Playing the role of demolition worker, this was Mario’s final dilettante outing before settling down into a career as the Mushroom Kingdom’s hero.
Japanese title: レッキングクルー • Wrecking Crew
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-WR]
Japanese release date: June 1985 [HVC-WR]
European release date: Oct. 1987 [NES-WR]
Alternate versions: Vs. System ; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1985]; Famicom Disk System *; Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [GBA, 2003]; Famicom Minis series [GBA, 2004]; Virtual Console [Wii, 2007; 3DS, 2011; Wii U, 2013]
*Note: Famicom Disk System version was released under the name Wrecking Crew.
Before Mario was Mario, he went by the name Jumpman. But even before he adopted that brief moniker, he was known to his creator Shigeru Miyamoto simply as “Mr. Video.” The idea behind Mr. Video was a simple one: He would be a versatile, all-purpose character, adaptable into all genres and styles of play.
That concept ultimately found life not through Miyamoto’s work, however, but rather in the form of the character who would eventually come to be known as Mr. Game & Watch: The simple silhouette of a rubber-limbed man who would go on to start in countless of Gunpei Yokoi’s LCD Game & Watch handhelds throughout the early ’80s and eventually gain his own fan following through Smash Bros. Even though he wouldn’t be formally named for years, Mr. Game & Watch proved remarkably versatile in large part due to his lack of detail. He consisted simply of a stick figure with a penchant for comical poses. Mario, on the other hand, took on a more specific form: Short, paunchy, mustachioed, dressed in blue-collar work clothes.
In time, though, despite his more defined nature, Mario soon began to live out his creator’s original vision anyway. He became more than just Mr. Video, and in the process he fulfilled his original mandate as an all-purpose plug-and-play character actor. Mario first appeared as a heroic construction worker in Donkey Kong, but for his next turn he took on the role of a villainous circus master in Donkey Kong Jr. Mario Bros. saw him and his brother Luigi working as hapless plumbers, and on Game & Watch Mario came off as the world’s most unstable career man, working in factories, as a fireman, in the army, and more.
While we associate Mario with Miyamoto, in truth the character operated as something of a public domain figure inside Nintendo during the first half of the ’80s. It wouldn’t be until Super Mario Bros. in Sept. 1985 that Mario as we know him today truly took shape: The high-bounding platform hero who grows in size, snatches coins, flings fire, and hunts for stars in the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario would continue to be all things to all people even after this definitive role—hero, sportsman, referee, Alleyway paddle pilot—but once Super Mario Bros. arrived, his physical appearance and personality ceased to be so malleable. Prior to that game and the establishment of the classic Mario iconography, however, there was no Mario canon. The character basically served at the pleasure of many different creators as the needs of their current project dictated. Hence all the Mario cameos in many early NES games, which culminated, in a sense, here in Wrecking Crew.
Wrecking Crew stands as one of the more fascinating chapters of the Mario saga, and as a noteworthy NES creation in general. For starters, this would be Mario’s final outing as a workaday career-hunter before he found his true calling as a picaresque hero in Super Mario Bros. Of course, as per usual for this era, Mario merely serves as a presence here: A familiar face in a setting that has nothing to do with the character himself. This Mario doesn’t jump, evades foes rather than flinging fireballs, and doesn’t collect invincibility stars. About the only thing connecting this Mario to his canonical self is the fact that he wields a hammer here, as in Donkey Kong. But this hammer is no weapon, and at best can merely surprise a bad guy; no, it’s a tool, used strictly for demolition.
Where Mario made his debut as a construction worker, assembling a high rise building that would buckle under the fury of a girl-crazy ape, here he plays the inverse of that former role: His task is to clear out unwanted objects and debris from 100 different screens, unmaking some other carpenter’s hard work. Or perhaps even his own, who knows? Even more poorly defined here is Luigi, who literally appears as Mario’s duplicate, all the way down to the colors of his outfit. The advent of Luigi in Mario Bros. a year and a half prior to Wrecking Crew’s debut gave the alternating two-player mode its own distinct names besides Player 1 and Player 2, but that’s literally as far as Nintendo had made it in terms of defining these characters.
