This column originally ran on November 17, 2009.
The One-Uppers, lovers of good co-op games that they are, played a lot of New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii last night. As such, Checkpoint takes a look back at the inspiration for it all: the original Mario trilogy. Mario’s place in gaming history has been cemented (and re-cemented) for more than two decades already. We discuss the strongest elements from each game and what tugs at our nostalgic heart-strings the most.
Super Mario Bros.
Shaun: Mario was the first game I ever played, and to this day, I haven’t beaten it yet.
Shaun: I don’t know where that really fits in, but…
Chris: How does a red-blooded American video game journalist never finish Mario 1? Why did we bring you back this week?
Shaun: Still, I assume it is partially responsible for my love of video gaming.
Lee: I had three ways to play that game. You either go as fast as you can, taking all the warps. Go through without warps and do every world. Or do it at your own leisure.
Chris: Don’t forget the fourth route: -1 world. Forever and ever and ever.
Shaun: Yeah, I tried to do it fast, with the warps. I just die a lot. But I think it’s important that even though I am abysmal at that game, I always reload and try again. It’s addicting, even though it hates me. Probably why it’s the most heralded ever, and has withstood the test of time so well.
Lee: It was epic the first time you get that fire flower. You mean I can blow through all of these god forsaken enemies with ease? TAKE MY FISTS OF FLAME.
Chris: Those fists of flame were easy, man. Just hold your arm up in the air, and boom.
Shaun: I don’t always notice music in games, but I think that’s probably the thing I remember most about playing it, like, 30 years ago when I was still a kid.
Chris: The overworld theme is probably one of the most recognizable tunes ever. It really transcends the genre. People who don’t really care much about video game music would use that as their ringtone.
Shaun: I watched my uncle play through most of it one time, but he got frustrated that the princess was always in another castle. He didn’t really understand. I think a part of him always wished he would beat the first castle and the princess would be there.
Chris: We all know Mario’s life can’t be that simple.
Shaun: Yeah, he falls victim to the bait and switch about a dozen times.
Lee: He is a plumber, after all. He can’t say his life was easy before he was searching for the princess.
Shaun: And worse yet, he saves Toad. That’s a double fault.
Chris: It would’ve been nice if one of those seven Toads had actually said which castle she was in.
Lee: At least he could use fire underwater. Even as a kid I knew that wouldn’t actually work, but these are magic balls we are talking about.
Shaun: What did gamers have before Mario that even allowed close to the freedom and intuitive controls? Donkey Kong? Pong? It can’t be said enough how important this game is. Without it, it’s likely we would not be enjoying the games we play today. We would all just be accountants or something awful.
Lee: You mean “accountants or accountants”?
Chris: We apologize to all the accountants out there. You’re really terrific people. Please keep reading.
Lee: No. Stop reading now and fix the economy.
Chris: Anyway, I’m not sure gamers had anything remotely close to what Mario brought to the table. There’s something about the level design and simplicity of the formula that works perfectly. We already kinda hit on what made it successful. The gamer could choose which paths to take, both in overall levels and in each part of a level. There’s a fire flower up above that piranha plant coming out of the pipe. Do you really want it? You can avoid it if you want.
Shaun: Exactly. And the secrets in every level were great. Even today, not many games include incentives to explore every part of a level quite like Mario did.
Chris: That 1-up on the very first level is a good example. Once you learned that trick, you could then see which of your friends knew about it. If they didn’t, you got to be cool for a moment.
Shaun: The days before the Internet ruined everything.
Lee: I had cheats. My NES was screwed up enough to where I could make the games colors distorted. When that happened, I saw all the hidden blocks.
Shaun: (expletive) cheater.
Lee: Shaun, you haven’t played the (expletive) game.
Shaun: I could have if I (expletive) cheated through the whole thing.
Lee: Yeah, I’m sure getting 10 coins every now and then would stop you from quitting like a bitch.
Chris: My NES didn’t do anything with colors except put up a blue screen whenever I wanted to play it, unless I blew in the cartridge about 900 times.
Shaun: I also think it needs to be said that Duck Hunt as bonus on the cartridge was an excellent choice. Sure, that dog made me mad. Sure, he made me cry one time and break my Light Gun when he taunted and laughed at me. But it was still a solid game.
Chris: I think I would’ve liked Duck Hunt more if I hadn’t cheated at it and held the Light Gun right up against the damn screen. But I showed that dog.
