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Analysis: From Donkey Kong To Super Mario Bros - The Inexorable Rise Of Miyamoto

Following his looks back at Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, writer and game theorist Azurelore Korrigan takes a fascinating look back at Miyamoto's journey from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros.

Game Developer, Staff

September 2, 2010

16 Min Read

[Following his looks at Pong, Breakout, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man, writer and theorist Azurelore Korrigan now examines the inexorable rise of Shigeru Miyamoto, from Donkey Kong through Mario Bros to Super Mario Bros.]

It is 1981. Somewhere between testing and mass release, interest in Nintendo’s Space Invaders clone Radar Scope had cooled. It’s not that the game was poor. It’s just that six months earlier, Pac-Man had changed the arcade landscape, and in the narrowing landscape for Invaders clones there was only room for excellence. Do we order Radar Scope, or do we order Galaga? Easy choice.

Enter the slacker art school kid who was only ever hired as a favor to his family. Shigeru Miyamoto was told to recoup losses by designing another game for the returned Radar Scope hardware, preferably aimed at US audiences.

Inspired by Pac-Man, Miyamoto took pretty much all of Iwatani’s new ideas of scenario, character, empathy, and play narrative, and pretty much built a whole game on them without the traditional clutter.

"How High Can You Get?"

Whereas half of Pac-Man’s appeal lay in its character dynamics, Donkey Kong is nothing but character dynamics. You’re an everyman in a fairy tale, saving a damsel from not so much an evil as a misguided antagonist -- rather like Pac-Man’s ghosts. If anything, Donkey Kong is less violent than Pac-Man; any hazards are inanimate, and even the final confrontation is curiously indirect.

The game has been stripped of nearly all mechanics and concepts except getting from point A, at the bottom of the (vertically-oriented) screen, to point B, at the top. This also makes the game much more linear than Pac-Man -- essentially you follow a predefined route, making the vertical progression more of an inevitability than a choice -- so to counteract this we have four different levels, each with slightly different objectives or hazards while retaining the same basic mechanics.

To show the height, the game shows us a side-on view. Aside from walking, the only real mechanic is jumping -- which reflects the game’s vertical construction. Curiously enough, Miyamoto only even added the jump because the Radar Scope cabinet had an extra button to use and, on reflection, he felt it solved a few logistical problems.

Gone are the bricks, or Invaders, or dots to clear. We still have Pac-Man’s power pellet, in the form of the hammer. The parasols and purses are the bonus fruits. Aside from the power-up and items, the player never really touches anything. Donkey Kong is more about avoiding contact. The biggest element of touch is aspirational -- the straightforward desire to reach the goal, be the hero, save the girl. A dream of, or quest for, touch.

Miyamoto met with the same kind of bureaucratic problems as Iwatani before him. Why, his bosses asked, is there nothing to clear away except distance? Why waste resources on four levels, when one is plenty for other games? Luckily his boss Gunpei Yokoi was ready to fight for his ideas. Result? Nintendo had its first successful arcade game.

Donkey Kong followed on the cultural coattails of Pac-Man, carving out a similar, if smaller, niche based on its own characters and premise. On its own the game may not have brought video games to a new audience, or changed the course of future design. Video games were never equated with Donkey Kong the way they were with Pac-Man or Space Invaders, and it didn’t inspire whole industries like Breakout. What the game did was elevate Nintendo to the same league as Namco or Taito, and so broadened the spectrum a bit. That, and it sowed some seeds that would take another four years to sprout.

Pipe Dreams

For all of Donkey Kong’s success, Yokoi had some reservations about some of the design choices. The jumping mechanic is intriguing, but it’s curiously undeveloped. The move was wedged in at the last moment, and it sort of feels like it. It’s also maybe a shame that Mario dies after falling just a short distance. Yokoi suggested to a none-too-pleased Miyamoto that he knock together a game demo, maybe using Williams’ Joust as a template, to flesh out this Jumpman character and what he can do.

Although Mario Bros. (1983) does away with Donkey Kong’s overt story and linear design, it does put some energy into its protagonist. Whereas the hero’s mustache, overalls, and cap were a result of technical limitations, Miyamoto decided his appearance made him look like a plumber. By now Nintendo’s American offices had provided the name Mario. And the Joust-inspired arena format called for a second player. Thus the palette-swapped brother, Luigi. We also have some new thematic elements, in sewers and drain pipes and coins and fireballs and enemy turtles.

The game’s real point, though, is the mechanics; this is a game about jumping. There is never a penalty for jumping or falling. The mechanic has further been overloaded, to make it more meaningful. At Yokoi’s suggestion you bang ceilings to knock out enemies, and then kick the monsters to clear them away. As such, the player’s role is less passive than in Donkey Kong. Instead of relying on a power pellet or hammer for defense, success lies in strategic interaction with the environment.

Since the goal is to clear the level, we’re sort of back to Space Invaders territory, or a version of Pac-Man where the object is to devour the ghosts. This structure may seem like a step back, but mind that Mario Bros. is more a case of experimentation than of inspiration. The point is not so much the whole as it is the particulars.

