For a simple game whose in-game actions are moving right, jump, and that’s it, Super Mario Bros. for the NES is such a huge beast to tame. Its cultural significance is unsurpassed and immeasurable. There is no measuring stick because it is the measuring stick.
The point of these columns is exploring old, rough-around-the-edges games to find innovations or first steps the industry and hobby had taken before we came to the refined elegance we take for granted today.
But nothing was rough for Super Mario Bros. It came pristine and neat in a beautiful mid-‘80s package. It demands nothing except for you to participate.
You move right. You jump. Even confronting Bowser, the final boss, doesn’t deviate from those actions. You have all the tools to defeat the game right from the get-go, although a steroid mushroom loaded with fire alchemy would be helpful.
The first level, 1-1, was designed as a tutorial. That’s not unheard of, modern games do it all the time but they wave it off as “showing the rookie the ropes,” but in Super Mario Bros. there was no such storytelling. The game begins and you’re off to the races.
Modern games feel the need to tell you, whereas Super Mario Bros. gave you the satisfaction of figuring it all out as you went.
Super Mario Bros. and Nintendo “saved video games” in 1985 by presenting that era the definitive video game experience. As the years have passed and other bars have been raised, sometimes it gets noisy. Vast, open-world exploration, leveling systems, online play… if Super Mario Bros., which is now studied in game theory courses everywhere, can teach one lesson it’s that sometimes you don’t need all that noise. Besides the temporary power boost, the game gave you everything you need to beat it. Video games of 1985 had yet to introduce these innovations and Super Mario Bros. prematurely eschewed them.
As a way of working around shoestring budgets, independent games today rely on the principles that Super Mario Bros. demonstrated. Gone Home, Sunset, Braid, Crossy Road, the now hugely profitable Angry Birds, Limbo, they all trace their lineage back to an Italian plumber with a mushroom craving.
If Atari had been allowed to establish the paradigm of video game companies, game companies would regularly rise high and crash hard like rock stars. But Nintendo doesn’t fly too close to the sun, and they’ve managed to sail volatile waters on a sturdy ship built by Mario, who keeps the world playing because everyone can.