Mario is over twenty five years old. Simply in terms of longevity in a constantly evolving industry, that's quite an achievement. Really, how many other characters from the dawn of gaming are still remembered, let alone starring in major AAA new releases? Is the world holding its breath for a new Pitfall Harry game? No sir, it is not. Unless you're cheeky and count Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Hmm.
Anyway, with Super Mario Galaxy already causing well-groomed pundits to throw words like "bright, bold, unrepentantly loony" around the place this seems like a good excuse to re-rewind back to the start and take a look back of this illustrious history. For the sake of space (and my sanity) we'll be focusing on the main Mario titles, with regular diversions into some of the stranger corners he's found himself in. Spin-offs like the Yoshi and Donkey Kong series, as well as remakes and puzzle games, will be mentioned where relevant but for the most part it's the core Mario series we'll be running our calloused fingers over.
With that small disclaimer out of the way, let's journey back to the neon plastic wonderland we called 1981. Many remarkable and world-changing things debuted on the global stage in that year; Indiana Jones, Princess Diana, Bucks Fizz, that Clint Eastwood movie with the orang-utan that punches people. But it was a different sort of truculent ape that really inflamed the trousers of the entire planet, one with a fondness for throwing barrels and stealing women...
1981 to 1983 - The arcade years
Donkey Kong was his name, and he was created to help Nintendo crack the lucrative American arcade industry. Assigned to the task were two up and coming game designers - Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. In the game, a giant gorilla flees his abusive owner and kidnaps his girlfriend into the bargain. Scaling some convenient scaffolds, he jumps up and down (forming even more convenient ramps), and makes with the barrel throwing. The carpenter, going by the rather self-explanatory name of Jumpman, must ascend the scaffold, leaping over the rolling projectiles or smashing them with his hammer. The exact date when Jumpman became Mario is unclear, but certainly before 1982 rolled around the arcade cabinet was already being promoted with references to Mario, the brave carpenter. The game proved to be a hit in the arcade and a jubilant Nintendo celebrated by...er...selling the home rights to Coleco. A sequel, Donkey Kong Jr, swiftly followed in 1982 and Mario therefore spent his first year being ported to everything from the Game & Watch to the Intellivision, and even (several years later) home computers like the Apple II, Vic 20 and Commodore 64.
1983 was the year that Mario broke out from under the monkey's shadow, with the arrival in arcades of Mario Bros. This was the game that introduced Luigi, although he was simply a green-painted clone of his brother at this point, and also swapped his profession from carpenter to plumber. The game, with a basic screen layout rather obviously lifted from Joust, found the pair knocking turtles and other subterranean creatures over by bumping the platforms from beneath, before running into them to nudge them into the water. Despite the simplistic gameplay, many recurring Mario motifs could already be found. The turtles are a clear precursor to the green-shelled Koopa, while the pipes they emerge from would also become a familiar fixture in Mario landscapes. Even the pling-pling sound effect when you pick up a coin (your reward for murdering small animals) has remained fairly constant over a quarter century.
Nintendo was quick to snatch back the home rights to the moustachioed hero and with good reason - they were launching their own home console and needed flagship games to drive punters into a frenzy.
Notable Oddity: Mario's Bombs Away, a 1983 Game & Watch title which found a bizarrely militarised Mario planting explosives. The game was played by watching the action reflected in a mirror angled above the screen.
1985 to 1990 - The NES years
Mario made his debut on the NES not in a new game of his own, but by making cameo appearances in other titles. As well as the obligatory 1983 Famicom ports of Mario Bros and the Donkey Kong games in Japan, during 1984 the NES Tennis game featured his hirsute visage warming the umpire's chair, while the lead character in Golf looked bugger all like Mario, yet boasted a familiar moustache so it's probably him. Even in NES Pinball, Mario can be found hiding in the bonus stage, while those shovelling coins into the Punch Out! arcade machine may have spotted our plumbing pal watching you get leathered by Bald Bull. Much like Ronald McDonald, Mario was clearly being groomed as a corporate icon - but without the same creepy enthusiasm for saturated fat.
It wasn't until 1985 that a new standalone Mario title graced the hardware, but when it did everything changed. Super Mario Bros took the single screen collect-em-up of old and threw it out of the window, replacing the score-chasing gameplay with a side-scrolling platform adventure that tickled gamers in a way they'd never been tickled before. In fact, it could easily be argued that the distinction between arcade games and console games really began here. Prior to its release, consoles were for playing shrunken versions of arcade hits, or games that ripped off arcade hits. After Super Mario Bros, home gamers had their eyes opened to the idea that console games could be both original and free from the coin-op twitch-gaming mentality. Super Mario Bros was not only the first game to use the recognisable 2D Mario style, but it also introduced pretty much every element that has dominated the series ever since. Princess Peach (aka Princess Toadstool), Bowser, kicking the koopa shells as weapons, the classic gamespeak slogan "Our princess is in another castle", they're all here. Even fungi fun guy Toad makes an appearance, albeit anonymously.