The visual and conceptual dissonance of Wrecking Crew’s presentation gives it an ersatz feel, like some odd arcade bootleg. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, though; on the contrary, it was produced by key Nintendo personnel. Besides being produced by Yokoi, who had also supervised the development of previous Mario titles including Mario Bros., Wrecking Crew’s main designer was Yoshio Sakamoto, who would go on to direct Metroid, and future Super Mario Land director Satoru Okada directed it. Finally, many sources credit Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka as the game’s composer, and it bears the trademark jauntiness of his musical style.
In short, Wrecking Crew serves as another early instance of Nintendo’s different internal divisions riffing on a concept in their own distinct ways. Ice Climber, Wrecking Crew, and Super Mario Bros. all present three wholly unique answers to the question of, “How do you follow up a game like Mario Bros.?” Of course, Super Mario Bros. would prove to be the ultimate answer to that question, and such is that game’s popularity and influence that it’s hard to imagine any other answer. But it wasn’t so clear-cut at the beginning of 1985.
Side-scrolling platformers were a very new, and honestly not so impressive, concept at that point. Pac-Land had brought the American Pac-Man cartoon into pixel form, but it felt more like an awkward experiment than like the dawn of a major new genre… in part because Namco used a two-button system for Pac-Man’s lateral movement, despite the fact that the original Pac-Man arcade cabinet had cemented the joystick as the default coin-op controller. Both Ice Climber and Wrecking Crew feel like logical, incremental expansions on the Mario Bros. concept. They took the single-screen action design of that game and added vertical scrolling while focusing on different elements. Ice Climber, of course, centered on jumping and cooperative action. Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, attempted to wed the Mario Bros. structure to the puzzle platformer design that was common to the era.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wrecking Crew shared some staff in common with that of Gyromite, which would arrive a few months later; clearly Nintendo’s R&D1 team had an interest in puzzle action. In this case, the puzzle mechanics revolved around the fact that Mario needed to clear each screen of unwanted walls and structures.
That sounds easy enough in concept, but beyond the first few stages, Wrecking Crew’s level designs become intricate and interlocked, with destructible elements that also serve as platforms and ladders to otherwise unreachable objects. You can only move along to the next stage once you clear the current level of all destructible elements, be it panels, brick walls, or cement ladders.
Completing most stages of Wrecking Crew requires a certain amount of planning, or else you’ll end up with a handful of inaccessible items that prevent you from advancing. The game allows you to cancel out of a stage with the press of a button, but doing so resets your lives and scores—so if you become stuck, the only way to avoid starting over is to allow a fireball to kill you (as in Mario Bros., a fireball files from the edge of the stage at certain intervals). Since Wrecking Crew wasn’t an arcade game—outside of the obligatory VS. System release, of course—the fireball works less as a way to keep quarter drops brisk and more like a puzzle element to bear in mind… or, of course, as a handy suicide pill in a worst-case scenario.
The fireball isn’t the only hazard present in Wrecking Crew. You also have to contend with three different enemies: Wrenches, eggplants, and Foreman Spike. (Yes, eggplants again. This isn’t even the last we’ll see of them. Someone at Nintendo was clearly a big fan.) These three dangers may not seem like much to worry about, but within the game’s limited space they pose ample danger.
Wrenches tend to be predictable, following Mario to the best of their ability wherever they can find a path. They’ll chase him across platforms and up and down ladders, slowly but persistently. It’s not too difficult to fool them, but their inexorable march makes them a constant, lurking danger as you navigate the stages.
Their limited AI can also cause them to become stuck in loops that prevent you from progressing or clearing a stage, so you have to watch out for that. Wrenches appear in two different colors, though they only difference between the two variants appears to be the speed at which they move.
Eggplants are much more dangerous simply for their sheer unpredictability. They seem to have no real interest in Mario per se, but they dash blindly throughout each stage and move up and down ladders on a whim.
One eggplant is usually no trouble to deal with, but when several appear at once things can become dicey. Because their behavior appears so haphazard, staying clear of their erratic movements can be difficult.
