Video Games as Art: Analysis of Super Mario Bros. (1985)

Maybe it’s because I grew up with video games, but I don’t really understand this thinking that video games are not art. History is replete with examples that when new media are first created, people look at them with disdain, then reverence. This isn’t to say that every example of a medium instantly becomes art. Grocery lists scrawled on florescent Post-It Notes should not be compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; a Walmart training video shouldn’t be compared to Back to the Future; and likewise, not every video game is a work of art.

Understandably it was hard to see video games as art back in the 1970s when we had very few competent examples of the medium (even a highly-regarded game like Pac-Man was shamelessly ported and remade dozens and dozens of times, and many of these ports diluted and degraded the vision of Pac-Man, like the disastrous Atari 2600 port). However, the video game medium now has thousands of examples of games, and it’s had enough history that it is now very easy for us to look back and identify which games are art and which are not.

What makes video games unique as an art form is their non-linearity:  the art is not static, like a painting, or linear, like a novel or movie. The game has to be played to be appreciated, and it’s in the playing that we experience the art.

Super Mario Bros.

The first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. This game introduced millions to a fantasy world unlike any we’d ever seen before, a place inhabited by floating bricks, evil mushrooms, brainless turtles, and a mustachioed man who could jump many times his height with ease.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 Opening

The famous opening scene, featured in World 1-1, a stage many people have memorized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been creamed by that first goomba.

At the end of the first stage, you enter this castle and go underground, experiencing a completely different landscape.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-1 Castle

The first castle, complete with an ambiguous peace sign / skull flag outside.

The third level gets even stranger, placing us high above the clouds on the tops of mushrooms. It wasn’t until the 3rd or 4th day playing with the NES that my brother and I finally reached this level. I remember a sense of vertigo making these perilous jumps, and falling over and over into that great blue abyss. It was on this level that my dad introduced me to the word “suicide” because of my tendency to fall down the hole (though for years I thought the word was “sewer side” and it made me think of Ninja Turtles).

Super Mario Bros. World 1-3

Standing on those floating girders were the trickiest. To me, the two coins looked like eyes, and the girder moving left to right reminded me of a man playing a harmonica.

Once on this level, my brother and I experienced incredible difficulty. We died over and over, and as everybody back then remembers, these games had no save points: we had to start all over again (hence the memorization of those first few levels). At this time, our dad actually played video games with us, the first and last time. One morning, a week after we bought the NES, we awoke to a great surprise. Our dad woke us up at 6:30 and promptly brought us into his bedroom and turned on the 13 inch TV. He had made it to the end of the third level after we went to bed, and before completing the level, paused the game, leaving the NES on all night long. My brother and I were shocked to see the following image:

Super Mario Bros. World 1-3 Big Castle

What that castle held within filled us with wonder, and dread.

It is at this point that Super Mario Bros. became, upon reflection years later, a work of art for me. And the reason why is that our repeated playing of the game, of failure after failure until finally success, imbued the game with personalized meaning. If this image of a giant castle had been printed on the back of the box, it probably wouldn’t have been that impressive once we reached it. But we did reach it after hours and hours of play, trial and error. Much (digital) blood had been spilled and lost falling into holes and crashing into goombas. The fact that our dad paused the system over night (we learned later it is a bad thing to leave the system running so long), and had to show us this castle first thing in the morning added to the importance of this scene.

My dad played level 1-4, and promptly died in the fire, the final touch that added enormity to the castle’s sinister style.

Super Mario Bros. World 1-4

This castle’s imagery, plus the music, made this level a little scary to me as a kid.

The assault on World 8

The game would continue to surprise me over the years. The game was difficult, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens, probably 6-8 years after we first got the game, that I was finally able to beat it. I’d never made it to World 8 before. The assault on Koopa’s final castle caused fear in my soul.

Super Mario Bros. World 8 Bullets

Bullets, bullets everywhere.

The most dreaded enemy I’d faced in the game at this point was the Hammer Bros. And this level doesn’t just have 1 or 2 of them, but 8! It wasn’t just the unpredictability of their hammers that scared me. It was the fact that I’d never made it to this world before, after trying dozens and dozens of times, and I was low on lives. I didn’t want to die and have to do this all over again. I had to complete this world on the first try.

Super Mario Bros. World 8 Hammer Bros.

In level 8-3, the castle walls appeared, the last background change in the game. I knew I was getting close to something.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-3 Castle Walls

And then, the last set of stairs. Climbing the stairs shouldn’t really be difficult. It’s not like the jumps were higher than before. There were just some blocks missing. All of that empty space, those blocks precariously floating in midair, somehow made them feel unsteady, unsafe, forbidden.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-3 Stairs

Finally, the last castle, a maze of sorts that includes a brief water section. Koopa was the same as before, jumping and throwing fireballs, but he never ceased to amaze me with his eight hammers thrown all at once. What power! Look ye upon my hammers, and tremble.

Super Mario Bros. World 8-4 Koopa Showdown

After you defeat Koopa one last time, the quest is over. Instead of giving you a moment to catch your breath, the game immediately throws you into a second, more difficult quest, one I’ve only played for a few minutes. I must rectify this oversight in the future.

Super Mario Bros. Ending

“Aren’t you a little short to be a princess?”
“Huh? Oh, the dress.”

Of course, art is subjective, but I’m probably not alone in finding certain video games moving, not only because of their imagery, sound, or story, but because of the play experience. Have you had an experience playing video games that moved you in an artistic way? Comment on this post and share your story!

Game on,

~Dennis

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