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Playing Mario on a Keyboard

5 February, 2009 (11:58) | Emulation and Vintage Gameplay | By: TimA

Twenty three years after Super Mario Brothers was released in the United States, emulated versions of the game are available for download on numerous websites.  Playing Mario on a keyboard,  however, is not the most intuitive way to play the game.  As the actual Nintendo Entertainment Systems can not be preserved indefinitely, how does one capture the essence of Mario gameplay while playing an emulated version of the game?  There are a couple of ways that this can be done.

The people at RetroUSB take actual NES and SNES controllers and reconfigure them with USB cords so that they can be plugged into a USBport.  As the website states, the controllers that they use are not replicas, but real controllers from the aforementioned systems.  For $35, you can have essentially the same gameplay experience that you did 23 years ago.

The possibility of acquiring these USB controllers is , of course, dependent upon the continued existence of RetroUSB.com.  While it is possible that replicas of the NES controllers may be produced for the foreseeable future, there is another way to simulate gameplay using a standard keyboard that comes relatively close to the actual thing.

The best way to understand what I’ll be getting at is to walk through this yourself.  There are probably hundreds of emulated versions of Super Mario Brothers, but I’ve found that a reliable (and free) emulated version can be played by using Nestopia.  This NES console emulator can be used to play all of the games (and there are a lot) that are availalbe for download in ‘the Vault’ at  Vimm’s Lair.  Click on the link for the ‘the Vault,’ then the link for ‘Nintendo,’ then the letter ‘S’ and then scroll down and select ‘Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt.’  After the game is downloaded, open the Nestopia executable file, use it to open Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt and voila!  Take a moment to revel in nostalgia.

Now open the ‘Options’ menu and then ‘input.’  You’ll see that Nestopia wants you to use the directional buttons to control the motion of your character (makes sense) and the comma ‘,’ and period ‘.’ for the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons on the Nintendo game controller.  Try playing Mario using these controls.  You’ll notice that you are using five fingers to play the game: three fingers on your right hand for the directional buttons and two on your left hand to control the A and B functions.  I suppose that with time one could become accustomed to playing Mario this way, but it certainly feels awkward and I would argue that you’re not really capturing the ‘essence’ of Mario gameplay.

Now, I have to give credit where it’s due so I will give a shout-out to Brandon Schoech for showing me this, but you can reconfigure the keys that you use on your keyboard so that you can play Mario using your thumbs the way that you would on an NES controller.  Open the ‘options’ and ‘input’ menus and then in the third column select ’set all.’  For the left directional button select the letter ‘a,’ for up select ‘w,’ for right select ’s,’ and for down select ‘z.’  For the ‘B’ functions select the period ‘.’ and for ‘A’ the slash ‘/.’  You can leave the settings for ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ as they are, or change them as you see fit, since you won’t use them as much.  Now you can postion your thumbs on either side of the keyboard and the effect is remarkably similar to that of using the NES controller.  One key aspect of this configuration is that you can use your right thumb to hit the ‘A’ and ‘B’ controls simultaneously, which is especially important in Mario as (if you’re like me) you will want to hold down the ‘B’ button indefinitely so that Mario will run through the entire game, but still be able to hit the ‘A’ button to throw turtle shells and shoot fiery spitballs.  This key configuration also takes a little getting used to, but it takes less time than the default setting and is certainly more true to the actual Mario gameplay.  Incidentally, I haven’t played Mario in something like eighteen years, but with the two-thumb key controls, I’ve managed to make it to the end of the fifth level.  I feel like that’s not too shabby.

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