Today (or yesterday, depending on your time zone) marks the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., and even though I’ve written several Mario-related pieces already with plans to write several more in celebration of this milestone (pending other work), I felt compelled to write something particularly special to this day. But what?

A lot of people have written about how they first discovered Super Mario Bros., but I’m pretty sure I’ve covered that before in tandem with my mother getting me into video games, so I figured a different approach was in order. I’ve always, always loved the original manual for Super Mario Bros. (and Duck Hunt, but mainly for Mario); maybe it’s time I tried sharing why in more detail.

There are two things that I generally love when it comes to my interests: knowing a lot about it, and learning more about it. When I first saw Super Mario Bros. in action, it was pretty much a life-changing experience, but I believe part of that came in my thirst for more knowledge and finding it via the handy-dandy instruction manual. This was well before the internet had any kind of real presence in the public mind, when the instruction manuals that came with games were still not only relevant, but almost crucial to understanding all the elements of a game, from its characters to its story to just how to play it properly. No in-game tutorials or wikis here.

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First, a quick look at the cover. While I’m personally a fan of the “Black Box” style of cover art for Nintendo Entertainment System games, and both Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt had their own individually, the two-in-one Game Pak that so many of us grew up with did not feature one, per se, so the label and manual were about as close as we got. I like how the images of the games promise a sense of fanciful excitement, but the black, red, and silver color scheme almost seem to invoke something more serious, as though it’s conveying that the NES is a high-tech (for its time) piece of machinery that demands respect.

The first pages — which I don’t have here because as common as the game is, scans for this particular version are not — thanked us for purchasing this NES Game Pak and instructed us on how to choose which game we wanted to play from the selection screen.

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Before Nintendo adopted the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality,” which people took to mean a game was good and not bad rather than capable of setting your house on fire before eventually being dropped, the company used this seal. I suppose that last part about “entertainment value” might have been what bit them in the bum on that particular matter, however.

At this point in time, NES games would give you the “Object of the Game/Game Description,” which told you what you were doing and — if you were lucky — some story elements to help contextualize things. Fortunately, this game had the latter, and was perhaps one of the first do contain such a robust story as well! It’s just a shame that after pioneering story in games with Donkey Kong, creator Shigeru Miyamoto has become so gun-shy about virtually any sort of story in Mario games. More about that another time, though.

Personally, I found this pretty cool. It was more than I ever saw in Pac-Man, that’s for sure. Particularly engrossing was how the Koopa were built up as such an evil entity here, using black magic in order to turn the Mushroom People (nee Toads) into “stones, bricks, and even field horsehair plants.” I never knew for years what that last one was, but thanks to the internet, the mystery is solved, though that just raises further questions.

For a time, I thought that virtually everything you passed by in Super Mario Bros. was a transformed Mushroom Person. The ground you walk on looked like stones to me, and if not those then certainly those blocks that form staircases, right? Bricks speak for themselves, too.

Here is where we’re first told of Princess Toadstool, largely unmentioned in the game except when you find a Mushroom Retainer at the end of a castle instead, so that gave some sense of purpose. Apparently she’s the only one capable of healing her people, and with her white magic and healing capabilities seen years later in Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, that story checks out… except for all the bricks in subsequent Mario games. Something tells me Nintendo didn’t think that one out too much, and that part has more or less been retconned or handwaved away.

…well, except in Super Mario Galaxy, though there they’re encased in crystal. That’s a type of stone, right? Beyond that, I’ve long wondered if being “turned into” wasn’t just indicative of the mushrooms found in certain blocks.

This part also mentions the Mushroom King. Though he featured prominently in the Valiant Nintendo Comics System and Nintendo Adventure Books back in the day, he was seldom ever seen in official materials beyond How to Win at Super Mario Bros., which itself depicts a very different version of Peach Toadstool.

One other thing that was cool here was the talk of how the Mushroom Kingdom had fallen into ruin. The rudimentary graphics of the NES did a decent job of portraying this, though Super Mario All-Stars would kind of retcon the scenery to look a bit nicer. That said, it’s funny and cool how the Mushroomy Kingdom stage in Super Smash Bros. Brawl is described as having “turned to ruins over the long years” since the adventure, sort of canonizing both versions (and providing a face lift to boot). So in that way, Smash creator Masahiro Sakurai kind of helped realize the vision that the instruction manual had placed in our heads so long ago!

At this point, I’d just like to point out that I had no idea I’d have so much to say about this part, which tends to happen to me a lot. Hopefully I can keep the rest a little more brief.

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Here’s where you have all the technical precautions about the game. Funny, you’d think they’d tell you this stuff before the story. Ah, well.

Among the controls, this is also where those of us who hadn’t heard of Mario Bros. might learn of Luigi for the first time. He isn’t mentioned in the story above, nor is he seen anywhere among these materials, or even the box art!

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More instructions, and a little bit more lore to go with it. We get an idea of how worlds are set up, eight with four areas in each, and that the fourth is always a big castle with either the princess or one of her Mushroom Retainers being held at the end of each. Naive as I was, I thought that maybe keeping her in the last castle would be just a bit too obvious. Maybe these Koopa clowns decided to hide her away in World 5’s castle? If there were some way to skip it, then where would we be? Evil triumphs, that’s where!

