‘Super Mario Bros.’ Taught Me to Be the Best, and More Lessons from the Mushroom Kingdom

Looking back at 30 years of lessons imparted by a high-jumping plumber and his dinosaur friends.

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Sep 9 2015, 4:10pm

A screenshot from the original 'Super Mario Bros.'

I'm 34, so I've basically grown up with Mario. He's a fairly good icon to follow in terms of improving your life—Mario is almost always better than any of his competition. Rather than be discouraged by his almost continuous run of excellence, which now spans 30 years, I've constantly been inspired by the lessons his games have provided. And, thankfully, he also sometimes gets it wrong, just like all of us.

'Super Mario Bros.' taught me how to be the best

It taught me, back in 1987 or so, that to reach a goal you have to fail first. Lots of times. "But our princess is in another castle," ad infinitum. "Good, and besides, she's not a prize to be won," I probably thought, because I wanted more of that sweet, sweet level design. Each little failure was accompanied by a new, rewarding journey. The intricate design that so entertained and infuriated us all encouraged continual trying. It never felt unfair, or like I couldn't ever "do" it. This wasn't necessarily true with games before this one, at least to the six-year-old me. There was enough leeway in my pit leaps and collisions with trickily placed enemies to make me think, "Let's try this again." Giving up wasn't an option because the flagpole, castle, or boss was just up ahead. It also taught me that games were flipping awesome and prepared me for a life mostly spent indoors.

A screenshot from 'Super Mario Bros. 2'

'Super Mario Bros. 2' showed me that you can change the rules and still be on top

It's not even a Super Mario game. Somehow, we got labelled wusses, and couldn't have the ultra-hard Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros. Instead we got a repurposed platform affair that had almost nothing to do with the finely tuned design and mechanics of the first game. Yet, it's still brilliant. How? It matches elements in the same way the first did—it maximizes ability, intrigue, and reward, balancing them carefully upon skill and reactions. Also, it gave me the option to make the oft-kidnapped Princess Toadstool or put-upon slave Toad the heroes. It showed me that repeating winning formulas, and popular story and design choices aren't the only way to make great things; Super Mario Bros. 2 proves that both inherent and learned skill can transform something from good to really quite great (and if you stick the right brand upon it, sell a bucket load).

'Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels,' conversely, taught me that you will fail lots of times and life is completely unfair

I hate you SMB: TLL. You're the worst and a bully.

A map screen in 'Super Mario Bros. 3'

'Super Mario Bros. 3' let me know there are different routes to success

SMB3 could be summed up to me in one word: maps. And with maps come navigation and choice. The paths through the game were still relatively linear, but now I could walk past a stage and never have to play it, visit Toad's house for some free swag, run into moving Hammer Bros. stomping across my chosen road, and chase wooden airships halfway across the land. And that was without entering a level. I could play before playing. I could pretend I was exploring an entire world, not just parading across parallax playgrounds, and it allowed me to think beyond the linear narrative. I could choose where to go, and I knew it each time would be a slightly different journey. We take this for granted now, but SMB3 did this for me first. Not taking a traditional route became one of my favorite things in life.

A screenshot from 'Super Mario World'

'Super Mario World' brought home that life is full of hidden surprises, and working for them is reward in itself

Ninety-six exits. That's a lot. How did I find them all? Probably guides. But Mario somehow gives us the desire to keep searching instead of cheating. It encourages you to know your limits, and think beyond them. Can I fly all the way up there? Is there an invisible door in this ghost house? Do I have the skills to finish Tubular? It was always a tightrope of exploration, accidental discovery and working to achieve the seemingly impossible. For a while I couldn't use that stupid flying cape, so the Cheese Bridge Area secret exit was out of my reach until I practiced and worked out how to swoop and dive. Finally getting that secret exit forced me to get better instead of just settling for completing the game. Why? I guess I've never wanted to miss out on anything, even the small things. Your reward for completing the Star Road secret levels—hours of failing miserably, and controllers thrown because of your rubbish sticky fingers—was less than fair exchange. But I'd still do it, wouldn't you? It's not all about the destination.

New on Motherboard: 'Super Mario Maker' Almost Convinced My Girlfriend to Like Video Games

The title screen of 'Super Mario 64'

'Super Mario 64' said that growing up means a change of perspective and a greater appreciation for new ways of doing things

The biggest leaps in Mario gameplay happened in Super Mario 64. Platforming left to right was no longer enough to depict the journeys I desired. As a teenager, childish ideas had no chance of getting me through life. For the first time, I was seeing Mario in a set of fully formed worlds. What's more, his goals had changed. No longer was I guiding him to the end of a level. Instead, I was exploring high and low, gathering red coins and finding stars based on level title clues. It made for an engrossing game with a variety of approaches to living in its strange lands. You could get just enough stars to go swing Bowser into explosives, or you could seek out all 120 of them. You could nab a brag-worthy speed run or just replay that penguin ice-slide race over and over. Like being a teenager, you realize how deep the world around you is, and that you've simply been shuttled from your childhood to adulthood by the slim corridor of school. Super Mario 64 opened up amazing possibilities in gaming just as preparing to leave school saw my life choices open up before me.

