The Retrospective: Dr. Mario

I can say with total honesty that very few games have ever put me in a trance, an unending state of tunnel vision that allows me no escape till the plug is pulled or some need of nature silently forces me away. It happened once with Roller Coaster Tycoon. It happened once with Fallout 3. And amazingly, it happened quite recently with the original Dr. Mario.

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Naturally, it’d be difficult to claim that Dr. Mario has much in the way of player fanbase fueled by cast iron nostalgia. It’s a puzzle game, and a fairly simple one at that. Drop the pills, match the colors, erase the board of its diseases like Bill Gates on an ok day. Considering that many, many games since have employed similar formulas you just have to assume that with time and technology we likely have games that are comparable but more complex, fun, and just downright better. Even still, Dr. Mario was given to me by a friend after a recent trip to Japan, and I was delighted to have anything new to play on my dusty old (but perfectly functional) Famicom.

Dr. Mario is, as stated, quite simple. Graphically, mechanically simple. There are perhaps four songs on the cartridge. And yet, I derived an amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from this simplicity. While I long for depth and character in my games, sometimes it’s nice to focus on one singular task, with my skills increasing steadily upon each try. After hours I had seen embarrassing failures turn to stunning successes, and I’m proud to say that like few other games, this was one that I had become somewhat competent in.

I’ll forgo my normal format for this column this week simply because a smaller, older game like this likely runs on very little nostalgic energy. There are few people out there who think to themselves, man, Dr. Mario was the emblem of the NES. That just doesn’t happen. So instead I’ll talk about a few things I’ve taken away from revisiting one of the first puzzle games ever made.

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Absolutely inspired by the falling block formula of Tetris, Dr. Mario turned to color-based sequence puzzle mechanics to distinguish itself. While games like Bejeweled and Puyo Pop Fever have certainly revitalized this format in recent years, but Dr. Mario seemed to be the first or at least one of the first.

I mean, this is a really old game, on an ancient console. With all the numbing exposure to modern game theory I get on a regular basis, one would think that a game running a machine less powerful than the average calculator would be hard to recommend to anyone these days. And I certainly thought it was going to be little more than a trip to the past, certainly not something that would actually grip me in any sizable way.

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But preconceptions can be misleading, and I soon found myself hopelessly addicted to a silly, simple game. Why? That’s a little muddy, but I think there’s something to said for puzzle games with a tangible goal. While so many puzzlers put you in lose situations, gauging the amount of time before you find yourself overwhelmed, the good ones know to reward you for your success. There’s a strange psychology to Tetris, when you think about it. Every time you play it, there’s a small part of your brain that seems to think that you might just beat it the next time. And when you fail that time, that part screams that you were so close to discovering the game’s secret immortality juice.

But of course, a staggering 100% of Tetris play sessions end with towers of mistakes and misjudgments. In Dr. Mario, however, you’re on a mission. There’s a context for the puzzling, those viruses must be stopped! You’re the only man for the job. Sure, there’s no story, but that context is what separates Super Mario Galaxy from whatever that cat game coming up is. Context is crucial for player investment, because otherwise we can’t just shake the feeling that we’re just playing levels and that everything is ultimately meaningless.

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So in the end, Dr. Mario taught me something about game design this week. No, it’s no its medium’s Shakespeare, and it’s certainly not something I’d categorize as a must play, but it was willing to pioneer an important realization in the world of puzzle games. Pure mechanical attention can be important, but it takes someone like Nintendo to make that into something I’m willing to care about.

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