The Fat Controller – A Super Mario Story

The simple joy of moving Mario.

Apparently, if there is one thing that get my kids to down tools and stop fighting each other for five minutes, it’s the prospect of getting one over on their old man. They’re still at that blessed age where they stare at me in wide-eyed amazement when I pick up a pad and clear a tricky section, so when Super Mario Maker landed on our doormat the possibility of creating something I wouldn’t be able to finish was too delicious for them to pass up. Huddled together over the gamepad, I can hear their whispered scheming. “Yeah, stick wings on it” said the eldest, as the youngest let out a sinister giggle.

Super Mario Maker looks set to be a firm favourite in our household, and like most user generated content, its success lies as much as in what you can’t do rather than what you can. You’re given the building blocks to make whatever you like, but the cogs and gears are kept under lock and key. And rightfully so. If there’s one thing Nintendo have absolutely nailed its Mario’s moves. The arc of his jump, his inertia and his sprightliness are all completely spot on and to be allowed to mess with them would be sacrilegious. He’s deeply ingrained into my fingers and brain, and after thirty years playing his games, I barely have to think anymore. It’s instinctual. He does exactly what I want him to. Allowing us to change these fundamentals would take away the very beating heart of what makes these games so special. It’s telling that while playing Super Mario 3D World, I barely touched the other characters. Their movement seems strange, wrong and blasphemous.

Mario’s grace and handling started to truly hit its stride in Super Mario Bros and the introduction of the run button. Like most, normal people I never take my thumb off run so the little guy flies round the screen like a man possessed. Rather than making life more difficult, speeding him up actually makes everything so much easier. Jumps are more manageable, you’re faster than your enemies and you can easily catch up to escaping power ups. Much has been made of the ingenious design of World 1-1, which subtly teaches the player the tricks of the trade without ramming it down their throats, but one of my favourite examples is found roughly a quarter through World 1-2. You’re faced with a wall with a one brick gap at the bottom. Goombas or a little Mario can pass through this quite happily, but if you’ve picked up a mushroom it appears that you’re a bit stuck. One solution is to just smash your way through the wall and jump over. But the other far more awesome solution is to take a run up and then duck at just the right moment so that you slide underneath. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you’ve got a new move added to your repertoire. I can’t be the only player that busts this out at every available opportunity, despite the fact it’s rarely all that useful. It’s just something that’s plain fun to do, and it’s made that little bit more special when Mario gets stuck under some indestructible blocks and has to awkwardly hop his way out with his hands around his ankles.

Putting aside Super Mario Bros 2 which is a law unto itself, Mario’s moves in 2D remain largely unchanged until we get to the “New” series that started on the DS. Something does feel slightly lighter about him in Bros 3 and World (although I’m unsure if that’s actually a thing or just a consequence of the games being better defined) and he does gain a bit of height when jumping off enemies, but otherwise, power-ups aside, it’s business as usual. I’m not a massive fan of the New titles and think they fall quite a bit short on what has come before, but going back to earlier games does make it immediately apparent how accustomed we’ve become to the expanded move set. The wall jump in particular is so easy to rely on that its absence can feel jarring. I realise that even trying to find fault with Super Mario World is grounds for dismissal, divorce and deportation but the last time I played it I experienced an awkward period of reprogramming where I had to forget the new things I’ve learned. But really, this is far from a criticism, and more a testament to how successful Nintendo have been at iterating Mario’s moves. Super Mario Maker allows you to leap thirty years and flip through four games and it’s genuinely a little bit amazing that it all works.

It only takes a few moments in the presence of someone like Sackboy to learn how important player confidence in character movement can be. I’ve never really understood the critical success of LittleBigPlanet; and after playing all three of the mainline entries, Lord knows I’ve tried. It’s not so much the bemusing and complex level editor (which has surely been rendered obsolete overnight with the release of Super Mario Maker), but the fidgety, imprecise, floaty nature of moving from A to B. It just all feels so inconsistent and unfair. The collision detection is off, the feeling of momentum just isn’t there and it’s difficult to feel any level of connection between what you’re doing and what you see on screen.

At the danger of reigniting the kind of argument I was having when I was eleven years old, I have a similar problem with Sonic games. Now, these get away with it by having excellent level design and being actual fun to play, but I’ve never managed to completely get my head round the physics of his jumps. From standing, he’s weirdly heavy and unresponsive and leaps can feel like they take an extraordinary amount of effort. This is probably my fault as much as the games, but twenty odd years down the line; I’m still no closer to understanding entirely what’s going on. Something is poorly wired somewhere; either in the game or in my head.

It’s not all buttercups and roses in Mario land. My two least favourite entries, 3D Land and Sunshine, are hampered by changes to their control schemes. I’ve never got on with the slider on the 3DS, and 3D Land can feel oddly slow, with the turning circle of an articulated lorry. Sunshine tries to tear up the rulebook by introducing the water jetpack FLUDD, but it’s telling that most players fond memories of the game come from the void levels which take this safety net away. And whisper it, but I’m one of those people who are certain that the otherwise momentous Galaxy games would be improved if they were made to be played on a normal pad.

But enough of this negativity. As much fun as Mario is to control in 2D, he’s an absolute revelation in 3D and arguably has no equal. The story goes that the Nintendo 64 pad was designed specifically for Super Mario 64 and this goes to prove the importance that Nintendo place on player movement. Those first tentative leaps in the grounds of Peach’s Castle are legendary and it’s perfectly possible we’ll never have a moment again like it. It seems that every combination of buttons does something new. Crouch and jump and you do a dramatic backflip complete with gymnast finish. Run, crouch and jump and Mario propels himself forwards covering more ground than previously possible. Quickly change direction and jump and he produces a graceful, arcing cartwheel. Given time, you’ll be able to cover the ground to the big, creaking doors within seconds but you’ll probably not want to. You’ll want another few more minutes in the safety to the grounds to mess with the possibilities and handstand leap from the top of a tree just one more time.

This focus on making travelling entertaining is a constant in the series. Be it the jumping pirouettes while ice skating, the somersaults while invincible or the outstretched arms as you’re blasted into space, Nintendo are always trying to find ways of making you smile at times when other developers would be happy to just let the animation play out. One of my absolute, favourite things to do in the Galaxy games is to long jump on a small planetoid so that you’re still within its gravity and fly round the other side. This serves no real purpose what-so-ever. I’m not getting anywhere, I’m not progressing or making any numbers go higher. I’m simply enjoying playing.

Which brings me inevitably to Super Mario World’s cape. Of all the ways to make Mario move this has to be the greatest and I believe that as a power-up it has never been bettered. You start with a run up, before launching ever higher into the sky. You can gently bob along on the breeze or dive bomb before pulling back dangerously close to the ground. You can land gently and smoothly on your belly or with an almighty thud. From the first time I picked it up as a ten year old to the last time I picked it up as a thirty three year old, it’s a pure, untapped digital expression of the word fun. I think I could write a whole article on how much that square piece of yellow cloth means to me but I suspect I’d be sectioned fairly quickly afterwards.

The series of misunderstandings, limitations and happy accidents that led to gaming’s most enduring icon being a portly, moustachioed plumber never cease to amuse me. He wears a hat because Miyamoto can’t draw hair, his dungarees are so you can see his arms moving and his name is from the one-time landlord of Nintendo barging in on a meeting and demanding overdue rent. Formed from a mish-mash of coincidence and opportunity, it’s ironic that his creation was so out of control when to actually play as him is anything but.