But then it says right there that she’s in the last castle. Whoops. Never mind, then.

Another detail I enjoyed here was the little diagram of how the worlds were basically laid out, with the overworld, the underworld, those tree-top/mushroom things, and the castle. This was actually something I rather enjoyed about how Super Mario Bros. Deluxe chose to expand on the concept:

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The maps there are a bit more detailed, and contextualize things a bit more. For instance, we see here how to reach the first castle (1-4), Mario has to cross the ocean (1-3), but to get there, he has to bypass the mountain range in his way by taking the underground tunnel (1-2). It’s simple, but effective.

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Now we get to the fun stuff. The Super Mario Bros. manual incorporated a unique art style that I’ve always enjoyed. It would be shared by the marquee sign of the Vs. Super Mario Bros. arcade machine (where it’s in color), and is why I’ve always wanted one of those signs for my very own. Looking back at the art even now, there’s just a retro cartoon-styled charm that’s different from the other earlier appearances of Mario that I just love. I imagine the black-and-white colors for the imagery here help, too.

I love how vague the methods for getting extra “Marios” are. Thinking on it, I can’t even remember a way a ? block gives you a 1UP that isn’t covered by the mushroom or just collecting coins.

Going back to the story, the next page here lends credence to the idea that maybe the “Mushroom People” turned into bricks are just the regular power-ups being trapped in blocks, further evidenced by being called “Mario’s friends.” Of course, we live in a world where all sorts of inanimate objects are called a person’s best friend, but still.

Here is also where we learn of Mario’s different forms. I love that his base form isn’t “Small Mario” or some-such, but simply “Mario” or “regular Mario.” It lends a bit of perspective where so much of the world around him here is friggin’ giant, and that’s just fantastic. People talk about how wimpy Goombas are, but let’s see how you feel when a five-foot tall angry mushroom person with fangs chases after you. “Just stomp him?” If you can jump three stories from a standing position like Mario can, then sure! Otherwise, good luck figuring that one out.

Of further interest here is how the power-ups have changed with time. When I was a kid, a “Magic Mushroom” was just a mushroom that was magic, making you taller and able to break bricks with your fist (fact, not that it should need saying). Even so, it’s little surprise that they’re “Super” Mushrooms now. A Fire Flower made Mario into “Fiery Mario,” who is just “Fire Mario” these days, and Super Stars were once called Starmen.

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There’s some more talk about Mario’s states; my favorite is when he’s referred to as “invincible” briefly after taking a hit, but I knew so many people who would say he was invisible.

More fun visuals here; I love how the Koopa Troopas are drawn. Just look at the poor little guy being knocked off his block! Also interesting is how nonchalantly they talk about killing these guys with fireballs and that Mario “dies” when in certain circumstances.

The next page goes into the ways Mario can die. Would any manual or tutorial nowadays bother telling you that falling into a pit will kill you?

Here is where we get our proper introductions to the cast of enemies, including one of my favorites: Little Goomba. “A mushroom who betrayed the Mushroom Kingdom.” So much intrigue from one little sentence. Why did they betray their homeland? To hear McDonald’s tell it with the 1990 Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal toy, it was because Goombas keep messy houses and so no one ever came to their parties, apparently leaving them disgruntled. While 2005’s Super Princess Peach remembered that (some) Goombas are traitors, I get the feeling Happy Meal lore is the closest we’re ever getting to an explanation.

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It’s funny how most of these enemy pictures are facing right, when in most circumstances they’d be facing left to stop you.

Spiny is described here as a “wild fighter,” which is funny, seeing as he just marches along like everyone else. I guess he lives up to it in later games, though, such as when he drops on you from the ceiling and begins spinning in Super Mario Bros. 3.

We’ve got a typo on “Piranha Plant,” unless they simply retconned the spelling.

I always thought the Hammer Bros. art here was interesting. For one thing, when I first saw it, I thought it looked like he was walking past a mailbox at the end of his driveway as he went for a walk or something. Weird, I know. Beyond that, I can clearly see his mouth here, but when playing the games, I always thought the white chinstrap always looked like a huge, psychotic grin that just seemed to fit their erratic hammer-throwing.

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The Cheep-cheep (nee Cheep Cheep) entry here is interesting. For one thing, it refers to the whole lot of them as females. For another, it says they sprout wings to fly, but while I tried to spot the difference between fin and wing in the games, there was clearly no difference. Had they adhered to this, that would have been an interesting thing to include in later games.

Our next page is where things get really interesting, as we have our first reference to the leader of the Koopa, as Podoboos serve as the guardians of “the great sorcerer Koopa king.” What’s more, these lava bubbles are alive, something we rarely get a sense of until Super Mario World, when they’re given eyes — something that The Bourgyman has played with to great effect on deviantART (don’t worry, it’s safe for work).

We also get introduced properly to the Mushroom Retainers. People always wonder why they don’t just run away, but the answer has been here all along: they’ve been under the spell of the Koopa king!

