In the nearly 30 years since he first debuted, one man's name has stood above the rest as the most famous character in gaming. In those three decades, that man - Mario - has had more jobs than many people have in a lifetime. He's been a carpenter, plumber, doctor, and even run his own toy company. There's another title, however, that he might as well have, and that's "pioneer." While Ken and Ryu may have set the course for fighting games, and Master Chief may have laid the foundation for the modern shooter, Nintendo's portly mascot has been instrumental in setting the tone for no less than three different genres.
Funny thing is, Mario himself almost never existed. Originally, his debut in Donkey Kong was imagined as a licensed title starring cartoon character Popeye. But when the company couldn't get the rights, Miyamoto created Mario, DK, and Pauline to replace them. Just think, had Nintendo actually succeeded, good licensed titles might be the rule today rather than the exception. Considering the loss, however, we probably ended up with the better deal.
While it's hard to argue against the historical value of Donkey Kong, it was Super Mario Bros. that truly put the mustachioed one on the map. It's also the game that set the tone for 2D platformers to follow. It would be inaccurate to call Super Mario Bros. the first platformer - titles like Pitfall and Dragon Buster were both part of the genre in earlier years - but none managed to inspire as many imitators as Mario's big break.
There are multiple ways that a work can define its genre. One is to be so popular as to create a "let's be like" syndrome, where competitors see what's popular and then copy it as best they can without getting sued. Then there's a work doing something that genuinely has never been seen before, which is when true innovation takes place. Or a work may just take something old and use it to fill a gap people didn't think needed filling.
Super Mario Bros. defined the 2D platformer through a little of each. First, it was released at nearly the perfect time, especially in the United States. In a time when most had written off videogames as a fad, Mario jumped on the scene and showed them just how wrong they were. The real key, however, was that the game was really, really good. The controls were spot on, the setting was instantly memorable, the landscape was loaded with surprises, and time and again the game forced players to think in unique ways. Above all, it was fun.