Friday, May 15, 2015

Post-mortem-review #5: Super Mario

Let's do another post-mortem game review. It has been a while. And what better game to pick than Super Mario?

Probably not the most original title to pick though. What can be said that hasn't been said before about a title that is in pretty much anyone's game-top 10 who grew up with a Nintendo somewhere between 1980 and 2000? A list of classics without Mario is like making a list of war criminals and forgetting Hitler. Everyone knows Mario, including your grandma who never touched a computer. Ask an excavated mummy, and he will still answer "Super Mario". After 30 years, he is still the most iconic game character ever created. Now the question arises, was the game really THAT good, or does Mario thank his reputation to being at the right spot, at the right time, and a big dose of nostalgia?

Well, it is quite obvious that Mario was at least one of the first GOOD games out there. Of course it wasn't the first (platform) game, nor was the NES/Famicom (the Japanese version of the NES) the first game console. But it's quite safe to say that the NES was one the first successful Home-Entertainment-Game-Consoles, and Mario was the first game for it. At least, as far as I (and most others) know. But would Mario still be that succesful if another platform game -let's say his nemesis "Sonic"- would have been first instead?

... I think I know an answer. Yes, he would definitely still kick ass, ehm, shell. First strikes count, but Mario didn't just suckerpunch the audience, he did it in style. As said, Mario wasn't the first, and sure not the last platform game. Besides getting chased by Pac-Man, some racing or shooting, solving text puzzles, or jumping and climbing with pixelated puppets from one to another floating platforms, there wasn't much else in the Game-Spectrum anyway.

Released in 1985. Did you know our famous plumber wasn't supposed to be a plumber at first? The main character during development, was just a moving "block" sprite. There were also ideas of using rockets and guns in this game. Hence, this game was supposed to be the last big title for the Famicom(Japanese NES) as there were plans to replace this console already. Luck or smart thinking, I don't think anyone could have dreamed about Mario's future.

Shoo. Go play outside
I'm often complaining that I'm getting old, but actually I'm not old enough to talk about the early ages of gaming. I saw and played some Atari, Commodore and NES games, but never owned one of those consoles. Nah, when we were young, mom kicked us out to play on the streets, and if we were good boys we had some Lego for the cold and rainy days. Gaming? I caught some snippets from TV, but I never realized there was such a cool thing as Mario and platform games. We didn't own a PC or any other computer until I was six.

And then it still took about 3 years before our first Nintendo (the SNES) arrived in '92 or 93. Dad did get addicted by repairing 286 PC's though (our computers were always messed up collections of second/third hand components), and the concept "game" entered my life bit by bit. Jungle Book on the floppy disk here, shooting "tanks" on the Atari at a friend there. Zelda commercials, and playing Super Mario Bros 3 (sort of) on a portable watch.

With the lack of anything better, thist must have been the first Mario "game" I owned.

Pretty nice, but so far nothing beats a box of Lego, or going outside, killing Indians with your friends using plastic guns. Yes, that's what kids did back then. Until mom visited a friend, where I had to sit down and play with a girl. Normally that would have sucked big time, playing with girls. But it happened she owned a NES. With Duck Hunt & Super Mario Bros (1). Honestly I never saw a Nintendo in action, nor a "modern" platform game like SMB (note that SMB was already 5 or more years old by then).

It was instant love. The NES Joypad to begin with was very different from the old fashioned Atari Joy*stick*. A 4-directional "Cross button", and 1,2 no 4(!) other buttons. Imagine the amount of possible combinations! These days we can't care less about a joystick, other than its ergonomics. But back then, the button-count stood for power. It were the 4 red-green-blue-yellow buttons specifically on the SNES Joypad that drew my attention like a Siren's song. Must. Have. It!! He, I remember "The wheel of fortune" on TV, where a lady had to pick prizes. Between the washing machines, frying pans and other bullshit, a SNES with its 4-colors-of-happiness joypad was shining there. That crazy lady didn't even look at it first (how could she?!), but later on decided a SNES could be a nice playthingy for her nephews. I was so jealous. Why didn't I have an aunt winning Wheel of Fortune and picking a SNES?

