In 1988, I spent the entire summer trying to “Save the Princess.” Most Americans who also happened to be teens around that same time needs no further explanation. It was a quest, a mission, a way to spend an entire day with friends while never actually looking away from the TV. My best friend KimKay and I were obsessed. We also argued over who was “Luigi” (both of our favorites, because he wore a green shirt with his overalls) and who was stuck with “Mario.” (It was always me. I have never been as strident in my beliefs as KimKay.)
In his article “The Success of of the Narrative of Super Mario Bros” for the University of Georgia’s Games and Film site, Joshua Vu sums the game up like this:
The premise of the game is simple and recognizable: a hero must save a princess who has been taken by an evil king/monster. However, Super Mario Bros. presented this plot far differently than what most people would be familiar with: the hero is an Italian plumber out to save the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom from an evil dragon-turtle king.
We kids already knew from Mario at this point of course, even if we weren’t sure of his name before, as the darling plumber had already been tasked with saving this same repeat-damsel-in-distress from a large gorilla in the inexplicably (or rather accidentally) named “Donkey Kong” which had been released in 1981 in arcade game form. That game was a series of increasingly difficult attempts to climb a steel scaffolding scene while avoiding the barrels (and falling off the structure) that were tossed his way by the gorilla, who stood atop the frame with the “lady” in a cage next to him.
For the sequel, Princess as we later came to know her, was no where to be seen. Until you saved her. And it mattered! Seeing the winning screen of the Super Mario Bros game ONLY occurred if you were able to get through the final stage of the game. Which was a challenge. But besides this obvious intrigue – other skills were also developed. Instead of playing to the music – that was horrible and plinky and after 5 hours could become murder-inducing in my mother — KimKay and I began to play the game along with the Grateful Dead album American Beauty, it was our own version of cool, like the classic mash-up of Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Or so we thought. In any case, the various scenes from Mario and Luigi synced up perfectly, if you slid or jumped in the exact right spaces to catch or gather coins, or bust through the bricks.
Beyond our uniquely created escapades, there was an underlying story, and it unfolded only as the next “level up” was achieved. We may have been the creators of the story, but the story was most assuredly there.
Super Mario Bros. may not have a complex narrative with deep story or complex worlds, but through its simplicity people are able to remember it more than most other narratives in games. Instead of retelling their favorite point in the story of the game, they can retell how they managed to evade a bombardment of Spinies from a Lakitu in World 4-1, or how they discovered how to get infinite 1-Ups from World 3-2. With little emphasis on the story, Super Mario Bros. allows the gamers to tell their own stories, their own experiences, through the game to other people. (Vu)
And we did, indeed, save the princess that summer. And my mom still has the Polaroid I took the day it finally happened. Then my dad brought home Tetris…and it was on to the next challenge.