Thirty Years Ago Today: Nintendo Introduces “Super Mario Brothers” In Japan, Helping To Save The Entire North American Video Game Industry
If you follow our Instagram page, you may notice that a few times a month, we take the time to celebrate historical events in video game history. (Of course, we do it right here as well.) It can be the anniversary of a specific game title, console, or event that happened in our video gaming past. We’ve announced anniversaries of console games, computer games, and handheld games. But every now and again, there is a franchise that is so important, even now, that when a milestone anniversary happens, we have no choice but to celebrate, and today is one of those occasions. It was on this date 30 years ago, on that supposed to be unlucky Friday the 13th in the year 1985, that Nintendo released the very first title in the Super Mario Brothers franchise for the original Nintendo Famicom. While a detailed historical look of Mario in general would literally take dozens of pages, today we are going to take a different approach, and take a look at the original games historical significance, and how Super Mario Brothers severely helped save, and regain needed confidence, in the video game industry as a whole.
So before we can take a look at the original Super Mario Brothers title, we need to go back to the mid-1980s in general, and take a peek at what the video game market was like back then. In North America, at this time period, video games were at a strange position. In 1983, the continent was suffering from what we now call the “Video Game Crash of 1983”. During this time, there was a major recession going on in the video game industry as a whole. This crash was caused by a number of specific factors. While the economy did play a role in the decline, it was much more than that. First off, the home video game console market was severely flooded. When the crash occurred in 1983, there were many consoles to select from. You could walk into a department store or electronics store, and buy the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, ColecoVision, Intellivision, the Arcadia 2001, the Fairchild Channel F (model II), the Odyssey 2, Vectrex, among others, not to mention the various clones that were made by companies like Sears and Radio Shack. Some of these companies had also announced new systems, including the unreleased Odyssey 3.
In addition, after Activision (the first third party software developer) won a lawsuit against Atari that granted permission to create games for their video game consoles, dozens of new software developers, such as Apollo and Imagic came to the scene. This brings us to the next situation that brought on this crazy crash, and that was the lack of publishing control. While the previously said companies sometimes produced quality product, other companies with even stranger histories, such as Purina Foods and Johnson & Johnson got into the “game”, eager to enter the marketplace. In most cases, these stray businesses had absolutely no experience with video games at all, and because of that, the quality suffered. It was assumed that if you create any video game, people will want to purchase it. With this in mind, and with so many products available on both the hardware and software ends (in which compatibility was a major issue), there was simply an over saturation, a lot of confusion, which left many people that once supported this electronic fad confused.
Another reason for this crash of 1983 was due to a brand new competition, which is more than likely, something that you are using right now at this very moment in one form or another. That competition was the home computer. While there was just an over saturation of computers of the era, with options including the Atari 8-bit series, the Apple II, Commodore VIC-20 & C64, TRS-80, Coleco Adam, Texas Instruments TI-99, Timex Sinclair, among others, these new microcomputers brought a very interesting competition to the video game marketplace. In a popular television commercial and print advertisement campaign by Commodore (presented by William Shatner), he asks the consumer, “Why buy JUST a video game, when you can own the wonder computer of the 1980s: The Commodore VIC-20?” The appeal to using computers instead of consoles was for a simple reason. If you purchased a video game system, you got to play games with it, and that was it. Meanwhile, a personal computer could be used by the entire family for a wide variety of tasks, including money management, telecommunications, word processing, and educational purposes. Since the price of home computers had severely dropped in some cases like with the Commodore, Texas Instruments and Timex systems, it made the microcomputer look more appealing, and video game consoles look more appalling.
The final reason for the crash that could be argued has to do with hype, expectation, and ultimate failure. For this category, you can’t help but point at Atari, who was one of the leading manufacturers of video game hardware and software. In 1982, Atari released the long anticipated home version of their arcade smash hit Pac-Man for their 2600/VCS console. Because development was rushed to get the game out in time for Christmas, the final product was not nearly as good as it could have been. (Modern hacks and remakes of the game show what could have been possible back in the early 80s.) They also physically created more copies of the cartridge than there were active Atari 2600 systems in use, thinking that the game would be so popular that it would increase sales of the hardware. While the title did sell well, only about half of the cartridges were sold. In addition, Atari was also responsible for creating video game called E.T., which was based on the popular film of the same name. Again, production was rushed to get the game ready for sale by the holiday season, and the final product was also subject to criticism. Add to that the high cost of actual licensing of the E.T. character from Steven Spielberg, and you’ve got another major factor in the video game crash had occurred.
