You know what makes a game great? Well, lots of things can make a game great. But a really good place to start is when that game offers you an experience you’ve never had before yet makes the learning process totally intuitive.
Take Super Mario Bros., for example. Back in 1985, it was a game like nothing before it. Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka set out to create their farewell to cartridge-based games — the Famicom Disk System and The Legend of Zelda were right on the horizon and would greatly expand the boundaries of their design possibilities — and in the process it invented a genre.
Super Mario Bros. had only the loosest connection to Mario Bros., the game to which it ostensibly served as a sequel. You controlled Mario, you could run and jump, and you had to punch bricks and dodge turtles. Familiar elements like pipes and fireballs showed up in new forms, but the scope and size and objectives had grown by tremendous leaps in the two years since the original Mario Bros. And the “Bros.” part of the title felt almost like a lie, since the previous game’s cooperative format vanished altogether in favor of alternating play.
The feel of Super Mario was where it truly differed from its precursor… and from every other game that preceded it. Mario had always been at the fore of platform gaming, but he felt so terrestrial in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. Here, he didn’t. Mario didn’t simply jump; he leapt. A single press of the jump button would send Mario flying into the air, but not in the rigid arcs of other platformers. You could control Mario’s jump, altering the direction of his movement in mid-air to a certain degree in order to tighten up a running jump or give a standing jump a hint of forward motion. The length for which you held the jump button determined the height and length of Mario’s leap. Starting from a dead stop, jumping from a walk, and jumping from a run all resulted in different kinds of jumps.
Mario’s jump felt lively. It felt dynamic. It was liberating and exciting and made Super Mario stand apart from other platformers. He practically flew across the screen, giving him a sense of motion that games had never properly explored before.
Miyamoto had (at Gumpei Yokoi’s insistence) reluctantly allowed Mario to survive falls from great heights in Mario Bros., and it opened up the game’s design. But Mario Bros. still contained its action within the bounds of a single screen, so Mario (and Luigi) still observed strict limits to what they could do. With Super Mario, those cramped dimensions opened wide. No longer did Mario navigate a single-screen complex of platforms but rather a succession of obstacles along an expanse of ground that spanned dozens of screens in each level — and each of the 32 stages was laid out differently than the last.
Oh, right, they weren’t called “stages.” Nintendo called them “worlds.” And indeed they were. Not “boards,” not “levels” — worlds.
For comparison: Stage 1 of Mario Bros. (top), World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. (bottom)
The scrolling run-and-jump design had precedent in several earlier games like Irem’s Moon Patrol and Namco’s Pac-Land, but it felt more like something under the player’s control here. Mario was more capable a hero than Pac-Man or the moon-patrolling buggy, with a number of skills under his belt beyond simply moving forward and running. The stages often featured multiple paths, numerous hidden secrets, a variety of obstacles, and some devious enemies.
It was a massive action game, far more complex than anything anyone had ever played. And so, it had to teach players to play as they went.
Images courtesy of VGMuseum and VGMaps