I had originally planned to follow up The Anatomy of Metroid with a series on Kid Icarus, but after thinking about it a little more I feel perhaps I’d be wise to go back to basics and look at some of the games I keep referencing in these features. The Anatomy series dissects the design of games as best as I’m able with my limited, amateurish capabilities, and the design of every good game builds on the wisdom it receives from those who have gone before it — shoulders of giants and all that. With that in mind, I should spend some time with one of gaming’s true baselines: The Super Mario series.
1985’s Super Mario Bros. may actually be the single most influential video game ever — certainly it rivals Pac-Man, Tetris, Doom, and Space Invaders in terms of importance. In any case, it has exerted tremendous influence over any game revolving around jumping, both 2D and 3D, which makes for an awful lot of descendants. For many of the games slated for exploration on the Anatomy list, most of which have their origins in the late ’80s and in Mario‘s wake, understanding the basics of Super Mario would seem as important as learning to read before trying to write a novel.
So, let’s talk about Super Mario, and let’s start from the very beginning. I admit that I’m jumping into this series with a fair amount of trepidation. These Anatomy pieces are always written by the seat of my pants as I power through fresh playthroughs of games, and I confess I’ve never finished Super Mario Bros. (made it 8-3 a couple of times before I burned out) let alone The Lost Levels. But save states are God’s way of saying “It’s OK to try again until you get it right,” so that part should be fine. More concerning to me is the fact that some of these games — particularly Super Mario Bros. — have been dissected in such exhaustive detail by so many critics and designers I have my doubts as to whether or not I can bring anything new to the table. Therefore, please accept my apologies in advance if I simply retread familiar ground and regurgitate things you’ve already read. I figure by the time we get to Super Mario 64 I’ll be in the clear, but I can’t promise that I will have anything to say about Super Mario Bros. you don’t already know, and I can’t guarantee that someone hasn’t already done this better. I’m warning you in advance: This may be a giant waste of your time.
With that said, let us begin, as I stated, at the beginning.
Analyzing Donkey Kong is perhaps a little too easy, because Shigeru Miyamoto has talked rather exhaustively about the game’s design — well, the first stage’s layout, anyway. And yet, this is where Mario begins. And in any case, Kong is one of the medium’s early works, so the fact that its designer has been so frank in his discussion of its influences and objectives is invaluable to the preservation of the medium. Imagine if we had a film series called Iger Asks in which the CEO of Disney interviewed folks like Fritz Lang and Georges Méliès. Video games enjoy the unusual distinction of being a medium entering something akin to maturity, yet remaining young enough that nearly all its founding fathers remain alive.
As one of the medium’s foundational works, Donkey Kong needs to be viewed in the context of its era for proper understanding of its challenges and impact. Arcade games in 1981 were primarily simplistic things: Pac-Man had made a huge splash the year before and warmed people to the concept of video game protagonists as mascot characters, and while simple fixed shooters in the Space Invaders vein dominated the arcade we began seeing the first hints of bigger, more complex game spaces with Scramble‘s linear scrolling and Defender‘s mind-blowing, free-movement Moebius strip of a world. Of course, on the PC we had Ultima, Zork II, and Wizardry jockeying for attention with their seemingly boundless intricacy… but those bear no nevermind on Donkey Kong, creations from an altogether different universe than the quarter-popping twitch style Nintendo was shooting for here.
One thing curiously lacking in games to that point was the now-cliché idea of a man walking from left to right and jumping over things. In the research I’ve done over the years, I can only find a handful of jump-oriented games that predate Donkey Kong: Namely, Frogs, Heiankyo Alien, and Space Panic, none of which embody the essence of a platformer in the contemporary sense — the sense that Mario pioneered. Of course, Nintendo didn’t employ a bunch of geniuses working in a vacuum, and other designers were homing in on similar concepts; still, Kong got there first, and it did so brilliantly.
But originality can often be a crippling setback in the world of game design. When you ask players to perform tasks they’ve never done before, confusion often results. In this case, Kong expected players to forego the option to shoot and instead placed them in a more passive role. Kong’s rival Jumpman, Mario, followed in Pac-Man’s footsteps as a largely offenseless character forced to avoid the many hazards surrounding him, only occasionally managing to turn the tables on the eponymous gorilla — making this a product with the then-unusual distinction of taking its name from the villain — with specifically placed power-ups of limited duration.
As a hero, Mario behaves in ways we as humans find very natural. He runs, he jumps, he climbs ladder, he grabs hammers and smacks the crap out of barrels, all in pursuit of his abducted lady love. Kong obviously takes its inspiration from King Kong (to the point of inspiring a legal dispute), but Mario chases the monkey right up the side of the proverbial Empire State Building himself rather than relying on biplanes. While most action games to this point had consisted of either space ships jetting freely through a flat plane, cars driving forward into the screen or around a circle seen from above, or various characters running through mazes via an illusory forced perspective, Kong’s point of view took a natural side-on perspective that gave Mario two axes of movement (left and right, up and down).
However, his vertical movement came in a very limited capacity: Rather than being able to move freely up and down, he only could climb ladders, drop from one platform to another (usually with fatal results), and leap in a short, precise arc. This placed heavy emphasis on vertical motion as a strategic tool, either allowing him to evade danger or move one level closer to his goal. Vertical movement also entailed limitations and danger: Mario climbed ladders more slowly than he ran, and he couldn’t jump while climbing. In a sense, Mario became a reverse Space Invader, moving primarily left to right/right to left, and advancing forward in steps that moved him from one end of the screen to another.