And finally, there’s Foreman Spike. Where bumping into a Wrench or Eggplant will cause Mario to lose a life, Spike can’t actually hurt Mario. Instead, he moves around in the background plane of the action, shadowing Mario’s movements. If he catches up to Mario while both characters are standing on opposite sides of a destructible object, he’ll attempt to smash the scenery before the player can. If he’s faster on the draw, the shock of his demolitions will send Mario plummeting to the lowest level of the stage, similar to detonating one of the bombs that appear within the stages. The reverse is also true, though: You can send Foreman Spike plunging to the floor if you can crush a wall before he does.
The indirect nature of the threat Spike poses, and his ability to break the scenery just like Mario can, makes him by far the most devious and complex element of the game. Spike can completely spoil a run through a level by, say, knocking Mario off a platform that can’t be reached again from the bottom of the screen… or worse, by smashing a destructible ladder while Mario’s climbing it. Some later puzzles even center around exploiting Spike’s behavior by using him to knock Mario to the lower portion of a stage that can’t be reached any other way.
Wrecking Crew has a pretty simple premise and a very limited sandbox, but it’s designers explored pretty much every possible aspect of the game’s mechanics in the course of its 100 stages. And for those who find even its advanced challenges (like very precisely outracing enemies in a very linear maze) disappointing, Wrecking Crew is also one of the three entries in Nintendo’s Programmable Series.
As with Excitebike, you can design multiple stages of your own using the full palette of options available to the original design team. And, as with Excitebike, Japanese Famicom owners had the option to save their creations to tape—a feature included in the U.S. ROM but never fully enabled due to its reliance on a peripheral that never made its way stateside.
Not surprisingly, Wrecking Crew also saw a VS. System release, though it seems the most unlikely fit for arcade play of all Nintendo’s VS. System conversions. Nintendo reissued the game on Famicom Disk System in 1988, along with the many other early Famicom titles, though this particular reissue lacked any notable alterations besides, naturally, the option to save level creations to diskette rather than tape.
Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the end for Wrecking Crew. The game has been reissued numerous times over the past decade or so, including on Virtual Console and eReader. More unusually, it also received a Japan-only sequel for Super Famicom called Wrecking Crew ’98. As the title suggests, it appeared at the very, very end of that system’s life and originally showed up as a download-only release for rewriteable carts, though it did eventually get a retail release. Likely due to its incredibly late publication date and Japan-only distribution system, Nintendo never bothered to release it in other regions (though it would probably work quite nicely as a Virtual Console title).
Wrecking Crew ’98 makes for a pretty strange follow-up, though; despite what the name might imply, it’s not a remake or even what you might think of as a proper sequel; it is, in every way, a completely different game from the NES original. Rather than playing out as an ’80s-style puzzle platformer, Wrecking Crew ’98 takes the form of a ’90s-style falling block platformer, vaguely like Panel de Pon/Puzzle League. Mario smashes multicolored wall modules while trying to line them up into advantageous arrangements, sending garbage blocks over to his opponent and vice-versa.
Aside from featuring Mario with a hammer and the presence of the original Wrecking Crew foes, including Foreman Spike—shooting down rumors Spike was actually Wario—Wrecking Crew ’98 has very little to do with the NES game. It also fails to be a patch on its inspiration Puzzle League, loaded down with complex mechanics and abstract goals. Still, its existence does add a touch of extra legitimacy to this strange hiccup in Mario’s history.
In truth, the original NES game needs any advantage it can claim; its awkward timing caused it to become totally overshadowed by Mario’s world-shattering subsequent adventure. Wrecking Crew only appeared in Japan a few months before Super Mario Bros. redefined Mario, and the standards of NES software, forever. In the U.S., of course, the two games showed up more or less day-and-date together. As such, Wrecking Crew feels like a bit of an orphan in Nintendo’s history, the final experimental Mario game before the character’s true canon was established once and for all, destroying his freedom to undertake such oddball efforts.
Nevertheless, it’s less of an outlier than many people seem to think. It has a direct creative line to the original Mario Bros., and most of the Wrecking Crew development team would get together again in a few years to produce Mario’s portable debut, Super Mario Land. That game’s pretty weird, too, but R&D1’s work with the Mario and later Wario games would go on to prove that weirdness wasn’t a defect in R&D1’s Mario adventures… It was more like the main point. So bask in the weirdness and enjoy what amounts to a pretty solid puzzle platformer, won’t you?