Promotional imagery for 'Super Mario Sunshine'

'Super Mario Sunshine' taught me that you don't always get it right, but that doesn't really matter

In the name of change, all of us—even the original Mario maker himself Shigeru Miyamoto—can get it wrong. This was my (awesome) GameCube period, and the console came along just as I hit a roadblock in life. Sure, Sunshine wasn't awful. It's actually really very good in places. I enjoyed it immensely at the time. But then, I really enjoyed working in a video game shop for a while. Things change. Taking the point of the game away from us (Mario's legs and acrobatics) was a brave move. You rely on jets of water to cross gaps. You find cleaning endless globs of paint soothing. Crucially, you start cruising instead of exploring. And suddenly your safety net (the FLUDD apparatus) is stolen, you're sent back to basics, and you fail spectacularly—those "retro" platforming levels were fiendish. And the camera was broken—your vision obscured by circumstance—and that blunted scope and ambition. Still, there are elements here that may have led to some of Nintendo's better moments in recent years: Splatoon and Super Mario 3D Land / World seem to have taken influence from this game. Similarly, I learned to talk to people, found out what was important in life, and started to follow my real passions. Now, I'm getting paid to write an article about video games rather than selling them—dream big, kids.

'New Super Mario Bros.' made it clear that nostalgia gets us nowhere

Sure it's fun reminiscing and sticking to the old, and the original DS game was a fresh look at a long-loved classic franchise all but left behind by the home console evolutions. But one thing Super Mario helped me believe was that you keep on moving forward, perhaps nodding at the past respectfully. But as 'New' turned into a sub-franchise, I realized it wasn't really doing that. I suppose that's okay—there's a place for wallowing in times past—but I'm not keen to play this game's lukewarmly received 3DS sequel, for example. The fun but disposable multiplayer of the Wii and Wii U versions are silly fun, but they're just a temporary distraction. They don't have the substance to make an impact on my gaming life. Why dwell on the past? I had started to stagnate in sticking with something I was familiar with around the time New Super Mario Bros. Wii was released. But I'd learned enough to get on with my life—you always do better when you seek out new things.

A screenshot from 'Super Mario Galaxy'

'Super Mario Galaxy' showed me that the sky is never the limit

Why stop at those fluffy clouds and that steel-gray expanse? Reach for the moon, the stars, and those huge planets above. By bringing Mario to his back-flipping, platforming origins and flinging him headlong into space, Nintendo's imagination felt as infinite. It's a crazy idea—long has Mario been attached to a handful of worlds within one game. Here, he leaps from planetoid to planetoid, each with its own enemies, landscape, and physical rules, all in one level. "You want to get creative?" Galaxy asks. "Go nuts." Be unafraid to skirt around untouched ideas or to throw a lot of things together and see what works. Some of the things you do will be successful, and some won't. But the higher you reach, the better you can be. For me, Mario was always the best, with no real peers or comparisons, and then this (and its sequel) happened and pretty much left everyone light years behind. Mario kept reaching and never looked back. Good advice.

Promotional artwork from 'Super Mario Galaxy 2'

'Super Mario Galaxy 2' proved perfection can be achieved so long as you try and try again

The Perfect Run is my gaming nirvana. It's superbly designed, with things that on a first play would seem impossible to the average person. But for those of us who clawed to get there, and then worked hard to complete that one-shot level of intricate chaos, we knew what it took and that it was totally worth it. With no mistakes allowed, it takes tons of practice to truly finish this game. If you manage it, and flow through it with little delay, it looks like an animated Rube Goldberg machine and it is beautiful. I can't tell you how many times it took before I made it. All I know is that 25 years of playing Mario had built me up to this moment. And whenever I think of quitting something that seems complicated, or because I lack inspiration, The Perfect Run will replay in my head and I'll keep going.

A screenshot from 'Super Mario 3D World'

'Super Mario 3D World' taught me that we become greater with each other

Finally we have a multiplayer Mario outside of the 2D and Karting arenas that actually enhances the single-player game. Experienced solo, there's several lovely pockets formed of classic Mario gameplay and design. But it all seems slightly empty, and it isn't until you recruit others to play with you that you realize why. This is entirely unusual for Super Mario games, and while it has dabbled with half-hearted multiplayer experiences—from the take-it-in-turns original to Galaxy's collector-thon remote waggling—this is when being with another suddenly fits in Mario's life plan. I just moved in with someone incredibly special, for the first time. And we both understand how much we improve each other's lives. I'm glad Mario managed to figure this out around the same time I did. I always wondered if he'd ever work that out.

Promotional artwork for 'Super Mario Maker'

'Super Mario Maker' says that creativity is infinite and that we can all become immortal through our work

Immortal I say. Maker is the perfect coda to 30 years of Super Mario games. We finally get the chance to take our extensive knowledge and personal experiences of what's come before and use it to frustrate, trick, annoy, anger, bewilder, amuse, petrify, inform, inspire, educate, entertain, and define ourselves, our friends and complete strangers. Whatever we choose to do with our lives—or our level designs—we can make a difference to someone, even if it's just us. Live through others in art; learn the lessons of perseverance, failure and success; and then make your own. That's what Mario has taught me.

Super Mario Maker is released for the Wii U on September 11. More information at Nintendo.com.

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