Greatest Game of 1985: Super Mario Bros.

[Welcome to a special segment titled the Greatest Games of All Time. This running segment will run every Friday and will highlight the greatest game of the featured year (or a game we could convince an editor to write about). We start today with the Greatest Game of All Time, Super Mario Bros. The year is 1985.]

“Super Mario Bros. is gaming.” Perhaps I should simply end my article with what IGN said about Super Mario Bros. when they named it the greatest game of all time. Essentially, that’s my entire argument in one simple, concise statement. I got into games because of Super Mario Bros., and I love video games as much as I do thanks to Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpiece. To understand Mario’s true place as the greatest video game of all time, however, it is important to analyze its impact on the industry, developers, and gamers.

Impact on the Industry

In 1984 the video game industry was on the verge of death. They had been moved to the fringe of society and the kids that were gamers were growing up and everyone else had developed different interests. The industry was in large part responsible for this, as the market had become oversaturated with numerous consoles and developers had lost their focus on quality and flooded the market with shovelware (aka crappy games). The game that has come to embody this period is E.T. A crappy game from top to bottom, the game was, in a word, broken. The most widely known error involved the level design. It  was so bad that you could fall into pits that were inescapable. Although the movie E.T. (the game) was based on was wildly successful, the game justifiably sold poorly, and the developer was stuck with a ton of unsold copies. Gamers that had bought the game began returning it retailers and the overstock and returns were buried in a landfill in New Mexico. The image of this pile of crappy games in the desert came to symbolize the death of the industry. Enter the NES in 1985, and more specifically Super Mario Bros. Across the nation, when kids got their hands on the game they wanted a NES. The game went on to become a staple of childhood in the 80’s for many American kids. IGN summed this feeling up nicely when they stated that “carved into those deliberately fashioned pixels is the collective childhood of an entire generation of gamers.”

The lasting impact that the game had on developers is also quite remarkable. For Mario’s 25th anniversary, Joystiq obtained some quotes from some of the world’s most famous developers. Capcom’s Keinji Inafune said that the game was “the reason I entered the industry.” Bethesda’s Todd Howard also commented that the game “was the beginning of ‘the genre where the hero always follows the correct path.’” IGN stated that “Super Mario Bros. not only set the standard for 2D side-scrollers, but for videogames in general: gameplay that is demanding but not frustrating, pixel-perfect controls, inspired level design and a musical score that, to this day, remains synonymous with videogames.” IGN also quoted Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear) as saying “It’s simply impossible to grow tired of Super Mario Bros.”

Cultural Relevance

My opinion of Super Mario Bros. as the greatest game of all time is certainly not unique. As I mentioned, IGN named it number 1 the last time they did a top 100 list (2007). So did EGM when they did theirs in 2006. Most recently, Game Informer named it number 2 behind only The Legend of Zelda and stated that the game “remains a monument to brilliant design and fun gameplay.” In addition to being widely praised by critics, Super Mario Bros. is one of the best-selling games of all time. According to Wikipedia, it has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, making it the second best selling console or PC game of all time, with only Wii Sports beating it. The music in the game is also iconic. Before Super Mario Bros., most video game music was just a series of bleeps and bloops. The sounds that the cart produced were quite revolutionary, and, as IGN stated, the score is in many ways “synonymous with video games.”
Mario is the most well known video game character of all time. This is not debatable and really the argument is over second place (Link, Lara Croft, Master Chief, Donkey Kong???). In fact, it can be argued that no other medium has the kind of face that Mario has given video games. There are hundreds of painters, thousands of musicians, and countless writers, but none of them has the cultural cache for their medium that Mario does for video games.

Quality

Super Mario Bros. is not just influential and culturally relevant, it is exceptionally good. Obviously, “good” is difficult to measure, but if you ask people who played games back in the 80’s, they’ll tell you that Mario was the first game that looked just as good on the NES as it did in the arcade. A giant leap had been made from the Atari. No longer did blocks or dots represent a character, an actual sprite did. And while some of the best Atari games did have character models, the platforming had been improved immensely. Try playing Pitfall and then Super Mario Bros., and the difference will be immediately apparent. The gameplay is perfect as your commands on the controller exactly match what Mario does on the screen. The game is not broken (you can’t get stuck in bottomless pits like in E.T.), and the overall quality of the game was on a level that had not been reached by its contemporaries.

One other fun aspect of the game was the plentiful secrets. Pipes would lead to rooms filled with coins, beanstalks could sprout out of bricks and take you to a world in the sky, and hidden blocks could contain extra lives or invincibility stars. All of these things seem perfectly reasonable in today’s gaming world, but they simply did not exist back then. Super Mario Bros. was different, and gamers loved it.

Fun

Super Mario Bros. was one of the first games I ever played, and it was the first game I mastered. It wasn’t always this way, though. When I first got my NES, I was much more drawn to both Duck Hunt and Punch-Out!! It was a friendly wager my mom set up between my father and me that forced me to play and eventually love the game. She told me that if I could get from world 1-1 to 8-4 without using continues and without using the warp pipes, she’d buy me a new game. I still remember beating the final castle (getting past that last hammer brother, without fire, is the hardest thing to do in the game). My reward was Super Mario Bros. 2. Pretty sweet.

 

My father and I worked at other ways of mastering the game as well. We were able to max out the points in the game by using the infinite life trick in world 3-1 and playing the level over and over again until the points counter reset. Discovering negative world was cool and weird all at the same time. I also got very good at speed runs, something I still enjoy doing today. With fairly good consistency I can beat the game (using warps) in under 15 minutes. I set my own personal record in college. I would often throw the game in when I’d have a few minutes before I’d have to leave for class. My junior year I was able to beat the game in under 10 minutes, a record I haven’t been able to match since.

Flaws

No game is perfect, and as much as I love Super Mario Bros. it is true here as well. The major flaw that was corrected in Super Mario Bros. 3 is the inability to travel backwards. One other aspect of the game that always bothered me was that if you had the fireball power-up and got hit, you would revert back to small Mario. Why wouldn’t you just become big again? These are the questions that define a generation.

Conclusion

The influence Super Mario Bros. had on the industry, from saving it from the crash of the early 80’s to affecting designers of today, cannot be denied. Mario is one of the world’s most well known mascots and the iconic symbol of gaming. The game is also incredibly fun and holds up today. In my mind, Super Mario Bros. is, and probably always will be, the greatest video game ever made.

Competition

 

 

 

Excitebike  was one of the first games (possibly the first game?) to provide user-generated content in that you could design and edit your own courses. This feature didn’t make a prominent return to games until the current generation. Games like Mod Nation Racers and Little Big Planet took this idea and developed entire games around it.

 

 

 

 

 

Duck Hunt was definitely a fun game and showed that light gun games could be sustainable in the home. In my opinion, Duck Hunt was better than any other home light gun game until Virtua Cop on the [“Sega”] Saturn was released. It certainly beats playing Hogan’s Alley.

Check back next Friday, when Tyler will talk about the greatest game of 1986, Arkanoid.

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