Lee: Yeah, Duck Hunt made playing Mario more bearable, especially if you got pissed. Didn’t make it to level 5? Here, go nuts with this gun. You will at least make it to level 12.
Shaun: Well, maybe most people. I swear, I had some advanced ducks in mine….diving all over the place. Mine was broken probably.
Chris: All of those cartridges were broken somehow.
Lee: I think the max level I made it to was 21 or so, with two ducks on the screen. What I want to know it why I was shooting ducks with a rifle? Shotguns exist for a reason, people.
Chris: But hey, that was a huge combination and it sold like candy for Nintendo. There were so many damn copies of that combo cartridge. I remember used game stores in the late-’90s selling SMB/DH for like 49 cents, because that was the only way they could move any of them.
Shaun: Well, while we are completely off topic, I loved the simplicity of that old controller, as well. Two main buttons. One directional pad. Start. Select. It was excellent. Mario definitely helped Nintendo get a monopoly over the industry that they would not relinquish for years to come.
Chris: Nintendo established that chokehold on the industry for two reasons: Mario, and later the Game Boy. Mario got people into the NES, which established trust in consoles again (after ET and the Atari pretty much ruined it). The Game Boy started the domination of the portable market that continues to this day.
Shaun: And it’s all thanks to a mustachioed, questionably athletic plumber.
Lee: And at times, his lesser-known, now-a-whiny-bitch brother, Luigi.
Chris: Yeah, we’re not really sure how Mario can jump like he does, but there’s no questioning his endurance or heart. Toadstool keeps floating out there like a carrot on a stick, but he keeps going after her. And he takes a lot of cranial punishment for the sake of saving this dumb broad.
Shaun: Yeah. “Thanks for saving me. Here’s some cake.” Whaa…? Oh, and Luigi, how you have fallen.
Lee: When I played two-player, I had to be Luigi. He was great, had the same abilities, etc. except for the ability to pause the game (I’m looking at you, Adam). And he was even better than Mario in the second game.
Chris: That white-and-green look for Luigi when he had a fire flower didn’t really work for me. I usually went back to Mario.
Lee: Chris, red is the color of fire and hell. Green is the color of nature and money. Take your pick.
Chris: Fire and hell, please.
Lee: Okay, here you go.
Shaun: I would talk about the excitement I felt when sending Koopa into the firey abyss…but that never actually happened. He was just too clever. But I saw other people do it, which was very exciting.
Lee: Let me get this straight; you couldn’t beat the game because you didn’t want to run under a flaming dragon/dinosaur?
Shaun: Well, it’s not that I didn’t want to…I tried. I tried a lot. Running past. Jumping over. Trying to kill him with fireballs. It just never quite worked out for me.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Chris: So…Mario 2. AKA Mario’s acid dream trip in a world he was never supposed to be in. Most folks know about the game’s origins as Doki Doki Panic before Mario characters were tossed in because of the pressure for a sequel. I’m still not sure exactly what happened there.
Shaun: I didn’t know about that. It explains a lot, really. Like, everything.
Chris: Okay, most folks except Shaun know.
Lee: Two pimps emerged from the Mario realm, that’s what happened. Luigi for his kick-ass jumping ability, and Toad, because he could pull radishes like crazy.
Chris: Admittedly, I usually played as the princess. That floating ability came in handy a lot in the later worlds.
Lee: She had talent, but not enough for me. The real problem was Mario. He faded into lameness. I had to force myself to play him years later, because he did nothing for me.
Shaun: I liked this game a lot, though, for what it was. Peach and Luigi were fun to play as, picking onions was pretty cool, Birdo was an interesting boss fight, and the graphics were a huge step up from the original.
Chris: I liked the music for the Birdo fights. I’m not necessarily ecstatic that Birdo became a mainstay in the series, though.
Lee: I wouldn’t mind Birdo too much if you could still grab her eggs and shove them back in her face.
Shaun: No, I hope someone puts a bullet through that pink dinosaur’s head, but at the time it was new. Jumping on the egg in midair only to throw it back — that was about the most in-depth boss fights got back then.
Chris: Yeah, and they got pretty creative with that down the road. Spitting fire instead of eggs. Riding the eggs to get to secret doorways. I liked it.
Shaun: Transporting the keys to the doors was new for me too. I didn’t have any exposure to Zelda at this point, so all this newness just blew my mind.
