The question for an aspiring Mario Kart champion nowadays is “How can I pick a character / kart / tire combination that is in some sense optimal, even if there isn’t one ‘best’ option?” To answer this question we turn to one of Mario’s compatriots, the nineteenth century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who introduced the concept of Pareto efficiency and the related Pareto frontier.
None of this would’ve happened had Jennifer Thompson not gone thriftin’. This was in April 2013, and she was browsing clothes and $1 DVDs at the Steele Creek Goodwill in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, when she noticed it behind the glass counter. The video game title sparked a memory, a Yahoo article about the rarest games in the world. Jennifer carefully drove her ’99 Honda Accord across the street to McDonald’s, just to use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi to make sure she hadn’t been wrong. She then crossed the street again and purchased the game for $8 from the $30 she had in her bank account, praying the clerk wouldn’t recognize what it was and stop her.
When she took it for validation to a used video game store in Charlotte, the young man behind the counter rustled open the plastic bag and beheld the game — pristine in its cardboard box covered by much of the original cellophane — coughing the words “Oh my god.” He offered her all the money in the register for it. She turned him down.
I know a fair bit of Nintendo history and lore, but hadn’t ever heard of this game. The story is an interesting one, with a nice twist when someone has the opportunity to flood the market and eliminate the game’s value.
On a related note, I’m stupidly excited for the forthcoming Super Mario Run for iOS.
But no home console was so deliberately engineered to deliver well-crafted, compulsively replayable multiplayer experiences like the Nintendo 64—a quality that eventually came to distinguish it from the rest of its competition. When you look back on the Sony Playstation, the games that stand out—Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil 2—were entirely single-player, designed to deliver an experience that was groundbreakingly immersive but essentially solitary.
The Nintendo 64, of course, had its own single-player masterpieces. (I’d submit Banjo-Kazooie, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, and two of the all-time great Zelda games, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask). But the majority of the N64’s truly memorable titles were best when you played them alongside a few friends. In short, the N64 was the first great social console—and 20 years later, it still hasn’t quite been surpassed.
I grew up in a staunch Nintendo household (I’ve still never owned a PlayStation or Xbox) and can attest to the multiplayer thrills of the N64. I’ve got some great memories of me and my teenage friends competing on Goldeneye or Mario Kart. Particularly when we should have been revising for exams. I must dig it out again—I’ve been wanting to revisit the Zelda games.
As I’ve been out of the loop for so long, I was interested to see what new videogame blogs and sites are out there. I haven’t found many that I like, but I’m forever grateful to whoever pointed me in the direction of this article on Super Mario Bros. 3 by Tim Rogers on Action Button Dot Net.
A 10,000 word essay about a 25-year-old game, it’s one for your Instapaper or lunch break. It’s written in the mildly offhandish way of someone who knows all there is to know about their chosen subject: in this case, every mushroom, every warp whistle, every Kuribo’s Shoe (clue: there’s only one, and it’s in world 5-3).
It might be my favourite article I’ve ever read about video games.
There’s so many passages I could quote, and they are all quite long, so I’ll try and exercise restraint. This is how it starts:
Super Mario Bros. 3 was born of a multi-tiered adolescence: it was our first, it was games’ only, it was Shigeru Miyamoto’s second. Videogames, born to be the entertainment industry’s stepchild, had nearly drowned under a flood of Atari 2600 E.T.: The Game cartridges; rescued by a kind-hearted and inexplicably Japanese farmer just around the river bend, they overcame the amnesia that comes when the brain is deprived of oxygen in the best possible way: by never remembering the past. Urban legend tells us that Shigeru Miyamoto was introduced to Nintendo because his father knew the then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Urban legend continues to tell us that Miyamoto walked into the interview with some tentative sketches of a toy-like phone. He was told, yeah, that’s nice, though we want you to make a videogame. Shigeru Miyamoto went on to prove himself the most boring kind of genius: the kind who can walk face-first into anything and excel at it. There can be no higher compliment for a creator of world-class entertainment, really.
Rogers gives a potted history of Nintendo and Miyamoto, from Donkey Kong through the Mario and Zelda series, taking in game physics, level design, music and–repeatedly–world maps, a clear bugbear. Rogers is unerringly precise when it comes to SMB3’s influence:
Super Mario Bros. 3 is Miyamoto and friends adapting on the spot to a subtly warped world. At the time of its release–and even today, if you ask the right person–it was the biggest and most generous videogame that had ever existed, impenetrable to strategy guides, as short or as long as you wanted it to be, imaginative, bright, bold, flowing, absolutely effortlessly natural at all times. The following years would see dozens of money-sign-irised game developers attempt to slap together something reminiscient of Super Mario Bros. 3; they’d write their design documents like they were filling out a checklist, expecting lightning to strike as many times as they wanted. These people were burglars walking right into a house where the alarm was already ringing, and getting their faces smashed into the pavement; they will spend the rest of their lives being asked where the fucking diamonds are, and they will never be able to answer, because they don’t know.
Simply put, the morbid success of Super Mario Bros. 3 changed videogames for the bizarre, the way any and all success by Nintendo has ever changed videogames. There was so much love, attention to detail, generosity, and artistic conscience […] evident in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s all so ruthlessly accessible and playable and joyful, thanks to those amazing physics, that it’s near-unbearably heavy to think about how great it is, much less try to write about.
As you’ll have gathered, the article is as much a love letter as it is a retrospective review, and so it ends:
Super Mario Bros. 3 will remain my treasure, my precious hobby, my stay-at-home vacation, my one-man conversation, my lifelong birthday party.
Brilliant. I could hear the soundtrack in my head as I read it.
- Master of Play, Nick Paumgarten’s 2010 profile of Shigeru Miyamoto from The New Yorker.
- The World in a Chain Chomp, Kyle Orland’s shorter piece on SMB3.
- Saving Zelda, Tevis Thompson’s plea for the Zelda series to return to what he sees as its heyday.
- Game Over), David Sheff’s excellent 1993 book on the history and fortunes of Nintendo.