Hold Down B to Run: On the Importance of Velocity to Video Games

I first held down B to run in 1986.

The local Safeway store (a grocery chain) near my house featured a new arcade machine that I had never seen before. It was called Super Mario Bros.

I had played the original Mario Bros. released in 1983, of course, that basic single screen co-op arcade game in which this little Italian plumber named Mario (who suspiciously looked like the main character from Donkey Kong) and his brother Luigi bopped and then kicked turtles out of a sewer system. This game was different, though. The screen scrolled from left to right, and Mario could do a whole bunch of things, like grow really big when he ate a mushroom, shoot fireballs, and he could even run.

The idea of holding a button in order to run is a concept that seems pretty basic in action games these days, but it wasn’t one that I, and my fellow arcade goers, were familiar with. Pac-Man chased down ghosts at a regulated pace, and when Mario made his first appearance as Jumpman in Donkey Kong, he not only lacked the floaty jump mechanics of his alter ego in Super Mario Bros., he also walked — very slowly.

Donkey Kong is a slow game, a very precise game in which you carefully watch barrels rolled by a giant monkey down a series of girders at you and then time your very short hops to survive their approach. Indeed, most arcade games of that era are pretty painfully slow by comparison to modern video games. I ran into an original Space Invaders machine a few years ago and was horrified at the ponderous nature of the game. It probably takes five to ten seconds to travel from the left hand side of the screen to the right, or it sure seemed that way.

Altering the velocity of a video game character was a novel concept and a compelling one. Like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. is a precise game, but it is not a slow one — or at least not when you hold that B button down.

Super Mario Bros. allowed you to make choices. You could rush enemies or slow down to methodically blast at them with fireballs. You could sidle up to a pit to get a sense of when to jump to a moving platform or build up speed and simply hurtle past that platform to the other side.

Honestly, it was very liberating.

This concept of the ability to govern the speed of a video game character to allow greater player choice is baked into nearly every ancestor of Super Mario Bros., and the choices that are allowed to players because of this are not merely tactical decisions. They also affect our perception of game worlds and even the stories that games tell.

In games like Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, I make deliberate choices about what is important to me through the speed at which I choose to move through environments. Sure, sometimes I simply stop to take in a city street or a particular vista, but when I first leap onto dry ground in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, I initially run if I am in a natural environment, but when encountering any new port town, I inevitably let go of any button and just saunter in to understand the lay of the land and the vibe of the space that I am about to inhabit.

In especially richly detailed worlds with strong elements of environmental storytelling, studying a room at a leisurely pace is often preferred, but, perhaps, that is only something that I take the time to do after madly dashing about to clear that room of dangerous opponents. And, of course, later on if I am revisiting such a place, once I understand that area and what it means, I frequently just want the ability to hold down B and pick up the pace of the game, be that the pace of gameplay or in order to move the plot along.

Motion is a central component of storytelling and a means of gaining an understanding of a fictional universe in mediums that tell stories through moving pictures, be that medium film or video games, be those pictures defined by rapid action or slow, methodical observation.

However, what the notion of learning to “hold down B” in 1985 reminds me is how video games not only uniquely centralize the notion that motion itself is important to how an audience understands a fictional universe, but instead, centralizes how control of movement liberates that audience to experience a fictional universe the way that they see fit. In other words, velocity allows us to see both the shape of a world and to control the shape of our own personal understanding of that world as well.

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