If only they’d dropped Mario cartridges on Pearl Harbour instead

Super Mario Bros Logo

Super Mario Bros. (1987)

I won’t bore you to death on the whole video game crash, blah blah blah, E.T. wrecked the whole thing and all of that other stuff. History was the most boring of school subjects as we know, and anyway, the whole event is pretty much the first thing a prospective gaming YouTuber searches for on Wikipedia, before delivering a webcam filmed lecture about it with jumpy editing. Suffice to say, we had an awful lot of terrible “games” (and I’m talking, less impressive than interactive DVD menus) in the late 70s and early 80s.

I’m not just talking about clag that delivers less than 5 seconds of enjoyment either. Even ‘clag’ is too weak a word for games like Custer’s Revenge, or Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em. It was this kind of rubbish that was being sold, morse code graphics and all, into households at premium rates. Eventually the poor old gaming camel took one too many straws to the back, that straw being E.T., and over it went. Electronic TV games were a fad that had come, stank up the place a bit, and now they were gone.

Well, that’s not really how it ended, of course. Nintendo decided they wanted to claw themselves back into the game and invade the United States in a far more efficient manner. With a string of arcade hits behind them, most famously Donkey Kong, they wanted more of the action. The trouble was, the words “video game” were pretty much mud with consumers, retailers, suppliers, and whatever else is in the chain – it’s been a long time since I studied business. So, to ensure success for their plan to bring a new dedicated games console to market, Nintendo needed a few USPs (that business knowledge of mine again) to set the new Nintendo Entertainment System apart.

Firstly, it had to be affordable – some sets were more expensive, with the Deluxe Set being particularly heavy on the old 80s leather wallet. But the console deck by itself could be had for $90, or even $100 when bundled with a game I’m just about to mention. Mind you, Christ knows what those prices would be now with the rate of inflation in the United States. Enough to guarantee you the far more sensible investment of 20 assault rifles and a heap of ammo, most likely.

The second necessary unique selling point, if you can believe it, was that the whole idea of a games console had to be played down. Initial plans for this were to put a comedy moustache on the console, but some of the children choked on the hairy prototype apparatus in the testing and proofing phase, so that had to be kiboshed.

Instead, they repurposed an old nuclear missile launching device and turned it into R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy – a robot that interacts with your TV and your unsupervised children. It’s not a game, see? It’s a virtual friend and TV enhancer. Once R.O.B. had helped crowbar Nintendo into homes, he was quickly forgotten. So thirdly, to cap it off, Nintendo need a strong pack-in game from the beginning.

And there it was, not just one but two games – Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. We’ll perhaps get onto the anatine quacky-quacky-shooty-shooty another time, and that was another game that spurned the traditional controller-to-games-console setup with its iconic NES Zapper light-gun. The real gem to be found in the package was Super Mario Bros – not, strictly speaking, the first Mario game for a home console. But it might just as well be. Mario Bros Arcade is that bit too dismal.

I’m conscious of the fact that time ain’t getting any slower for me, but really, I don’t see how you couldn’t know about this game. Nintendo still beats us over the head with Super Mario Bros 1 nostalgia to this day. And why wouldn’t they? With 8 whole worlds of 4 levels apiece, plus the fact that the levels even move in a side-scrolling fashion, Super Mario Bros was unprecedented in scale.

This wasn’t one fuzzy Atari screen, this was a platforming adventure. To gamers young and old at the time, it must have been like that Train Pulling into a Station short film, where the train hurtles towards the screen, which caused the terrified viewers to jump out of the way. You even had a lovingly composed soundtrack, for God’s sake, with the Main Ground theme being surely the most famous song in all of gaming – and we’ll know we’re really old when dabbing kids out there start failing to recognise it.

I’ve often lamented not being an 80s child, although that could put me close to 40 years old today so one has to count one’s blessings. Still, I’d like to have been there right from the off in terms of gaming, the Big Bang event of gaming as it were. Things like the Atari, Intellivision and ColecoVision were pretty popular in the USA, and indeed we had the Sinclair Speccy, Amstrad (Lord Sugar’s pride and joy) and Commodore here, or in the UK moreso.

But, I have to be honest, that’s not where gaming started for me. The beepy boopy rubbish of the late 70s and early 80s was just the precursor – the whole gig started with the Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. Why else would Nintendo be thriving today, alongside later entrants to the console market Microsoft and Sony, while leather companies from Connecticut went tits up? To say nothing of how Atari failed to make the grade coming into the 90s.

SMB is simple, sometimes rough, but you’ll know you’re in the presence of greatness and you’ll shut up accordingly. You wouldn’t loudly talk over a war hero’s greatest story, and it’s the same here. The game’s bloody harder than you might think as well. Top gamesters like me are aware of a crafty little cheat where you can hold A and press Start after a Game Over to start over from whichever world you’ve just been bounced out of.

It really is a necessity to know that, because otherwise you could be right on Bowser’s door and lose the last of your measly 3 starting lives and oops, back to a silent title screen for you. This comes in handy, because once you get to that fiendish eighth world, you’ll have Hammer Bros throwing kitchen sinks at you and you’re damned if you can find a safe place to stand.

And speaking of the eighth world, you’ll never forget the first time you realise that Mario can run over gaps of one block in width. Look, being honest, the movement and jumping physics that Mario exhibited here have been refined dozens of times over the last 35 years, and coming back to play this particular game after having a sweet slice of physics cake like Super Mario World or Super Mario Galaxy 2 may get you a little frustrated.

But this game’s importance could not be overstated. It is the daddy, the precursor, the top of the food chain. What Atari and E.T. killed, Nintendo and Mario revived. The portly plumber’s come a long way, yet he still hasn’t relinquished his crown as the most famous gaming character of all time. If you could only time-travel back to 1985, or 1981 even, and take a punt on Nintendo’s stocks early… although knowing my luck, I’d probably shoot Nintendo down like one of those poor duckies on the other half of the cartridge.

26 November 2019

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