Thursday, October 2, 2008

Number 1: Super Mario Bros. - "World 1-1" (Nintendo, 1985)



Number 1 on my list of best first levels in videogaming is the first level of Super Mario Bros. This level is probably familiar to anyone who has had even the remotest contact with videogaming. It's also probably THE most played level in any videogame ever if you think about it. Who doesn't know those opening few steps, running up to the '?' block, the little Goomba which makes its way towards you, only to be squashed by Mario's jump, with a mushroom power-up as a reward? And then there's the memorable tune, the Super Marios Bros. theme if you will (not sure on the actual title or if it even has a title). It's so simple, yet so catchy, and ultimately very memorable. Nearly anyone who played the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the 80's can hum along with it, it practically defined the sound of videogaming during that time.

Then there's the story of a plumber named Mario and his brother Luigi, off to rescue the princess of someplace called 'the Mushroom Kingdom' from a giant turtle/dragon thing named King Koopa (the name Bowser would come later). Moving his way from left to right, Mario conquers his foes by 'stomping', or jumping, on top of them, encountering bizarre enemies such as large turtles, some of which have wings and fly, fireball spewing piranha plants that pop out of giant oversized pipes, flying men in clouds that drop spikey turtle things, hammer tossing turtle brothers, and all sorts of strange and bizarre creatures. Oh, and in order to 'power-up' the character Mario, he acquires giant mushrooms that pop out of bricks, which glide away unless Mario runs after them. Who the hell came up with this stuff??


The man behind this madness is Shigeru Miyamoto, whose name belongs in the above credits more than Nintendo does. A student of art and industrial design, Miyamoto was hired by Nintendo of Japan in 1977 as a staff artist. A few years later, when the newfound Nintendo of America was struggling to come up with a hit, Miyamoto was recruited to design a new game. This was rather unprecedented as nearly all videogame designers at the time hailed from the computer programming field, no one hired 'artists' to make games. He ended up creating two of the most enduring videogame charactes to date, a giant barrel-tossing gorilla, and a little mustachioed protagonist originally named 'Jumpman'. This of course was the game Donkey Kong. The name Jumpman was changed for the American release. The story goes that Miyamoto and the other designers were sitting around trying to come up with a name for this character when their landlord Mario Segale came knocking, asking for the overdue rent. And thus Jumpman became Mario.

World 1-1 is a great level because it does nearly everything right. Right off the bat it teaches you that you can stomp on your enemies to get rid of them. The '?' blocks invite you to 'hit' them from below, and the very second block contains a power-up, which is nearly impossible to avoid since it slides around and bounces off the pipe in front of you, coming back in your direction. The aforementioned pipe teaches you to jump over obstacles. What makes it all work is that the gameplay just feels right. Mario's controls are very tight and precise. There's a lot of nuance in his jump, so that with a good run Mario can leap over a long chasm, or with just a short press of a button he'll jump correspondingly shorter. Mario's stomping move is also well implemented. Enemies such as goombas are defeated with just one hit. Koopas require two hits to get their shells moving, but even then there's the danger that their shell will bounce off of an object and come flying back, sometimes resulting in a shell infininetely moving back and forth. The addition of the fire flower power-up allows Mario to shoot fireballs, with koopas now dying in one hit, thus adding another level of depth to the simple gameplay. All in all, everything from how Mario controls, to how the enemies behave, to the availability of power-ups, it all just works.

Gaming journalists often talk about a lack of a 'Citizen Kane' of videogames. Newsweek's N'gai Croal doesn't like this debate, in this article from Slate.com, he says this:

"Would you ask whether literature had produced a Guernica, or whether photography had produced an Oedipus Rex, or whether film had produced a Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde? What's with this urge that many people have to compare games to other media—particularly movies—and find them wanting on those other media's terms? (Are we all Roger Ebert now?)"

I can see what Croal is trying to get at here, that every media should be taken on its own terms. Perhaps in comparing videogames to film we are missing the point, we should be looking at the genre of videogames as their own unique medium, it's just not fair asking for a Citizen Kane to come along and legitimize the form.

While Croal and others are arguing over this I think they're missing the Citizen Kane of videogames lurking right here in their midst. We've had it since 1985, and it's the game this article is about. I would say that Super Mario Bros. is the game these guys are looking for. Super Mario Bros. was responsible for arcade games transitioning into modern videogames. Until that point gaming was something you did at arcades, bowling alleys, and bars - something to pass the time away while you threw back some beers. The purpose of games like Pong, Asteroids and Donkey Kong was to provide the consumer with some fun while getting them to throw another quarter in the slot. There was no real concept of 'progress' within a game, there hadn't been born the idea that a game could be 'finished'. Have you seen The King of Kong? (highly recommended by the way) Only a handful of people have ever gotten to the end of Donkey Kong, and there's no real end, the game just sort of bugs out. With Super Mario Bros. gamers were invited to play a new kind of game, one where they could progress through a series of levels and ultimately defeat a big bad guy and win the game.

Super Mario had elements of arcade games that came before it, and through a combination of an amazing art style, memorable music, a bizarre world, and expertly crafted gameplay, it helped elevate gaming to something that hadn't been seen or done before. Gaming was no longer just about playing a game to see your high score, it was now about enjoying the whole experience, from the music to the visuals, familiarizing yourself with the layout of each level, and learning how to master the controls until you too could get to that final castle and save that damn princess!

Oh, and to take the analogy of films and videogames one step further, it would probably be better to compare Super Mario Bros. to The Godfather, with Super Mario Bros. 3 as The Godfather Part II.

For all these reasons, Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 is my pick for best first level of all time. Watch it here.

3 comments:

yoggoth said...

And Super Mario World is the Apocalypse Now of video games.

I never had an NES, so this game was something I played when I went over to someone else's house. At this point I was playing computer games like Dark Castle, a fantasy platformer that's just as fun and quirky in it's own way.

One thing about Super Mario Bros. - I don't think I've ever played all the levels. The first time I tried it the owner of the game showed me the way to jump over the level and skip ahead. But considering the fact that I don't beat most games I play, this may have been a good feature.

Herr Zrbo said...

I think that adds to the game. For such an early platformer it could have just been simply 'continue to move right until you get to the end'. Instead there's all sorts of hidden items and places to discover, and hidden warp pipes that allow you to move ahead if you wish, like a built in cheat mechanism. I don't think I've ever played every level either, but the warp pipes allow me to conquer the game how I want to and they give me the opportunity to visit some of these later levels I might not otherwise see.

james said...

Super Mario Bros is a platform game developed by Nintendo in late 1985 and published for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a sequel to the 1983 game, Mario Bros. In Super Mario Bros, Italian plumber Mario must save Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil King Koopa . In two-player mode, Mario is aided in his quest by his brother, Luigi. In order to save Princess Peach, the Mario Bros. must conquer the eight worlds that comprise the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario must make his way to the castle in each world and defeat one of the Bowser's evil minions. In order to reach each castle Mario or Luigi must battle through three "sub-worlds" by either destroying or avoiding Bowser's henchmen. If Mario successfully fights his way
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