However old you are, Super Mario Bros. is likely to be one of the first games you ever played – whether on an original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the mid-1980s or on the Wii in the 2000s. Even those who’ve never picked up a controller cannot fail to recognise the squat, moustachioed fellow, running and jumping around vaguely psychedelic, primary-coloured landscapes in his blue dungarees and red cap.
Despite being ancient by video game standards, at 35 years old, Super Mario Bros. is still enjoyable and instantly comprehensible today. Its first level is arranged in such a way that the new player instinctively learns its rules in the opening few seconds: jump on enemies, hit question-mark blocks with your head, eat mushrooms to power up. It is so elegant that it is still taught in game design courses – as the basic architecture of fun.
And it’s still glorified by accountants, too. Super Mario Bros. was a turning point for the business of video games, arriving at a time when early home games consoles from the likes of Atari and Mattel had crashed in the US, and when industrious Nintendo employees had to basically plead with stores for them to stock consoles and games – even setting up displays themselves. But Super Mario Bros. was its own advertisement. It went on to sell 40 million copies.
Of course, many other games came before Super Mario Bros., and some of them stoked the world’s enthusiasm. It was preceded by Pong, by Pac-Mania, and by Space Invaders, which enthralled millions – including a 33-year-old Martin Amis, who wrote a little-appreciated book about it, called Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines.
But Super Mario Bros. is what turned video games into a cultural phenomenon in most parts of the world, sweeping Japan before reviving an almost-dead industry in the US and bringing into homes the kind of raucous, dazzling fun that could previously only be had with a coin-swallowing arcade machine. It is the game that welcomed a generation of children who weren’t playing in bars or smoky arcades into love of video games – or hooked them in, depending on your perspective.
And while the NES was never the all-consuming force in the UK and Europe that it was in Japan and America, Mario nonetheless became gaming’s first real global icon – its Mickey Mouse.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, even the 2000s, there was a prevailing attitude among older adults that video games were insidious things. What else were they to think, watching children glassy-eyed in front of a screen, jumping a little pixel man over chasms again and again and again? But they couldn’t see what was going on inside those children’s heads; their imaginations filling in the gaps left by primitive graphics and sound, creating a world of wonder.
Those same children are now the almost-middle-aged arbiters of culture – and, for them, Super Mario Bros. was not a vacuous distraction but one of the foundational texts of an emerging medium, a work that inspired practically every game designer that followed.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill