It’s a cliché to think of Nintendo’s flagship franchise as the greatest in history – in some ways it is. Certainly, there have been games since the SNES era that have been arguable better. But Mario does on the whole deserve the praise it gets – not least because it effectively saved an industry.
The western video games market was in a real mess following the Video Game Crash of ’83. The crisis had many roots, but Atari are commonly blamed. Chief of their problems was the way their software wasn’t licensed, leading to a preponderance of derivative, dull or badly-made software crippling confidence in the industry.
For Nintendo to have their Famicom released in the USA at all, they had to market it as an “Entertainment System” and bundle it with ROB the robot, so that it could be sold as a toy. But what really boosted their popularity to unprecedented heights was the pack-in game: Super Mario Bros.
Its backgrounds may have been simple, but its gameplay was surprisingly deep and varied for 1985. Mario would travel through eight worlds (unless you discovered the Warp Zones and cheated yourself out of gameplay). He would bounce across multicoloured worlds full of Goombas and Piranha Plants, true, but also castles full of intricate platforming and traps, and underwater stages with totally new mechanics.
It introduced or popularised most of the basic standards on which modern platforming was built – power ups, a sideways scrolling screen, for example. Further classic Mario games – like Super Mario World – introduced ubiquitous mechanics like ridable companions in Yoshi, multiple exits and secret worlds for those good enough to beat the game fully.
Mario games may have changed little since, but that’s because there’s not much point messing too much with a well-established formula. Even some of the more unique 3D adventures, like Sunshine and Galaxy, knew enough to build on what worked and what was popular.
While the NES’ 40 million sales are not exceptional by modern standards, it has to be remembered that at the time that was an incredible figure in a market much more limited in size than it is today. Part of the reason the NES was so dominant against its rivals – only the SEGA Master System retains any name recognition at all – was because those rivals had no mascot as well-known and easily identifiable as Mario.
Sonic the Hedgehog had many admirable qualities in its early instalments. It told us that gaming could be fast, chaotic and enjoyable, and gave players lots of secrets to find and enjoy. Blue Sphere is still excellent fun as a minigame today.
And like Mario, Sonic spawned a huge series and following, and was the reason the Mega Drive managed to give the SNES a decent run for its money. With its TV show, comic book series, multiple sequels and continuous porting to every console under the sun, there’s no denying it had huge appeal.
But Mario did it first. Mario showed us that a game could be a cultural phenomenon in the same way a film or TV show could. It showed us that there was serious money to be made from video games, and kickstarted financially one of the most innovative systems of all time, the NES. From the success of Mario came the confidence in gaming that produced The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Final Fantasy and Mother.
Sonic is a series with a lot to be proud of. But whatever it did, Mario did most of it first. And in doing it, it laid down the foundations for everything that came afterwards.
Go read James Pettegrow’s account of why classic Sonic is better – then let us know who you think is right!