Today marks the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros, one of the most iconic and influential video games ever made.
I’ve spoken at great length about what Super Mario Bros means to me (long story short: without that game my life, career and future would have been completely different), so I won’t bore you with the story again.
Instead, on the Tired Old Hack Discord server a few days ago the lovely MartynStuff gave me a request: be the man who finally tells the REAL story about the history of Mario games. The TRUE story, not the inaccurate tales you read online.
Friends, I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the real story of the Super Mario series. A warning in advance: keep this article away from the kids because it’s got swearing in it. After all, everything here happened in real life, and real life has swearing in it sometimes.
Super Mario Bros
On 13 September 1985 the world as we know it changed. At a star-studded show at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Don Henley picked up the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year for The Boys of Summer (which, to be fair, is an absolute belter of a song).
As he stepped onto the stage to collect his award, however, a small tremor shook, surprising those in attendance. Little did they realise that on the other side of the world, Super Mario Bros had just launched in Japan and what they were feeling was a future echo of the shockwave it would cause.
Everyone at the show was so terrified by this rare glimpse of fate that they all agreed never to speak of it again, which is why the tremor is never mentioned in official reports of the event.
Super Mario Bros 2 (the fake one)
(Famicom Disk System, 1986)
Super Mario Bros was such a massive success in Japan that Nintendo feared the inevitable copycat games would follow. If the market became saturated by Mario clones, that would dilute the quality of the Famicom’s software library.
Then, Shigeru Miyamoto came up with an idea. “Since we already have the game code, why don’t we make our own bootleg first? That way everyone will think there’s no point ripping us off because we’ve already done it ourselves.”
“Miyamoto, you’re a sly fox,” replied Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. “And I should stress that I said ‘sly fox’ and not ‘star fox’ because you haven’t thought of that one yet.”
Super Mario Bros 2 launched on the Famicom Disk System and ripped off the original so successfully that no more platform games were ever made again.
Super Mario Bros 2 (the real one)
A couple of years after the bootleg Super Mario Bros 2 launched, Nintendo’s head honchos decided: “We should probably stop messing with them now and release the real one, eh? After all, it’s time to launch this bad boy in the west and they’ll realise our scam.”
The problem was, it had been so long since the first game that everyone had forgotten how to code. “I’m sure the numbers go at the start of each line,” programmer Toshihiko Makago was heard to say, “but I’ll be fucked if I know what to do after that.”
Miyamoto came to the rescue once again. “How about we take a game we’ve already made, swap out the hero for Mario and just pretend that’s Super Mario Bros 2? Those Yanks won’t know the difference.”
“Miyamoto, you’re a legend,” replied Hiroshi Yamauchi. “And I should stress that I don’t mean The Legend of Zelda because we’ve already done that one.”
The ‘real’ Super Mario Bros 2 launched in the west and Miyamoto’s clever ploy worked: everyone thought they were playing a brand new game without realising it was actually a cleverly reskinned version of Famicom game Tag Team Pro Wrestling.
Super Mario Bros 3
By the time Nintendo was due to make the third Mario game, people were starting to realise the trick they’d pulled off with the second one. Reports surfaced that it may have just been a Japanese game with the characters swapped out, which did at least explain why Mario kept putting his enemies in a headlock.
Luckily, Nintendo’s boffins had also spent the previous couple of years learning to code again, and were able to create an entirely new game for Mario’s third adventure. This wasn’t just going to be a straight sequel, either: this was going to raise the bar so high that if it was a limbo competition a basketball player could win by just walking under it.
Super Mario Bros 3 was a complete revelation: not only could Mario take to the skies and fly for the first time, he could also collect a number of special suits that gave him new abilities. The Frog Suit, Hammer Brother Suit, Masked Orgy Suit and Tanooki Suit all came into play in their own way in different levels, lending the game a much-appreciated sense of variety (if a little mature at times).
Super Mario Land
(Game Boy, 1989)
Nintendo needed a launch title for its new Game Boy handheld because, after all, they all knew a game about a bunch of blocks dropping from the sky was going to sell nothing.
Cue another Mario game, but rather than just making a Game Boy port of the first Super Mario Bros, it was decided that a completely new adventure would be created.
Super Mario Land guides Mario through the mysterious Sarasaland, which consists of four worlds that look suspiciously like Egypt, Bermuda, Easter Island and China. Along the way he also jumps into a submarine and a plane in some shoot ‘em up levels.
