These days, we kind of take for granted the Mario games that don’t fit into the “main” Super Mario series. Unless it’s the next big 3D Mario adventure, we tend to refer to the games as “spin-offs” and don’t hold them in the same light as the “proper” Mario games.
The thing is, Mario was always Nintendo’s renaissance man. Shigeru Miyamoto designed the character with the intent that he could be thrown into any type of game, in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and (most specifically) Popeye the Sailor Man. It’s not as though Mario was created with a definitive story and some big universe of characters already planned out ahead of time. Mario appeared in a number of games before Princess Peach, Bowser and the entire Mushroom Kingdom came into existence in Super Mario Bros. That was Mario’s breakout role, sure, but it wasn’t exactly where he got his start. Although it makes sense that Super Mario Bros. would become the basis of what we all consider to be “main” Mario games, as time has gone on it seems people have diminished the allure of the “other” Mario games as an unfortunate side effect of this.
That wasn’t the case back in 1990, when Mario could suddenly don a lab coat and head mirror, call himself a doctor, and star in a falling block puzzle game, and it would still create an iconic game in its own right.
Dr. Mario was the first such puzzle game in the Mario franchise, which would slowly become its own series, and open the door for puzzle games starring other Mario franchise characters like Yoshi’s Cookie and Wario’s Woods. While some of these later puzzle games were improvements, and subsequent Dr. Mario sequels (such as the underrated Nintendo 64 entry) built on the formula, the original NES release is still a charming and addictive puzzle game.
The goal of Dr. Mario is to eliminate a screen of all of its viruses. These viruses come in three colors: red, blue and yellow. You eliminate these viruses by matching them up with vitamins of corresponding colors. But there are a few twists to keep things interesting.
The first thing to note is that the vitamins have two halves, which can be different colors, so you’ll want to pay extra attention when the viruses are close together. You have to match four objects of the same color in order to eliminate a virus. Each half of a vitamin counts as one object, and a virus counts as another. So you could potentially have three viruses of the same color stacked on top of each other, meaning you’d only have to put one similarly colored half of a vitamin on top of them to eliminate them. You can even eliminate the viruses by placing the vitamins against them horizontally, but it’s much less common.
Additionally, if the vitamins involved in an elimination feature halves of different colors, those halves will remain and fall straight down until they either land on a virus or the bottom of the screen. This gives you an added level of strategy for any nearby viruses, but it also risks filling up the screen with piles of vitamins. If the vitamins stack up to the top of the screen and Mario can’t throw any more, you lose the round.
It’s a nice twist on the Tetris formula, one that remains fun even today. Better still, the game features a two-player competitive mode, where each player aims to eliminate their screen of viruses before the other. And despite the technical limitations of the game (even by NES standards) it makes the best with what it has. The graphics are cute and fun (I especially like how part of the screen is a microscope held up to the viruses, just so you can see them dancing around in all their glory), and the game’s two selectable music tracks, Chill and Fever, are infectiously catchy, and are all too easy to listen to on repeat as you play round after round.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have a second player at the ready to tackle the aforementioned two-player mode, Dr. Mario’s gameplay can only go so far. The lack of any additional modes really stands out in retrospect, and the fact that – unlike Tetris – each round has a set goal to reach means beating your own high score is kind of an afterthought.
Dr. Mario is still fun, no doubt. But it isn’t particularly deep. It’s at its best when two players are onboard, and even in that area it’s been bettered (Dr. Mario 64 turned the formula into a four-player party game. And now I really wish Nintendo would re-release that game or make a proper sequel to further add to the proceedings).
Its limitations are certainly more apparent today, but Dr. Mario is still worth playing. Perhaps more importantly, it represents a time when gamers were a bit wiser, and could accept Mario in any role and not question the merit in its potential.