Mini-Games Origins: Mario and Sonic Turn Chance Into Extra Lives


The .80s were a tumultuous time for video games. In 1983, the flooded market led to a crash of the industry, where the following two years were left in doubt. After the crash, however, video games would come back bigger and stronger than ever. Best illustrated by the NES and its flagship titles like Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, the latter half of the '80s was what many consider to be the first golden age.

Such development wasn't just reflected by the graphics of new games but was also demonstrated in how the games branch out. From what used to be simple and direct arcade-style experiences came attempts at crafting larger worlds, replete with secrets, bonuses, and, more importantly for this article, mini-games.

Acting as games within games, minigames were a simple addition that soon became a staple in the adventure, action, platforming, and RPG genres. Mostly avoidable for disinterested players, the concept of mini-games as an optional way to extend play was a welcome addition that took many forms. Of all these forms of minigames, arguably the most common back in the '80s, and today, is roulette.

Why Roulette?

There are multiple reasons why Nintendo and so many other developers choose roulette as a minigame base. Likely the most obvious reason ties into the fame that roulette already had and has in the gambling world. Instantly recognizable at a glance, roulette has been one of humanity's most widespread casino games since it was accidentally developed by French inventor Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. Sure, the inventor might have failed in his original intent of crafting the perpetual motion machine, but in creating roulette, he still founded a game whose fame would last forever.

Even at a glance, roulette's rules are simple.

Even if potential players had somehow missed the place roulette has held in our cultural zeitgeist, the simplicity of the game means learning the rules is almost instantaneous. The ball rolls and players predict where it will fall, on a level of straightforwardness that makes craps look like quantum physics. This simplicity doesn't only serve to smooth introductions either, as it also lends the game an enormous amount of visual customizability.

For an illustration of this, consider a modern casino offering like online roulette in Canada. Here, games are easily separated into tables like Lighting, European, and American roulette. From this starting position, titles are given further flexibility through the introduction of live tables, and different betting rules. Players after a relaxed game could engage with European Roulette Low Stakes, for example, while big spenders after a quick few spins might be better suited to Live Ruby Roulette. At its core, it’s this flexibility that makes roulette such a fantastic fit for how video games play.

A Mushroom Economy

Though many direct casino games like Casino in 1982 and Monte Carlo Casino in 1989 leaned fully into the roulette experience, more common mini-game interpretations of roulette came from less obvious properties. Nintendo was one of the first to get on board with this idea when they started planning various Mario spinoffs in the late '80s. The 1991 Mario Roulette machine was a strong illustration of this, but the real roots were found earlier.

The first major steps taken to implement roulette-style mini-games in major titles came around in 1988's Super Mario Bros. 3. In this platforming classic, players could find their way into a Toad House bonus area where three boxes would hold randomized items. Though presented as if choices were set when a player entered, in actuality the games operated by randomizing box contents as soon as a player interacted with them, borrowing heavily from the idea of roulette randomness.

Super Mario 3 was the first Mario title to experiment with roulette style mini-games.

Accessed by wagering coins, winners of this game could take home one of two special items, the Magic Wing or the Anchor. Since coins served no real purpose otherwise, outside of granting bonus lives at certain intervals, this was the first Mario game to push the concept of coin usage further. Later games would develop this idea, with full-blown experiences like Mushroom Roulette finding their way into Super Mario 64 DS.

Going a Step Further

Mini-games with the degree of separation that Mario 3 and Toad House offer always prove popular, but they only demonstrate part of how roulette appears in video games. Taking this concept a step further is, appropriately, Sonic the Hedgehog. Back when the blue blur was a direct competitor to Nintendo's mustachioed mascot, he also turned to casinos for inspiration.

While casino games have played a part in more than one Sonic title, perhaps the greatest integration they've had so far is with Casino Night Zone for Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Released in 1992, Sonic's best-regarded game had two full levels and a boss dedicated to casino-informed gameplay. While slots played the main stage, those with a keen eye could also notice the influence that roulette had on the zone's layout.

In essence, a large part of Casino Night’s platforming and speed sections were interpretations of roulette into the 2D space. In Casino Night, Sonic was the ball, as his momentum carried him around the fringes of turns. It was only when Sonic slowed down that he would drop into place like a roulette ball would, where he would face the consequences for how well he performed.

This one-stage proved such a massive hit that it would go on to become a series staple. After this, it also appeared in the games Sonic the Fighters, Sonic Generations, and Sonic Drift, alongside other media like the animated Sonic Boom and Sonic the Comic. Backed by the Vegas feel and play that was as simple as Sonic’s controls, the influence of Casino Night has proven second only to the likes of Green Hill Zone.

With its music and visual design, the Casino Night Zone stage is a fan favorite.

As we enter the 2020s digital entertainment is bigger than it’s ever been. With the online casino market alone worth more than $60 billion, and video games pulling in similar numbers, a combination of casino and gaming concepts is only natural. Though roulette is just one form that this pair can take, history has also proven it to be one of the most long-lasting and successful. In the future, don’t be surprised to see roulette in games become increasingly common, both within major titles and smaller indie efforts. After all, Mario has offered official roulette once, there's no reason why he couldn't have another try.

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