GameSpite Journal 10 | Mario Paint

Mario Paint | Dev.: Nintendo | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Secret Best Development Tool | Release: August 1992

Everything I Need to Know about Game Development I Learned from Nintendo: Part 1

It may surprise younger gamers, but the Wii was not Nintendo’s first foray into marketing to non-gamers. In Japan, the console giant started doing so way back on the NES, allowing people to check the news and even trade stocks with tiny red controllers. With the dawn of the SNES, Nintendo briefly set its non-game sights on Western audiences. But what type of non-games would appeal to Japanese and Americans alike? With the rising saturation of personal computers, a mouse peripheral seemed like a safe bet. And to sell said peripheral, why not an art program? It sounded reasonable, and so (alongside the Miracle Piano Tutor) Nintendo advertised Mario Paint in publications like Good Housekeeping. But, skeptical gamers might wonder, what business did Nintendo have making a PC-style animation suite? They’d be right to ask, but Mario Paint never was much of an art program to begin with.

From the title screen, it’s clear Mario Paint is less art studio and more “creative playground.” Its first lesson: Yoshi’s unique sound was created by adding a channel of “clip clop” bongos on top of the pre-existing track. Lesson two came shortly after players had screwed around for about 20 minutes: Drawing with the SNES mouse was kind of crap, so use the stamp tool. Additional lessons came fast and furious from that point: Nine frames of animation is nowhere near enough for fluid cartoons, and far too similar to the limitation placed…on…game…characters… wait. (Now the player looks at the stamp editor) -- those big dots look exactly like the tiny dots that comprise Mario if you press your face against the screen. And there’s the “a-ha!” moment: Those aren’t “stamps” at all, they’re “tiles” and “sprites.” Nintendo stealthily sold players a rudimentary version of the graphics program used to make SNES games. Mario Paint was a rare peek behind the curtain, into the inner workings of video games! Almost like breaking into R&D to mess with Shigeru Miyamoto’s computer, with none of the foreign incarceration. Why, even the “screen clear” commands were just clever Mode 7 demonstrations!

It didn’t stop at graphics, either. Nintendo also blessed would-be-game-creators with a music sampling program. Rather than open up the sound chip’s massive library of samples, they did something far more awesome: They created custom samples represented by cute little icons. Sing along if you know it: Cats meow, dogs woof, geese honk, and… Game Boys beep? Gamers could not only learn how to compose classic video game tunes, but enhance them with a barnyard chorus, whooshing jet planes, or the ever popular Yoshi mating call. The sequencer proved so popular it survives today as an online app.

But Mario Paint held more secrets than just the ability to recreate one’s favorite video game moments. Fun little surprises waited around each bend for players willing to explore—something I suggest you try sometime. (See Mr. Crayon up in the corner? Can you make him dance?) Mario Paint is many things: A creative outlet for Nintendo maniacs, the easiest way to hear Totaka’s song, and a lesson in game creation. It’s just not a very good art studio.

For more on this article’s frontispiece image, please check out its fascinatingly mysterious origin story here.

By Tomm Hulett? | Dec. 6, 2011 | Previous: Final Fantasy II? | Next: Turtles in Time