super mario bros.

Super Mario All-Stars: Aesthetics Be Damned!

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.

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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.

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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.

REVIEW: Mario in the First Person

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This “review” is inspired by commentary on the obligatory first-person option in next-gen Grand Theft Auto V.

When Nintendo announced the rerelease of Super Mario Bros. with a first-person mode, I thought, “C’mon, you’re just trying to make more money by playing off of next-gen hype.” But now that the game is here, anyone can see what the $60 price is going toward. Playing as Mario for real, for the first time, only adds to the legacy of the original game and its world. Against all odds, a simple change of perspective has given us the definitive version of Super Mario Bros. Once you see the detail in the brick blocks you’ve been busting for years, you’ll bust something else.

A more intimate interpretation of the Mario classic wouldn’t have seemed possible five years ago, much less in 1987 when Super Mario Bros. came to the United States. This transformation of Mario the classic platformer to Mario “the life as you live it” suggests a rare intersection of artistic vision and technological advancement. Unlike the original, this game isn’t just about jumping on enemies, hitting question-mark blocks, or gaining the ability to throw fireballs (I’ll come back to this later!). Finally, you ARE Mario. This game is literally about being Mario and having face-to-face encounters with the enemies who want to stop you. What was once a delightful routine — approaching a Goomba to jump on it — becomes something more profound. You realize what it really means to close the distance between Mario and the Goomba, the latter’s teeth only a few feet away from you. With this added tension, jumping on the Goomba’s head is not a familiar action with a predictable end. You’re fighting for your life.

Indeed, what has been old for years is startlingly new. While the uncountable added details are jaw-dropping, it’s the shift in perspective that makes every classic idea and moment reborn. As you see everything from Mario’s eyes, the truths hit home. Yes, you’re in this to save the Princess, an unquestionably noble effort even in its trope-filled simplicity, yet you’re leaving behind your profession and livelihood to do so. In the traditional Super Mario Bros., the pipes of the Mushroom Kingdom were an oddly endearing method of travel. Here, they’re that and an ironic reminder that your quest has taken away your life as a plumber in Italy — a humble life of sewage and waste that informs your present heroism and sense of hope.

This new perspective rejects the tired label of platformer. Touching the Fire Flower to gain the ability to throw fireballs has always been exciting, but it’s always been claustrophobic in the sense that Mario is forever seen as a platforming mascot. That limitation no longer applies. With the Fire Flower ability in first person, Nintendo has dared to challenge all other first-person shooters. Neither Mario nor first-person shooters will ever be the same again after you watch the Mushroom Kingdom burn.

The ending doesn’t disappoint. For years and years, fans have speculated about some physical bond between Mario and Princess, a connection that goes beyond the tropes and the excuse for another quest. The climax of Mario’s newest adventure is a risky move, just like anytime two people come together and share their vulnerabilities. In a third-person remake, this updated bond might have seemed exploitative or silly. Thank God Nintendo knows that perspective precedes experience.

Attack of the Nintendo Clones: Shipwreck and Blue Beacon

by Jed Pressgrove

Video game clones inspire intense debate and create political platforms for busybodies. A reasonable critic, however, plays the clones and specifies what makes them good or bad clones (only phonies decried Flappy Bird for “ripping off” Super Mario Bros. after a cursory glance at graphics). In the wake of numerous mobile and Flappy Bird clones, Shipwreck and Blue Beacon have arrived to PC and Xbox Live Indie Games as classic Nintendo clones.

Shipwreck, developed by Brushfire Games, is a Zelda clone whose female protagonist and autosave address modern gaming concerns. Some will point to Link’s Awakening as a significant influence, but that’s a bland thematic observation: Shipwreck is more of a riff on Zelda as a genre, which helps explain our reactions to its incomplete cloning.

While Indie Gamer Chick and The XBLIG criticize the lack of enemies and the lack of a map for Shipwreck’s overworld, I welcome the lack of sleepwalking through dumb enemies and marked objectives. Shipwreck operates more as a maze than a world. The game lacks personality (townspeople parrot each other like idiots) and exploration (don’t bother looking for secrets), but this design gives more attention to a strength: dungeons.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of A Link Between Worlds, the dungeons in Shipwreck feel dangerous. This danger can come from things that you might find unfair, such as taking damage when falling to a lower floor as part of a puzzle. Is that unfair because the design severely hampers the player, or is it unfair because the game deviates from what we’re used to in Zelda? Even the idea of a bat taking two hits with your sword acts as a line in the sand. Shipwreck might have the dullest denouement in recent memory, but its minimalist defiance toward Zelda makes it a worthwhile clone.

AdamTheOtaku’s Blue Beacon is a stranger game, partly because it’s a clone of the weird Super Mario Bros. and partly because it’s goofy anyway. Like Magicians & Looters, Blue Beacon makes death funny, providing comic relief from the slippery controls. As in Mario, you bust blocks that might contain diamonds (rather than coins) or power-ups that grant suits and powers (this time of the insect variety). Goomba- and Koopa-like enemies abound.

The catch is that using special powers puts you in danger. Charging as a beetle to kill an enemy sends you flying into the air. Fly too long as a butterfly and you’ll drop like an anvil, possibly to your death (no gliding as in Mario). You don’t feel empowered in Blue Beacon so much as careful that you don’t kill yourself.

With no continues, Blue Beacon can be a frustrating experience. Thankfully, the game is brief, with the ending evoking the domestic satisfaction of eliminating pests. Oddly enough, nothing in Mario felt as real.

Kirby’s Dream Land: A Review on Joy and Entitlement

In an era when people expect franchise games to overflow with content and mechanics (especially before downloadable content), Kirby’s Dream Land is an enigma. Critics have held and may continue to hold the game’s simplicity against it. As a certified gaming mascot, Kirby is expected to gain powers from his enemies, so Kirby’s Dream Land is often deemed a prototype, too basic. But this line of thinking denies the revelation of original creative design. From a historical standpoint, the Game Boy title is, quite frankly, stunning.

A game like Kirby’s Dream Land should be taken in slowly, as it is a delicacy whose every facet was designed with precision, care, and what appears to be joy. A normal playthrough is indeed short and easy, but the game presents immaculate creations with the enemy design, the level variety, the little cartoons between levels, the cheerful music, and the shockingly beautiful ending that ranks above almost any other in gaming.

Ideally, game critics would recognize Dream Land as a standard (not as a relic), but many of them are too busy brainwashing gamers with marketing slogans. Some critics excuse their own lack of conviction by preaching against “gamer entitlement,” a toothless euphemism that leaves critics sitting innocent as they continue to encourage outlandish expectations through their fixation on console wars, powerful graphics, features, mechanics, and superfluous Game of the Year awards.

Critics and gamers should try breezing through the Extra Mode in Kirby’s Dream Land and reconsider their default stances. In Extra Mode, the game sets you up for destruction, forcing you to master the deceptively simple mechanics. Kirby’s lack of speed and special powers requires you to be cunning and skillful, especially as you get deeper into the challenges you had already overcome. (The superior art and mood of Kirby’s Dream Land make the second quests in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda look downright pointless.)

Kirby’s Dream Land is the rare game that seamlessly blends artistry and design in a way that can appeal to gamers of numerous backgrounds. Its place in video game history deserves to be cemented, if not for the sake of its greatness, then for the sake of the gaming community’s sanity as consumers: unlike countless games after it, Kirby’s Dream Land has zero fluff despite the appearance of its hero.