Legend has it that when designer Hirofumi Matsuoka submitted the design documents to Nintendo bosses for approval, they returned with a single note by Yamauchi, written in red marker pen, that simply said: “Fuck it, do what you want.”
Also in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell in Germany marking a new era of peace for the country. Elsewhere, F. W. de Klerk was elected as President of South Africa, and would eventually go on to dismantle the country’s racist apartheid system. Since the world is all about balancing good and evil, Nintendo did its bit to ‘undo’ these two momentous events by introducing Princess Daisy.
Super Mario World
Nintendo needed something special for its shiny new SNES system, so naturally they hit the “in case of new console break glass” button and Super Mario World emerged.
This time the big addition was a brand new companion for Mario, a dinosaur chum called Yoshi. Yoshi would become a hugely popular character and once again it was all down to Shigeru Miyamoto: this time, however, his process for coming up with the idea was slightly more sinister.
“It had been stated for a while that I am the Steven Spielberg of video games,” Miyamoto explained in an interview with the New York Times in the mid-90s. “What people didn’t realise is that this nickname brought with it a number of special powers, including the ability to telepathically tap into Spielberg’s mind and read his thoughts.
“In 1990 I tapped into his brain and discovered that he was starting to think about making a movie called Jurassic Park, so I decided to steal the idea from him and put a dinosaur in my game. It was literally intellectual property theft! [laughs]”
Mario Lemieux Hockey
(Mega Drive, 1991)
In a slightly unexpected departure for the series, the next Mario game was an ice hockey simulation with publishing duties inexplicably passed to Nintendo’s rival Sega.
Something clearly must have been lost during this transition, because while Mario Lemieux Hockey tries to do its bit for Mario lore (such as giving him a surname), it can’t be denied that the game doesn’t really live up to the magic of Nintendo’s own efforts.
Mario’s first sporting adventure came and went without much fanfare, teaching Nintendo a valuable lesson: you can’t just slap Mario’s name on any old shite and expect to get results.
Nintendo would ultimately pretend the events of Mario Lemieux Hockey were non-canon, but it didn’t stop them letting EA Sports try again a few years later with another Mega Drive game, Mario Andretti Racing, with similar results.
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
(Game Boy, 1992)
The first Super Mario Land shifted over 18 million copies, outselling even Super Mario Bros 3, so you’d better bloody believe Nintendo was going to sequelise that particular cash cow.
Super Mario Land 2 had Mario travelling through Mario Land – because apparently he now has a whole country named after him – in search of the six Golden Coins he needs to get into his castle, which has been taken over by a new rival called Wario.
Nintendo was keen to make a big deal out of Wario. “You see, it’s more than just Mario with the M turned upside down,” producer Gunpei Yokoi explained in an interview for Smash Hits magazine. “The word ‘warui’ means bad or wicked in Japan, so it’s actually a pun. Wario is ‘warui Mario’, if you will. It’s actually very clever.”
Unfortunately, nobody was really paying attention to this innovative piece of wordsmanship, because they were all too busy wondering how the fuck Mario got his own castle.
Super Mario All-Stars
Things were a bit quiet for Nintendo in 1993. This was mainly because most of the company’s creative output came from Shigeru Miyamoto and he was in hospital with a coma for most of the year as his brain struggled to cope with the onslaught of telepathic signals it was receiving due to the launch of Jurassic Park.
To fill in the gap, then, it was decided that Nintendo would release a compilation of four previously released games – Super Mario Bros, Fake Super Mario Bros 2, Real Super Mario Bros 2 and Super Mario Bros 3 – in snazzy new SNES versions.
Nintendo brought in Star Wars creator George Lucas to oversee these remasters, and for the most part he did a great job visually enhancing each game so they looked better than their original NES incarnations. You could actually see Mario’s face, for starters, while Peach had blonde hair in the first game rather than bright red.
Most controversially, however, a scene in which Bowser spits fire at Mario was edited so that Mario spits first, causing uproar among the Mario fanbase.
During a moment of madness, Nintendo abandoned its deal with Sony to make a new console called the PlayStation and instead teamed up with Philips to make a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES that ultimately never happened.
To make matters worse, as part of the deal Philips was allowed to make some games based on Mario and Zelda and release them on its awful CD-i console. Hotel Mario was mercifully the only Mario-related one to see the light of day, but it could have ended up being a very different game had a dodgy international phone line not caused some confusion.
While discussing the licence in a conference call with Philips Interactive executives, Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi made it quite clear that the game was to focus solely on Mario and not to make any cheeky in-jokes about Nintendo’s more colourful history.