Portable Nintendo's not included, and let's forget about that weird "Virtual Boy". Btw, looking at the release dates... 2017 or '18 a new Nintendo?

No, no Nintendo's for us yet. When I came home that day, I tried to "replicate" this Nintendo system by making a TV, NES, cartridge and Joypads out of carton. Within the "TV" (and empty box), I made a scrolling paper with the blue Mario background, and bricks and pipes for the foreground. That was the idea at least. Of course I got tired of it after 60 minutes. Anyhow, the Super Mario universe, with its brown brick blocks, green pipes, flagpoles, question-marks, castles, turtles and goomba's made a permanent print in my fantasy. There were other games before Mario, but they just never felt as complete as Mario did. Sound and music sucked, and the visuals failed to impress. Just some blocks and floating lines, and a meaningless pixelated character. Such games were fun for 10, maybe 100 minutes. But they had no soul.

Somehow these guys look familar...

Do The Mario!
They weren't the type of games you could talk about for hours with friends afterwards. "A guy(?) shooting pixels going from the left to the right" pretty much covered it all. The concept of different levels, addictive audio tunes, recognizable characters and foes, a background story -even though it was Save The Princess-. It was all pretty new to me. Games played these tricks before, but failed to put all these ingredients together into a solid recipe. But Mario found the magic formula. What this magical formula exactly is? I don't know. The character Mario on itself, a somewhat thick plumber with a moustache that never says anything, isn't as pretty as Lara Croft, as bad-ass as Duke Nukem, or as fast as Sonic. I think it's the world and character design as a whole, which is truly unique on its own. Not biased towards kids, teenagers or older people. Not copied from some other science fiction or fantasy hype. Mario is Mario, and nothing else.

In the months that followed, I started noticing the commercials, magazines like "Club Nintendo", and even cartoons (yes, Nintendo games like Mario, Zelda and Metroid had their own TV shows). They helped forming this Mario Universe in our heads, even though I still didn't own a Nintendo. Everyone knew Mario, Toad, Princess, or that big bag turtle/dragon foe named Bowser. Everyone was familiar with the green pipes, breakable blocks and mushrooms that formed the "Mushroom Kingdom" world. Did you know that, according to the little instruction book story, the Mushroom Kingdom people have been turned into these blocks, brushes and Goomba's you're destroying and killing all the time? Pretty sinister.

Game movies usually suck, and so did the Mario Movie. But they got the story quite right with the Goomba's actually being humans transformed into these "Chestnut people". Goomba's were added last in the Mario game by the way.

So, Mario wasn't just popular for being there at the right time. The design, tunes, characters and everything were welcomed with open arms by a worldwide audience. Of course, there was less to choose from, but given the fact kids these days still dig Mario, just says enough about its charming appereance. When I booted Super Mario World a year ago for no apperant reason, it almost immediatly sucked my (then 5 years old) into the screen. "What you're doing daddy?". Eh, jumping on these brown things called Goomba's. "What's that mushroom daddy?". It makes you bigger. Don't try that at home though. Thanks to its simple rules and unique style, Mario attracts kids, but without feeling "Kiddy" per sé. Whether you're 6 or 26, this game truly is for all ages. In fact, judging by its difficulty, Mario is a challenge for more experienced (older) gamers, and probably too hard for little kids.

And its influence goes beyond gaming consoles. Every (Japanese) kid with an electrical guitar or keyboard, can play the Mario tune. Boys and girls wear Mario shirts. The unmistakable sound effects have been recycled in hundreds of movies, jokes, sketches and other games. The whole Mario world just lends itself perfectly for so many applications. Including kid bedroom decorations:
Yeah, that's my son's bedroom. Took a goddamn infinity of time to draw all those pixelated bricks, clouds and brushes on the walls! And that room is only 2 by 2 meters! If your kids ask for a Mario room, don't do it. Or buy wallpaper / decals.