The game was influential in a limited way, starting a whole genre of cute hop-’n-bop platformers, some of which -- like Bubble Bobble -- went on to find their own glory. It was not, however, a huge financial or cultural success.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Around this time a couple of things happened. One, Nintendo chose to blaze an almost unknown trail for a Japanese developer -- the consumer market. For Nintendo it was more like returning to a comfort zone. They knew cards and games and toys. At about the same time, the North American console market imploded. Though arcades and computers kept puttering on, popular consensus was that the fad was over; videogames were done. On to the next hula hoop.

Meanwhile back in Kyoto, Miyamoto was becoming irked at what he saw as creative theft, or at least a mindless reflex in the industry. He popularized a jumping mechanic; everyone else began to include jump buttons. So to reestablish his claim, Miyamoto hunkered down with the nuts-and-bolts minded Takahashi Tezuka to make the ultimate jumping game. Or, to be more specific, the ultimate Miyamoto game.

This project would be enormous. It would have to incorporate everything original that Miyamoto had established to date, and it would slot it all together so it made sense as a cohesive statement. To give the young men some elbow room, management granted them a whole new development studio.

So, okay. What has Miyamoto said to date? He wrenched Pac-Man’s story elements out wholesale and straightened them like a spring. He got rid of the clutter-sweeping design of earlier games, in favor of destination-based goals. He made a narrative point of exploring the height and width of the screen. He made a point of a true level progression, both architecturally and in terms of goals, in place of a repeating screen. There’s the jumping business. There’s interacting with the level geometry to affect adversaries or collect rewards. And there are all the specific character and story and scenario details around this Mario fellow.

Miyamoto had always wanted Donkey Kong to scroll, so clearly that was on the to-do list. Perhaps in part to keep from blinding any dark arcade denizens, most games of the time had black backgrounds. Miyamoto was more of a blue-sky fantasist, and a cheerful presentation would immediately set the game apart -- so that was in. One of the biggest appeals to Donkey Kong was its variety, so here every level would be different.

Donkey Kong had four levels, so how about eight worlds, each with four levels? The levels would scroll, be enormous, and so cover lots of ground. The character would go on a real journey, or quest, over all kinds of terrain -- land, sea, and air. A quest for what? Well, back to Donkey Kong: a damsel in distress. What else do fairy tale heroes aspire toward?

Now we’ve got an enormous and varied canvas. How do we fill it? Well, with jumping. With reasons and excuses to jump. Each level would be a series of jumping exercises where Miyamoto could show off every nuance and ramification of jumping as a game mechanic, on his own terms. Likewise, bit by bit, each exercise would demonstrate, or teach, the player some new principle. The goal is for everyone to appreciate, and have the opportunity to master, the nuances of Miyamoto’s manifesto.

Down to the Dots

Good. Broad structure; declaration of everything that Miyamoto stands for (whether throug his own notions or through persuasion). Linear progression through large, varied worlds filled with jumping exercises. At the end, some brute who has kidnapped the girl. Now what about the moment to moment design? What pulls in and retains the player’s attention?

Well, we can litter in a few Breakout tiles to smash or Pac-Man dots (coins) to collect, but that can’t be a major goal. The whole point of the game is to move forward and pursue an ideal. Likewise we can litter the game with monsters -- though they would have to be more incidental, like Pac-Man ghosts, than the Space Invaders aliens -- or indeed the Mario Bros. creatures. We can still use the turtles and whatever; they can’t hold long-term importance.

Come to think of it, how does the jumping work, exactly? Do we still attack as in Mario Bros.? If we’re looking for forward momentum, maybe it’s a bit picky to force players to line up underneath monsters, then jump, then find a way up to dispose of them. Maybe the original plan works better here; just knock them off the screen when bumped from below. What if the player faces them on the same level, though? Well... jumping, again. Why not further overload it, and just let players pounce on enemies? It would take some precision, and give some symmetry: attack from above, or below.

All very entertaining. How, then, amongst these long levels littered with jumping challenges and monsters (which are also jumping challenges), how do we keep players motivated to press forward? How do we strike that balance between immediate tasks and the ultimate, more abstract goal? Well, we can add a time limit. But what if the player physically doesn’t have enough time to finish the level? Well, we’ve got two buttons; let’s use the other to run. There’s momentum for you. And actually... there’s momentum for us. All the more complexity for the jumping.

Since we’re reusing everything, what about the power pellets? In Donkey Kong we had the hammer, but it just made Mario stand around: no jumping, no climbing. Well, it’s not ideal but maybe -- could Mario throw the hammer? No, that’s too violent. Perhaps he could toss one of those bouncy fireballs from earlier? That sort of works, but it still doesn’t quite fit. Whatever the major power-up is, it should involve the nature of Mario and jumping and enhance it or flip it around, the way that the power pellet deals with the nature of Pac and eating.

There are two previous versions of Mario: the tiny one from Donkey Kong, and the larger and more detailed one from Mario Bros. Though Miyamoto envisioned this new game with a big character, he also thought it would be neat to include a small version of Mario. After some fiddling, he realized it made sense to actually start with a small Mario and then allow him to grow. Thus both versions of Mario were merged, which is about as symbolic of the game’s mission as you can get.

