Thursday, 6 February 2014

Super Mario Brothers

For what might be one of the most iconic platformers, possibly of all time and the most definitive article in establishing the 8bit gaming era, Super Mario Brothers (on the NES) is one of the most played and purchased games of all time (or at least, very heavily disputed to be as such). But we're not here to discuss the validity of such claims as if we're some over-inflated, self-important, critical analysis of gaming. We're an over-inflated, self-important, game reviewer. A completely different kind of asshole, but still as much of an asshole as anyone else.

The general idea of the game is as such, Mario (a plumber... bear with me on this one) is tasked with rescuing a princess who has been kidnapped by a large turtle/ox thing, called Bowser (Or King Koopa... or both, depends which manual you read on this one really). To get her back, he's going to have to run through the Mushroom Kingdom and travel 8 zones/worlds, each made of 4 sub-zones/levels, and battle Bowser to save the princess and consequentially, the day.

On the way you'll do all the things known and loved in most Mario games. Namely, running, jumping and punching blocks above your head. Oh and landing on things, Mario loves to land on things. Which highlights nicely how different we all take things as I'd end up with a long, arduous slog through whole armies of turtles, mushrooms, weaponised-clouds and armour-plated beetle-things; duelling giant turtle ox creatures in castles over moats of lava while sweating through the heat and exhaustion of battling a creature twice my size and trying not to succumb to the tiredness of the mammoth task; drop-kicking hammer-throwing turtles into large pipes and feeding them to the voracious plant-traps that live in some of those pipes unless they provide me the information to find and use the secret warp pipes; before rescuing the Princess and walking alone into the sunset to ready myself for another day of fighting the same armies.

Mario takes the light-hearted approach, he'll run, he'll jump, he'll eat a magical mushroom (this is for kids?) and grow to twice his size before collecting a flower and throwing fireballs at his enemies, or a star and just running through them with his indestructible (save for falling to his death and running out of time) status. He'll collect coins for extra lives and use warp pipes to get to hidden areas and zones, swim underwater and run across bridges and platforms before hop, skip and jumping his way through castles and side-stepping bosses before being told the real princess is in another castle. Unless it's World 8 of course.

It's simple, it's effective and it has a lot of hidden depth within the game.

The levels do get progressively harder but there's never really anything that screams at being hugely unfair. There is nothing in this game that is on the levels of platform-hell games like I Wanna Be The Guy or CloudBerry Princess (in its later levels at least) where death is often the ONLY option unless you're the computer and even then... It's a pure game. I don't have to worry about combos, or special moves done only with sequences of buttons and controls, I just have to move right (duck and climb rarely), jump when I need to jump and run/shoot when I feel the need to.

At first.

The game becomes more complicated and more interesting in the later zones when you get to meet up with enemies that can survive being landed upon, such as the turtles, but then become ammunition for being kicked across the floor and taking out more enemies, which sets off the multiplier bonuses for accumulating scores and clearing out your adversaries. Just be care in case it bounces and comes back, then you're in trouble if it hits you. Other enemies might be better to just bounce off and land on others for combo points or killed (if you have it) with fire/flower power. While later enemies will be tougher and some immune to being hit with your shoes but not fireballs, while others are immune to fireballs but not the shoes.

To mix it up, there are a few themes within the levels. The underground levels tend to have a roof over them which will let you run along and bypass some/all of the level and access the secret warp zones. Some levels are underwater and tapping jump will allow you to swim in some fashion but now you cannot land on enemies. Other levels are more a series of platforms suspended in the air rather than having ground to run along and the 4th level of each world is a large castle with variable heights and floors with lava and fire themed traps and obstacles. There's plenty of variation and with each new world, new setups and different enemies.

Speaking of which, the enemies are quite varied in their inception and design. There's the usual low grade enemy of the Goomba which takes one hit of anything from landing on or a fireball to disperse. Turtles that either mindlessly walk onwards or patrol platforms that can be kicked after landing on them to destroy other enemies. Turtles that can bounce or fly, making for less predictable enemies than their ground-bound cousins. Large bullets that fly the distance of the screen sometimes from random heights or sometimes from cannons. Clouds that roam the skies with a little bastard hidden inside that throws out spiked enemies that can't be jumped upon. Squids, fish (swimming and flying varieties), fireballs, water, pits, lava, swinging lengths of fireballs, bosses and turtles that throw hammers at you are all included and several more enemies that I'll likely remember after publishing this write up. It's a grand old world out there and the population is varied and colourful.

On top of that are the many secret pipe routes. Through the game you can explore Mario's Plumber roots and take trips down specific pipes (no indication as to which pipes WORK, you just have to jump on and try to... Piranha Plants, knew I'd remember more enemies... press down so that you can descend into the pipe) and find secret rooms usually laden with coins and perhaps a power up or multi-coin block, before ascending a way ahead of the level you were previously in. While other levels will have bean-stalks that grow up into the ceiling, allowing you to climb up and explore the upper areas where you'll find lots of coins and collectibles and maybe even a few secret warp pipes (if you're on Level 4-2).

Control wise, you can run and leap bounce and jump and so on with relatively good control in mid-air after jumping (yep, realism), and there's a good level of inertia and sliding when coming to a stop but nothing excessive and nothing that really ends with you sliding off the end of a platform into the eternal ether that is the lost life pit. Swimming adds a little extra problem over certain holes and areas where you'll be sucked down rapidly with NO indication where these undercurrents are... Aside from recalling where you died previously, but that's hardly a fair measure of progress.

It's bright, it's smooth, and it’s simple for the most part with only the real challenges coming from later worlds and castles where the route you take through a castle determines success or repeating a section of castle again. Even the music is so catchy and well known nowadays that most people can simply just say "Mario" and have someone immediately start thinking of the first few bars of the main level music. Slight variations for underground levels and water levels and the castle/boss levels but the majority of what you're playing will be the standard tune, which thankfully is cheerful enough to be memorable without being annoying. Most of the time.

Nowadays, it's still a firm staple of gaming and which many games emulate in some manner or another, being that the ground was laid back then, many platforming games try to copy it and fail hopelessly at the task. It takes a considerable effort to match this game and takes a great deal more to be considered "as good" and even rarer is being seen as "better", especially if it's not another Mario game.