In his first two video game appearances, Mario had to play second banana to two starring gorillas, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.
The moustachioed plumber finally got top billing (and a twin brother, Luigi) in 1983’s original Mario Bros. arcade game, but the future King of All Things Nintendo didn’t really ascend to the throne until 1986.
In that watershed year, Super Mario Bros. hit the arcades in Nintendo’s Vs. cabinets, jumpstarting both Mario’s career and the future of side-scrolling platform video games.
Designed by video game legend Shigeru Miyamoto (the same man responsible for the Donkey Kong games and Nintendo home system classics like the Legend of Zelda series), Super Mario Bros. was a multi-world adventure somewhat inspired by another arcade icon’s 1983 game, Pac-Land.
The bizarre-looking Bowser, King of the Koopa (a sort of dinosaur turtle), had kidnapped fair Princess Toadstool, heiress to the throne of the Mushroom Kingdom. To get the lady back, Mario (and Luigi in the alternating two-player game) had to run and jump through eight different worlds, each with four stages, battling mushroom-like Goombas, turtle-like Koopa Troopas, Bullet Bills, Hammer Brothers, Piranha Plants and more.
Running from left to right across the worlds, Mario had to master various tricks if he wanted to rescue the Princess.
The simplest ones involved jumping headfirst into the platforms that ran along the screen. Certain blocks (indicated by question marks) held special surprises, including bonus coins, extra lives or one of the game’s power-up items.
Red mushrooms turned little Mario into big Mario, enabling him to take one hit without losing a life and to reach higher platforms. Flowers gave big Mario the power to shoot bouncing fireballs at his enemies. These two power-ups were permanent (as long as Mario didn’t get hit or fall to his death), but a third, invincibility stars, wore off after a while.
Along with fireballs, Mario’s most potent weapons were his enemies themselves.
Goombas and a few other baddies were simply squished if Mario jumped on top of their heads, but Koopas were actually knocked straight up into their shells. When Mario ran into or jumped onto these loose shells, he pushed them forward for a little turtle shell bowling, knocking over any enemies and smashing any breakable bricks in their path.
The thirty-two game stages ran the gamut from outdoor adventures to castle exploration to swimming levels, with secrets everywhere.
A plumber by trade, Mario soon found that he could enter some of the large pipes that appeared on the levels, entering new rooms, hidden shortcuts, etc. The fun of exploration kept players coming back long after they had beaten Bowser, adding to the game’s extraordinary appeal.
Super Mario Bros. was a breakthrough success in a still-hurting arcade game market, but more importantly to Nintendo, the game turned the company’s Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) home console into the hottest system in the land.
The game was packaged inside most NES consoles, and sales skyrocketed. Side-scrolling platform adventures became a staple of home console games, several featuring Mario himself.
Mario went on to star in literally dozens of home games – everything from Super Mario Bros. sequels to role-playing games to puzzle games to go-kart racing games.
The hand-held Game Boy in 1989, the Super Nintendo in 1991 and the Nintendo 64 in 1996 were all launched with Mario games, and by the early ’90s, the plumber was more recognisable among kids than Mickey Mouse himself.
In the years since his humble Donkey Kong beginnings, Mario has appeared in cartoons, a 1993 feature film and countless merchandising tie-ins.
Arguably more famous than even Pac-Man, Mario has become the face of the video game industry, largely thanks to the innovative genius of Shigeru Miyamoto and this revolutionary platform game.