by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This is the third essay of a seven-part series on game remakes. Check out the rest of the series here.
We often praise Super Mario Bros. for its gameplay and forget about the power of its graphics. Take another gander at level 1-1. The pixel art, while not crude, is loud. There’s a roughness and hardness to the world. The ground seems impenetrable. The clouds look like they’d stop airplanes. Without this overall aesthetic of solidness, I doubt players would feel as empowered and elated when they shatter brick blocks. The abstract appeal of becoming a large Mario is to impose one’s physicality on ostensibly unshakeable matter. As you run through 1-1, the flat aspect of the visual style bolsters the everyman’s surreal fantasy. A fully grown Mario rivals the size of clouds and small hills.
The color palette in 1-1 is limited but effective. The unvarying blue is pleasing, welcoming. Along with the greens, the blueness provides a lively contrast to the drab mustard brown of the blocks beneath and above Mario. In other words, there is hope and fun to be had within the unbending, dull status quo.
Without the picture that 1-1 paints, level 1-2 would have far less visual and emotional significance. As a juxtaposition to 1-1’s vision of an exciting dream, 1-2 functions as a wake-up call to danger. The black abyss. The blocks and Goombas drained of their original colors. The coins, pipes, and Mario himself may retain their brightness, but in general the inviting hues of the previous stage become a distant memory in mere seconds.
If the first two levels of Super Mario Bros. demonstrate how sights inform feelings, then those same levels in the Super Mario Bros. remake from Super Mario All-Stars demonstrate how the game industry tries to anticipate and exceed consumer expectations. For the consumer’s sake, a remake shouldn’t change too much, particularly when it comes to holy gameplay, but the product should look new and exude contemporary logic. Let’s imagine for a moment what a consumer, as a consultant to Nintendo, might have said about the visuals of the first two levels of the original Super Mario Bros.:
There’s nothing going on in the backgrounds.
The ground looks like building blocks.
The color scheme is too simple.
It looks like Mario is as big as clouds.
There’s not much detail.
Everything looks hard as a rock.
In the Super Mario All-Stars remake of the NES classic, a type of order has been applied to the stages. In level 1-1, there are humongous, pillowy clouds — with patronizing smiley faces, no less — and towering hills in the background, so Mario can never look too big when compared to the features of the landscape. In the foreground, Mario and his enemies clearly travel on top of grass, and in case that’s not convincing enough, you can also observe brown soil. Every once in a while, Mario will pass by a patch of tall grass blowing in the wind. The original 1-1 resembles a dream, but the remade 1-1 resembles a bonafide environment that can impress boardroom fellows and unthinking spectators.
With level 1-2, the remake doubles down on its rejection of emotional potential in favor of more rational visual presentation. The pitch-black darkness is gone. Instead, the background recalls the aspects of a mine: a wall of rocks, wooden beams, clumps of vegetation, and lanterns. While the blocks and Goombas have a bluish-gray hue as in the original Super Mario Bros., the increased visibility of the stage provides a newfound comfort that lessens the sense that Mario has entered a very dark place. Because one can see as many details in 1-2 as one could see in 1-1, the contrast between the stages is severely compromised. As a result, the transition to 1-2 in Super Mario All-Stars registers as natural and normal and explainable. The uplifting tone of 1-1 is dampened, as opposed to being stamped out.
The most egregious aesthetic misstep in Super Mario All-Stars comes in World 8 of the Super Mario Bros. 3 remake. The original World 8, appropriately named Dark Land, is one of the most intimidating settings in video game history. Both the world map and the levels within Dark Land utilize black to an astounding degree, as if a shadow-spreading virus has infected everything. At one point in the segmented map, the player can only see Mario thanks to a spotlight. No Mario experience is as dread-inducing.
Super Mario All-Stars revises this unforgettable location. Call it Not-So-Dark Land. As with level 1-2 of the Super Mario Bros. remake, the darkness of World 8 is watered down. The evidence begins with the initial world map screen. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, pitch blackness hangs around the fires that light up the paths that Mario must traverse. In the remake, the only black that can be seen is outside of the very frame of the map!
The remake’s failure is more obvious in World 8’s introductory level. In the original Super Mario Bros. 3, this level’s absence of light is so perpetual that you can’t distinguish the outlines of black objects like Bob-ombs and cannons unless an explosion occurs. In the Super Mario Bros. remake, a shadowy haze hangs over the top of the stage, but otherwise, you can see quite well. Check out the grass. Check out the soil. Check out the dormant volcanoes. No fear, no mystery, no inconvenience. The Bob-ombs have been made purple, for crying out loud.
From there, the remake’s World 8 interpretation, if you can even call it that, gets worse. Most levels are quite visible, raising the question of why Nintendo continues to bother with the Dark Land moniker. Due to an out-of-place background and heavy usage of the color green, a later stage looks like a jungle from a different world. In another head-scratching example, the remake retains most of the darkness in one level but destroys a strong element of dissimilarity by replacing white sand with yellow sand.
There is no credible artistic reason for these changes. Only two conclusions make sense to me. First, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars were deathly afraid of contrast. Second, the makers of Super Mario All-Stars wanted to make World 8 more approachable and digestible. Either explanation points to a lack of courage, if not a lack of appreciation for an all-time great platformer.