In the nearly 30 years since he first debuted, one man’s name has stood above the rest as the most famous character in gaming. In those three decades, that man – Mario – has had more jobs than many people have in a lifetime. He’s been a carpenter, plumber, doctor, and even run his own toy company. There’s another title, however, that he might as well have, and that’s “pioneer.” While Ken and Ryu may have set the course for fighting games, and Master Chief may have laid the foundation for the modern shooter, Nintendo’s portly mascot has been instrumental in setting the tone for no less than three different genres.
Funny thing is, Mario himself almost never existed. Originally, his debut in Donkey Kong was imagined as a licensed title starring cartoon character Popeye. But when the company couldn’t get the rights, Miyamoto created Mario, DK, and Pauline to replace them. Just think, had Nintendo actually succeeded, good licensed titles might be the rule today rather than the exception. Considering the loss, however, we probably ended up with the better deal.
While it’s hard to argue against the historical value of Donkey Kong, it was Super Mario Bros. that truly put the mustachioed one on the map. It’s also the game that set the tone for 2D platformers to follow. It would be inaccurate to call Super Mario Bros. the first platformer – titles like Pitfall and Dragon Buster were both part of the genre in earlier years – but none managed to inspire as many imitators as Mario’s big break.
There are multiple ways that a work can define its genre. One is to be so popular as to create a “let’s be like” syndrome, where competitors see what’s popular and then copy it as best they can without getting sued. Then there’s a work doing something that genuinely has never been seen before, which is when true innovation takes place. Or a work may just take something old and use it to fill a gap people didn’t think needed filling.
Super Mario Bros. defined the 2D platformer through a little of each. First, it was released at nearly the perfect time, especially in the United States. In a time when most had written off videogames as a fad, Mario jumped on the scene and showed them just how wrong they were. The real key, however, was that the game was really, really good. The controls were spot on, the setting was instantly memorable, the landscape was loaded with surprises, and time and again the game forced players to think in unique ways. Above all, it was fun.
Later entries in the series further defined the genre. In the early days of platforming, gamers would move from one level to the next in a specific order, warp pipes and secret passageways aside. Even then, there was little in the way of between-level action. However, with titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, Mario helped popularize the idea of getting to pick what level would be played next by moving around an overworld map. Super Mario World helped further expand the idea by giving players an option to play through levels they had already beaten.
In time, the technical limitations that brought about the 2D origins of the platformer were broken, sparking the desire to explore the now wide-open third dimension. As with the 2D platformer, Mario wasn’t the first one to the party. However, he was among the first to get it right and show that the old guard of the 2D era could make the leap into a larger world.
Among the biggest keys to this success was the way Mario moved. The analog stick of the Nintendo 64’s oddly shaped controller gave the plumber a greater level of movement accuracy than ever before.
Super Mario 64 also had influence beyond the platformer genre. Strange as it may seem, even games from other genres took notes from Mario’s 3D debut, such as the first person shooter. “The idea for the huge variety of missions within a level came from Mario 64,” said Martin Hollis, the lead designer behind GoldenEye 007. While he also stated that there was a change from the “collecting one star per play-through” style used for in Mario 64 to allow players to attempt multiple mission objectives in GoldenEye, it still remains that Mario’s influence was there.
As with both platformer dimensions, the genre that the Mario Party series inhabits wasn’t invented by Nintendo. In fact, even party games themselves weren’t all that original – just look at Bomberman for an earlier example of how to get several people together in a room around a console for great competitive multiplayer action. Nor were mini-games themselves that original by the time the first Mario Party made its debut. Arguably, the roots of the title and the genre it would popularize can be traced back to the earliest days of gaming itself when titles were both simple to play and learn.
However, it was the Mario Party series that popularized the idea of taking a large random collection of short bite-sized games and mixing them up into a single, larger title specifically designed to be played by as many people as possible. Once again, it proved to be immensely popular. Enough so, it got a new title nearly every year up until after the release of Mario Party 8, when it took a hiatus to make room for Wii Party, which is effectively a Mario Party title with Mario and friends swapped out for Miis.
In addition to being a new cash cow for Nintendo, the series also proved the profitability of a new kind of game design. Not only did it pave the way for future titles such as Rayman Raving Rabbids, but the series also showed the potential for mini-game based multiplayer in titles that might otherwise not have warranted it. Furthermore, it opened up a new avenue for publishers to manufacture easy to make titles for the expanded audience, especially with the introduction of the Wii. For better or worse, it’s unlikely that without Mario Party, titles such as Carnival Games, Tamagotchi: Party On!, and Family Pirate Party would have ever seen the light of day.
Whatever influences Mario has had on other genres, however, is arguably trumped by what Nintendo has accomplished with its famous Mario Kart series. Whereas most genres manage to diversify if given enough time, it’s much more difficult to say the same for kart racing. Through Mario, Nintendo essentially invented the sub-genre, and 18 years later, absolutely no new kart racing game is released without the shadow of Super Mario Kart hanging over it, not even one from Nintendo.
The gameplay of Super Mario Kart is a drill that should be well known to anyone familiar with the genre. Take one part cast of colorful and already familiar characters, seat them in little high-powered vehicles, add a healthy helping of fun power ups, and then race them around increasingly nutty themed tracks. It’s a combination so strong that any attempt to copy it can inevitably be summed up as “Mario Kart with X”. Diddy Kong Racing is Mario Kart with Diddy Kong and friends. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is Mario Kart, Sega style. Crash Team Racing is Mario Kart with Crash Bandicoot. Even games that aren’t “Kart” racers, per se, can get the label attached to them if they follow the basic gameplay close enough, such as Blur.
The reason the game has been around so long without anyone figuring out a truly fresh spin on the genre could be anyone’s guess. Perhaps Nintendo just perfected the formula its first run out. Maybe it’s just that no one has managed to look far enough outside the box yet. Should anyone manage to find a way to improve on the formula, however, it should be safe to say that the person or people responsible should have a bright future ahead of them.
Who know, maybe it’ll be Mario himself who gets to it first. That is, if he’s not busy defining some other genre in the meantime.
Michael K. Stangeland Jr. is a freelance writer from South Dakota. He wouldn’t mind it at all if he somehow succeeded in writing a defining work of his own someday, but isn’t holding his breath on it happening.