Lee: I also liked any fight that gave me a supply of bombs. Many of them were unnecessary, but I liked how they exploded into the word “bomb”.
Chris: Harkens back to the Adam West Batman days. But better.
Lee: I didn’t like having to look for extra life. You get one potion, and you have to guess where the heart is in the negative zone, or wherever the hell you went.
Shaun: See, most people look back and hate this game. While it’s definitely not as strong, I enjoyed it. I definitely don’t think it was a game that should not have happened. Besides, no matter how bad it could have been, I can’t diss on a game that lets you ride a flying carpet. I just can’t. Two games I can think of allow this: Mario 2 and Aladdin. I love them both.
Chris: I like how you had to toss that bird guy off to steal the carpet. GTA before its time.
Lee: You know what was better than riding a magic carpet? Riding Albatoss. There was a level in the game where you actually had to use an enemy to fly over a long gap, and you had to switch off. God help you if you actually hit the grab button.
Shaun: But FYI to Nintendo; next time you feature an ensemble cast, don’t make your title character the weakest of the bunch. I guess an FYI to Nintendo for a game they made 20 years ago loses its effectiveness, but I think it’s a good lesson still.
Chris: Unfortunately, those kind of things happen when you decide to hijack another game and stick your flagship franchise into it.
Shaun: And the game established Luigi as a guy with some strange, floaty jumping tendencies. Not to mention Birdo was basically the precursor for Yoshi.
Chris: It’s interesting to see which characters survived from that and became part of the Mario series. Shy Guys were pretty big. Birdo latched on, in more ways than one. Mouser showed up in the cartoon a few times. Wart…well, we never heard from him again, but it’s not like that devalues him as an antagonist. No. Not at all.
Lee: Well, it does. You killed him with vegetables. What kind of message does that send to children? Eat vegetables and die?
Shaun: Yes. Wait, no.
Lee: We all know who the true boss of the game was.
Chris: The mask guy who ruined your day if you stole the key?
Shaun: Oh yeah. Good, I was worried for a second I didn’t beat that game either. I still have shreds left. Of dignity, I mean.
Lee: That mask guy, Phanto, would just fly in and kill you. Sure you took the key, but I bet that was just an excuse. I don’t think those keys belonged to him.
Shaun: He wanted to use Mario’s blood to resurrect Koopa. Oh wait, that’s Zelda 2.
Chris: Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’d already stolen them from a Home Depot, and he was pissed that you one-upped him. So he went invincible and chased you for weeks.
Lee: Great. Well, at least a pissed-off sun isn’t chasing me down too. That comes in later days.
Chris: Let’s face it: Mario 2 was still fun, but its importance to the series is minimal. Hell, the game pretty much assigned that to itself by making the whole thing a dream sequence, which is one of the lamest copout endings out there.
Shaun: Yeah, but it at least it was at a time before that was really cliché. Dallas took care of ruining that narrative technique for everyone. “You want a dream sequence? We’ll give you a whole season of it! And Patrick Duffy shirtless in the shower!” Moving on.
Chris: So you watched Dallas, but didn’t beat Mario 1.
Shaun: My mom liked it a lo…I said moving on!
Super Mario Bros. 3
Shaun: Super Mario Bros. 3 is might be my favorite game of the series, along with Mario 64. It was definitely the Mario game I poured the most time into. I thought about referencing all of the new aspects introduced in this installment, but there is just way too much stuff. It was the sequel that Mario 2 should have been, and it was stellar.
Lee: Dibs on the green shoe.
Chris: Yeah, it pretty much took all the elements from the original and improved them. Liked the warp pipes? Find these whistles, which play a happy tune while they move you to a new world!
Shaun: Warp whistles, navigatable overworld map, airship boss levels, costumes…it’s just way too much stuff. This game established the habit of mainstream Mario titles to reinvent and revolutionize with every installment. Unfortunately, the non-mainstream titles are another story.
Chris: The world map was pretty key. You could skip certain levels if you wanted to, either because there were multiple paths or that item you collected from the card games and stuff (you know, the useful one, so not the music box).
Lee: They cut back the characters, changing it to just Mario and Luigi again. I liked it. Two brothers against the Mushroom Kingdom. They took the game back to the original Mario, which was where their success was founded.
Shaun: And the story was actually pretty cool for a change. First of all, every castle had a purpose, because they were saving the different rulers from all over the kingdom. Secondly, the fact that you were fighting Bowser’s kids, each with their own unique ability, and not just an invincible dinosaur over and over again was great.
