In 1990, the popularity of the Nintendo Entertainment System had hit fever pitch, with Nintendo’s franchise flagship character Mario becoming one of the most recognizable and iconic figures in world culture, thanks to his astounding success in a series of platform adventure games
It was with an element of risk, then, that Nintendo pursued the idea of using Mario as the mascot for a puzzle game, following the achievement of Tetris, the now-legendary Russian implant. Thus the Dr. Mario title was borne, featuring the plucky plumber enduring a change of career as he donned a doctor’s uniform and was faced with the task of clearing nasty viruses by heaping colored pills onto them, with matching hues resulting in cleared elements.
Would the mustached hero strike storied lore yet again with a puzzler?
Much like Tetris, the vertically oriented field of play takes on one block at a time, each pill-like piece entering when the previous is used. These pills come in six different types, representing the possible combinations between three different colors (including double-color, solid-colored pills). Making a connection of three like-colored pill portions in a row cleared those parts, including any like-colored viruses touching them.
Ergo, each level consisted of the goal of clearing all the viruses in the field, with more challenging levels adding viruses at the beginning to forcing the pills to fall faster. The cartridge also featured a two-player mode where two players could simultaneously compete against the other, after choosing a level to begin at (higher-numbered choices representing more viruses to begin with), then racing to clear their field. In the meantime, you could even send viral bits randomly falling onto your opponent’s field and potentially disrupting their efforts.
Although there is definitely a primary-color emphasis, Dr. Mario still comes off as a delightfully colorful game that truly attains a uniquely different feel and mood from Tetris. Whereas Tetris feels like a carefully calculated game of chess complete with classical compositions, Dr. Mario is more like a frenetic spinning dance-game of whirling, twirling color patterns and medical maladies. The animation of the good doctor Mario tossing each pill into the bottle in one-player mode is a nice touch. Otherwise, the graphics themselves are not entirely spectacular, but mustered fine enough for a puzzle genre entry.
The effects are fairly standard,
but the background tracks are classics. The player is faced with the choice of choosing the background music before a round, much like Tetris, but with fun names like Chill and Fever. Each “song” has a very distinctive personality, and are earworm-worthy in their capacity to stick in your head hours later. The composer was spot-on with this one.
Creativity & Innovation
According to Wikipedia, Nintendo actually received a patent for Dr. Mario and its then-revolutionary style of color-coded puzzle-clearing. Back then, the concept of tying colors so intently into puzzle play was an innovative concept. Nowadays it may seem head-scratchingly simple, but this is truly a title for which you have to appreciate its genius in context. For a puzzle game, it was a refreshing new character on the scene; within the greater gaming pantheon though, it was a minor advance.
Dr. Mario actually spawned a sequel, Dr. Mario 64, which was largely the same, except for one important, super-fun addition: Four-player gaming. For this inclusion alone it is worth mentioning, but all Dr. Mario games aside, the original NES release still stands as somewhat of a classic, and a giant in the history of puzzle gaming. For its competent mix of historical significance and genuinely fun times, Dr. Mario prescribes three and a half stars out of five.
Eric Bailey is a retro gamer on a crazy quest to write a quality review for every single American-released NES video game over at NintendoLegend.com.