Itsa Me!

Cast your eyes to the top of this blog and you should see a banner with a little red plumber bounding through a  colourful world decorated with smiling turtles, pipes and big, pastel shaded blocks. It is, as any geek will know, a cross section of screens from Super Mario Bros. 3 (the  SNES remake from the All-Stars collection of ports), widely agreed to be one of the best videogames of all time. In fact, do a random google search for a list of the greatest games (there are a lot of them out there – we are a world of compulsive listers) and you will see little Super Mario appear more than once.The praise is entirely deserved. Nintendo know a thing or two about making good games, not in a join the dots style which is applied to many modern releases, but by injecting them with an indescribable, highly addictive quality which not many other designers are able to conjure. I wouldn’t like to think about how many hours I have spent on releases from the Big N during my years of gaming, particularly anything with the words Zelda or Mario in the title.

Therefore, I was delighted to have the opportunity to write a retrospective on the Super Mario franchise when Nintendo were celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the portly plumber – though, if I am to be pernickety, it is more than that since he starred as “Jumpman” in the first Donkey Kong. I love the notion of writing about videogames, a pursuit which many will view as trivial at best, in a serious academic manner and the interesting paradoxes this approach can produce. Further, the article was illustrated by the brilliant Mark Reihill, a local artist whose work grows more and more impressive with each piece he produces. He has drawn stunning images of Thom Yorke, Nick Cave, Brad Pitt, Christopher Reeves and countless others. They are eerily lifelike but are also imbued with a strange, otherworldly quality which, as with the appeal of the Super Mario games, is hard to pin down. Mark was kind enough to give me a print of Mario and an iconic coin block, which now hangs on my dining room wall alongside a selection of art prints relating to my favourite musicians. This room has now been affectionately called “The Suicide Shrine” due to the tendency of said artists to do what that title might suggest. When I told Mark that his work is amongst such esteemed but doomed company and how this might bode for Mario he pithily responded, “It’s okay. Mario always has extra lives.” I can’t recommend Mark’s work, which you can view over here, more highly. He was just commissioned to do a picture of Jesus, something which for obvious reasons I would normally find unsettling, but on this occasion it is actually very beautiful.

Anyway, you can read the full and unabridged article on Mario, below…

 

 TRUE ONE-UP-MANSHIP: THE HISTORY OF SUPER MARIO 

He is one of popular culture’s most recognisable icons. His upturned moustache, Mickey Mouse gloves and sky-blue dungarees might not be up there with Lady Gaga’s get-up as far as fashion statements go, yet it can still be seen on billboards, magazine covers and screens small and large across the globe. Yet Mario does not exist: he is little more than a cluster of coloured pixels cleverly animated to wobble, twitch and caper from one platform to another. Switch off the console, set down the joypad and he ceases to be. Not that it matters: Mario might not be flesh and blood, but in the imaginations of several generations of kids and big kids he is very real indeed…

For close to thirty years Mario, with or without the “Super” prefix, has leaped, bounded and yippee-ed his way through chocolate islands and star roads right into the hearts of anyone who has put on his jumping shoes for a few minutes. The times might change, but the tubby wee plumber stays the same, still chasing after a princess who is perpetually peach-napped by an oversized turtle – we’ve all been there. One of the keys to the Super Mario Bros. franchise’s longevity is its simplicity. Whether it’s playing tennis, racing karts or racking up stats in an RPG, every gamer knows that they can pick up a Mario title and immediately know what to do and how to control the character. Gameplay is so intuitive that it feels like it has been coded into your genes. Your fingers and thumbs instinctively find the jump button and your ears prick up at the doink sound of a penny jumping out of a coin block. It’s a beautiful thing.

This simplicity helps infuse it with an appeal which cuts across age and gender boundaries. The fluffy violence of jumping on a koopa’s back to make it pop out of its shell is a far cry from the gung-ho bullishness of Gears Of War and Splinter Cell, thereby making it attractive to girl gamers turned off by the brutality of fragging random strangers. However, the urge to reach the finish flag or collect every power star on the map appeals to the pack rat in all of us, regardless of gender. I personally would not care to tally up how many hours I have been spent exploring every nook, cranny and pipe of the Mushroom Kingdom during my videogame career. Call it a compulsion, if you will. I call it fun.

