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Love for the Middle Child: Mario Bros. Turns 30

Mario and Luigi leapt into their first starring roles in an arcade adventure its creators seem oddly eager to forget.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

The middle child in any family has it rough growing up. The oldest kid blazes a trail of firsts at home and at school, while the youngest will forever be seen as the baby to be pampered. Wedged in between, and often left forgotten and frustrated, the middle child rarely gets the attention and respect he or she deserves.

So it goes even when the children in question are metaphorical -- products of an assembly of corporations and creative types -- and Nintendo's Mario Bros. exemplifies this. While the company has fallen over itself to commemorate recent anniversaries for the game's older sibling (Donkey Kong) and little brother (Super Mario Bros.), poor Mario Bros. celebrated its 30th birthday today (at least by all accounts and records we could locate online) without its creators offering it even a slice of cake. Instead, the hubbub has focused on the 30th anniversary celebration of the Famicom console, which launched the same day in Japan as the reported arcade debut of Mario Bros.: July 15, 1983. For a video game, that must be a little like being born on Christmas day: Everyone's celebrating, but not for you.

And Nintendo's negligence for Mario Bros. can be understood, to a degree. The game lacked the profundity of Donkey Kong's innovations; and the gulf in quality and ambition between Mario Bros. and its sequel wholly justified the latter's name: "Super" Mario Bros. Rather than defining genres or reinventing the medium, Mario Bros. instead simply offered a very simple and very fun cooperative arcade action game. Far less varied that the games that surrounded it on either side, Mario Bros. saw Nintendo playing it relatively safe.

Kicking turtles who wear A-neck tanks beneath their shells, would become a familiar activity in the ensuing years.

And we shouldn't overlook the possibility of a burnout factor at play, too; Mario Bros. may not get much love these days, but a decade ago Nintendo milked the game for all it was worth by including a remake as a bonus mode in no less than five different Game Boy Advance titles, as well as making it a standalone chapter of the NES Classic series for the same platform. It's appeared on multiple iterations of Virtual Console, cameoed in minigame form in the Super Mario series, WarioWare, and other titles. Its pseudo-remake, Mario Clash, represents one of the few truly genuinely enjoyable releases for the ill-fated Virtual Console.

In short, Nintendo gets a lot of mileage out of Mario Bros., but they don't give it a lot of love. It's treated as quick filler content, as a winking nod to the past. Yet they never celebrate the game or revisit its history. NCL President Satoru Iwata has never Asked Shigeru Miyamoto about the game in a roundtable session. The company declined our requests for commentary on its 30th anniversary.

Poor, poor Mario Bros. The game deserves better. Is it a timeless classic, a stunning masterpiece, a landmark title on the order of its siblings? Not at all. But it certainly has a place in history.

For starters, Mario Bros. marked the effective debut of Nintendo's enthusiasm for competitive cooperative play and represents one of the first instances of two players going head-to-head as friendly rivals rather than enemies. The two-person simultaneous play of Mario Bros. differed from other arcade titles of its time in that it didn't directly place players in opposition to one another. Rather than presenting a pure competition along the lines of Pong or any number of racing games, Mario Bros. offered something more nuanced.

Each player vies for a high score, but they do so within the context of working toward a common goal: Clearing a succession of stages of the enemies within. Mario and his brother Luigi can't directly hurt one another. They can, however, throw one another off their game, leaving the other player vulnerable to an enemy when they least expect it. Mario Bros. revolves around a mechanic of indirectly attacking foes: Punch the ground beneath an enemy and it will flip onto its back, leaving it vulnerable to being kicked off the screen. Punch it from beneath again, or let it sit unmolested long enough, and the foe will right itself. So the most popular harassment tactic becomes dashing beneath the other player as he goes for a winning kick, then jumping to right the enemy at the last second to catch the rival off-guard. Alternately, simply punching the ground beneath the other player's character will jolt him into the air, which can be enough to throw off the timing of a key action and leave him vulnerable.

What's that, you say? Coins and fireballs? How curiously familiar.

