It’s Super Mario Bros. Week here on Gameological! In honor of the series’ 30th anniversary, we’re paying tribute the best way we know how: a week of essays and articles devoted to all things Super Mario Bros.
This week marks 30 years since the original Japanese release of Super Mario Bros., and to celebrate, Nintendo released a crowdsourced fan video with players paying tribute to the game’s plumber hero. The video puts Mario at the center of a global community, an icon surrounded by loving friends. This is the image Nintendo favors for its flagship character in 2015, and the modern Mario games reflect that—from Mario Galaxy to Mario Kart, the hero is consistently the anchor for a larger world of fun Nintendo characters. It’s worth noting, though, that the game we’re celebrating is the loneliest game in the Mario canon, and in fact, Mario’s solitude sets Super Mario Bros. apart from the countless sequels and spinoffs that would follow.
Nintendo named its groundbreaking NES game Super Mario Bros. to play off the cachet (limited as it might have been) of the arcade game Mario Bros. Bearing little resemblance to the side-scrolling platformers that would come later, Mario Bros. was a single-screen game that let two players attack a level at once, with one controlling Mario and the other Luigi—hence the Bros. in the name. Later, Super Mario Bros. kept the familial title but made the idea of brothers an afterthought in practice. For the perfunctory two-player mode of the Super game, players simply traded off as one person worked through the Mushroom Kingdom as Mario and another, separately, as Luigi.
More to the point (since hardly anyone ever used Super Mario Bros.’ two-player mode), the quest itself was more lonesome than any of Mario’s other adventures. Mario takes on the surreal world by himself, aided solely by the potent fungi and flashing stars he finds along the way. The only allies Mario encounters on his journey are the mushroom people trapped in the castles that conclude each of the first seven worlds. “Thank you Mario!” goes their famous refrain, “But our princess is in another castle!”
Far from providing companionship, these helpless fellows, known as Mushroom Retainers, heighten Super Mario Bros.’ sense of alienation. Their lone remark is cryptic, unhelpful, and creepy in its rigid consistency from one castle to another. To uninitiated players, the tagline loses all of its meager significance after a few encounters, leaving only questions. How many “another castles” are there? Is there really a princess? Does the nightmare ever end? The taciturn mushroom folks have no answers, and as such they drive home the sensation that Mario is on his own. All he can do is keep advancing through an increasingly terror-filled land that offers no indication of where the finish line may be.
Compare this indeterminate landscape of menace to Mario’s debut game, Donkey Kong, which places a damsel-in-distress at the top of the screen. Donkey Kong makes its endpoints known from the outset, and a sympathizer to your cause stands in plain sight. It’s easier to understand your incentive when the object of your affections is mere pixels away. In the vast stretches of Super Mario Bros., however, Mario and the player must derive motivation from the journey itself.
Sequels to Super Mario Bros. would steadily erode the first game’s loneliness. The American Super Mario Bros. 2 made Mario just one participant in a team of heroes, introducing the concept of Mario as the “default” option amid a varied group of characters. Among the four protagonists at your disposal, Luigi can jump high, Toad can run fast, and Princess Toadstool/Peach can hover in midair. Mario provides the baseline. He’s decent enough at everything, so he’s a safe choice. This principle holds in Nintendo’s character design to this day. From Mario Kart to Super Smash Bros. to Super Mario 3D World, Mario is the standard against which all the other heroes’ powers and failings are measured.
The environment around Mario grew friendlier, too. Super Mario Bros. 3 takes place in an inhospitable Mushroom World much like the original, but now, Mario has allies hiding throughout the map. The toadstool-headed denizens of this game don’t vex you with their useless gratitude and vague references to “another castle.” Instead, they shower you with gifts to, in their words, “help you on your way.” It’s not that Super Mario Bros. 3 is easier than the first one, but it is less foreboding—rather than the story of a stranger in a strange land, it’s the chronicle of a beloved hero who defeats evil with aid from dozens of sidekicks.
After the NES era, Mario had ever-fewer moments to himself. Super Mario World introduces Yoshi, the dinosaur companion who gives the player new ways to move and attack. In Super Mario 64, Mario encounters a variety of good-natured fellow travelers, like a mama penguin who lost her babies and a koopa who challenges Mario to a footrace. Super Mario Galaxy teams Mario with a kind quasi-princess, Rosalina, and her adorable star-shaped friends, the Lumas. And Super Mario 3D World, the most recent entry in the main Super Mario series, is brilliantly designed for multiple players, with thoughtfully planned levels that are a joy to play with up to four people—a far cry from the assiduous isolation of Super Mario Bros.’ rote two-player feature.
I point out this trend not to condemn it—I think Super Mario 3D World is the best Super Mario game Nintendo has made—but rather to point out how special that first game remains. Today, Mario is the de facto patriarch of a Nintendo universe that rivals Disney in its scope and ubiquity. But 30 years ago, he was a solitary, mute tradesman trapped in a realm whose bounds were hazy and whose logic was impossible to discern. So as the series has evolved, I’ve come to view that first Super Mario Bros. as the truest example of Mario’s valor. In his subsequent exploits, he may have had help from fellow heroes, sidekicks, and other well-wishers, but that assistance doesn’t diminish his myth. By conquering the lonely quest of the original game, Mario showed that he could stare down evil all by himself, a noble enterprise that left him with nothing to prove.