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Why Super Mario Bros. Was So Successful

Using the Game Design Canvas as an analysis tool, we look at some of the components that made the original Super Mario Bros. so successful, and how the title could be taken further.

Brice Morrison, Blogger

January 19, 2011

5 Min Read

This post originally ran on The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more articles on useful and applicable game design.

Super Mario

Super Mario

Super Mario Bros. is the best selling video game franchise of all time, with over 222 million units sold across all genres and platforms.  222 million! Incredible!  But you wouldn’t expect less from one of the most beloved heroes of all time, a hero who at one time helped to single-handedly save a struggling video game industry.

Behind those baggy overalls and red cap lie an incredible game design experience, one that has withstood the test of time and established a high bar for the level of fun and enjoyment required for a commercial video game.  What can modern day developers learn by analyzing the Game Design Canvas of the original Super Mario Bros.?  A lot, as it turns out.  The principles that made Super Mario Bros. a hit back then still apply today.

In “Game Over”, an excellent account of the history of Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, referred to his experiences as a child.  He discussed the feeling of seeing something, such as a manhole on the wall, and wondering, “Why is there a manhole on the wall?  Where does it lead?”  When he made Super Mario Bros., he sought to recreate that same experience for his players.  As it turns out, this is a child-like experience that millions around the world were longing to relive as well, and was one of the most massive contributing factors to its wild success.

Breaking it Down

Let’s try to figure out what the Core Experience of Super Mario Bros. is.  Defeating enemies?  No, you can run through almost every level without attacking the enemies at all.  Saving the princess?  No, the relationship between our intrepid plumber and the princess is almost entirely left up to the player’s imagination; that aspect of the game seems tacked on. 

I propose that the Core Experience of the original Super Mario Bros. is to make the player feel like they are “Exploring and Conquering a Strange World.”  How did I come to this conclusion?  Let’s break it down in the Game Design Canvas:



By looking at the supporting four aspects of the Canvas, we can see that all of them point to a common theme.

The Base Mechanics set the standard for side-scrollers: running and jumping over the terrain, navigating up, down, left, and right through the stages.  The Punishment and Reward Systems encourage exploration as well.  The player is taught to avoid enemies, of course.  That helps give the game its challenge.  However if Mario dies, then he is reset to the beginning of that world or level, not the beginning of the game as was common with most high-score type video games of the 80′s.  This reduces the punishment of failing completely and beckons the player to try exploring the level until they run out of time.

Other aspects of the game provide Reward for the player’s penchant for exploration.  Hidden coin blocks may give the player coins or 1-up mushrooms, but they never appear unless the player is willing to jump incessantly all over the map.  Additionally, the player has no way of knowing which pipes he or she can enter, and even if they did, the player has no way of knowing where it will lead.  Numerous levels Reward the player’s investigation over walls, past checkpoints, and under pipes.  Warp zones are tucked away past the apparent end of the level, allowing rapid advancement to the game’s later stages.  You’ll notice that the game also doesn’t include a map, and there is no way for the player to know what is coming up next.  All they can do is walk to the right until it shows up on their screen.

As for the game’s Long Term Incentive, I was tempted to say that it is completing the game, but I think the Core Experience would beg to differ.  The player has no idea how many levels or worlds there are (unless of course they’ve read a guide), and so they are pulled forward and asked to just keep going…keep going!

Finally, the Aesthetic Layout provides a great environment for the player to explore.  From mushroom tops to night scenes and water bridges, the player doesn’t know what kind of level is beyond the next stage or the next pipe.  And this certainly is a strange world; don’t let the classic nature of this game let you forget how strange it is to juxtapose turtles, mushrooms, pipes, and princesses.

The success of Super Mario Bros. can be attributed to the solidarity and simplicity of its Core Experience.  At this point in time almost every game was about working in a finite playing space and getting a high score (a la Space Invaders or Pac Man).  However, Super Mario Bros. provided a completely new Experience, pushing the player to enter realms not yet seen in the game.

Using the Canvas to Go Further

Now that we’ve broken down Super Mario Bros. and gotten a good understanding of its Core, let’s flex our developer muscles and make ourselves useful.  If we could go back and remake the 1980′s classic, what would be improved?  A couple of my own suggestions that I think would help the player explore:

  • Have power-ups that were not defined, where the player would not know their effect immediately

  • Add more power-ups so there is greater mystery to the ? blocks (Occured in later Mario games)

  • Have coins or goombas that, if collected in a certain order, would open up a passage way.  Provide more opportunities for experimentation.

  • Allow the player to fall down certain cliffs and reveal secrets (Occured in later Mario games)

Readers, do you have any other suggestions?  Looking back, how could Super Mario Bros. have better served its Core Purpose?

This post originally ran on The Game Prodigy.  Visit for more articles on useful and applicable game design.

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