In the beginning, there was Computer Space:
It wasn’t much, but like the stick figures and cave drawings that would predate the Da Vincis and Kirbys of the world, it was a good starting point.
(Okay, before anyone says anything about it, Computer Space wasn’t the first video game, but it was pretty much the first one to be available commercially in the mass-market, so we’re starting there. The well goes even deeper, if you care to look it up.)
It took the better part of a decade, but video games soon began to evolve, moving ever so gradually beyond the abstract nature of simple dots, squares, and bars. More detailed graphics began to appear in arcades and even on the less-powerful home consoles, more clearly depicting recognizable objects and yes, even characters.
This is an exploration of the evolution of graphics in video games as we look at the history of a character who has appeared frequently throughout the medium’s history since his creation, Mario. As an aside, I’m leaving out the handheld iterations, since those have typically tended to be a half step or so back from whatever the current console standard was at the time.
One of the most groundbreaking games in terms of featuring characters was 1981’s Donkey Kong. While the 1982 home version for the Atari 2600 (left) was relatively crude compared to the more powerful mechanics of the arcade, the developers were nonetheless constrained by limitations which led to the oft-trumpeted resourcefulness used to develop Mario’s look. You know the ones — a mustache and cap showing up better than a mouth and hair, while the straps of overalls made the movement of his arms more clearly visible.
Following the Atari 2600 release, home consoles were more or less able to soon catch up, with the likes of the Atari 7800, ColecoVision, and eventually Nintendo’s own Nintendo Entertainment System providing very similar visuals to the quarter-muncher.
While versions of Donkey Kong that were true to the arcade were a high point for the other systems, it was just the beginning for Mario on the NES as 1985’s Super Mario Bros. introduced massive worlds which stretched far beyond the reaches of the television screen. Thanks to the use of custom chips, even better graphics were to come, such as the more cartoon-like visuals of 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 2, which seemingly built upon the groundwork already laid by the development of Super Mario Bros. 3, the latter being released in Japan only a couple of weeks after the renovated sequel hit stores in the States and waiting until 1990 before seeing its own greatly-hyped release in the west.
Also built atop the foundation of Super Mario Bros. 3 was Nintendo EAD’s first foray into the world of 16-bit graphics with 1990’s Super Mario World (you can learn more about that went from Beta64). After getting a better grasp on the hardware, they would revisit the four NES titles (including both Western and Japanese versions of Super Mario Bros. 2, the former redubbed Super Mario USA in Japan and the latter as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels outside of it) in 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars by upgrading them to feature improved graphics, sound, and even battery-backed game saving.
While our plumbing protagonist would appear in a variety of cameos and spin-offs throughout the 16-bit era (as I detailed here), he would not star in another “mainline” title until the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996. Turning the gaming world on its head with Super Mario 64, Mario was realized in a true 3D environment for the first time, swapping out pixel art for polygon models.
While 3D graphics were a thing before the Nintendo 64/PlayStation era, this is when they truly became a mainstay of the industry, even going so far as to pave the way for future handhelds like Nintendo 3DS and other technologies, including that of online casino sites with features which became prominent in that industry. Online slots games, for example, are one of many that were aided by this spring of 3D Nintendo titles, but it’s important to mention them because its third dimension games architecture are basically improved versions of these older titles. It was not before these releases that 3D technology really became an important thing worldwide.
Once again, save for a plethora of cameos and spin-offs, “Super Mario” retired until the next generation of consoles arose. In 2002, the greater polygon-pushing power of the GameCube allowed Mario to appear on screen in a form more closely resembling the promotional art which had adorned many a box and manual over the course of the preceding generation. While still a little rough when viewed close up or from certain angles, this is arguably when 3D Mario truly began to look “right.”
In 2007, Super Mario Galaxy blasted off onto the phenomenally successful Wii. That said, the console didn’t provide the kind of leap ahead of the GameCube that previous console generations had, with Nintendo opting to focus more on lower-cost development and their new motion-based control scheme. Even so, the results were still breathtaking as this game and its sequel cemented themselves as genuine classics in the hearts and minds of many gamers.
During the interim, Nintendo had also put Mario in his first 2D sidescrolling adventure since 1992’s Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins for the Game Boy with New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS in 2006. As that game would go on to sell over 18 million copies worldwide by March 2009 (and 30.80 million by March 2016), it only made since that they would try to spread some of that success to their home console in New Super Mario Bros. Wii later that same year. By virtue of the more powerful hardware, the game sported a more polished look than its handheld predecessor and has sold nearly 30 million copies itself as of March 2016.
Following the immense success of the two New Super Mario Bros. games, it makes sense that Nintendo would want to kick off their first high definition console with New Super Mario Bros. U for the Wii U in 2012 — the first all-new Mario title to launch the same day as its platform since Super Mario 64. While the visual style was much like what had come before it, New Super Mario Bros. U contained a unique high definition polish which made Mario and his friends look crisper, cleaner, and more vibrant than ever before.
As good as it looked, though, Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo studio managed to absolutely trump it with Super Mario 3D World just a year later. In addition to bringing Mario and friends back to a 3D environment, there is a greater variety in the backdrops with sunsets, lushly detailed grass, and more effects that aren’t presented in their 2D adventures (though we can always hope that they’ll take that approach someday).
The path of video game graphics has helped pave the way for a wide variety of visual styles to be used in other areas as well, from mobile phone apps to movies and television and more. What will the future hold? It’s hard to say, but it’s even harder to imagine that Mario won’t be involved in some way, shape, or form.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.