Sorry about the "fungi" thing, by the way. Couldn't resist.
Of course, Nintendo wasn't about to alienate a market still weaned on the instant gratification of the arcade, so 1985 also saw the release of Wrecking Crew, an obscure Mario puzzle outing which took him back to his classic Donkey Kong roots by smashing every item in each ladders-and-platforms level. It's actually rather fun, and has a level designer to boot.
Here's where it gets a bit confusing. A Super Mario Bros sequel was inevitable, but we actually got two, both called Super Mario Bros 2. The Japanese version, while largely similar to the original, gave Mario and Luigi different abilities for the first time. However, depending on who you ask, the game was either too derivative of the first or too hard for western tastes, so US gamers got an entirely different game in 1988. A rebranded version of Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, another Miyamoto platform game it's not without its fans but, while superficially related, is undeniably Not Mario.
Thankfully, all this silly bother was put aside once Super Mario Bros 3 arrived in 1988. In fact, if you ever need a perfect example of how a classic videogame can evolve in just three steps, the Super Mario Bros trilogy is the only one you need to study. Taking the lessons learned from the previous games, Miyamoto and his team served up a third entry that still represents a staggering achievement in 8bit design. A non-linear platform epic, with stages chosen from a top-down map, it boasted cleverly constructed leaping challenges, relentless races against forced scrolling, and standalone boss battles. There were secrets galore, minigames and dozens of cool features to uncover over the course of eight worlds. I'm aware that I often bang on about the wonders of truly classic game design when writing about retro games, and Super Mario Bros 3 is a prime example of my obsession. Every new centimetre of screen that scrolls towards you is purposefully designed to complement what came before, or to introduce what comes next. There's not a pixel of waste in the whole thing, which is why it still holds up today as a genuine great. It is, you will be unsurprised to learn, the final entry in the best-selling videogame trilogy of all time.
1989, of course, also ushered the Game Boy onto the world stage and Mario inevitably graced the system with an all new and exclusive adventure - Super Mario Land. Produced as a solo project by the handheld's creator, and Miyamoto's co-designer way back on Donkey Kong, Gunpei Yokoi. For those who are interested in how a different design aesthetic can subtly change an established formula, Super Mario Land makes for a fascinating experience. It shares much in common with Miyamoto's games, but is also clearly the work of the man behind Metroid in terms of visuals and design. The story is unusual - boasting Tatanga the mysterious spaceman as its villain, and Princess Daisy as the damsel in distress. Clearly Mario's bit on the side, Daisy was swiftly brushed under the carpet in favour of series stalwart Princess Peach, although she did eventually resurface in the N64 Mario sports games. The dirty moo.
Of course, it's worth pointing out that us poor saps in Europe didn't get to join in much of this fun at the time, since we had to wait until 1987 to sample the first Super Mario Bros. Its US sequel wouldn't reach us until 1989, we didn't deserve Super Mario Land until 1990 and the sublime Super Mario Bros 3 didn't taste European air until 1991. A Nintendo spokesman at the time claimed the delay was "because you all smell funny". Probably.
Notable Oddity: All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros, a highly collectable promotional cartridge given out in a raffle by a Japanese radio station. The 1986 release combined levels from various Super Mario versions, and replaced some of the graphics with popular Japanese pop stars and DJs. 1988 also saw the release of the original Mario Bros for the Atari 7800, marking his final appearance on a non-Nintendo console.
1990 to 1996 - The SNES years
By the time Nintendo got around to launching its 16bit console, Sega was already pulling ahead with its cool, none-more-black Genesis/Megadrive machine. With Mario established as the official face of Nintendo gaming, it didn't come as much of a surprise that the Super Famicom/SNES hit the shelves with Mario all over it like a rash. Super Mario World was the game, hurriedly developed to launch with the console alongside Pilot Wings and F-Zero, and it took the Super Mario Bros 3 template and infused it with the sort of complexity and colour that the wheezing NES simply couldn't manage. Indeed, the game was even known as Super Mario Bros 4 in Japan for a while.
