I think you can tell a lot about your relationship with a person from the way the two of you play Mario Bros. together. While many a multiplayer videogame has asked us to join forces with other players or test our skills against them, Shigeru Miyamoto's 1983 classic was unique in that it was pretty much down for anything.
Is Mario Bros. a co-op game or a competitive game? It's all a matter of perspective. Rather than railroading you down one path or another(1), the game saw fit to simply drop you and your other into an ambiguous situation and leave you two to work out the rest amongst yourselves.
Whether you ultimately chose to make friends or enemies, one thing would be for sure: You couldn't simply ignore the player and try to go about your business yourself, and this was an issue baked right into the game's kineaesthetic setup. The game's singular scene was a series of cramped little corridors with narrow points of entry and exit, and Mario and Luigi had such inertia that their movements were slippery and difficult to control(2) (a problem that only got worse when Slipices — enemies that turned the floors into sheets of ice — began to appear.) As a result players would always be at risk of bumping into and bouncing off of each other, forcing them to reconcile with each other's presence.
It was a strangely intimate experience, sharing that much space with another player. You'd constantly be aware of their every move, the proximity would make it like you two had been stuffed into a closet together, and players would almost certainly begin talking to each other, a lot.
"Are you okay down there?"
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Should I move here?"
"I can slow down, if you want..." (Okay, I'm officially done with that shtick now.)
Of course, there was no reason the dialogue had to be friendly. Like I said, the situation was ambiguous. Killer creatures crawled out of pipes at the top of the screen, and made their way downward from one floor to the next. In order to get rid of the "monsters" (the quotes are shorthand for "apparently the sewers of Brooklyn, NY had been taken over by turtles, crabs, ice cubes and the occasional fly..."), you had to jump up and bump into the section of floor directly above you, flipping over anyone standing on that section of floor, leaving them temporarily stunned and giving you a window of time to head up onto their floor and kick them off the stage before they come back worse, try and snag a coin (I always used to imagine those to be Mario and Luigi's paycheck) for your efforts, perhaps knock off a few more in quick succession for bonus points. Rinse and repeat for every enemy to clear the phase. Clear more phases. Actually, that sounds pretty straightforward.
(Okay, but real talk: That walking sound is super annoying.)
How is a situation like this ambiguous? Well, first off, there's an implied objective for the game, and that's to get as far into the game as possible. Technically, there's no need for co-operation in this goal, as the mission doesn't end when one player hits "GAME OVER." One player can go on without the other, and they even have separate score counters to rack up for high scores and extended play. In that sense, it makes perfect sense to be selfish or even indifferent to the presence of the other player (or at least, as indifferent as you can be in such a crowded place,) trying to keep as many kills and coins as possible for yourself, and generally minding your own business.
But then you have to actually go about achieving that objective, and thing start to get a bit complicated.
As it turns out, hitting the floor above you, and then making your way down the corridor you're in so you can jump up into the corridor your enemy's in so you can run, run, run until you finally reach it and knock it off before it flips itself back right-side up and bolts down the hall at you twice as fast as before...is a process that requires you to cover quite a bit of space in an increasingly short amount of time. Using the POW Block is especially troublesome; sure, it stuns every enemy on screen for a short moment, leaving them ripe for the plucking (kicking?), but you'd be stuck at the bottom of the screen, forcing you to work your way up to the upper floors at a frantic pace. It got even worse when the stunned monsters were situated on the topmost floor, requiring you to go from the bottom to the top in no time flat.
Forming an alliance with the other player suddenly seemed like a logical choice. The two of you combined could cover more space together than either one of you could alone. Heck, you could have one player stun an enemy while the other player waited right next to that enemy to knock it off. (Seriously, if you get the chance to play Mario Bros. with a friend, try this technique!) And trust me, there are other neat coordinated attacks you can pull off. It's an exhilarating experience to overcome the initial awkwardness of getting used to being around each other and learn to move and act in harmony, united towards a common goal.
Suddenly, the POW Block becomes as much about rescuing an overwhelmed comrade as it is about giving yourself a strategic advantage, and you can even become generous, saving the extra score and bonuses for a player with less experience or fewer lives who, in any case, needs them more. Even in the bonus rounds, you could decide that the other player deserves the last coin. After all, you need to look out for each other, don't you? You'll last longer together. And anyway, it's the least you could do after your partner helped you clear the bonus round so thoroughly.
...Or you could steal all the their hard-earned coins and trip them into a fireball when their usefulness had expired. I mean, no use having deadweight player taking up your space, sucking up your resources and slowing you down.
It works either way. All in all, alliances will be forged, friendships will be tested, feuds will break out, and rivalries will boil over, and perhaps even end*, all on the same simple battlefield and in the same simple subterranean scenario.
Given this context, I think it's actually quite fitting that the Mario Bros. have been characterized over the years as being capable of incredible feats of brotherly co-operation...just as soon as they can stop bickering over trivial things.
It is a wonderful place to explore interpersonal dynamics, and I'm starting to realize that it's a much better game than I ever gave it credit for.
So, what have we learned today?
If you're feeling worried about the state of your marriage, get together with your spouse and play Mario Bros. If you can't make it past Phase 3, file for a divorce.
THIS IS NOT TO BE TAKEN AS HONEST-TO-GOD RELATIONSHIP ADVICE
ALWAYS CONSULT A MARRIAGE COUNSELOR BEFORE PLAYING MARIO BROS.
Have a nice day. :)
(1)Not that there's anything wrong with multiplayer games that have a clear focus, but you know what I mean.
(2)You know, in the right light, those physics almost seem like a precursor to the more robust physics of Super Mario Bros, which would show up two years down the road. Miyamoto was on his way...
So, question time: What's the single greatest feat of cooperation you've ever taken part in while playing a multiplayer videogame? Sound off in the comments below!