But just because you can be a jerk to the other player doesn't mean you have to, though. Mario Bros. works just as well as a cooperative action game, where two people fight in tandem, teaming up to clear away enemies as efficiently as possible. Working on separate tiers of the stage, one player focuses on upending foes while the other quickly clears them away. The game doesn't offer any kind of bonus points for friendship, only the warm fuzzy feeling of friendship.

In other words, Mario Bros. works as something of a litmus test for gamers: Are you Lawful Good or Chaotic Evil? Its compete-or-cooperate design style has resurfaced through the years in plenty of Nintendo games, most recently the New Super Mario Bros. series. Mario Bros. demonstrates a strong influence from Williams' Joust, with two players going head-to-head in a one-screen maze full of hostile creatures, but its design feels less like it pushes players to undermine and destroy one another.

And, of course, unlike Joust -- which Nintendo would imitate far more openly with Balloon Fight a year later -- Mario Bros. revolves around the fundamental Mario concept of platforming. And it makes running and jumping far more fun than any game that had come before it. Nintendo left behind the stilted, mechanical precision of Donkey Kong and the flood of games that it inspired to offer a more fluid style of action. Mario and Luigi could run and jump in a comparatively limber fashion, and their movement featured a new and interesting consideration: Momentum and inertia. Rather than stopping on a dime, the brothers would skid briefly to change direction from a dead run, adding both a touch of realism and interesting complexity to the action. While this new mechanic could have been a game-breaker in the wrong hands, designer Shigeru Miyamoto's deft touch ensured the way Mario moved made the game more fun rather than less.

In hindsight, Mario Bros. feels like a rough draft of what would become Super Mario Bros. -- a work-in-progress rather than a complete creation. You can see the first hints of things that would become Mario staples here: Green pipes to travel through, natural-feeling platform action, kicking enemies, collecting coins and dodging fire balls, turtles, Luigi, and more. But it's definitely an unsophisticated take on the idea, like the difference between Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In fact, Mario Bros. feels somewhat unsophisticated even compared to its predecessors Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. While those games may have lacked Mario Bros.'s more graceful sense of movement, they also offered more concrete goals -- reach the end and defeat the villain -- and a greater variety of stage layouts and mechanics (four apiece in each Donkey Kong game versus the one in Mario Bros.). This could simply be a concession to the move to a multiplayer format -- maintaining a consistent, symmetrical level layout to keep players on equal footing -- but it may also have been a case of Nintendo keeping one eye to the future.

For many people, Mario Bros. offered a first-ever opportunity to slip about on icy platforms. No wonder it's so unloved.

After all, Mario Bros. did debut on the same day as the Famicom console. The system had assuredly been in the works longer than Mario Bros., and designers Miyamoto and Gumpei Yokoi would have been aware of the console's limitations as they began working on Mario Bros. In fact, its arcade hardware offered very similar power to the Famicom, though of course there was one significant difference: Storage capacity. Early Famicom and NES games ran on cartridges with incredibly tight memory constraints. Those first few years of cartridges offered far less storage space than the ROMS Nintendo used for its more expensive hardware cabinets.

As the Famicom version of Donkey Kong and the arcade version of Mario Bros. were being programmed in parallel, the arcade team almost certainly looked across the aisle at the cuts that were being inflicted on Donkey Kong -- no introductory cut scene, the removal of an entire stage -- and decided to minimize the damage when it came time for the inevitable home conversion of their own project. By reducing the number of screen layouts, Miyamoto and crew could be certain that, aside from some minor graphical reductions, the only compromises Mario Bros. would suffer would happen in the nonessential areas: The title screen animation and pre-level tutorials, neither of which were essential for a home version of the game. In other words, despite its arcade roots, Mario Bros. seems like a sure sign that Nintendo was already banking on the future of its console business, constraining its coin-op design to formats that would translate neatly over to its home system.

Not that we know any this for certain, of course. Since Nintendo doesn't seem terribly interested in getting into the particulars of this chapter of Mario's history, we can only speculate about the origins of the franchise' poor, neglected, middle child. You'd think that with this being the so-called "Year of Luigi," they at least remark on the anniversary of Luigi's debut. But don't feel bad, Mario Bros.: At least we remembered, even if your parents don't love you anymore.

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