by Marty Demarest

Mario, Mario. Who would have guessed that an unassuming, two-dimensional video game character would become one of the world's most enduring cultural icons?

When Japanese game designer Shigeru Miyamoto invented Mario, he was supposed to be nothing more than a quick way for the Nintendo company to re-use some old arcade machines. And yet the pot-bellied, bouncing Italian icon became a phenomenon thanks to arcade classics Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers, and facilitated by his (at the time) voiceless international appeal. By the time Nintendo was ready to launch what would become the company's flagship video game console -- the Nintendo Entertainment System -- Mario was already a headliner. And in a move that almost single-handedly saved the video game industry in 1985, Super Mario Bros. was released, and Mario was in millions of homes.

Nintendo has just re-released the game (Rated: E) for its Game Boy Advance (itself a more powerful machine than the original NES), and a new generation of gamers can see for themselves if there is anything that merits their attention.

Long-time gamers will immediately notice that the screen is squashed, since the Game Boy Advance screen and the television screen have different proportions. And a few of the game's old tricks (really bugs that inadvertently helped the player) don't work as easily. But if you don't already know Super Mario Bros., you might not notice. (Or you can just buy an old NES and discover what gaming was like back in the day.)

What is immediately noticeable is that very few games have come close to replicating the simplicity and intuitive ease of the game. No instructions are given, and players start out with no more preparation than placing their thumbs on the controls. As the game's famous calypso theme begins to play, pushing the buttons, jumping and running around, and killing enemies is automatic. It's so easy; you're likely to finish the game once you start. This is the kind of trick that countless video games try to pull off, and fail.

Today, Super Mario Bros. looks somewhat like a dud, with blocky graphics and washed-out colors. But the jumping/running combinations the game play is based on -- now widely copied -- are still tricky. And in terms of getting players to play a game, it still sets the standard. On some level, every game still wants to be like Mario.

Publication date: 07/29/04

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