Mario has become the most lucrative videogame series of all time, an impressive achievement for a character who was dreamt into existence almost by accident. In 1981 Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius designer who would later magic up Zelda and Star Fox along with revolutionary technology such as the motion-controlled Wii, was contracted to create a game to target Western audiences. The result was Donkey Kong, whose deceptively simple premise was to rescue a damsel in distress from the top of a construction site by avoiding flaming barrels and the angry stomps of a chest-beating gorilla – again, we’ve all been there. The hero, then known as “Jumpman”, soon became Mario, named after the surly landlord who rented out Nintendo of America’s warehouse, and history was made. Mario Bros. hit arcades two years later, a simple one-screen affair which appeared to take place in a New York sewer. There were no alligators though, just crabs and the trademark turtles. Oddly reminiscent of Pac-Man (1980), the game’s most notable feature was the first appearance of skinnier, dozier brother Luigi. Clad in green, he became Laurel to Mario’s Hardy, a pratfalling, wibbling numpty but none the less loveable for it.

However, Super Mario Bros. (1985) caused a paradigm shift in the gaming universe. This side-scrolling masterpiece remains the acme of taking a simple concept and rendering it expertly. Those wishing to plumb the fathoms of a dense mythology might have been disappointed, because in terms of narrative it didn’t make a puppy lick of sense. How can you explain the idea of a plumber who eats mushrooms to gain special powers to defeat his arch nemesis, the fire-breathing ectotherm Bowser? You can’t, you just have to enjoy it. Let your thumbs do the talking. Super Mario Bros., in both its arcade and home port versions, was almost infinitely replayable, littered with warp pipes, invisible bricks and other secrets. A bona fide successor to Space Invaders, it became a phenomenon in the truest sense of the word: those playing it would quickly adopt the kind of look which suggests catatonia but actually hides deep concentration.

As the sequels followed, Nintendo became increasingly adventurous, re-colouring and tweaking the template Mario fans had come to love. “All I wanted was to simply create something that may surprise the world,” said Miyamoto-san recently, and he did just that with each new iteration of the Mario brand. There are too many great games to list here, but most notable are the umpteen-selling Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988), which introduced animal suits to allow the portly Italian to fly, hop and swim, or the equally well received Super Mario World (1992), which added the fruit-guzzling ultra-cute dinosaur Yoshi to the mix.

Never content to rest on his laurels – or do any actual plumbing – Mario leapt into a new dimension, quite literally, with Super Mario 64 (1996), a deeply imaginative 3D platformer where the hub-world of a fairy-tale castle branched off to multiple self-contained levels. Each of these was a richly detailed play-park of wonderment: you could jump through paintings, race penguins, swim underwater… by doing away with the flat background previously employed to conceal the limits of the map, the team created the sense that anything was possible. If you could see a platform, you could get to it. In all likelihood a star was secreted up there too. Super Mario 64 was truly revolutionary – sure, its graphics might look blocky and hazy now, but in terms of level design it’s astounding.

Since then, Mario releases have arrived as regularly as Bullet Bill missiles (we’ll ignore the aberration of the justly maligned Super Mario Bros. film, given that the Big N had nothing to do with it), each one buffed to glimmer with the Nintendo magic duster. The latest of these is the spanking new Super Mario Galaxy 2. It is predictably terrific, but that doesn’t mean that it is predictable. From the opening scene where you romp through the pages of a storybook it’s joyously apparent that Miyamoto-san and his fellow developers are far from running out of ideas. The game is constantly inventive and, to use Miyamoto-san’s word, surprising. Our little friend ping-pongs from planet to colourful planet, the screen flips between 2D and 3D, from upside down to back to front, all the while propelled by ragtime, country and swing band versions of familiar Mario tunes. The challenges are varied and there is a gallon of minigames sluiced throughout each level. These range from the casually difficult to the nightmarishly hard, but nobody understands the relationship between challenge and reward quite like Nintendo. The satisfaction of completing a run based on constantly flipping tiles is well worth the controllers you will have broken to do so. 

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the kind of game for which grown men will happily sacrifice their girlfriends and jobs, but it is just one glorious arc in an ocean of quality. No other videogame series is as consistent as Mario’s odyssey. Even the various outings for the Mario Kart label are made with real care and an attuned sense of how games work – or should work in an ideal world. We could talk about their great physics engines, but we could equally big up their innate philosophy that, regardless of how good they look or how little they lag, games should be enjoyable. Thirty years young, Mario is still as loveable as he ever was. Long may he run, jump and spin.

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