Before Mario leapt into the page of legend with Super Mario Bros., he took one last side excursion. Wrecking Crew doesn’t really count in the lineage of the core Mario games; not only does it not involve a single bit of platforming (Mario can’t jump!), it’s not even by the usual Mario folks. Instead, it’s an R&D1 division joint rather than a project by Miyamoto’s folks at EAD, with the core design coming from future Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto.
By no means would this be the last R&D1 Mario title; they’d eventually go on to create the Super Mario Land games. Those, of course, were so weird and un-Mario-like they eventually metamorphosed into Wario Land. Wrecking Crew has nothing whatsoever to do with those games, but it does feel decidedly un-Mario-like. In a way, this is the first real example of Miyamoto’s original “Mr. Video” concept for Mario, a generic character who could fill any role as needed for the game at hand. Yes, he had appeared in Pinball and Tennis already, but those were meaningless cameos while this is a starring role… even though it totally divorces him of the mechanics and story elements players had come to associate with Mario save the tentative connection to Donkey Kong of wielding a hammer.
An action game in the most technical sense, Wrecking Crew really falls into the puzzle game category. It operates with the single-screen style of the previous Mario games (although unlike in Mario’s earlier titles, the screen scrolls to encompass more than a strict 224 pixel high play space), and enemies do chase Mario around. But they only exist to be avoided. Mario can’t directly attack them, only distract and divert them.
The real purpose of Wrecking Crew is to destroy everything on screen besides the enemies. It’s kind of neat from a tech perspective from the time, as smashing objects causes them to vanish, and you can even cause things to collapse and drop by shattering their supports. You didn’t really see that level of character-background interaction on consoles in 1985, and I don’t doubt the germ of inspiration for this title came from wanting to exploit that trick on a grand scale.
Wrecking Crew launched in Japan just a few months before Super Mario, and it really throws the latter game’s achievements into high relief. This isn’t to say Wrecking Crew is bad, but it feels very iterative, a small twist on the well-trod classic arcade concept. What makes it interesting is that despite the hazards and the score count, it’s not really meant to be a challenge in the traditional sense. It features nearly 100 different stages, but you can select any stage you like right from the menu screen at the outset. Wrecking Crew has more of a tourist approach to game content, with no particular end in mind, just a whole lot of puzzles to be solved and a random assortment of secrets that can boost your score if you can sort out their rules (and if you care about such things).
I wouldn’t quite call Wrecking Crew intuitive, though. Its rules seem simple enough — smash everything on screen while avoiding enemies — but some of the specifics take some getting used to. Hitting a bomb, for instance, doesn’t affect monsters, but it does shatter every contiguous object on that row while dropping Mario all the way to the bottom of the screen. The monsters have odd behaviors; eggplants, for instance, always take the first ladder they find. You can’t destroy enemies but you can take them briefly out of play by hitting doors, which open into the “back” of the screen and will cause the critters to mill about in confusion out of play for a moment. And speaking of the back side, a dude named Foreman Spike — who does bear a certain similarity to R&D1’s Wario, it’s true — runs back and forth in the rear plane harassing Mario.
It’s a weird game, this one. I like it, but it feels a little incomplete. Many of the puzzles have unwinnable states; basically, if you drop down to the ground and as a result can’t reach every isolated block, you’re boned and have to abort the stage. I get the sense that this is one of those instances of Nintendo’s guys trying to get a handle on home game technology and design… and since the next game Sakamoto worked on would be Metroid, I think they learned a lot here. For Mario, though, it was less a career move and more a temp job, like an actress waiting tables until the movie featuring her big breakthrough role finally opens across theaters.