M is for Mario
When I was six years old, I saw the Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time at the house of a friend, and I still remember thinking to myself: “If I only had one of those, I’d never be bored again.” As the ensuing decades have demonstrated, that isn’t exactly true. But it isn’t entirely false, either. Video games, ranging from massive console epics to snackable apps on your phone, have done more than any invention since television and before Reddit to fill in whatever free time we have remaining. During the handful of years I held a desk job, I often wondered what the generations before email and the web did to procrastinate at the office—crossword puzzles, I hear—and I still found it hard to imagine. My daughter will probably have similar trouble envisioning a life in which there isn’t content available to occupy every spare moment of her day, and she’s already at a point where she seems to treat it as a utility, like the lights in our house. Like a lot of parents, I spend an inordinate amount of time watching videos with her, including the vaguely creepy kiddie cartoons on YouTube that she somehow finds on her own. A few days ago, I was listening idly as she stared, hypnotized, at an animated song about the alphabet, and my attention was caught by a line near the end: “X is for Xbox.” But of course it is. (It’s a more practical word than xylophone, anyway, which I’m convinced has benefited inordinately from an alphabetic accident, like the zebra.)
The game that was playing on that primordial Nintendo gray box was, of course, Super Mario Bros. Mario’s development has been so inseparable from that of video games as an art form that it’s easy to take him for granted, and to overlook how much of the grammar of modern gaming emerged from a series of specific, unpredictable choices. In one of my earlier posts on the subject, I wrote:
Other games have come and gone, but Mario is the modern equivalent of the movies that Disney released in the golden age of animation: he represents the collective resources of an entire studio, lavished on a character who will always serve, for better or worse, as the face of the company. As a result, the Mario games tend to be playgrounds for innovation, as channeled through the demands of a flagship franchise that sets the tone for the industry as a whole.
Which is still true. But as we celebrate Mario’s thirtieth anniversary, it’s worth remembering that there’s no guarantee that such impersonal corporate forces—I’m looking at you, Marvel—will lead to a memorable result, if it weren’t for the work of the idiosyncratic, driven, meticulous artists who put such games together, starting at the level of the circuit board.
In a fascinating video recently posted by Eurogamer, Nintendo game designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka walk us through the decisions that informed the design of Level 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. Miyamoto explains that the opening screens were meant to educate players about the game while also providing a satisfying experience in itself, and each element is there for a reason. The first enemy Mario encounters, for instance, is a Goomba, and his appearance naturally prompts the player to jump up to squash or avoid it. (Initially, it was going to be a Koopa Troopa, but the sequence of stomping it and then kicking the shell seemed too complicated. The Goomba was specifically conceived as an easy introduction to the basic points of gameplay.) A lone question block then appears, enticing the player to press the jump button again to be rewarded with a coin, and it’s followed immediately thereafter by a block containing the first mushroom. Every detail was laid in with care. To encourage the player to learn how to run and jump, for instance, a wide but nonfatal pit appears, followed by a fatal one, allowing the player to refine his or her technique before it becomes a question of survival. Once all the rules have been established, the game can start to spring a few surprises. It all seems intuitive, but it’s the product of considered choice and development. And it’s especially revealing to learn that this first level was one of the last to be made, after the designers had acquired a sense of the game’s potential and challenges.
The video is so dense with insights that it really deserves to be watched in its entirety, and there isn’t space for me here to discuss all the points it raises. (Miyamoto notes, for instance, that the game starts off with little Mario, so that players would be satisfied and excited when they became Super Mario, which is the eight-bit equivalent of a character arc. And I like one of his observations on game mechanics: for the physics of a jump to seem plausible, Mario has to pause briefly after landing, but this would break the momentum—so they have Mario slide just a little to respect the physics while maintaining a sense of forward motion.) And it’s worth emphasizing that all these refinements were the result both of initial inspiration and endless testing with the users who would be playing for real: Miyamoto describes giving the game to people without any context and being a little chagrined by moves and decisions that he didn’t anticipate. This close attention to the user experience is one that modern games, for all their technological advances, haven’t always been able to match: a lengthy tutorial phase isn’t nearly as engaging as a game that has been designed from the ground up to acclimate the players as they explore. My gaming years are behind me for now, although I still think back on Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel with a weird mixture of nostalgia and longing. But I’m looking forward to the day when my daughter picks up a controller for herself.