From Super Mario 30 years ago to Metal Gear, video games have jumped eras

The first recognisable video game character, launched in 'Super Mario Bros' 30 years ago this month, did for video games what Mickey Mouse did for cartoons. Gaming has coming a huge distance since

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 11:36am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2015, 11:46am

Thirty years ago a plump little plumber in red overalls revolutionised gaming. On September 13, 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros, the signature title in what would become the company’s blockbuster home video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System.  

 Fame has treated Mario well. Three decades on, the character drawn up by game design master Shigeru Miyamoto  is still immediately identifiable. And his games regularly sell in the multiple millions. What’s the secret?

 “It was the big nose and the mustache,” says Miyamoto, short, trim and still prone to playfulness in his early 60s. Mention, for instance, Mario’s recent ability to transform into a feline in Super Mario 3D World, and Miyamoto is likely to mimic having cat ears.

 Miyamoto, says Charles Pratt,  a game designer who teaches at  New York University’s Game Centre,  is “like the jazz pianist who hits only the notes he absolutely has to. He gets so much out of so little. That’s why the games are amazing.”

WATCH: Overview of Mario Maker

 In the early ’80s, games meant Atari,  arcades, Space Invaders  and Pac-Man.  It took Mario to give gamers a recognisable character on par with Mickey Mouse. Today, it’s PlayStation,  Xbox,  Halo  and Metal Gear.  Mainstream video games require hours simply to learn and are often dependent upon complex control schemes involving a dozen-plus buttons.

Mario? He runs and he jumps. “You can talk about his effect on the game industry, but he is the game industry,” says Yusuke Hashimoto,  a developer at Platinum Games  working with the Nintendo master on the upcoming Wii U title Star Fox Zero.  

 This month, nearly 30 years after the first Super Mario Bros, Nintendo released Super Mario Maker, a game that allows fans to create levels for a number of breakthrough titles in the Super Mario Bros series. It bears many of the hallmarks of a game overseen by Miyamoto, an artist whose résumé includes other household names such as Donkey Kong  and The Legend of Zelda.  

 Miyamoto’s games are typically friendly, warm and incredibly deep, but also stunningly simple to grasp. Mario Maker players will find themselves tinkering with the game’s fantastical worlds in moments – a gold star in a castle, a Goomba on a ship, a perilous squid underwater.

 “Mr. Miyamoto is a wonderful teacher,” says Richard Lemarchand,  a game designer and associate professor at USC Games.  

 “When one approaches one of his games, the game is welcoming to you. It gives you time and space to orient yourself to the game. It teaches, not in a didactic way – not by lecturing you, not by presenting you with mundane tutorials – but it teaches you simply by allowing you to play.”

 Take the first level of Super Mario Bros. Look, over there. It’s a walking brown mushroom. Can Mario touch it? No, he dies. What if Mario jumps on it? Voilà, that worked. Now there’s a blinking box above Mario. Maybe hit it with his head? That unleashes another mushroom, this one with red polka-dots. It’s running away from Mario. Grab it?

 “One of the things I really love about the original Super Mario Bros is how bizarre and surreal it is and no one seems to notice,” Pratt says. “I think it’s truly brilliant on Miyamoto’s part. He wanted to make a great game about jumping on things, but that doesn’t make any sense.”

 At least outside of a childhood playground, which is often cited as a prime source of Miyamoto’s inspiration.

 The second lesson of Mario Maker is that it’s relatively easy to create a challenging world. Throw some flaming blades around moving platforms, add hammer-tossing turtles, finish it off with a maze of angry spiked blocks and you have instant frustration.

It’s a lot more difficult to create a level on a curve, one that creates a natural evolution of brain teasers for the player.

“Game makers often get stuck in a sense of being able to see the game only from the developer’s perspective,” says Nintendo’s Yugo Hayashi,  who reports to Miyamoto on the development of Star Fox Zero.

“Mr Miyamoto is very good at being able to switch to the player or user’s perspective. He notices everything. He notices what small adjustments need to be made to make the game more playable and easier to understand. If I’m ever making a game and there’s part that I’m not sure about, that’s always the part that he immediately keys in on. It’s kind of scary, actually.”

Mario didn’t begin as Mario. The character was first seen in Nintendo’s 1981 surprise arcade smash Donkey Kong, which sprang from the imagination of Miyamoto when he was a young staff artist at Nintendo.

“The very first game that I made. I drew the Mario character for that game,” says Miyamoto, speaking through a translator.

“That was Donkey Kong, of course, and in Japan there were many comic artists who at the time would have a particular character they would draw in all of their different comics. So when I drew Mario for the very first time, I thought: ‘Oh, I like this character. I want to use him in all of my games going forward.’ At the time, I was calling him Mr. Video, for video games.”

When I drew Mario for the very first time, I thought: ‘Oh, I like this character. I want to use him in all of my games going forward.'
Shigeru Miyamoto 

Mr Video – also known as Jumpman and eventually Mario, a name he took from a former Nintendo of America warehouse landlord – was the result of technological limitations of the era. “Back then, we had a very small amount of space with which to draw the character,” Miyamoto says. “The original Mario design was just in a space that was 16 dots by 16 dots. Within that limited palate, I felt I was able to draw a character who was quite unique and recognisable, and took up very little space on the screen. You could look at him, and instantly know who he was.”

Jennifer DeWinter,  who’s writing a potential series of books about game designers, compares Miyamoto to Japanese animation legend Hayao Miyazaki,  noting that a magical view of nature figures heavily into many of their works, be it the labyrinth-like caves of the Zelda series, the sci-fi gardens of Pikmin  or the castles amid the forests of the Super Mario Bros games.

Miyamoto recalls that Mario, at the height of his popularity in the mid-’80s, was deemed as recognisable a figure as Mickey Mouse. That gave him something of a mission.

“Mickey Mouse sort of grew and evolved alongside cartoons and animation,” he says. “I felt it would be best for Mario to grow and evolve alongside video games. Whenever we introduced new technology, we always paired that introduction with a new Mario game, so that was how Mario evolved alongside games.”

This month’s biggest game is arguably Konami’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,  a convoluted militaristic exercise in stealth and gunplay. It’s so byzantine that Pratt, who earlier compared Miyamoto to a jazz musician, describes the new Metal Gear as the “Wagnerian opera of video games”.

So then what is “Super Mario Bros”? Pratt doesn’t hesitate: “Really brilliant pop songs.”

And they almost always endure.

Los Angeles Times