nintendo coupled with strong game design set the stage for the revival of the gaming console market. It was the perfect storm in many ways, with all the cards falling in place for Nintendo to be a success in 1985. The lasting legacy of Super Mario Bros. can be surmised as many things, but the longevity and care Nintendo has for its flagship franchise shines through. It is more than just good game design—it is coupled with good business sense to allow the game design to flourish with consumers worldwide. Super Mario Bros. became the trailblazer of video game design and marketing, helped to bring video games back from the abyss in North America, and continues to achieve worldwide success 30 years later a franchise. If that isn’t a game changer, then nothing is.
Thanks for joining me for a new, hopefully monthly series on TechRaptor called Game Changers. If you have any questions or comments about the series, or suggestions on what to talk about next, please leave them in the comment section below or contact me on twitter @LinksOcarina