This week marks the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. for the NES, arguably the most important platformer ever released. Super Mario Bros.'s sharp, clean physics and simple but responsive control scheme added vital polish to the slower platformers of the day. Super Mario Bros. also built up a fantasy world that formed the foundation of Nintendo's very identity. Super Mushrooms, Bowser, the Mushroom Kingdom, and even Mario himself are instantly recognizable around the world. Kids are enthralled by the brightly colored Super Mario games as soon as they're old enough to pick up a controller. Adults who grew up with Mario's breakout adventures on the NES still carry the memories of those first games in their hearts even as they scurry to pay their mortgage, shop for groceries, and otherwise take care of life's mundanities.
For many North American kids, playing Super Mario Bros. was an immense jump from the single-screen Atari fare that choked up bargain bins thanks to the video game console crash of 1983. Mario's journey to save Princess Peach [nee: Toadstool] didn't just change how games are played: It changed how they're presented, too. Super Mario Bros. has mood music for every level, and those themes are still iconic. Super Mario Bros. has an interactive narrative, simple as it might be. (You know the spiel: "Thank you, Mario! But our Princess is in another castle!")
But with all the praise Super Mario Bros. still garners for being revolutionary, I don't think we pay enough attention to another medium it built up: The humble instruction booklet. The little booklet packed with Super Mario Bros. not only taught us how to play the game. It offered the first deep look into the Mushroom Kingdom and its denizens, and it penned the beginnings of a dynasty that's entered the physical world as a theme park. The booklet also contains an interesting quirk: Nintendo breaks its own content restriction policies several times over within its pages.
Nintendo has a full, clean scan of the Super Mario Bros. instruction booklet on its official site. Clyde Mandelin, the proprietor of Legends of Localization, has a breakdown that compares the content of the English pages with the Super Mario Bros. booklet for the Japanese Famicom version of the game. Both versions of the booklet are similar; the story narrative doesn't vary much between the versions, and both are illustrated by thick-lined depictions of Mario running, jumping, and kicking Koopa Troopa shells.
In contrast to the booklet's hasty Mario action sketches, the illustrations accompanying the enemy profiles for Super Mario Bros. are done in a pixel style. This makes it easy to identify Mario's foes and deal with them accordingly. These profiles also open the door to the Mushroom Kingdom a little wider and lets us get to know its weirdest citizens. For instance, Goombas aren't native to Bowser's invading Turtle Army; according to the profiles, they're former subjects who betrayed the Mushroom Kingdom.
That's interesting. Does that mean Goombas are discontented Toads who are tired of Princess Peach's monarchy? Goombas are the most plentiful enemy type in Super Mario Bros., so maybe Peach's kingdom was on the verge of revolution even before Bowser arrived and encouraged the indigenous fungi that their destiny was to be a smear on the bottom of Mario's boots.
Koopa Troopas are likewise prolific cannon fodder for Bowser's Turtle Empire. When you read the profiles for the shelled creepers, you start to notice something weird: whoever localized the instruction booklet for Super Mario Bros. uses the words "kill" and "die" a lot. The profile for the Spiny enemy mentions how you "can't kill him by jumping on top of him." The Cheep-Cheep fish enemy apparently "can't be killed from above when she's[!] in the water." The curt write-up for our beloved Goomba revolutionaries makes it clear how easily they can be obliterated: "One stomp and he dies."
Nintendo's always been a little paranoid of its image in North America. Even its earliest localized games were censored for controversial content: the Nazis in 1988's Bionic Commando were changed to a generic gang called "The Badds", and 1984's Devil World never made it West because it's bristling with demons, Bibles, and Crosses. Even before Nintendo presented itself as a "family friendly" option in a spine-ripping world where Mortal Kombat reigned over pop culture, it tried to keep its games gentle. How, then, did we get an instruction booklet that gives us supplemental world-building information about how Koopa Troopas are ordered to "find and destroy Mario?" It's a mystery.
According to Mandelin's side-by-side comparison of the English and Japanese instruction booklets for Super Mario Bros, there's no instance of violent language. In Japan's booklet, Koopa Troopa is just a humble foot soldier. There's nothing about the turtle's orders to give Mario a swift and sure death.
Even as a kid, I felt like the language in the Super Mario Bros. booklet was a little jarring. Super Mario Bros. 2's story is about plucking vegetables in a dream. Super Mario Bros. 3's story starts off whimsically, where Princess Peach sees off Mario and Luigi as they set out to dispatch Bowser and the Koopa Kids. (Spoiler: She gets kidnapped later.) Super Mario Bros.'s instruction booklet lacks its predecessors's airy layouts and bright colors. It's a scribbled, black-and-white tale about a malicious turtle wizard who turned a kingdom's subjects into bricks, blocks, and other objects Mario destroys for any precious, precious advantage he can eke out in his stark life-and-death fight against the King of the Koopas.
Super Mario Bros.'s booklet gives us a rough narrative start for Nintendo's hero. However, we wouldn't be talking about Mario right now if his first instruction booklet hadn't let us pass through the gates of the Mushroom Kingdom for the very first time.
Today, instruction booklets are extinct. They're regarded as superfluous now that cartridge restrictions don't exist, and developers are free to weave narration and tutorials directly into their games. Games aren't just bigger and more powerful than they were when I started playing; they're also much more convenient. I won't deny it's better to access (optional!) tutorials when I'm trying to suss out a game's controls, but I'm obligated to say the long-gone instruction booklets once felt like a bonus chapter attached to the adventure. Clever stories and lovely illustrations let us explore the history and motivations of our characters. Super Mario Bros. instruction booklet wasn't exactly polished, but it helped open our hearts and imaginations to an entertainment icon who's still thriving after 35 years of action.
Banner image via The Cover Project