The Magic of Mario
We all know what Mario games are about: jumping, reflexes, and power ups. It’s also about cuteness, childlike fun, and classic adventure. Collecting stuff, stomping on bad things, and trying not to die. It’s Challenge genre where you try to beat the obstacles and maybe get the high score in the process. Level design and enemy types are the only things you really need to vary from one game to the next. Repeat ad infinitum!
But what if I told you that none of that is what really defines a Mario experience?
What if I told you that the real defining feature of a Mario game was the pitch-perfect way the audio-visual tone is incorporated into those other thematic and gameplay elements? Right from the opening title screen to the final credits, the magic of Mario is the chemistry that happens when you combine the challenges with a certain mood.
Let’s test this view with an extreme example that proves the point. Super Mario RPG wasn’t even developed by Nintendo, but rather Square (the creators of Final Fantasy) and involves almost no traditional Mario elements. It’s not about jumping, reflexes, or power ups as they exist in “proper” Mario games. But it has tremendous cuteness, childlike fun, and classic adventure. It has some collecting, stomping on things, and trying not to die, although the mechanics are all different. You could easily argue it’s not a “real” Mario game, right? And yet if you’ve ever played it, it feels like an undeniable core entry in the Mario series. Why? Because of this right here — let the music play while you read the rest of the review:
This game demonstrates what Mario is really about. Video games are exhausting ordeals, especially for children, and although they can be addictive they still drain our energy. So what can you do? Make the games easier and dumber while hamming up the drama of the story? That’s what contemporary designers resort to because they don’t understand the pivotal role of music in energizing the player. If there’s any series in the world that has demonstrated the power of music to energize players to persevere in the face of draining challenges, it’s Mario. The iconic, unforgettable soundtracks of the 8-bit games are what fueled us as we cramped our fingers and clenched our buttocks at every impossible jump. As I said before, the music is like a cheerleader encouraging you to keep going. But it’s more than that. It breaks up the pacing, deepens the sense of the world you’re exploring, and sets an appropriate mood appropriate for your hero journey.
Hero journeys need ups and downs. They need goofiness, excitement, fear, but also low points of sadness or relaxation. You can’t underestimate how potent this is, or take it for granted. Regardless of how you personally feel about the challenges of the game, when you’re in the moment you can’t help but incorporate them into your mood. Your heart rate, alertness, and stress will all be affected. When the music is intense and weighty you feel worse about failure and take less chances. When it’s eccentric and bouncy, you feel like bouncing around trying weird stuff yourself. The original Super Mario Bros. deliberately mixed up the levels to include underground or water levels so that your ears (and therefore mood) would have a change of pace. New skills, platforming features, and challenges were introduced at the same time as these memorable tunes, creating a powerful psychological association between them. When you hear the music, you remember the controls. When you see the challenges, you remember the music. Because you have to personally struggle with these gameplay obstacles yourself, you end up feeling like you are the hero that has to get through the ordeal, and this is your soundtrack. There is no other medium where music plays such a vital role in shaping your experience.
Mario may not have invented the immersive game soundtrack (I’m not sure, they might have, actually) but they certainly epitomized it for ages. It became the core attraction, in a way. The Mario method can even be seen in the spinoff games, such as tennis, go-karting, and Mario Party. They’re not all masterpieces of musical genius, but isn’t it funny how you can almost match the reputation of a Mario game with the catchiness of its soundscape? Is it a coincidence that “the best Mario games” are also the ones with the best tunes? Look at the oddity of Super Mario Bros. 2, with its unorthodox mechanics and secretly-ported-from-another-game design and you can see that it still has a cult fanbase in large part thanks in large part to its weird melodies. I’d also point to Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, which, despite being supposedly perfect games according to reviews and fanboys, never broke out in the mainstream consciousness or sold that many copies. It sold rather badly (worse than Sunshine) despite the promotional push by Nintendo and the massive install base of the Wii console. It didn’t catch on despite the fact that it was more accessible and easy for newcomers than any previous 3D Mario! Could it have anything to do with its forgettably “epic” soundtrack of soaring orchestra and self-indulgent symphony? I remember playing the game for many hours, but today I couldn’t hum a single tune from it.
For more examples of soundtracks elevating a game and defining its viral appeal, see Stardew Valley and Undertale.
The Lesson of Yoshi’s Island
Maybe I’m biased and projecting my own preferences onto the world. Yoshi’s Island is one of my favorite games of all with a godlike soundtrack, but it’s only in recent years that I found out it wasn’t a smash hit after all. In fact it sold horribly compared to previous mainline Mario games! For goodness sake, the full title of the game is Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island! This was supposed to the huge sequel to the beloved Super Mario World for SNES but it only sold 1/5th the amount. So that disproves my whole theory, right?
Or maybe you could account for the fact that you don’t actually play as Mario during the game and the wailing cries of Baby Mario totally destroys the appeal. People hated that crying little baby with a passion. When you ask critics why they don’t like the game, they never fail to mention the crying noise as their central complaint, even when they acknowledge that the rest is fantastic. My point is proven once again. The psychological stress of hearing a baby crying in the middle of your fun adventure messes with your head too much. It ruins the whole fantasy. Players can’t handle it, and they subconsciously realize it breaks the sacred assumption of how a Mario game should feel. The thing that should be cheering you on — the iconic music and SFX combination — ends up grating on your nerves and punishing you instead. Unacceptable in a Mario game. Just look at the comments on the Yoshi’s Island sountrack video and how many upvotes they got…
Let’s not overlook the significance of Baby Mario’s obnoxious crying. It turns out to be the catalyst for one of the great tragedies of gaming. I’m not exaggerating. You need to realize that the commercial failure of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was so devastating to Miyamoto personally that he basically wrote off 2D Mario games forever and focused instead on the cutting edge of 3D innovation. Why? Because Miyamoto secretly despised the popularity of the Donkey Kong Country series, developed by Rare, which he thought was popular because of shallow graphics alone. It sold over twice as much as Yoshi’s Island. He wanted his game to prove that you could use pastel colors and chalk scribbles to outshine the faux-3D rendering technique used by Rare to make Donkey King’s world look so fancy and detailed. He wanted the crazy gameplay of Yoshi’s Island to catch on despite the visuals. Although it was late in the SNES lifecycle and Mario 64 was already in development, he took the flop of the game hard and dismissed 2D Mario as something that needed to be forgotten. Of course, he was wrong, and Nintendo has been scratching their heads over why newer 2D Mario games still sell like crazy compared to the big shiny 3D games to this day!
If Shigeryu Miyamoto had only realized that Donkey Kong Country was popular because of its amazing music and atmosphere, and that Yoshi’s Island only failed because it had a glaring Achilles heel of the baby crying, we might have had a bunch of awesome 2D Mario titles that continued to get better and better between 1995 and today. Alas, like so many creators, he seems oblivious to his own formula for success.
Above: Another unforgettable soundtrack that absorbs you into the world.
As a side note while I’m rambling about the rivalry between Yoshi’s Island and Donkey King Country, I may as well throw in this observation: if you’ve played Yoshi’s Island you know that every level begins with a distinctive little bongo drum beat. Well, that rhythm of drums is directly copied from the main theme of Donkey Kong Country. It’s no coincidence that Yoshi’s Island was set on a jungle island with Caribbean music tones and an exploration of various mines, mountains, and snow levels analogous to what DKC did. Miyamoto was trying to surpass Rare at every step, so he took on the same themes and locales, even mimicking their music with a little homage. Don’t trust what Japanese developers tell you about their design motivations, folks.
Anyway, next we’ll see how Odyssey manages to fight for its place in the ranks of Mario greats…