Miyamoto has cited the need to move from bottom to top as one of Kong‘s design challenges. If we look at Space Invaders and Pac-Man as the post-Pong juggernauts of arcade design circa 1981, we have a game where players begin at the bottom and lurk there to fend off advancing challenges and a game where players begin near the center of the screen and need to clear the entirety of the surrounding maze. Kong combines the two, with Mario beginning at the bottom left but needing to “clear” (as in traverse) the space ahead of and above him. Barrels roll toward Mario from above, but the challenge is to forge ahead and reach the top rather than simply hang out at the bottom and leap objects that reach the bottom.
The initial screen layout communicates this in two ways. First, the player’s objective is communicated directly though introductions: Kong climbs to the top of the screen, distressed damsel Pauline tucked under his arm, and pounds his chest in challenge. “How high can you get?” the game literally asks, daring you to advance to Kong’s perch and take back Mario’s beloved. But in case that’s not clear, Miyamoto incorporates an in-game incentive to truck it forward. In addition to the dangers dropping from above, Mario also begins with his back to a flaming oil barrel that begins to disgorge fireballs that drift slowly toward the player. At some point, you’re left with no choice but to escape this flaming menace by climbing. Whether or not you want to, you have to begin your ascent to the top.
The level design itself leads your eye upward. Kong makes a real hash of the construction site at the outset of the game, causing girders to buckle and sit askew. Conveniently, this creates the visual effect of a series of ramps that make “up” your natural course of action. The level could just as easily have been designed as parallel girders — and in fact subsequent stages take precisely that form — but instead we have this warped construction site to lure you toward Kong and Pauline.
The off-kilter beams serve an important gameplay function, too: They introduce an element of risk and reward. There’s really not a lot to this level — you run and climb to the top, dodging barrels — but the exact route you take is left to your discretion and you’re scored on how quickly you reach the top. At the outer edges of the board, the ladders have been compressed, which makes them shorter and thus allows you to climb them more quickly. You’re less vulnerable on short ladders, and barrels (which can drop down either by rolling along a ladder or dropping at the edge of an I-beam) are less likely to take an unexpected shortcut and catch you off-guard. The downside to playing it safely is that you burn a lot of clock time dashing all the way to the edges, so using the short ladders proves to be less efficient. Yet the long ladders are far more hazardous, restricting your movement and giving you less reaction time to avoid chaotic barrels.
You’re presented with only a single ladder to climb from the first “floor,” but as soon as you reach the second you find yourself with a few choices. You can make a mad dash for the far end of the girder and climb the distant ladder; you can take the middle ladder, though its close proximity to another tall ladder leading from floor three to floor four means there’s a chance a barrel could come trundling down both ladders and wipe you out before you have time to react; or you could jump and grab the hammer, smashing barrels for points. The hammer makes you briefly invulnerable (or nearly so), pulping any barrel that rolls into range for extra points. It lasts for roughly five seconds. An obvious impulse here is to snag the hammer and make a break for the far end of the second floor, pummeling every barrel you come across and waiting at the left edge where the upswing of the hammer’s arc can actually destroy barrels on the floor above. This way you rack up points and have immediate access to the short ladder once the power-up phase ends.
The next two floors, however, don’t offer the security of a hammer. While the second floor provides its power-up as a means to get you safely from one end of the girder to the other, the third floor demands you forge ahead on your own. That means watching for barrels from above — occasionally Kong tosses one quickly on a diagonal, and the closer you get to his perch the less time you have to react to one of these missiles — and leaping the ones coming from straight ahead. The fourth floor is much the same, except even the “center” ladder is further away from your starting point and forces you to spend more time on the ground. It also means the left edge of the screen is extremely dangerous, as it provides three avenues for a barrel’s descent in close proximity: The beam edge, the short ladder, and the long ladder. Reaching the fifth floor requires patience and a touch of nerve.
Once on the fifth floor, however, you’ll find a touch of grace: Another hammer. Since you pass directly beneath Kong here, there’s a decent chance one of his quick projectiles will klonk you on the head and you’ll have made it all this way for nothing. The hammer works as a sort of umbrella, keeping Mario’s noggin safe from the beat directly overhead. The downside to the hammer’s security is that it lasts longer than a dash across the girder, which means you’ll burn time waiting for it to run out (Mario can’t climb while holding a hammer, and he can’t dispose of a hammer, only wait until its timer winds down) and could potentially lose your rhythm of barrel evasion lurking down at the end. There’s a certain inertia to games like this, and once you slow down it can be tough to pick up momentum again. So while grabbing the hammer seems a natural tactic, you may be better off foregoing it in favor of a naked run.
The top floor can seem nerve-wracking, but it’s actually one of the easiest spaces to navigate. Kong’s attacks offer plenty of safety between tosses — more than enough to reach the ladder to Pauline and climb above the barrels’ paths. You can also skip Pauline and take on Donkey Kong, at which point you’ll die horribly. What did you expect, you idiot? No, the correct answer is clearly to go for Pauline, reuniting Mario with his lady love and bringing an end to the relentless barrel assault… at which point, of course, Kong drags her to the next stage.