As well as beautifully detailed graphics - "It's like playing a cartoon!" we cried, and not for the last time - the game expanded on the gameplay possibilities of the overworld map in ways that still suck you in. Across seven worlds there are 72 levels, linked by 92 exits and entrances. Some are obvious, many are secret with the hidden Star Road and Special Zone opening up the opportunity to find new paths through the game without following a linear order. Working out the quickest or most complete route through the game became an obsession for many, and the game is still a regular challenge in the speed run community. Super Mario World also introduced the latest addition to the expanding Mario cast, the lick-happy Yoshi (then still a species, not a single character), who appeared in multiple forms, flying, spitting fire and stomp-killing koopas. Mario himself was upgraded with a spin-jump attack, cleverly foreshadowing his yet-to-be born rival Sonic. Super Mario World was later packaged into the Mario All-Stars bundle, offering SNESed up ports of the classic NES games.
Having pretty much defined the platform genre, Mario's next major outing would prove that his dungaree-clad arse was good for more than just squashing koopa shells. Powered by the oh-so-exciting Mode 7 graphics technology, Super Mario Kart roared onto Japanese consoles in 1992 (it reached us a mere five months later, for a change) and instantly redefined the boundaries of what could be done within a games franchise. Discovering that the world's best platform game had just spawned one of the world's best racing games was not unlike finding out that Robert DeNiro wrote all The Beatles songs. It's both impressive and more than a little greedy. How much excellence can one series lay claim to?
As well as a smattering of Yoshi games, handheld gamers got their Mario fix in the shape of Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, a Game Boy sequel once again overseen by Yokoi rather than Miyamoto. It adopted the map screen from Super Mario World, and also introduced that inverted mini-game loving menace, Wario. Bwah-ha-ha. Etc.
Presumably having exhausted himself, Mario then retreated to the background for a few years while co-stars Yoshi and Wario tested the water with their own range of spin-offs. Indeed, so lazy did the rotund plumber become that he only appeared in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island as a helpless baby, leaving all the real work to his dinosaur chum. I bet he still demanded a £50 call-out charge though. This period also found Mario appearing in more and more educational titles, a trend that had begun with the seemingly random Mario Teaches Typing DOS game in 1991. US SNES owners got to enjoy a trio of pre-school Mario games in 1993, while a slew of puzzle games, such as Mario's Picross, and other oddities, such as the lightgun shooter Yoshi's Safari and headache-inducing Virtual Boy titles, featured his hairy face.
It's also entirely plausible that Mario kept quiet during the mid-90s to avoid the critical fall-out from the mind-bogglingly horrendous 1993 Hollywood movie that bore his name. With Bob Hoskins as Mario, and gurning irritant John Leguizamo as Luigi, it bore little resemblance to the colourful cartoon world of the games, preferring to reinvent the Mario universe as a grungy dystopian alternate dimension, where Dennis Hopper's King Koopa pranced about like a really bad Johnny Rotten impersonator. Not since John Naughton's controversial (and hastily retitled) Kirby: Portrait of a Serial Killer had a Nintendo character been so misrepresented on-screen.
It all came good in the end though. Even with the PlayStation arriving on the scene, and making us all go "ooh" and "aah" with the prospect of games that came on shiny discs rather than Fisher Price plastic bricks, Mario had one last trick up his sleeve. Super Mario RPG, developed by the Final Fantasy love muffins at Square, proved a more than appropriate swansong for the 16bit era, even if Square did rather obscure its release with Chrono Trigger, their other (better) SNES role-player. Even now, it's quite weird to see Mario exploring and turn-based-combating in what is essentially a technical precursor to Final Fantasy VII. Still, it added yet another genre to the platform king's arsenal, and laid the groundwork for some truly great Mario role playing games to come.
Notable Oddity: The derided 1994 CD-i game Hotel Mario, often regarded as one of the worst things to bear his name, was the result of talks between Nintendo and Philips to develop a CD drive for the SNES. After abandoning development on Super Mario's Wacky Worlds, the electronics giant shovelled out this steaming mess. Buried under reams of clunky FMV animation sequences, the game itself was little more than a really rubbish version of Elevator Action, since the CD-i proved laughably incapable of matching the SNES processing power.
1996 to 2001 - The N64 years
As the time-dozer continued to crush history into a big flat thing, Nintendo made the belated leap into the next generation (which, from our vantage point riding in the time-dozer cabin, clearly means "the one before last generation"). However, in just a few short years, the gaming landscape had changed beyond recognition.
Having chosen Sony over Philips to help develop a CD drive for the SNES, before backing out on the deal at the last minute, this abandoned research came back to bite Nintendo in the bum when electronics giant Sony took the idea and turned it into a games console all of their own. Compact and capable of doing wazzy things with 3D polygons, the PlayStation proved to be an instant draw for the generation of young adults who had grown up nestled in the twin bosoms of Sega/Nintendo. As the games market chased this hip new audience with clubland soundtracks and cutting edge graphic design, there didn't seem to be much place for the likes of Mario, with his cheery ways and whimsical lack of sex and violence.