“I want you to make a Mario game and nothing else,” he explained. “I want to see a normal Mario platform game with no clever references. I don’t want to see anything about our hanafuda cards or our love hotels or anything like that. We saw great success with Super Mario World, so make something about that.”
Unfortunately, Philips’ intercontinental conferencing connection wasn’t the most stable, and all they heard was: “I want you to make a Mario game… I want to see… clever references. I… love hotels… so make something about that.”
Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
As Miyamoto eventually began to recover from his Spielberg-induced coma, he was allowed to return back to work in a limited capacity. Ever the workhorse, Miyamoto insisted on taking on the lead design role for the next Super Mario game, despite his brain still not being 100% healed.
“I think we all agree that Yoshi is a popular character”, he told a packed boardroom. “And since that prick Spielberg nearly killed me, I want to show him that I rule the fucking dinosaur kingdom around here. We’re making a Yoshi game, and it’s going to have massively detailed, photorealistic environments like this.”
He then proceeded to take out a set of marker pens and scribbled a hastily-drawn landscape that looked like a child could have drawn it.
“Miyamoto-san,” one concerned board member replied, “don’t you feel like maybe your brain hasn’t yet fully recovered? I’m worried that maybe this art style isn’t quite as detailed as it is in your head.”
“Fucking make it happen,” Miyamoto demanded. “Make it look exactly like this. Put Jurassic Park to shame.”
Super Mario 64
(Nintendo 64, 1996)
By the time the Nintendo 64 was ready to launch, Miyamoto had fully recovered and – now able to comprehend what he’d actually requested – was feeling rather ashamed about the Yoshi’s Island incident.
Determined to move on, he insisted that Mario’s move to 3D would be one of the most iconic, groundbreaking games ever created, and you’d better believe he managed to pull that off with gusto. Actually, he pulled it off without Gusto: he was a planned third Mario brother before the idea was scrapped.
Super Mario 64’s wide variety of worlds all took place inside Peach’s Castle, with Mario able to reach different locations by jumping into paintings, which contained portals to the worlds depicted on them. It was a clever idea that allowed the game to portray a wide variety of environments while still keeping the story tightly wrapped around a central location.
Unfortunately, it also had its downsides as Miyamoto, so engrossed in the game’s development, started to believe it was possible in real life. During a fateful trip to a video store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, Miyamoto saw a poster for the VHS release of Jurassic Park. Attempting to jump through it and confront Steven Spielberg, Miyamoto cracked his head off the concrete wall and was rehospitalised.
Super Mario Sunshine
Clearly worried about their creative leader’s welfare, Nintendo bosses demanded that Miyamoto was to take an extended vacation following his second discharge from hospital.
He decided to go on a fancy beach holiday, one that saw him travelling to various different islands. He came back to Nintendo fully refreshed and – ever the type to make games based about his past experiences – was keen to make a game where Mario visited sunny islands too.
Super Mario Sunshine is set on the tropical Isle Delfino and has Mario chasing after a mysterious shadow figure who’s pretending to be him. It’s up to Mario to track him down and expose him so that everyone is aware who the real one is and who’s the imposter.
Apparently Miyamoto was also going to give this fake Mario a beard and a director’s chair but he decided that this was a bit too obvious and instead made the character out of water, a subtle nod to the scene in Jurassic Park where the T-Rex arrives.
Super Princess Peach
(Nintendo DS, 2005)
“Here’s an idea,” Miyamoto pondered during one of Nintendo’s regular brainstorming meetings. “Why don’t we make a game where Peach is the star? She’s always being kidnapped by Bowser, why don’t we turn the tables for once and have her rescue Mario?”
“That’s a fantastic idea,” said the one woman in the boardroom. “It could be a brilliant, symbolic game that marks a new turning point for the industry and makes it clear to gamers worldwide that female representation is important while also delivering a message to young girls everywhere that they can be the hero too.
“In fact, if you don’t mind me being so bold as to request it, I’d be very much interested in helping develop this particular game to ensure that it will be perfectly aimed at women and girls and provide them with an adventure that isn’t patronising or belittling.”
Ignoring her, the rest of the boardroom decided to outsource the game to development studio Tose, who decided that Peach’s special power would be the ability to get all emotional. Seriously.
New Super Mario Bros
(Nintendo DS, 2006)
By this point it had been a full 11 years since the last main entry in the side-scrolling Mario series (Yoshi’s Island) and a staggering 14 years since the last one actually starring Mario (Super Mario Land 2).