Chris: I like how the Koopa Kids steal these magic rods of power, and they use them to…turn the king of each world into an animal. Great. Really devious.
Shaun: Well, that’s true. Could have…done something a little more mean. But still cool.
Lee: Didn’t think the King of Koopas would turn out to have children. Guess the princess was throwing him a little on the side, during her “kidnapping” adventures.
Shaun: Well, isn’t that inappropriate. Why can’t there just be another woman Bowser somewhere. Why can’t they just make love.
Chris: We all know the princess secretly wants Bowser. That’s why she’s gotten kidnapped 2,105 times in the past 20 years. And poor Mario goes after her every time.
Shaun: Well, you guys made a scandalous love triangle out of Mario. Congratulations?
Chris: That was already in place with Mario, Luigi and Birdo. Think about it.
Lee: Love triangle? At what point does Princess Peach say she loves Mario?
Chris: Ooooooo. We’ve just undermined everything Mario ever did. He did it for love, which is a terrible reason to do anything, and now he gets burned.
Shaun: What about the cake? She spent, probably like hours, making that for him.
Lee: Salt cake.
Chris: Exactly. I’ve baked a cake as the princess before, in Paper Mario. All I did was add salt, salt, salt, and salt, then baked it for 40 minutes too long and put a strawberry on top. In other words, Peach’s cake is a lie.
Shaun: Oooooo. Reference. So, Mario 3.
Lee: You’re right, they didn’t have cake in Mario 3. But they had salt, the salt from Mario’s tears every time he lost the Tanooki Suit.
Chris: The P-wing was awesome. Sure, we never really understand why Raccoon Mario can fly, but if he’s going to take to the skies, you might as well let him do it endlessly.
Shaun: I never beat this game either, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. That last world is just so hard. And scary.
Chris: Actually, I liked just about everything about that item system. Good selection, fun little mini-games to get them, and you could amp up with a flower or leaf before a tough stage.
Shaun: So much of that game was well done. In particular, I loved the stages where the screen gradually scrolled to the right, and you had to go with it or face the consequences. Of death.
Lee: What about the levels where a giant fish jumped out of water and ate you. Instant death there too.
Shaun: I liked the miniboss halfway through every world. That, and the frequent disco balls of death that littered his stage. You thought it was a dance party? You thought wrong!
Chris: Of course, a lot of the whole scrolling-stages-are-cool thing is tied to the airships, which were epic. Grab that anchor before it flies away! Dodge a million cannonballs! Watch out for wrenches!
Lee: Those damn gophers throwing their wrenches at me. Don’t they need those to repair the ship? There were several in the later levels that weren’t even built correctly. They were all broken up.
Shaun: It was a marvel of engineering how those stayed airborne.
Lee: Union boss would be mad. “These aren’t built to specifications.”
Chris: And after you finished destroying the place, you’d grab that magic wand and fall about 3,000 feet. But Mario’s such a pimp that he stuck the landing anyway.
Lee: I don’t know why the King was already changed by the time you got down. Didn’t he need that wand to change back? Maybe it was a spell that needed constant focus or something.
Chris: I loved the variation in the levels. The ice level was tolerable, which is rare for that type. The world where everything was giant was pretty sweet. The desert had that sun trying to ruin your day. Good stuff.
Shaun: Yeah, Mario 3 re-imagined the whole Mario experience. It would take another seven years until the Mario franchise would see another overhaul as major as this one. Super Mario World was an amazing game, but it owes a lot of its success to the ground broken by Mario 3.
Lee: More costumes, more levels, more Kuribo’s Shoe; I can’t say they went wrong. They even introduced Dry Bones, the semi-unstoppable dead koopa that just wouldn’t quit. You expected him to go down the first time, but he showed you the meaning of determination.
Shaun: And boos. And thwomps.
Chris: Some people consider Mario 3 to be their favorite, and they have a pretty good case. Between the nostalgia factor and all the improvements that title has, it’s a solid choice.
Shaun: For sure. It was mine until the 64 version came out, but to be fair, I was only as excited as I was for the new one because of the fun I had with the third one.
Lee: Mario 3 was a great revival of the Mario series, and held my attention until Super Mario World came out. But I always keep coming back.
Checkpoint is a series of discussions run by Chris, Shaun and Tech Guy back in their college newspaper days. For more entries in the series, click here.