Launching the N64 with twice the processing power as Sony's console, but still using the expensive and chunky cartridge system, it's clear in retrospect that Nintendo was out of step with the market for the first time in over a decade. This didn't stop some of the greatest games of that generation appearing exclusively on the N64, but it did mean that lots of people never bothered to see them. It was Super Mario 64 that had most of us intrigued, of course. How would this prototypical 2D platformer work in a 3D world?
Extremely well, was the relieved answer. Helped enormously by the analogue control of the N64 pad, the game made the stilted 3D controls of PlayStation rivals Tomb Raider and Resident Evil look positively cumbersome. Where once we had run and jumped in front of parallax backgrounds, now we guided the fleshed-out Mario through seamless fields, castles and all the other environments we'd come to take for granted. Our hero could swim, climb, even swoop majestically around the scenery with his Wing Cap - a beautifully realised ability that still makes me smile like a loon two hardware iterations later. What impresses most, looking back, is how it still feels like a Mario game. So many titles lost sight of what made them special when they jumped on the 3D bandwagon, yet you can play Super Mario Bros alongside Super Mario 64 and clearly see the thematic and aesthetic thread tying them together.
An update of Mario Kart soon followed in 1997, using the muscle of the N64 to include such crazy track details as hills and bridges, and although it was well-received it certainly doesn't revolutionise its source material in the way Super Mario 64 did.
Mario spent the rest of this generation living it up in both his new Mario Party series, which found him and his pals indulging in the sort of communal minigame madness that would later save Nintendo from the scrapheap, and in a series of swanky updates of the original NES sports games which so cheekily featured Mario cameos. Mario Golf and Mario Tennis were both decent enough as bouncy basic sports games, but it was pretty apparent that the Mario connection was there for marketing purposes. Mario Tennis disgraces itself worst in this regard by hamfistedly introducing the redundant character of Waluigi, Luigi's own Wario-style nemesis. It's no surprise that the character swiftly retreated to the back of the Mario character roster. Mario also, much like every other character in the Nintendoverse, dutifully turned up for Super Smash Bros to punch his colleagues in the face.
But then, much as Super Mario RPG squeaked over the finish line just before the SNES passed into history, so Paper Mario arrived just in time to see everyone and their dog shuffling morosely away from the N64, muttering about cartridges and wonky release schedules. "Hey, come back!", Paper Mario cried, "I'm really great, you'll like me!" But it was too late. Maybe next generation. Or the one after that.
Notable Oddity: The Japan-only release of the N64DD disk drive expansion brought with it some very curious Mario-branded utility programs. The Mario Artist range, inspired by the Mario Paint package for the SNES, included an art studio and a 3D modelling program. There was also a rudimentary online mode, allowing users to connect to a central Net Studio and share their work. In a similar vein, and also restricted to Japan, Mario no Photopi was a modified N64 cartridge that could accept SmartMedia cards allowing users to import and export their graphics. Almost ten years later and the feature is standard fare, another example of Nintendo being a good decade or so ahead of its time.
2001 to 2006 - The Gamecube years
If the Nintendo 64 era found Nintendo wrong-footed by unexpected shifts in the gaming demographic, the dark barren Gamecube period had the once-mighty console leader bloodied and punchdrunk on the ropes. Even the familiar foil of Sega had fallen by the wayside, leaving Nintendo stuck between two new gaming goliaths, both out for each other's blood. And as Sony and console newcomers Microsoft traded body blows, the Gamecube - often mocked for its plastic handbag appearance, tiny discs and childish demeanour - sank without trace.
At least the SNES and the N64 had debuted with genre-defining Mario titles for an early lead - the best the Gamecube could offer was Luigi's Mansion, a ghostly hoover-em-up in which Mario's key role is to vanish mysteriously, giving his lanky brother his first turn in the spotlight since the 1992 PC educational adventure, Mario Is Missing! OK, Luigi's Mansion is far from a bad game - it's just a little underwhelming considering the high expectations that had built up for a Mario-related launch title. It's incredibly short, more than a little repetitive and almost entirely devoid of the sort of joyous invention and exploration that typify the high points of the series. It's no Super Mario World or Super Mario 64, that's for sure.
More disappointments lay in store. After building themselves up to a frothing fever pitch of anticipation for the long-awaited proper sequel to Super Mario 64, fans could only let out a curious gust of deflation when Super Mario Sunshine finally arrived in 2002.