Because of these factors, if you asked most people in 1983 what they thought the future of console video games was going to be, chances are you would have gotten the answer, “What future?” But while the video game market was going to pot throughout North America, over in Japan it was a completely different story. While all of this was going on, Japan actually took over as dominance in the market. When Nintendo had decided that it wanted to bring the popular Famicom to North America, they had actually originally contacted Atari to release the console as the Nintendo EVS (Enhanced Video System). Because of a speculation that Nintendo had also been working with Coleco (makers of the ColecoVision and ADAM Computer), Atari believed that Nintendo had entered negotiations with them at the same time. In reality, the ADAM demonstration that Nintendo personnel had seen was nothing more than a pre-existing ColecoVision cartridge of “Donkey Kong”, which was showing that the ADAM was backwards compatible with the ColecoVision. While these issues were eventually cleared up, by the time it was settled, Atari had already lost too much money because of the crash to continue with the deal. Ultimately, Nintendo would release the Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to North American audiences on their own, on October 18, 1985. Originally test marketed in select cities, the original set included the console, two controllers, the Zapper light gun, the Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB), as well as copies of Duck Hunt and Gyromite. Upon its North American launch, a total of 17 games were available for the system, one of them being today’s celebration: Super Mario Brothers.
Super Mario Brothers was the successor to the arcade classic Mario Brothers, first released in 1983. It was designed by Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, both part of Nintendo’s Creative Department at the time. In addition, Koji Kondo wrote the six-song musical score. Unlike the original arcade classic where Mario would be hurt by stomping on turtles without first flipping them on their backs, Mario could defeat turtles by stomping on their shells, as the developers decided the previous method had been illogical. The ability to have Mario change size was a result of basing level design around a smaller Mario, then intending to make his size bigger in the final version. They later decided it would be fun to have Mario become larger as a power-up ability. Using Mushrooms to change Mario to a larger size, as stereotypical sounding as it is, was influenced by the old folk tales in which people happen to wander into a forest and eat magical mushrooms. This was also the origin of the location of the game, The Mushroom Kingdom.
For those that have been living under a rock for most of their lives, here’s the typical breakdown of Super Mario Brothers. The player plays the part of a plumber by the name of Mario. If there is a second player taking advantage of the 2-player mode, the second player stars as Mario’s slightly younger brother, Luigi. (For the rest of this article, while Mario is the star of the show, Luigi also has the same abilities as the second player. Thus, when we state “Mario”, it can also be substituted for Luigi.) The character of Mario was actually seen in other games before Super Mario Brothers, and even before the arcade title Mario Brothers. He could be seen in such games as Donkey Kong, for example. The object of the game is to race through the Mushroom Kingdom, survive the forces of Bowser, who is the main antagonist in the game, and to ultimately save Princess Toadstool. Mario moves from the left side of the screen to the right side of the screen, in order to reach a flag pole that is found at the end of each level. The game world has coins that can be found (either out in the open or hidden in special mystery boxes), and be collected. When Mario collects 100 coins, he earns an extra life. Other power-up items will help Mario along his journey, including Mushrooms that can gain an extra life or hit, fire flowers that allow him to shoot flames, or stars that allow Mario to become invincible for a short period of time.
Of course, you cannot have a great video game without a great selection of enemies! Mario’s main form of attack is by simply jumping on top of them, but each enemy has a different way of handling such an attack. For instance, while Goombas are instantly defeated, Koopa Troopas go back into their turtle shell temporarily, and will only be defeated if Mario kicks it, using it as a projectile. And while Spinys cannot be stomped on because of their spikes, the Hammer Brothers can throw projectiles at you! Other ways of attacking the enemies include hitting blocks from above using Mario’s head, to knock an enemy off balance, defeating them instantly.
The game consists of 4 stages in each world, in which there are a total of 8 worlds all together. This means that you will have 32 different stages to play through until you reach the Princess! You have a few different world styles to play through, including the over world, the underworld, the water world, and the castles. Throughout playing, you will find a variety of different secret areas that can be accessed in various ways. For instance, you can find a vine that Mario can climb to the sky! When you get there, you can usually find a treasure trove of coins just ready for the collecting. Or, you might be able to actually climb to the top and avoid playing parts of the main game all together, which at the end could take you to a warp zone to get you to the Princess even faster. The castles are always the final stage of a particular world, which is where you will defeat Bowser! (Or one of his many decoys, as you all undoubtedly know by now.) Players are given a certain number of lives, which can be increased by collecting coins, earning 1-up Mushrooms, or by doing combos with enemy elimination. A life is lost when Mario takes damage while small, falls in a pit, or runs out of time. (And of course, we all know when time is running short. The music makes sure of that!) The game ends when you lose all of your lives, or if you are lucky, when you save the Princess at the end of the game! But don’t get too excited when you first see her. She might be a Mushroom Retainer, who while grateful for saving her, regrets to inform you that your princess is in another castle.
