Super Mario: Family Man

C__807_2052625b For family gaming, Mario is something of a lucky charm. But, unbeknown to most families he is actually living a double life. The bastion of accessible non-violent gameplay is actually the forerunner of the hardcore gaming revolution.

Super Mario Brothers, both in its original arcade and NES incarnations, was super difficult, packed full of insider secrets and not at all family friendly. Compare this to the modern day Super Mario 3D Land and things couldn’t be more different. Not only is the difficulty bar much lower, the game also jumps in to help if you get stuck with free Tanooki power-ups and invincibility powers.

While many would bemoan what has become of their beloved mascot, there is actually something much more interesting atplay here. Many of the traits that made Mario games so good for core gamers back in the 80’s are the very same things that makes him well suited for those green to gaming today.

The most endearing of all Mario’s facets is that, like any well rounded individual, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. From the magical moment you break through the ceiling in world 1-2 of Super Mario Brothers to the absurdity of tail power flight when donning the Tanooki suite to popping a Koopa from his shell in Super Mario World and even taking to the skies with a water powered jetpack in Super Mario Sunshine, Mario’s tongue is firmly in his cheek.

Unlike more serious videogames, Mario is able to use this cheeky nature to charm his way around a bit of violence. Not unlike a Tom and Jerry cartoon, Mario games are most definitely a contact sport. But his light hearted touch means that stomping, flaming and knocking out the various enemies never feels overly mean or vindictive.

Of course a Mario game is as much about the world you play in as it is the heroic plumber himself. Here we hit upon two elements that are as important for core gamers who’ve tracked with Mario as they are for families: readability. Play a Mario game for more than twenty minutes and you find yourself inside the heads of the level designers. You instinctively inherit their language of pipes, blocks and waddling enemies.

Players can look at a level and make educated guesses about what might be on that just-out-of-reach platform, or around that hidden corner. The simple thrill of guessing right and finding a secret reward makes them want to try it again and again.

This leads us to the flipside of this videogame design coin:exploration. What started with the various shortcuts and vine-ladders of Super Mario Brothers really came into fruition, as its name suggests, with Super Mario World’s expansive and inviting levels. Here Mario strayed from the strict left-to-right progression and tempted players to explore vertically as well as horizontally.

All these things combine to make Mario games as good to watch being played as they are to play yourself. Maybe this stems from the arcade beginnings of Mario? I remember playing my local Super Mario Brothers arcade machine with a huddle of onlookers (each with a 10 pence piece on the glass of the cabinet marking their upcoming turn). It was a communal activity where onlookers contributed both tactics and knowledge to help the player through each world.

These days this is seen as a casual gaming feature, where families can work together to progress -- something implemented in the four player New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii. But more than this, Mario’s ability to court onlookers is just as central to his hard core beginnings. This was restated wonderfully in the more hardcore Super Mario Galaxy that was as good to watch as it was to play -- and the second player assistance mode offered another reason to share the experience.

While we’ve pulled out some high notes of the Mario cannon, the diminutive plumber will doubtless mean something different to each and every player. Perhaps the biggest achievement of all is that everyone has an opinion about Mario, and a raft of stories to back it up.

The Telegraph

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