Hail Mario, Full of Grace

Pop Culture

Hail Mario, Full of Grace

Illustration: Tareesh Thomas

He was our bro, before that was a word. He was our fix, and he nearly broke us. Our parents cried at their lack of foresight. Why did they buy that infernal machine?

This was THE machine – the TV video game of yore – known to us and our American and Japanese brethren as the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. Chock full of labyrinthine worlds in pixelated renders, chiptune music, and Mario. Mario, our shepherd in this Pangaea of sights and sounds.

But the NES was only a foil, a plan for world domination set in motion a long, long time ago. Japanese creator Shigeru Miyamoto reached through our screens, grabbed us by the consoles, and never let go. He made Super Mario the de facto face of video games. Back then, all it took to change a face was a couple lines of code, but these two lines of code have been burnt into our brains forever.

Thirty-five years ago, Super Mario walked into our lives as “Jumpman” in Donkey Kong. Now is a better time than any to wonder how we have been shaped by this little man. What do we owe Mario for defeating the evil gorilla and rescuing the princess?

Well, for starters, an early tryst with crime – trading pirated copies under the cover of lunch, debating strategies of victory that we’d later deploy in the fertile ground of the Pokémon grind. Years of dedicated guerrilla training. The TV video game long since gave up the ghost – but it lived on in the machine. We had the PC. We had the Gameboy. Super Mario with his infinite lives, could never say die.

If Donkey Kong and the Jumpman light up your neocortex, evoke memories of hazy days of school, Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister, and a general tizzy of fuzzies, then you already know all there is to.

For the uninitiated, Donkey Kong was released on arcade systems. Those were the golden years, when parlours weren’t shiny, happy places where your lady friends vanish to return in a good mood. They were seedy, they were dark, and they ate your allowance with an insatiable appetite. It featured a large, villainous gorilla that had kidnapped your sweetheart Pauline, and you, the inimitable Jumpman, were on a quest to get her back.

We, who have loved him a long time, know that Mario readied us for what lay beyond.

Problem: He is on top of a nefarious maze of ladders and steel girders.
Bigger problem: He has an infinite supply of exploding barrels
Solution: Jump! Kriss Kross will make ya jump. Donkey Kong will make ya jump!

It seems so simple now. Donkey Kong was the first game that allowed players to run AND jump over obstacles — two actions in conjunction. But it was still not the epitome of fun. The entire level was on the screen, statically laid down in a maze. It was only when Jumpman morphed into Mario, and the levels became horizontal, that Miyamato found the true formula of fun. With his brother Luigi as wingman (the user of the wretched Player 2 controller), Mario sets out on a quest to save another damsel in distress, Princess Peach, who is this time towed away by the terrible turtle Bowser.

Mario isn’t just charm and childhood fiddle-faddle. It is an important video game. And Shigeru Miyamato, synonymous with Nintendo now, is the granddaddy of gaming. Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Star Fox, and Super Mario Bros were developed by him, or under his creative direction. He set the camera — the way a player sees the environment of the game — in 3D, giving us the free-flowing system of Mario 64. Without that intuitive leap on how we need to see our interactive worlds, it’d have taken a few more decades till Metal Gear Solid looked the way it does. Miyamoto is the reason Nintendo is still the greatest non-PC video game maker.

And what of Mario? In his three decades, the little man’s had more makeovers than Amitabh Bachchan. The latest release takes us back to roots, the beautiful chunky sprites of the original, with one big twist – you, the player, can now build levels for the original Mario and let him have it. It’s Miyamato’s kyokan philosophy at work — put the power back in the hands of the people.

It might not be wise, but it’s wonderful. We, who have loved him a long time, know that Mario readied us for what lay beyond.

It’s World 8 – Stage 1. The dreaded jump lies ahead, near impossible, but it can be done. You run, you skitter, you stop at the abyss, you retreat. You turn around, you go back, and this time you take that leap. And you fall.

So you pick yourself up and, since at first you didn’t succeed, try, try again.

Screw YOLO.

Because that’s the Mario way.