Our first look (?!) at Princess Toadstool. Okay, so this is going to sound silly, but with everything else being drawn in perfect recreations of their on-screen selves throughout this section, I honestly thought that she was really just a big question mark. But really, look at everything else we’ve seen so far — does it seem like that much of a stretch after the walking mushroom traitors and the cloud-riding turtles?

Jumping boards… wow, if they’re second to Bowser, they must be tough! And they kind of are, sometimes.

Finally we have Bowser, King of the Koopa! It’s funny that when DiC made the cartoons, they just went with “King Koopa,” seeing as this was here the entire time. And unlike the Hammer Bros., I always thought the rendition looked psychotically happy both in the game and the manual!

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But wait, there’s more! Don’t worry, little Koopa Troopa, your secrets are safe with me… and the rest of the world.

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It occurs to me that I don’t use the term “Bulldozer Attack” nearly often enough. And with all of Mario’s ties to the construction biz, it seems incredibly fitting as well.

That said, in my earliest days of playing the game, stuff like the image there led to me being a little panicky when dealing with Troopas in closed spaces, what with the danger of having a man-sized turtle shell smash right into me after bouncing off a wall. Must be like getting hit by a car. This mostly came into play when the first Troopa shows up in 1-2, as my skills for landing on one side or the other were still developing.

Aside from the virtual non-threat of respawning enemies here, it’s funny how they cover up for the limited programming by explaining why enemies off-screen aren’t affected by the Bulldozer attack, even though the shells will still bounce off of pipes. “Maybe [the shells] jump over the enemy when Mario isn’t looking?” Weird, that; if anything, you’d think the enemies would jump over the shell, rather than vice versa.

More fun Mario art to introduce me to the “Domino Effect,” which I didn’t understand at the time. I think I was being a little too literal-minded.

Under “Top Secret,” it’s interesting how they encourage people to destroy as many bricks as possible. But I guess we’ve established that maybe they aren’t really transformed Mushroom People? Or have we?

Beyond this, there are a few other pages not shown here featuring “Compliance with FCC Regulations” and the 90-day limited warranty for Nintendo Game Paks. In between, there were two pages for memos — something quite common in manuals back in the day. I almost never used them, torn between my wanting to keep these things in good shape and not wanting to be wasteful. Some people did use them, though — especially on game rentals. It would always be interesting to see what people would write there, though.

And that’s pretty much it. I don’t know if this really helps show what helped get me into Super Mario Bros. so much in the first place (rest assured there were other things to add to it later), but it was altogether pretty intriguing to my young mind.

These scans of the manual (save for the cover) come courtesy of Legends of Localization; though it can be found in many, many more places across the internet, I wanted to take the opportunity to throw a spotlight on what Clyde “Mato” Mandelin is doing over there. And be sure to click over if you’re interested in seeing how surprisingly similar the Japanese manual is to the American version! The manual itself, of course, is property of Nintendo of America.

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  • http://discord-inc.tumblr.com/ James Fletcher

    Nintendo’s manuals from that era were really fascinating. There’s a lot of character put into them that you’d never know about if you picked the games up loose after the fact. I never owned and NES, but occasionally I would read them at a friend or relative’s house. In particular, I remember the Super Mario Bros. 3 manual which detailed all of the enemies (and there were a lot of them by that point too) plus they had the Koopa kids taunting you throughout the manual.

    • http://www.nyteworks.net/ LBD “Nytetrayn”

      That’s why I love those manuals so dearly. I might go for some games without boxes, but manuals are something I’ve got to have.

      What’s more, the Mario ones up through Super Mario World had a sort of sense of continuity going about them.

  • http://nintendo3dscommunity.com/ CM30

    Nice overview of the original game’s manual! Often thought some of the stuff like the people being turned into blocks and Bowser’s magic were interesting ideas that never really got expanded on afterwards.

    That said, your point about them using the words ‘death’ and ‘die’ a fair bit kind of points out how strange the Mario series is about that. The main platformers at least imply it, with the words ‘lose a life’ being present in most of the current gen manuals. But then some of the RPGs use ‘KO’ in its place, leading to such amusing stuff as ‘you got a KO wish?’ Or maybe Super Paper Mario’s ’til your games do end’ type comments.

    But yeah, old school manuals were interesting. As were much of the old stuff from those games in general, like all the Christianity references in the first two Zelda games.

    • http://www.nyteworks.net/ LBD “Nytetrayn”

      Thanks! And while the bricks/etc. thing got downplayed in sequels, I’ve been thrilled to see Bowser using what looks like black magic more in New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy. I think even Bowser’s entrance in more recent SSB games might be indicative.

      Paper Mario seems to be another dimension with its own rules now, but before that came up, I was a little relieved to see that maybe Mario wasn’t killing everything indiscriminately after all.

      Agreed on the manual stuff, and the old Official Nintendo Player’s Guide. I love some of the little bits of world building and lore, like Doc Louis being an alcoholic who managed to shake his addiction through his desire to train Little Mac.