Mario Proves Nintendo Does One Crucial Thing Better Than Any Other Developer
” Do not disturb me ! I’m playing Mario!”
It was a bittersweet moment the first time my four-year-old Franky yelled that at me. As a father, I’m not a fan of rudeness or open defiance, but as a player? Same, brother. I also don’t care about orange juice or apple juice with dinner.
Seeing him absorbed by “Mario” (Super Mario 3D World to be precise) evoked nostalgic feelings similar to what people at Disney must feel when their children visit the theme parks for the first time. But it also did something I didn’t expect: it made me appreciate Mario’s game design on a whole new level. And, in the process, brought me back to a franchise I had long ignored.
In a 2015 interview with Vox, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto acknowledged Mario’s waning popularity, especially among adult gamers. “We ask ourselves: why did people stop playing Mario? he said.
I was one of those people. I’d pick a Mario game here or there, but it wasn’t on my radar in the same way as something like The Last of Us Part II Where Infinite Halo. A lot has changed for Nintendo since 2015. That’s largely thanks to the huge success of the Switch, which sold over 103 million units worldwide as of February 2022.
Mario is certainly not likely to fade into obscurity – he appears in 10 of the top 20 Switch games. However, it doesn’t conjure up the breathless flattery on games like Ring of Elden Where breath of the wild. It is a mistake.
Mario’s design is equally stylish. It’s like the Beatles. You have to consciously take a moment to recognize that this ubiquitous little plumber has influenced damn nearly everything for decades. You don’t appreciate it as an adult because you’ve lived it, because it’s been appropriated by games for decades, and most importantly, because you can read. It’s easy for developers to teach you game mechanics through tutorials. But a four-year-old can’t jump into Soulsbornes and make meaningful progress.
Franky isn’t a prodigy either. He’s a typical ‘Generation C’ kid who started playing by watching his mom play. Animal Crossing: New Horizons and occasionally used the controller to move around. He had never seemed interested in Mario until YouTube’s algorithm decided to put him on their feed. When we were all stuck at home together for two weeks at the end of December, I let Franky run into Super Mario 3D World instead of animal crossing on a whim. I didn’t think it would amount to much.
I was wrong. I saw in real time the genius of Miyamoto’s game design philosophies pay off. Franky’s first day was just a good chunk of the Mario run. He thought the sounds and faces Mario made as he fell into the abyss were funny.
Everything changed when he accidentally hit a coin.
Franky doesn’t understand money. He doesn’t understand that 100 pieces gets you an extra life, or that true finalists strive to find all the pieces in the game. He understands aesthetics because he lives life like most preschoolers , a sensory existence first dictated by the biology of her rapidly changing body and mind.
So, for him, the coin goes “ding!” Ding is fun. The play is fun. More currency. More fun.
Pieces lead to mystery boxes, a marvel of enticing visual design. A shiny gold box with a question mark is irresistible, even to little humans who don’t know punctuation. Mystery boxes teach jumping.
Jump into the box. The room will ring. The box is empty. Find a new box.
In four days, he would complete the levels on his own, often aided by another great design piece – the invincible tanooki suit. Super Mario 3D World unlocks if you have trouble clearing a certain level. Then he realized that the tanooki costume wouldn’t let you wear the cat costume bestowed by the game’s only Super Bell. “Kitty Mario,” as he calls her, proved irresistible.
He raised his game. Soon he was pounding levels left and right, often aided by watching the Let’s Play videos that YouTube kept providing him.
I noticed he was on World 5 and asked my wife, “How many of these levels have you done for him?” She looked amazed. “I was thinking you were doing those,” she said.
Franky also brought me back into a love affair with Mario. He still hands me the Switch from time to time when snagging a particular moon is too tricky (he’s on Super Mario Odyssey now), or a boss is too intimidating. But in my limited free time, I find myself playing Odyssey too, or revisit my childhood favorite Super Mario World.
Horizon: West forbidden gathering dust and I didn’t even buy Ring of Elden again. Why would I? In my house, every day is Mario’s day.