Pandora's Box
All right, so, my generation got familiar with the Mario universe, even if you didn't own a Nintendo console. There was no way around it. Nor for our parents, who had to listen to the all-famous "tu tu, tu, tutu tuuuuu" game music every day. As mentioned before, I wanted a Nintendo so bad, but still didn't own. Sinterklaas (our Santa Claus) didn't love me enough I think. Asked for a NES -and as a backup plan, a Sega Megadrive for my little brother- but we got trains instead. Many friends and other kids in the neighbourhood got a Nintendo sooner or later though. I'm not sure why our parents didn't follow. Maybe because a Nintendo was quite expensive. Maybe because they were afraid we wouldn't leave the house anymore. Maybe because my parents were immune for nagging, whining and begging kids anyway. But, at a spring Friday evening at the start of one of the school vacations, dad finally allowed us a Nintendo. No we didn't buy one; we rented one. And from what I remember, finding a video store that still had a Nintendo available for renting was pretty hard. Not because no one would rent a Nintendo. Hell no! everybody rented games and consoles these days, especially during the vacations! Different times my friends.

But we found a NES, and rented it for a week. Together with Super Mario Bros 3, which is even more awesome than 1. And a boy from our street also gave me Castlevania and Super Mario Bros 2 to try. Well, that must have been one darn good vacation. I remember me still sitting in front of the TV when it was quite late in the evening already, and mom watching. No idea what she thought... Adored to see her son play, or being afraid her son getting obsessed with those pesky video games? I do remember my thoughts though: "Where the hell is Boom-Boom?!". That bastard flew out of the TV-screen and didn't return until the timer dropped to zero.

Whatever the reason was for not giving us a Nintendo yet, it's a good thing we had to wait. Because the *Super* Nintendo made its way to our commercials. 16 bits?! Nobody knew what that meant, but it sure kicked ass! Bigger games, better graphics, crisper sound, and 6(!) action buttons on the joypad! As Sinterklaas and Christmas approached again in 1992, commercials of Street Fighter II and Super Mario World started flashing by. It was so gruesome that my little brother and I actually captured these ~40 second commercials on VHS tape so we could replay them. I can still see Mario dashing while giant drills with spikes would drop from the ceiling. Holy shit. If we still didn't get ourselves a Nintendo this year, I would probably die. So in order guarantee success, I started collecting coins (real ones, not Mario coins) and saved them for Sinterklaas.

6 December morning the coins were gone, and a big box was there... A box with electric sheets?! Sinterklaas, What the F...?! How could he be so heartless and mean! I whish I never said I wanted those stupid electric sheets (our parents had those, nice and warm in the winter, and before a few kids burned in bed). That asshole took all my hard earned coins, and dropped a box of sheets through the chimney. Sheets! It took my mother quite some minutes and hints (and priceless photo's of a dissapointed broken kid) before I finally opened the box... Is that... a Red, Green, Blue and Yellow button?! On a joypad?

Apparently they swapped the SNES box with another old electric-sheets box that was still laying around somewhere on the attic. Oh Sinterklaas, you old crook. Rick finally got what he wanted. And turned into a horrible fat kid obsessed with gaming, and programming games later on. Parents, don't give your kids games.

So, was it good?
Super Mario World was the first Mario game I owned. And boy, yes it was good. Of course it starred our beloved Mario world, introducing even more heart-warming features. Mountains with 2 black stripes as eyes (note the lovely simplicity), giant Big Bill cannon ball/bullets, a cape that allows Mario to fly, and -how could we forget- Yoshi! The lovely green dragon with the long sticky tongue (huh?)! I would draw Yoshi, kids would wear Yoshi T-shirts. Hence, our guinea pig was called Yoshi (II actually, the first Yoshi died after a week already). Nintendo and the magnificent mind of Shigeru Miyamoto did it once again. (I would curse that green dragon and develop and intense hate for Toad & Princess in the Mario Kart games later on though.)

But... was the game good - gameplay wise? As this topic questioned, did Mario just appear at the right time, or is it a good game technically speaking as well? Let me be short and straight. Yes. By now I did play some Mario's and other platform (alike) games on various consoles. As mentioned before, these games often felt unfinished. For example, many Atari games had point systems and an infinite loop of the same levels. The lack of structure, a begin and an end would make you tired of a game at some point. And then the physics. What I say "physics", you probably think about ragdolls flying in the air, exploding barrels in Half life, or buildings collapsing in Battlefield. But physics can be also as "simple" as jumping over a pit, or colliding with a floating block. And I shouldn't say "simple" really. Believe me, physics were bad in many, many older (platform) games.

