The Cure for the Fever

Dr. Mario

Mario has been in a lot of games doing a whole mess of things. As the most famous, and certainly most prolific, video game mascot character, Mario is the everyman that shows up in everything NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs. has ever conceived. Tennis pro, golf legend, kart racer, referee – if you can think it up, Mario has done it. Hell, he’s been switching jobs and finding new tasks to take on since before he was even named “Mario”. Nintendo had a familiar character on their hands since the earliest days of Donkey Kong and they wanted to slot their mascot into everything they could. And it worked.

Dr. Mario

Of course, that has also meant that there have been many games that featured Mario in ways that were far outside of his platforming roots. And one of the strangest, yet arguably most fun, examples was Dr. Mario. Originally released in 1990 for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy (on the same day, a rare dual system release at the time), the game was Nintendo’s own answer to Tetris. The company had the rights to release Tetris games on their own systems, and their port of the Russian puzzler proved to be a system seller, especially when it came to the Game Boy release. Hell, it was a pack-in title for that console through most of the handheld’s life, and to this day it’s still listed as one of the Game Boy’s greatest titles. People played Tetris for hours a day, and Nintendo noticed. Why license a puzzle game from another company when they could make their own.

Whatever the exact reasoning for the development of Dr. Mario, there’s no doubt that the game was an absolute smash hit. It sold well in its initial release, eventually going on to rack up 10 Mil in sales across all platforms. Hell, even now the company still revisits the game, from the SNES Tetris and Dr. Mario, to the Nintendo 64 release, and even the WiiWare Dr. Luigi game. Hell, Dr. Mario himself is a regular presence in the Super Smash Bros. franchise now. Fans loved the simple mechanics of Dr. Mario, its fun beats, and its constant, addictive gameplay. As a successor to Nintendo’s own release of Tetris, there’s no doubt that Dr. Mario delivered, and it inspired Nintendo to go on and make even more falling block puzzlers across its various consoles.

The basics of Dr. Mario are simple: the player is presented with a play area, the drop zone, and within that area are three colors of viruses (Red, Blue, and Yellow in most versions of the game, although it was three grey variants in the Game Boy edition). Mario will throw out pills in various two-color combos and the goal is to align these with the viruses to make rows and columns of four or more. Do that on a virus (or viruses) and you’ll eliminate them. Clear all the viruses in a stage to beat it and more on to the next level where the play area will be filled with even more viruses. And gameplay continues until level 20 is beaten and the viruses are beaten back for good.

What impressed about Dr. Mario is how intuitive the basic gameplay was. This was one of the first basic block-matching games to ever come out and yet the mechanics didn’t really need any explanation at all. The challenge was slow in ramping up so, for the first few stages, you could experiment and figure stuff out on your own. That is, of course, the best part of any Nintendo game, the way the company knows how to just throw you into the gameplay and let you figure it out for yourself. You get a small selection of viruses and Mario starts chucking pills in. Without even reading the instruction book you can simple figure out “pills fall down, match them up.” And once you get it down then the challenge starts to ramp up and you have to keep up or die.

But this was before these kinds of games felt so common. This was a time before Puyo Puyo, before Wario's Woods, before any of these kinds of games were so very common. This wasn’t the first block-matching puzzler with a well that slowly filled up, but it was one of the first titles to actually make the mechanics common. You can tell that Nintendo trusted the mechanics to speak for themselves. All it took was the Mario name slapped on to get people interested, but it was the game itself that really shined. Once you sat down and started playing, the game easily sucked you in. And because it was so simple to pick up and play it became just as addictive as Tetris. It was Nintendo’s answer and it worked as well as the original thing.

Of course, it helped that Nintendo wrapped it in their usual magic. For starters, yes, Mario is front and center. He’s there, selling the kids on his brand of magic. But then there were the viruses, which straddle that line between cute and gross. They’re perfect little bad guys, there in both large and small form in the game, taunting you and keeling over as they get eliminated. They have that Nintendo shine to them, the right level of adorable badness that made you want to own them in plush form (and, of course, they did eventually become their own collectables). They dance and squirm and draw the eyes. They have that Nintendo polish you expected, the great, cartoony way that only Nintendo could do (and still do, to be fair).

But the part that stuck with most people the most was, of course, the music. There’s the upbeat thrill of Fever, with its swelling pulse that drives to the famous bridge. Chill follows with its slower groove, a jazzier song that still kept the pressure on. And it, too, had a famous bridge, one that absolutely still lives in the minds of many of the kids that played it. Frankly, I think most of us probably played this game more on the Game Boy, and its versions of the songs, with the Game Boys thick sound font, is probably the versions we all think of when we hear the song. That and all the little combo noises the game would make. I hear them in my dreams. They live with me.

What Dr. Mario proved, more than anything, was that there was a rabid audience out there for puzzle games on the Game Boy. Of course, you could argue that Nintendo would have known that anyway with all the countless block-pushing Sokoban clones that were on the tiny console. Those kinds of games were easier to pick up and play for a few minutes at a time. Tiny brain twisters and teasers that could keep players engaged for however long they had to work on the solution. But Tetris-style games provided that same kit of puzzle action with more pressure, more adrenaline, and more speed. Nintendo simply took that and ran with it, creating a classic mascot game and a puzzler all mixed into one. It was brilliant.

The various Nintendo puzzle games each have their fans. Personally I think Yoshi is one of their greatest titles and I spent way too many hours playing it. But we don’t get any of those games without Dr. Mario first proving the way. Like with platforming games, which Mario helped to revolutionize, and then sports games, which Mario’s titles pushed forward, the puzzle genre really game into its own on Nintendo’s consoles all thanks to Big N’s mustachioed mascot. And that’s because Dr. Mario was nothing short of a block-dumping, brain-teasing masterpiece.