While the free-roaming gameplay was retained, the game tasked our plumbing pal with the job of cleaning up the tropical resort of Isle Delfino. A pesky Mario impostor has covered the pristine retreat in muck and pollution, so Mario uses the FLUDD backpack to squirt everything back to normal again. Much like Luigi's Mansion, the game isn't entirely awful - it was just a far cry from what fans were expecting, and blighted by uncharacteristically clumsy gameplay to boot. The water-squirting basis of the game came in for particular criticism, since it all but replaced the beloved tropes of Mario games past. Perhaps after Luigi's Mansion, we were just tired of Mario games that were driven by gimmicky sucking-blowing backpacks rather than the characters themselves. Sales were solid, and review scores were high - our very own Bramwell commenting "The best game ever? No, but you'd be a fool not to buy it" - but its stature has diminished considerably over the intervening years.
Meanwhile, over on the handheld side of the aisle where Nintendo continued to dominate, things weren't so bleak. As well as multiple ports, remakes and compilations of NES and SNES classics, the Mario RPG strand continued to be lovely and special in the 2003 GBA game Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and its 2005 DS sequel, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time. Both were full to the brim with the charm and whimsy that many felt was ebbing away from the character's console efforts. And, should you need any more evidence of the Groundhog Day existence Nintendo had slipped into by this point, Mario's final narrative excursion on the Gamecube was another finely crafted role-playing adventure that arrived just as gamers were abandoning the platform. And it's a real shame, since Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door bristled with fresh ideas and inventive gameplay elements that had been absent from Sunshine.
Mario Kart: Double Dash buoyed our spirits for a while, striking a fine balance between classic gameplay and new features despite featuring Waluigi, but with the Gamecube struggling to keep pace with the Xbox, let alone catch up with the PS2, things soon settled into much the same moribund pattern that blighted the N64. More Mario Party games (the series made it up to a seventh entry on this hardware, plus an arcade cabinet spin-off), more sports games bearing the Mario brand (such as Mario Power Tennis, Mario Superstar Baseball and Mario Super Strikers), plus a smattering of cameos in other Nintendo offerings, including an unlikely appearance, albeit in toy form, during Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes. Many of these outings were perfectly pleasant, but when held up against the creative peaks of the past, it was disheartening for fans to see the character stuck in a rut.
Thankfully, in true Jeremy Irons style, a reversal of fortune was on the horizon...
Notable Oddity: Mario's genre-hopping may have gifted us with such classics as Mario Kart and Paper Mario, but there have been some weird attempts to expand his appeal as well. Take Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Edition, for instance, in which rhythmically gifted Mario fans could flail about on a dance mat to the sound of remixed tracks drawn from Mario's engorged back catalogue. And if you didn't fancy dancing along to Jump! Jump! Jump! - the music from the second overworld in Super Mario Bros 3 - you could always embarrass yourself to Mario-tweaked versions of classical pieces from Elgar, Mozart and Strauss.
2006 to present - The Wii years
Sometimes you have to go backwards in order to move forwards, and so it was that Nintendo's decision to opt out of the increasingly expensive console race between Sony and Microsoft found them getting their groove back (if not their scheduling). For the first time since the heyday of the SNES, Nintendo is sitting at the top of the home console heap with both the Wii and DS flying out of shops like shop-phobic flies.
Nothing illustrates this shift in fortune, and the change in perspective that brought it about, more than New Super Mario Bros which danced merrily onto the DS in Spring 2006. The first traditional 2D Mario platform game since Super Mario Land 2 on the GameBoy, it showcased a Nintendo that was embracing its past and putting faith in old fashioned gameplay to win the day over gimmicks. It worked. A breath of fresh air, elegantly poised between the wisdom of age and the thrill of innovation, New Super Mario Bros immediately reminded players of why they'd grown attached this podgy plumber in the first place.
Then along came the Wii, and with it the ability to download and play the untouched originals that started it all via the Virtual Console. OK, the prices are wonky and the old PAL conversion problem irritates visual purists, but as a symbol of Nintendo's past and future in cheerful harmony it's hard to beat.
This time around, they got the timing right. Super Paper Mario arrived with millions of Wii owners ready to enjoy its quirky joy, finally breaking the curse that left previous Mario RPGs dangling in the void, while Super Mario Galaxy at last gives us the 3D sequel we've been waiting for since 1996. With Super Smash Bros Melee and Mario Kart Wii to come in 2008, it's not hard to imagine the silly old Italian stereotype being around for another quarter century. When we'll probably control him in hologram form. Using our mind.