So how well was Super Mario Brothers received? Well, history has to be the answer to this one. For many years, the original game in the franchise was praised for being the best-selling video game of all time. To date, the game has sold over 40.2 million copies. That’s still more copies sold that some of the most popular video games of today. For comparison, Diablo III has sold 30 million copies, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas has sold 27.5 million copies, and Call Of Duty: Black Ops II had 24.2 million copies sold. The record however, while very impressive, was eventually bound to be broken. Grand Theft Auto V to date has sold 54 million copies (released 28 years later), Wii Sports had sold 82.69 million copies (released 21 years later), and Minecraft has sold over 70 million copies (released 24 years later). So you can see that the original game in the franchise has done quite well for the record books.
Super Mario Brothers was critically acclaimed for many years, for having simplistic gameplay, an enjoyable storyline, memorable characters and enemies, and music that is not only still recognized today, but has been remixed into a variety of modern genres over the years. The game has kept such a strong following, that it has been re-released several times over the years, most of the time with the original program code (or with very few minor enhancements). Some examples of these versions include Super Mario All-Stars (which when released for the Super NES in 1993, offered audiovisual enhancements to the game), Super Mario Brothers Deluxe (released for the Game Boy Color in 1999), and as a part of the “Classic NES Series” (made for the Game Boy Advance in 2004). In addition, the game has also been available for download from Nintendo via their Virtual Console service, with versions available for the Nintendo Wii (released in 2006), 3DS (released in 2012), and their current Wii U platform (released in 2013).
Of course however, this is only the beginning of a long and amazing franchise. As the years went on throughout the eighties, nineties, the new millennium and beyond, an insanely amount of direct sequels and new adventures have been released for every Nintendo platform every created ever since, successful or not. Games such as Super Mario Brothers 3 were also incredibly successful, with it being one of the most popular games in the franchise. Portable games featuring the Mario characters include the amazing Super Mario Land for the Game Boy. Not to mention, that sometimes Mario hangs up his plunger, for he has also been seen as a doctor, a tennis referee, and as a construction worker. Mario also entered the educational field, with programs such as Mario Is Missing and Mario Teaches Typing getting released in the 1990s. We have the super popular Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo, and of course, when Nintendo entered the 64 bit era with the N64, Mario was there with Super Mario 64. Games released since the new millennium include Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 3D World. Most recently, a brand new title featuring Mario was released just this past Friday, when Super Mario Maker was released for the Wii U, which allows you to create your very own levels based on some of the most popular offerings. Needless to say, Mario has become more than just a franchise or official mascot for Nintendo. He has literally been a part of every gamer’s life, no matter which generation it may be.
So without further ado, I raise my glass to not only Nintendo, but to Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka, Koji Kondo, and everyone else that had a stake in the original Super Mario Brothers game. Not only did they help create a legend that we are celebrating 30 years later, but they also brought back a dying art form and entertainment genre, which was thought to be on its way out the door all those years ago. Think about this the next time you load up your Wii U, PS4 or Xbox One: If Nintendo hadn’t come into play back in 1985 with the NES (and thus, with Super Mario Brothers), there is a chance that none of these video game consoles that we have today would even be available. Not saying that there wouldn’t have been a video game market, I think that it would have happened eventually. But because of Nintendo’s vision, great business skills, and most of all, passion for the technology and genre, they helped bring back everyone’s love for playing video games at home. And if it weren’t for this fine company and the many fine individuals that took part at that early stage of the game, our lives as gamer’s could very well have been much, much different. So tonight, take a few moments. Dust off that old NES, download a fresh copy to your current system, or load up your favorite emulator if you must. Take a few moments to go back in time to when all you needed to have a great game was a television, some imagination, and a controller with just a D-pad and 2 buttons. It’s time to reminisce to the fullest, and have some great fun along the way!
Super Mario Brothers 30th Anniversary: Official Nintendo Celebration Website