Game on: Nintendo and the Super Mario miracle
When it was released 30 years ago this month, few anticipated the impact the game would have on a generation
Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30
In October 1985, an obscure Japanese company best known for making playing cards unveiled a clunky white-and-grey plastic box a little larger than two hardback books placed one atop the other.
The product had a funny name, was bundled with a brace of wand-like paddles of uncertain purpose and retailed at around €350 in today's money. It was called the Nintendo Entertainment System and it would change the world.
When the NES debuted in October 1985 (it was belatedly released in Ireland some months later), video games were in a historic slump.
The demise in 1983 of Atari, long the dominant player in gaming, and a 97pc collapse in sales of games software and hardware, had convinced the business world there was no market for mainstream computer-based entertainment.
Sure, a niche appetite for games on personal computers would always exist. But the idea that consoles could attract a larger following had been exposed as a pipe dream. It was literally game over.
With the NES, Nintendo spun such received wisdom on its head. In introducing to the world such still lucrative franchises as Super Mario Brothers, Legend Of Zelda and Donkey Kong (already a cult arcade title) it helped usher in the modern video game - a sector more lucrative than Hollywood, in which the development costs of an individual release can run into the tens of millions (for instance 2009's Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 cost $250 million to create and market).
With 62 million units shifted the NES remains - by a very considerable distance - the best selling video game console ever. Had it never been released, there would be no Playstation, no Lara Croft, no Xbox, no Call Of Duty.
"The NES was a massive leap forward for games." says John O'Halloran of Dublin games studio Sixminute.
"I remember only one kid on our street had one and the months following the Christmas he got one were very busy in that house as we to crowded around one small screen playing Mario and Duckhunt."
"Super Mario Brothers was a massive franchise in the 80s. By the time Super Mario Brothers III came out anticipation was like nothing else ever seen before in games. Its significance becomes even clearer when you see how much Nintendo still relies on that one franchise 30 years later."
Extraordinarily, Nintendo had set out to make a conventional desktop home computer, in the mould of the Apple Mac or IBM PC.
It was only as costs spiralled that company president Hiroshi Yamauchi ordered his engineers to create a cheaper - and easier to use - gaming device.
He was very clear that the machine should not have a keyboard or floppy discs - feeling these were confusing to ordinary people.
Instead it would come with intuitive control paddles and chunky cartridges that loaded games quickly and without fuss (and which could withstand all sorts of physical abuse).
Under the name Famicon - "family computer" - an early version was released in Japan in 1983, where it was initially slow to gain traction (a product recall prompted by a iffy chip did not help).
But by the time the NES proper saw the light of day at the 1985 Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas such bugs had been ironed out and Nintendo's in house software team had put together a never better line-up of launched titles, including the still playable Duck Hunt, Wrecking Crew - and a quirky little diversion called Super Mario Brothers.
Super Mario was developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, today acknowledged as the Michelangelo of video game designers.
Influenced by Japanese folklore and shot through with surreal visual humour, SMB was a leap forward for the medium, introducing levels of game-play addiction never previously encountered.
When you were inevitably mashed in Super Mario you didn't simply crave one more game. You wanted to stay up all night until you had completed every level. It was literally unputdownable.
"Like so many game developers of my generation I grew up playing Nintendo games," says Elaine Reynolds of Irish games studio Simteractive.
"Nintendo has had a huge impact not just on the video games industry but on pop culture in general. Mario is one of the most recognisable fictional characters ever. The top three game franchises ever are all Nintendo - Mario, Pokemon and the Wii series."
In one crucial respect Nintendo, however, stood apart from the video game industry it had a huge part in creating. Established as child-oriented games company in 1889, the corporation never lost sight of its core mission - to bring families together.
As rivals such as Playstation and Xbox flirted with controversy by allowing often violent games run on their devices (ie the notorious Manhunt in which the player strangled enemies with a plastic bag) Nintendo always kept things strictly PG (if even going that far).
The culmination of this philosophy was the Wii console, the 2006 spiritual success to the NES, which consciously sought to win over women, older people and kids via its motion sensitive 'nun-chuck' controller.
"The Wii alone is responsible for introducing games to millions of people who previously had no interest in games," says Elaine Reynolds.
"Almost overnight, friends and family who couldn't understand my interest in games were suddenly spending evenings playing the Wii with friends.
"Sony and Microsoft went after the hard-core gamers," according to Bloomberg Business.
"Nintendo found a way to unite the family with motion sensors that could have a group playing tennis, enjoying virtual bowling or throwing a Frisbee.
"Instead of using a button to steer a race car, players tilted their controller. This was a platform that called for action, with little of the violence other consoles featured."
While the Irish gaming industry has mostly concentrated on low-margin, easy to distribute mobile games for smartphones and tablets, Nintendo and the NES are nonetheless a crucial influence says Sixminute's O'Halloran.
"On mobile we are very much informed by NES and old arcade games. Our most recent game, FRZ Racing, draws on [popular NES titles].
''One of the main reasons for me working on mobile games is to make the type of games I played most as a kid."
"For me the NES shaped my childhood even though I was only born the year it made its European release," says Declan Doody, Limerick-based editor of the-arcade.ie.
"My formative years as a child were spent button bashing on the delicate rectangular controller.
''It is responsible for not only cementing Nintendo's roots as a video game giant but also establishing some of the most beloved characters and franchises.
"More importantly its widespread reach proved that video games were not just a passing fad but were a form entertainment here to stay."