Mario might as well be the face of video games, as far as non-gaming parents are concerned, and that’s a position that is likely well-deserved. The character has been around for a long time and it isn’t a matter of the character being forced on us; it is a result of consistent improvement that continuously redefines the platforming genre. Mario games are approachable, with high skill ceilings for people who want to challenge themselves. They are family friendly. His presence in wealth of other genres inspires fond memories of the character’s true roots in the platforming game. I try to avoid hyperbole where I can, and this is going to sound hyperbolic, but Mario is king of the platforming genre and I can’t think of any platformer games that can challenge that statement. For what it’s worth, that is coming from someone who actually enjoys Mega Man games more than Mario.
Mario's influence is undeniable. On the Nintendo Entertainment System, the very first Super Mario Bros. game basically wrote the book on game design. Within the first few moments, without a single text bubble, the game teaches the player everything they need to know to feel comfortable in the game. Upon that foundation,new mechanics are added. His popularity was established, and he became a logical flagship franchise for subsequent console generations.
Super Mario World expanded Mario’s familiar arsenal, added Yoshi, and with the ability to implement 16 bit graphics, developed a charming world that helps gamers attach themselves to the levels. Characters that would become part of Nintendo’s legacy were also added to the game, and Mario, Bowser, and the Yoshi race had their identities defined. Also, the ability to navigate the map and unlock shortcuts gave players a greater sense of autonomy. It’s worth noting that this sort of gameplay was present, in a way, in Super Mario Bros. 3, but Super Mario World refined it.
Then the Nintendo 64 came out, and Nintendo showed developers how to make 3D platformers. Super Mario 64 basically announced to the world, “This is what the Nintendo 64 is. Watch what it can do.” And, indeed, a rise of 3D platformers followed in the game’s wake. Super Mario 64 had precise controls, gigantic worlds, a unique hub, and new mechanic after new mechanic.
Despite all the major changes, the game was undeniably Mario. The collectable stars gave players a sense of freedom in the order they approached levels, but still gated off some areas and was quite the hook. Collect, progress. “Only one more star to go, so which one am I good enough to get?” is the jist of my childhood thoughts. That meant I had to improve my skills. And for players who could successfully overcome the challenge of collecting all the stars, there was a surprise waiting on the roof of Peach’s castle. Super Mario 64 demonstrated that a game can be an enjoyable challenge, regardless of the players age. It also showed the world how fun it could be to collect items in a 3D world. The collectathon style of game also exploded, along with the 3D platformer genre.
With each new console, including the portable ones, Nintendo gave us something new so we’d never get tired. Super Mario Sunshine contained a vibrant, tropical world, a fun story, and, once again, easy to grasp mechanics that fit in well with the world’s understanding of a Mario game. Nintendo's Wii had Mario jumping from planet to planet in a larger scale game that, once again, announced to the world the capabilities of Nintendo’s newest console. The Wii was full of games with bad controls, but those weren’t really present in first party titles. Nintendo led the way in defining its system, and Mario was right there heading the lecture. The character was even used in traditional side-scrolling games on the Wii and Wii U, with four player modes and controls that required you to hold the Wii Remote in a manner reminiscent of the NES controller. Nowadays, four player platformers aren’t all that uncommon, but they can rarely compete with Mario games. Those that can, still need to thank the Mario games for building a mechanical foundation that also invigorated the genre’s popularity.
Now, I am by no means saying there aren’t other fantastic platformers out there; there certainly are. Some of those platformers may be your absolute favorite game. I am not suggesting that Mario is intrinsically better than every example. But, across the whole body of Mario games, the character reigns king and seems to be steering the ship, charting the course for platformers in general.