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Super Mario Bros. Movie: Watch it for the way it represents gameplay

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The first videogame I ever played was the arcade game Donkey Kong. Released in 1981, it took us into a blocky-looking world where a carpenter in overalls raced along platforms and up ladders in a building site to rescue a lady kidnapped by a large ape. Its humble hero, Mario, went on to feature in scores of multi-million dollar grossing games, becoming an icon as popular as Mickey Mouse.

Having grown up in the 1980s, the new Super Mario Bros. Movie meant more to me than the average fantasy animation film. Watching Mario and Donkey Kong have it out on a massive screen – at a resolution so high you can see a single hair or wrinkle on these crisp-looking, toy-like characters – was remarkable.

Yet, it felt like the mission of this movie wasn’t just about creating flashy, fleshy cartoon characters or trying to tell a compelling story – it was about doing justice to the feel of these videogames that span decades and are still enjoyed by millions around the world.

A film about jumping

Story-wise, this is another of those PG-rated fantasy comedies that celebrate the 1980s and games culture. There’s a beta male baddy (Bowser, a fire-breathing dragon-turtle hybrid) and his army who must be defeated by a good-hearted guy (Mario) – helped by his brother (Luigi), a strong independent woman (Princess Peach), and a cast of zany allies.

But what makes the film worth watching is how it tips its hat to aspects of gameplay.

One of its biggest achievements is the unpretentious, funny recreations of moments from the videogames. Sometimes this happens by staging action-packed scenes that are framed from the same perspective as the videogame players. For instance, seeing Mario and Luigi dash through a building site with the camera zoomed out to capture the entire screen from a side perspective is the filmmaker’s nod to the pleasures of platform games.

The film also humorously reflects on player experience. Anybody who has enjoyed a Mario game might recall the disappointing feeling of falling down a pit after a failed attempt to reach a high platform. In the movie, Mario is initially inept at all of this. He is put through a funny 1980s montage of trial and error, which reminds us how players got the hang of these games.

The emphasis on replicating gameplay may be the influence of Japanese games design superstar Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, who co-produced the movie.

Where other designers may have attempted to create a “proper” Mario movie by focusing on realism or a more sophisticated story, Miyamoto has long been adamant about seeing videogames as toys. Now he has created a true videogame movie.

Games as toys

Approaching games as toys is consistent with the long history of Kyoto-based games company Nintendo. It started back in 1889 producing playing cards, and even competed with Lego before going on to revolutionise the videogaming medium with titles such as Super Mario Bros. in the early 1980s.

In most of Nintendo’s games, the end goal is not necessarily found in the stories – rather, these serve the pleasure of playing. In Super Mario Bros., for example, the damsel-in-distress narrative of Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach merely kicked off a game mostly about jumping.

Other Mario adaptations for the big screen have sought to translate gameplay with varying success. Take the 1993 Super Mario Bros. live action film, which was critically panned but has gone on to gain cult status. As a reviewer in the New York Times put it: “This bizarre, special effects-filled movie doesn’t have the jaunty hop-and-zap spirit of the Nintendo video game from which it takes – ahem – its inspiration.”

Gone, now, are the days of third-party licensing when cinematic game adaptations were left in the hands of external developers, resulting in output that could look very different to the games themselves – such as Super Mario Bros. Super Show! from the late 1980s. This animated show was not particularly faithful to the games: Mario and Luigi had a different kind of Italian-American accent and a Princess Toadstool. The live-action segments also featured crasser and more adult iterations of the characters.

This time, however, Nintendo has worked with Universal Pictures to adapt the game, so the new animated movie is more faithful in brand continuity.

Mario’s most successful cinematic appearance

There are now entire TV series based on story-driven games, whose scripts replicate the game almost verbatim. For instance, the recent hit series The Last of Us saw fans cross-reference scene by scene with the original game.

In contrast, the Super Mario Bros. Movie looks like an attempt to make a film that works more like a game. And in spite of a lukewarm reception from critics, the new film stands to be the most successful cinematic Mario appearance yet.

While the film has been downplayed by some as a “marketing machine” to sell Nintendo toys, critics overlook the fact that its success might be connected to how popular these toys already are. The games have sold in the 100 millions, which may explain the film’s ability to smash box-office records.

This film will have gameplaying fans poring over frames to identify references to the games and “Easter eggs” – messages hidden for knowing watchers to look out for. Older and new fans alike will recognise the GameCube jingle in Luigi’s ringtone, and enjoy vintage gaming items such as the “hammer power-up” that are on sale in the film’s antique shop.

Many viewers will also recognise the iconic musical motifs from the Super Mario Bros. levels, and how the maps are reminiscent of Super Mario World. They will spot cutesy fan-favourites Yoshi and Toad.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie may indeed work to re-market Nintendo’s four-decade back catalogue of gaming classics to both nostalgic parents and kids. But in being driven by the very success of gaming culture, it defies critics looking at it as “just another movie”. Instead, they should see it as an extension of the videogame, and a celebration of how this expansive world makes people feel.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.