Jump Around: Reflecting on the Design of Super Mario

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When’s the first time you jumped in a game? Do you remember how you felt? As cliche as it is, my first time jumping may have been in Super Mario Bros. with the plumber in red clad, Mario.

And upon thinking about the character and what he brought to gaming, I’ve noticed it can all be centralised to the main ability he’s had since 1981 – the jump.

To understand why he does this ability, or why it’s even important, we need to travel back in time to an age that prepared Nintendo for it’s hit console.

If you’re a buff on the history of gaming, the Golden age of the arcade lasted through 1971-1983, but different historians will have different opinions on when it started and ended Mainly though, it was the first generation of gaming. And it is interesting to review in our modern era to see how something as simple as PONG transformed so immensely. 

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Centipede, an arcade classic, sports the top-down perspective of arcade shooters.

Games at this time were extremely simple – they ranged from space shooters, vehicle shooters, pong clones, breakout clones, board games – if you can visualise an Atari game, chances are there were others that copied it. This is because at this time, IP laws were not in place for games, and therefore they could be copied and redistributed in the same light as games like Chess or Checkers. More specifically, creative values held to art were not associated with video games at all in this time.

I believe the jump is when this all changed.

The intrinsic value of the jump was to allow vertical space to be tackled in a different way.  Traditionally, games either created environments where things could fly or games would be viewed from a “bird’s eye view.”  Sometimes, there wouldn’t be an established perspective at all. This means there weren’t many games that had a humanistic viewpoint to their worlds.  You were lucky if they even had colour or communicated a setting.

Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi (OGs to the video game-game) developed the hit arcade game, Donkey Kong.  This was where Mario (or, back then, Jumpman) began his jumping career, climbing up an unfinished building to save his dame from his pet gorilla.

And though today this gameplay seems benign, it was actually one of the first games to display characters having a unique relationship. More acutely, this game had you set out towards a goal of playing as a particular character.  Usually, we’re use to calling the “thing” we control in games a character, but this wasn’t always how game’s were viewed.

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Mario before he was Mario. The Jumpman has to climb through these dangerous obstacles to save his girlfriend, Pauline.

This however is not the game where Mario got his iconic jump. You could jump in Donkey Kong, just not that well. The jump was used instead to help Jumpman clear rolling barrels, jump onto elevators and hurdle small gaps.  Actually, if Mario were to jump to anywhere at a different height to him, the player would lose a life. Taking feedback, Miyamoto sought to change this with Mario Bros., where jumping became a central game mechanic that also let Mario jump to other parts of the screen.

The jump would not reach it’s iconic form until the evolution of the side scroller. Since most 70’s games were in arcades, long term adventures weren’t really thought about in the gaming world. The introduction of home consoles in the 80’s is when players could truly experience unique games in their homes.

To go alongside the release of the NES, Super Mario Bros touted an adventure that would change the face of gaming forever (And good timing too, what with the gaming crash of 1983).

The jump is truly powerful in this game due to the breadth of horizontal space now packed into this game. Environments stretched out, revealed new information and allowed players for the first time to see a game as a world.

I truly think the biggest reason we all love to jump is due to this perspective. It allows games to emulate a fact of reality humankind has faced for thousands of years – gravity.

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Super Mario was just that – super. He could now jump without hurting himself, playing a huge role in the main gameplay.

Mario jumping to the sky encapsulates an innate desire we feel as people. We’re good with navigating space horizontally, but when it comes to verticality we’re at a loss. To explain the great beyond, we often resort to mysticism, religion, or disbelief. Fiction too feeds our infatuation with moving upward, with super heroes and different worlds.

Mario let us experience what it was like to jump to the heavens and not hurt ourselves. He let us fly across landscapes at breakneck pace without a fear. It wasn’t a game that could be communicated with a car, helicopter or a space shooter from the 70s – it HAD to be a human. Otherwise, that connection wouldn’t persist.

Miyamoto lets us in on a little secret in a Eurogamer interview regarding the design of the jump and how he made it feel “real.” He explains the weight behind Mario when he jumps, whether with speed, or not, will result in a slippery landing. If you try to stop, Mario will slide a bit. That realistic weight made our inputs align with Mario’s actions, and Miyamoto describes that this phenomenon created an emotional attachment between players and the character.

I believe that Mario jumped to get over pipes and pits, but in doing so, he also jumped over common notions of the video game. Mario jumps as a way to make games a more personal and wholesome experience. He jumps to let us feel the satisfaction in an ability we all wish to have. Mario challenges our perceptions of verticality with a digital world that became our playground. With the character going strong in even 2017, it’s incredible to think that all of it started with a jump.

Have any thoughts? Leave ’em down below!

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