It’s maybe hard to imagine what it would have been like these days – for reasons that will become clear – but in 2006 fans were gasping for a new 2D Mario.
New Super Mario Bros was that game and the world rejoiced, with more than 30 million copies sold worldwide. Fans were engaged by the revolutionary plot – Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser – and snapped it up without remorse. Mainly because Remorse was the name of a planned fourth Mario brother before the idea was scrapped.
It was also to mark the first and last time the word ‘New’ actually meant something in the title of a Mario game, but we’ll get to that.
Super Mario Galaxy
The Wii was a revolutionary console (almost literally, given its codename) and as such required a similarly revolutionary game. Nintendo’s board members eagerly stared at Miyamoto, awaiting his next momentous idea.
Miyamoto stared at them all. “Listen,” he said quietly. “I’m in my 50s now. I joined this company in the ‘70s to make art for toys. I didn’t come here to make video games, I didn’t even know what a video game was. I appreciate that you enjoy my game ideas, but I’ll be honest with you: my creativity is running thin now. I don’t know what we should make next.”
The board members looked nervously at each other. After a long silence, one of them finally spoke up: “Um, Miyamoto-san, we appreciate that this is one of your humorous japes where you pretend not to care when deep down we all know you’re an endless pit of inspiration.
“We’re all quite stressed just now with the upcoming launch of the Revolution – there are rumours we’ll be renaming it the Wii, which is fucking ridiculous – so if you could just leave the joking for another day and tell us what game we should be making next it would be greatly appreciated, sir.”
Miyamoto sighed deeply and looked up at the sky. “Urrrrrgh, I don’t caaaaaaare,” he groaned. “Put him in outer fucking space or something.”
Thus, another classic was born.
New Super Mario Bros Wii
The Wii was an obscenely popular system, with Nintendo ultimately selling over 101 million consoles worldwide. Super Mario Galaxy had been critically adored, but traditionally 3D Mario games didn’t sell as well as the side-scrolling ones.
It was quickly decided that another 2D Mario game was needed to keep the momentum going. A clearly disinterested Miyamoto was asked once again what his thoughts were.
“What’s that one we did a few years ago? The one where the music went ‘waa-waa’ and the shite turtle things did a wee dance when the music did that?”
“Ummm, that was New Super Mario Bros, Miyamoyo-san. And the turtles are called Koopa Troopas, you created them.”
“Make another one of those. Keep the ‘waa-waa’ bit in it though, that was fucking quality.”
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario Galaxy was fast becoming regarded as one of the greatest games ever made, so naturally a sequel was in order, one that would push even that incredible first game to the limit.
Sensing that Miyamoto’s heart perhaps wasn’t in it these days, the game was instead handled by Nintendo’s other top dogs Yoshiaki Koizumi, Takashi Tezuka and Koichi Hayashida.
Development was going well until Miyamoto phoned the office. Miyamoto was notorious for ‘chabudai gaeshi’, a term that means ‘flipping the tea table’ and overhauling the game. When Miyamoto calls, it usually means a lot of work is about to come.
“What’s Spielberg up to these days?” Miyamoto asked.
“Uh… I believe he’s working on an animated Tintin movie, Shigeru,” Koizumi replied.
“Tintin? Pffffft, load of old dicks. Put Yoshi in Galaxy 2, and show that wanker I’m still the king.”
Super Mario 3D Land
(Nintendo 3DS, 2011)
The 3DS was a wonderful little box of tricks, with a glasses-free 3D display that I still firmly believe was absolute magic despite the fact a lot of people didn’t use it.
Super Mario 3D Land was designed to take full advantage of that 3D effect, and ultimately used it better than any other game on the system, but the big dilemma facing Nintendo was whether to make the game 2D or 3D.
You see, it was clear by this point that 2D Mario games outsold 3D ones by a noticeable distance, so it was decided to make a game that looked 3D and allowed a degree of free-roaming, but was still linear like a 2D game.
It was all very clever, and was the perfect entry point to the 3D games for 2D fans. That is, until Nintendo slapped a big ‘3D’ on the title and all the fans of the 2D games ignored it anyway.
New Super Mario Bros 2
(Nintendo 3DS, 2012)
Realising that the mainstream gaming public maybe wasn’t ready to go 3D with Mario yet, it was decided that another 2D game was the order of the day.
Curious to see if Miyamoto had gotten over his low spell, Takashi Tazuka decided to get in touch with him and see if he was willing to share any ideas for another side-scrolling title.