Even touching the water would mean "dead" in many platform games

If you didn't grew up with old platform games, I strongly suggest you watch "The Angry Video Game Nerd" on Youtube. Not only fun to watch, you actually learn exactly what has been done wrong in so many older games. Your character sprite being too small or big on the screen. Your character being too slow, too fast, or too slippery as if it was walking on ice. Lack of clear structure in the level design so you can't see on which platforms you can stand. Bad scrolling camera positions. No in-air steering control. Untested -impossible- jumps in games. Bad collision detection with obstacles. Falling through platforms as you didn't land pixel-perfectly. Just a grasp of common mistakes. Asides from a few weird glitches, Mario didn't make those faults. And that, certainly when comparing Mario Bros 1 (1985!) with more modern SNES/SEGA/PC platformers up to 10 years later that still had wacky physics, was impressive. Just like there is one-kilogram reference weight kept in a vault of the "International Bureau of Weights and Measures" in France, Super Mario Bros should be an universal standard for platform game physics.

It may sound like a minor detail, but it is a big thing. You see, Mario is a pretty hard game. And many joysticks have been broken due bad physics, unfair level design or straight ugly game bugs in platform games. Such troubles could completely ruin a game. Mario did it right. Most others not. Hell, even a PS3 game like Little Big Planet just doesn't feel as right as Super Mario when it comes to running, sliding, climbing, jumping and bumping. It's... just not quite it.

Apart from the physics, Mario did pretty much everything right. The music, the sounds. All simple but so unmistakable. The graphics weren't brilliant animation-wise, but smooth and colourful nevertheless. The colour palette choice, and elements being used in the Mario worlds just always worked. The amount of levels and variety has also been done right. Where other platform games only had 7 long boring levels or so (with usually one or two unplayable levels and no save-continues), a game like Super Mario Bros 3 or World had dozens of worlds. Not too short, not too long, and plenty of diversion. From the standard mushroom kingdom over-worlds, to underground grotto's. From castles to flying battleships. From high up in the clouds, to deep under water. Ghost-houses, lava, snow, day, night... Mario had it all.

Jump into the third Dimension
Buying a Mario game stood guaranteed for a healthy dose of fantastic fantasy and addictive challenges. But even magic success formula's will age at some point. Halfway the Nineties, the PC wasn't exactly a replacement for the good old Console system. But it did show gaming could be a lot more than just some platformers, racers and top-down view adventure games. The PC had a mouse. And it had 3D. Wolfenstein may not have been an excellent game, but Doom and Duke were, and Quake pushed the 3D technology further into our displays. The days of simple side-scrolling 2D platformers were about to end abruptly...

Sega announced their Saturn, Nintendo their Nintendo64 (called Ultra64 earlier), and a new player -Sony Playstation- arrived a little bit earlier with their 3D capable system as well. You know I like telling stories, so here is one more about how we got our N64. I never should have done it, but, Sinterklaas not on my side anymore and the N64 release somewhere in March or April -far away from any birthdays or other chances on presents- I sold my SNES and all 12 games for a lousy price first. At birthdays we just asked for money so we could save it for that upcoming N64. When it was finally there in March 97, we handed over a big bag of money to dad, who would drive by a toy store on his way home after work that Friday. We had to be lucky though. Rumours were only a limited amount of Nintendo's were shipped, so we had to call a couple of stores first, asking to make a reservation. All of them were sold out, but one store would give a call in case a customer didn't pick up his console. Or something. All I really remember was waiting forever that Friday afternoon. Dad never came home early, and today it would take even longer.

Brother and I killed the hours by re-reading games magazines covering Mario64 for the 600th time, and once again dreamed away with the possibilities of an analogue joystick + 3D worlds. Then "somebody from the shop" called, telling all Nintendo 64's were gone. And later on that there still was one N64, but we had to make our homework and whatever. Of course I knew this "shop-guy" was just dad. My parents were playing a Nintendo-prank again... right? Had to hold a N64 joystick with my own hands first. Early that evening, dad finally came home. With a Nintendo 64. And with Super Mario 64.

