The Enduring Appeal of Mario

 

On November 13

th

, Super Mario 3D Land will be released. As you can probably imagine from a guy who voluntarily accepted the name “The Nintendo Nerd”, I’m pretty excited. The Italian stereotype with springboard legs is as iconic to my generation as Mickey Mouse, and a staple of endless hours of gaming from my childhood all the way to my regressed childhood of today. Though videogames have obviously advanced a great deal since Mario’s 8-Bit adventures shipped countless NES systems in the 80s, something about the smooth platforming and simple quests of the plucky plumber continues to resonate with gamers generation after generation. It’s sort of assumed that a marquee Mario title will define the capabilities of any new Nintendo system in the first year of its lifecycle, with the exception of the Gamecube misstep Mario Sunshine (which is kind of appropriate since that was also Nintendo’s least successful console). With Super Mario 3D Land about to define the struggling, but excellent 3DS, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at how the little guy has defined so many of my great gaming experiences.

Like many of you out there, the first game I ever owned stared good ol’ Mario. The first system I was ever able to talk my parents into buying was a Gameboy, as their anti-videogame stance was curbed by the fact that the new handheld system could silence me during long car trips. So, I poured untold hours into the first Super Mario Land, learning the videogame ropes and naively assuming that Mario regularly rode in planes and submarines to rescue Princess Daisy from an alien while fighting turtles who turn into bombs in ancient temples. Ok, so the weird Gameboy series wasn’t exactly canonical Mario (though it did introduce Wario in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins), but it did introduce me to the simple pick-up-and-play joys of side-scrolling platforming and instill a love of videogames that is becoming increasingly obvious I’ll never grow out of.

Television videogame systems entered my life via Mario about a year later after watching the Fred Savage “classic”, The Wizard. The climax of the film was essentially an advertisement for Super Mario Bros. 3 and, as a young child unencumbered by cynicism or cultural awareness, I was hooked in and soon owned the game. Many consider the title the pinnacle of the NES era, and it’s not difficult to see why. The game is simple enough for beginners, yet features enough challenges to keep skilled players coming back. That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of all major Mario games. Any Mario title is perfect gateway drug, introducing players to fundamental gaming concepts and then gradually ratcheting up the difficultly to essentially train new gamers how to play. The character designs are simple, yet appealing. Mario is the mascot of a videogame giant for a reason; everyone can appreciate his titles through smooth gameplay or nostalgia, and Mario has introduced every technical advance and new piece of hardware Nintendo has produced for decades, keeping the Mario brand alive and vital.

Like most children of the 90s, I killed my school productivity with sleepless nights tied to my Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64. Both systems came to me packaged with a Mario title that probably got more play time than anything else I ever bought for the systems. Super Mario World and Super Mario 64 didn’t just introduced 16-Bit visuals and three dimensional gameplay to my distracted young mind, but also fostered an obsession with the time-sucking devil of 100% videogame completion. While many of my less ADD- addled friends discovered RPGs at an early age that sucked away hours for achievement whores, that didn’t really come to me until Super Mario World. Suddenly unlocking every hidden level and passage became an obsession. I’ll never forget my shock when my Super Mario World journey ended on 96 instead of 100% (seriously Nintendo, would it have killed you to squeeze in 4 more achievements?), and if I had back the hours I spent finding every star in Super Mario 64 I could probably write a few novels and find the cure for an infectious disease or two. It’s amazing how many videogame habits I still retain that were fostered in those early Mario adventures, but that has to be attributed to Nintendo’s continued commitment to filter their major technical breakthroughs and gameplay innovations through the franchise.

While I may have missed out on Mario during the Gamecube years as my cynical teen mind preferred to the PS2 and all of the hooker-killing it’s software lineup allowed, I have to admit that the Super Mario Galaxy games remain two of my favourite titles of the current generation. This era has introduced the argument of “videogames as art”, and while story-centric titles tend to be at the center of that debate, I’d say the Mario Galaxy series should be part of the conversation as well. The beautifully-rendered visuals as well as the gravity-defying freedom and creative gameplay are intoxicating. The titles play like a dream, and offer a beautiful aesthetic experience that is a triumph of design with universal appeal. To create something that innovative, while still remaining simple enough for children is an amazing achievement of game design. Yet, the titles are practically taken for granted because it’s just assumed all Mario games will be that good. Quite a legacy, wouldn’t you say?

So, what’s the point of this nostalgic trip down Mario lane? I suppose it's simply as an acknowledgement of what Nintendo has achieved with their flagship character over the last 26 years. Sure Mario has been whored out to countless forgettable gimmick titles, but every system also has a Mario game so beautifully designed and executed that it’s in the running for the best title of its era. There’s no reason for the character to still be popular given that he has no real backstory or growth, but narrative is only a part of gaming. Gameplay is ultimately how any title should be judged, and the many Mario games that I just waxed nostalgic about could all be held up as ideal examples. Nintendo may crap out plenty of disappointing titles, but flagship Mario games always rank amongst the best experiences on the market. I suppose all that talk puts a lot of pressure on Super Mario 3D Land, but I’m certain that Nintendo won’t let us down. They haven’t put out much original content on the 3DS yet, but the two Nintendo 64 remakes they did release certainly showed that the system has major potential. I’ve got a feeling that this game will finally take advantage of 3D in a way that highlights how it can be a vital part of the gaming experience. Mario has been responsible for winning over countless gamers to new Nintendo systems, an the little guy with a taste for mushrooms should do it again in glasses-free 3D very soon.

Time to get excited, people.