Super Mario Bros.
Back in first or second grade, when Super Mario Bros. was just starting to enter the consciousness of the American mainstream, a classmate of mine chose to write about the game. “In Super Mario, you’re Mario,” he read aloud to the class. “You run and get a mushroom that makes you big and then there’s an evil mushroom and you jump on it and it dies.” I’m sure the teacher was as perplexed as could be. What was this kid talking about? Was this a case of an active imagination or where these kids really playing a game where one ate magic mushrooms to kill other evil fungi? I was better informed than my classmate and remember thinking, “This kid’s an idiot. Those aren’t mushrooms. They're goombas.”
Super Mario Bros. is an exceptionally weird game. It tells the story of a working-class plumber out to rescue an aristocratic princess by traversing the Mushroom Kingdom, a land filled with pipes growing from the ground, brick blocks suspended in mid-air, and suspicious cloud-shaped bushes. Standing in his path are walking chestnuts, giant venus flytraps, and a never-ending stream of spiky bugs tossed down by a cloud-riding poindexter. The plumber’s arsenal consists of the aforementioned mushrooms, flowers which cause balls of fire to erupt from his fists, and earthbound stars that make him invincible. The game simply makes no sense. View it from a distance and it becomes clear what a strange beast it is.
But very few of us were exposed to it from such a removed vantage point. Most of us experienced it from inside first. By pushing the start button we became part of the game, and before we ever encountered a giant pipe we ran into that first goomba and lost a life. The goal was to learn the rules of the game and survive, not to observe the world around us. At least not from a critical viewpoint. A pipe was an obstacle to navigate and a hammer-tossing turtle was an enemy to overcome. It’s not that there was a pipe with a plant growing out of it, it’s that there was a pipe with a plant growing out of it that might kill you.
Super Mario Bros. was a hugely influential game. With its scrolling screen and precise mechanics, it changed what a videogame could be. Before it arrived, games were largely confined into single screens or boards. Super Mario Bros. expanded the space that games could exist in. But more importantly, it expanded the world that games could occupy. Games tended to focus their subjects on established tropes and stories. They were about a knight killing a dragon, an explorer searching the jungle for treasure, or the Kool-Aid man knocking down walls. Even Donkey Kong is based on tales of building-scaling giant apes. Super Mario Bros. has none of this real world grounding. It comes from an entirely new place. The closest thing it has for an inspiration is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But this only goes as far as to explain the mushroom power-up. Where did the rest of Super Mario Bros.’ craziness come from? Knowing Miyamoto’s habit of designing games based on real life experiences, one has to wonder just what kind of crazy shit he was into.
Looking at Super Mario Bros.' instruction manual is no help. It not only fails to shed any light on the game’s world but actually manages to further obscure any understanding. According to the manual, King Koopa used black magic to turn all of the Mushroom Kingdom’s citizens into blocks and weeds, and only Princess Toadstool could reverse the spell. This leaves us on shaky moral ground.
To stop Koopa Mario must kill thousands of poor transformed Mushroom Kingdomites for coins and power-ups. Hardly heroic behavior.
The magical thing about Super Mario Bros. is that despite all this weirdness, it works. By being interactive and making the player into a part of the story, the strange excesses of the game are overlooked. In no other medium would this story be accepted without a healthy amount of suspended belief. Take, for example, the Super Mario Bros. movie. Even with some grounding and background to the story (the meteor crash that wiped out the dinosaurs created an alternate dimension where they evolved as the dominant species), all the mushrooms and evil turtles still come off as exceptionally strange. And this is with a rational grounding that the game lacks. Simply put, Mario would not work as anything but a videogame. Or to put it better, interactivity allows for new excesses in storytelling. After Super Mario Bros. we suddenly had games about dinosaur brothers exploring a cave while trapping monsters in bubbles for fruit; a newspaper delivery boy who is impeded in his rounds by tornadoes, break-dancers, and even Death himself; or a young lad who tragically has to rescue his mutant pet frog by seemingly killing it with a super cyber tank. Without Super Mario Bros., could we have had our heartstrings pulled by the story of an underwater soccer player who saves the world from a giant evil whale that turns out to be his dad?
Among other things, video games are a storytelling medium. Sure, these stories are often silly and are only at the service of the gameplay, but they can also be poignant and moving. Look at Metal Gear Solid 3. This game tells an exceptionally stupid story about a lightning-powered Russian general staging a coup with a team of magical super soldiers, but damned if I wasn’t teary-eyed when it came to pulling that trigger on The Boss. All the bee-shooting maniacs and meowing military savants in the world couldn’t stop me from being profoundly moved.
Interaction with the audience has produced some games with incredibly weird stories. Stories unlike anything else I’ve seen. But they are great stories at the same time: funny, exciting, moving. This, I feel, is Super Mario Bros.’ greatest lasting impact. Sure, Mario is when games first perfected the idea of scrolling to the right. But more importantly, it's also when they became weird.