“What’s that one we did a few years ago?” he asked. “The one where the music went ‘waa-waa’ and the shite turtle things did a wee dance when the music did that?”
“We… um, we already had this conversation, Miyamoto-san. It was New Super Mario Bros, and then you asked us to make another one for the Wii.”
“What’s this one for?”
“Make another one, then. And make sure you put that ‘waa-waa’ bit in it again, I can’t stress enough how bloody clever that is.”
New Super Mario Bros U
(Wii U, 2012)
“Miyamoto-san, we’re thinking of Wii U launch games and-”
“But Miyamoto-san, we really think tha-”
“With the ‘waa-waa’ in it again?”
“What do YOU fucking think?”
Super Mario 3D World
(Wii U, 2013)
Super Mario 3D Land may not have provided the revolutionary leap from 2D to 3D gaming that Nintendo was hoping for, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t sell well: they still managed to shift 12 million of them, making it the sixth-biggest selling 3DS game.
Nintendo decided to try again, this time on the Wii U which, just a year into its life, was already looking like it could end up being Nintendo’s most disastrous home console in terms of sales.
Could this genuinely fantastic platformer turn the Wii U’s fortunes around single-handedly and become the console’s saviour?
Nah, of course not. Still, it’s coming to the Switch next year meaning if you weren’t one of the 5 million people who bought it, you’ll finally get a chance to play an outstanding Mario game. Don’t pass it up this time.
Super Mario Maker
(Wii U, 2015)
Despairing at the Wii U’s flatlining sales, Nintendo’s execs called an emergency meeting and – as had happened countless times in the past – all eyes turned to Shigeru Miyamoto once again.
“No, I’m done. I can’t be bothered coming up with any more ideas for you,” he firmly replied. “Nobody’s buying the bastard thing, so why should I waste my time coming up with new games that nobody will play?”
One exasperated board member finally spoke up. “ENOUGH. Miyamoto-san, your complete lack of enthusiasm is killing this company. You only have to look online to see what the gaming public is saying about us. They’re saying the great Miyamoto has finally lost his Midas touch and can no longer make a good Mario game.”
“Is that what they’re saying? Bunch of ungrateful arseholes. I’d love to see them try to make a single fucking Mario level, let alone a whole game.”
Delighted, the board thanked Miyamoto profusely for his idea.
“Eh? What idea?”
Super Mario Run
(iOS / Android, 2016)
For years, video game commentators and analysts insisted that Nintendo needed to embrace the world of mobile gaming.
The argument was that mobile was a giant money pit just waiting to be scooped up, and all Nintendo needed to do was to make a Mario game for mobile phones and the cash would come pouring in. Despite this, president Satoru Iwata was adamant that Nintendo wasn’t interested in making a mobile Mario game.
A year or so after Iwata’s death, Miyamoto took to the stage during Apple’s annual iPhone event and announced that a Mario platformer was coming to iOS (and later Android). It was actually a fun game, but because it was priced at around $9.99 – which was actually reasonable in the grand scheme of things – only 3% of people who downloaded the free version decided to buy the full game.
“Told you,” Iwata’s ghost said.
Super Mario Odyssey
Returning to full, free-roaming exploration for the first time since Super Mario Sunshine, Odyssey was a truly remarkable achievement where players were rewarded for curiosity.
Messing around with practically anything in each of its worlds usually resulted in the collection of yet another of the game’s countless power moons, making the entire thing a constant stream of good feelings. Here’s my review if you want to know more.
Super Mario Odyssey launched on 27 October 2017, the same day as Assassin’s Creed Origins. Mario went on to sell 18 million copies (to date), while Assassin’s Creed ‘only’ sold 10 million.
The next game in Ubisoft’s series was called Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. “Nice try, pricks,” Miyamoto muttered.
Super Mario 3D All-Stars
Finally, we come to Super Mario 3D All-Stars, which is only out in a matter of days as I write this.
This compilation gathers together Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy in one Switch bundle, offering upscaled HD visuals for each of them.
In a way, it’s probably the game we needed just now. Given that Super Mario 64 is about one man seeing what he can get up to within the confines of a single building he isn’t able to leave, and given that Super Mario Sunshine literally has a level called Corona Mountain, there’s no better year to re-release them.
And ultimately, when the world implodes on itself due to the strain of global warming, massive forest fires, mass civil war and incompetent world leaders, there’s really only one place we can go to get away from it all: in the words of the great Miyamoto, “outer fucking space or something.”
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How do you decide which SMB2 Is real and which one is fake??