The small Mario more or less got the familiar Mario Bros. powers: bop platforms from below; modest jump height and distance; one hit and you die. The bigger Mario, then, got an enhanced power set: bigger jumps, the ability to survive a blow, and the ability to smash right through some Breakout tiles. Now we’re not just traversing the level geometry; we’re changing it. Making a mark. And now things are really starting to get serious.

Head in the Clouds

Pong offered only indirect control over a single packet of information, that would bounce around in the environment on the other side of the screen according to pre-established physics. Breakout gave the player an overt objective and a complex environment to affect. Space Invaders cut out some abstraction and let the player choose targets to reach out and affect. It also contained a threat, and a persistent narrative scenario outside the player’s control. Pac-Man broke the player free to roam around and clear dots by exploring, and also enhanced the focus on character, scenario, and story.

It took a few drafts, but finally Miyamoto had something new to add to the pile: scale. Previously, objectives had generally been right in front of the player. The typical objective was tied to the game’s basic mechanic. Pac-Man eats, so in his game the goal is to eat everything. In Space Invaders you shoot, so the goal is to shoot everything. Even the games that weren’t about clearing or destruction, like Donkey Kong, put their goal on the other side of the screen. Get from here to there, and you have beaten this wave. Every moment you play, you are playing to that ultimate goal.

Miyamoto is an old-school storyteller at heart, and a good story is more about the journey than the destination. What makes The Hobbit interesting isn’t the chests of gold that Bilbo sets out to find, but his misadventures with the trolls and Gollum and the wine barrels, and the things that Bilbo learns through his trials.

By framing his quest so large, Miyamoto pushed the goal so far out of sight that it’s not worth fussing over. Although it’s a persistent driving force, the goal is more of a MacGuffin to ensure that the player keeps moving on, keeps aspiring. There’s always a friction: all you can effectively worry about is what’s in front of you, yet you know that what’s in front of you is never as important as what comes next. You can see this kind of mentality -- dealing with what is while dreaming of what might be -- in the game’s scenario, in its structure, and in its mechanics.

Structurally, every beat of every level has something new to teach -- and most of what it has to teach is curiosity and wonder. There could be something behind any brick or inside any [?] block. Even empty space could hide anything. Any pipe could be a passage, any level could hide a warp zone. Everything that you find suggests possibilities of things that you have yet to find. The point is not so much in what’s tangibly in front of you as in what else could be out there to find, uncover, and emotionally own through the basic tools and abilities provided.

Unlike most earlier games, in Super Mario Bros. the central mechanic isn’t so much an attack (though it can function as one) as a means to bodily explore and prod and alter the environment. The major power-up mostly serves to enhance the player’s navigation, and most of the incidental pick-ups are rewards for exploration. And then the game’s secondary button allows, and urges, the player to keep running; to keep moving forward to see what’s around the next bend.

The result of this aspirational design is an unusual narrative structure and a fanciful sense of cause and effect. Super Mario Bros. is a traditional fairy tale where nothing really matters unless the story, the plot decrees it. By plot in this case I mean the intricately contrived world established for the player to chew up and absorb as he plays through it. Although the player’s actions will have immediate bearing on the player’s following actions, there’s no waiting around for real consequences to set in. By story I mean the MacGuffin, which the game uses to lend the player’s actions an illusion of greater meaning or reason.

Since Space Invaders this has been the growing shape of Japanese game design; it just took Miyamoto to put a nail in it. From here, Japanese-inspired design is prepared grist to constantly feed into the mill of the player’s narrow and guided experimentation. Video games, the theory goes, serve to tell a story, and they do it through meticulously crafted yet disposable content that guides the player around by the nose. Sometimes, when a game lets the geometry and the mechanics speak for themselves, the results are inspirational. After The Legend of Zelda you don’t see much more of that.

Mushrooming Success

The game’s tactile nature and tangible sense of wonder were unlike anything seen in an action game, and the world took notice. Nintendo was already doing well in Japan; all Super Mario Bros. did there was propel them even higher, and inspire everyone else to shift to aspirational design structures, never to turn back. This is the last major design revolution that Japan would ever see.

In North America, things were a little different. You will remember that the home market for video games had basically died. About a year and a half later, Nintendo appeared with a different kind of pitch and games unlike anything seen before -- and suddenly there was a market again. There was, in fact, a bigger market than there had ever been. Thanks largely to Super Mario Bros., Nintendo was the new generic -- as Pac-Man and Space Invaders and Pong had been before. Despite some competition, this mindshare would last for about a decade.

The next time anything interesting happened, the needle would swing back across the ocean and point back to North America. I think, though, we will save that thread for later. With the conclusion of one block of the tale, this seems like a good time to double back. Remember how Breakout sprouted three important streams of design? Well, it’s time to shift to another vector entirely.

[Azurelore Korrigan is a writer most recently hailing from Brooklyn, New York. When she manages to detach her brain from her keyboard, she spends her hours concocting bagels and exploring the deep places of the Earth. You can sponge up more of her work at gloaming.aderack.com.]

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