3D was the word. And in all of a sudden, 2D was uncool. And I mean, really uncool. Making a 2D game more or less meant you were showing a weakness; not being capable of programming a 3D game. Now the 2D game genre had been crystalized and perfectioning itself over the past 10 years. With Donkey Kong Country as a beautiful (semi 3D) pearl at the end of the 2D platformer life cyclus. But now 3D took over, and designers had to sharpen their swords again. Obviously, the 3D genre started with a lot of mistakes again. Horrible graphics, foggy empty worlds due the lack of computing power, impossible controls. And also the physics didn't exactly get better with this new third dimensions. 2D wasn't cool anymore, but just putting the "3D!" label on your game certainly didn't make it better either, though from a marketing perspective it worked well of course.

In that context, it's pretty amazing that one of the first (console) 3D platform games did so well. Without real references of how it should or shouldn't be done (note that most PC 3D games were action / first person, not platformers), Nintendo once again made a masterpiece that *worked* with Mario 64. Unlike so many other games for the N64, this first(!) 3D Nintendo game was in harmony with the analogue joystick, made a somewhat empty yet still colourful and exciting appearance, had the physics done well, and turned out to be a challenging, big game. 3D certainly added an extra dimension of fun to this particular game. The transition from 2D to 3D was a successful one. In this case at least.

Proper camera, Responsive controls, right level design, and maintaining a Mario style in 3D... without those elements this game would have failed miserably.

Do the Mario. Again. And Again. and Again.
Mario most definitely deserved a good place in my personal games-top 10. Which Mario exactly then? They made about a trillion. Hmmm. If I had to choose... Super Mario Bros 3 + Super Mario World + Super Mario 64. Don't care those are three different titles, just put them in the list already. Same as with Zelda, you can't really pick a single best one. A lot more Mario's followed, though I only checked the ones on the main consoles really. Thus not the Gameboys / DS versions. And the Gamecube somehow missed a real Mario game if you ask me. Unlike mother other Nintendo's, there was no big title during the Gamecube release, and Mario Sunshine was... different. A good challenge, pretty graphics. But different. I didn't like the palmtree-head Pinata guys or the sunny ocean beach setup. Where were the mushrooms, Koopa's and breakable blocks?

That's what you get if you tingle with the magical formula. If you don't change a thing, people will start complaining its getting old. And if you do change a thing, people will complain it’s not "it" anymore. Luckily the Mario series recovered properly with the Galaxy and "New Super Mario" Bros series, but all in all we learned that Mario isn't an unbreakable brick either. With the exception of Mario kart and Smash Brothers, I never liked all these side franchises. Mario Tennis, Mario Party, Mario Toilet Clogger, Mario This, Mario That. And even the Kart & Smash Brothers lost my interest after doing the same trick over and over again. Recently we bought a Wii U, and as if it was an automatic reflex, I had the urge of buying Mario Kart / Smash Brothers / New Bros as well. As I did on all previous Nintendo consoles. But looking at some IGN / Gamespot reviews, I really wondered what the additional value was. Same characters. Same worlds. Same controls. Same type of gameplay. For the first time, I didn't buy them.

Mario 3D World was quite a blast, but even so, it felt too familiar. Too easy, too much "not-so-surprising". I had the same feeling with the Metroid, Zelda and so many other "milked" game series. Of course you can't get surprised anymore after doing it sixty times. That's just physically, biochemically, virtually, practically, impossible.

BUT... does that make Mario less of a good game then? You know what, being more than thirty years old and having played a dozen of such games, my opinion doesn't really matter anymore. My bored "Been there Done that" mood doesn't count of the little girl sitting next to me, playing Mario 3D World with me. She still is amazed, amused and sucked into a wonderful fantasy world of floating platforms, princesses, talking mushrooms and shelled badguys. The upcoming Paper Mario's, Zelda or other Nintendo games will be just as healthy for her than they were for me twenty years ago.