Mario Paint (Prototype, Super Nintendo)
In mid-March 2012, I engaged in negotiations for several video game prototypes, including Dr. Mario for the Game Boy and Mario is Missing! for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Any Nintendo-obsessed classic gamer worth his or her salt would no doubt cherish a peek into the making of the classic pill-popping puzzler, but the world geography game that placed Luigi in a rare starring role had me intrigued, as well, if only because of where the cartridge originated: VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine, a gaming publication that had shown an early preview version in its June 1993 issue. Convinced that I would have something interesting to report about, I worked out a deal.
The amount of money that I spend on prototypes isn’t typically advertised in my articles, that’s something that I’ll have to answer for in the next life, but since these are special Mario games, it might be noteworthy enough to disclose for future reference that Dr. Mario cost me $500, and Mario is Missing!, $400. However, cash/pounds of flesh isn’t always the only thing exchanged in prototype agreements. After a game is dumped and documented on this site, the physical cartridge is immediately put up for trade in order to afford new software and save more beta data crying out for help. Mario is Missing! had probably been rotting in a bin for two decades before I took mercy on the poor bastard.
In other words, years of buying less pricey prototypes has afforded me the opportunity to go after more expensive development items. In addition to being a more cost-effective method of doing business, swapping one-of-a-kind prototypes can serve as an effective bargaining chip to unclench first-party Nintendo items out of collectors’ hands.
As has become a depressingly recurring theme for me, though, the only “prototypes” that I bought that didn’t contain any differences whatsoever were the two Mario games that I freed from captivity. To make matters worse, Mario is Missing! arrived in laughable shape, the plastic cover bandaged together by a piece of scotch tape. I felt like a piece of something else after spending what amounted to more than two months’ salary of a Chinese worker assembling iPhones. The irony of the looming April Fools’ Day was not lost on me.
Less than a week or two afterwards, I faced almost the exact same situation as before, again staring at the prospect of buying another Nintendo edutainment video game prototype. This was surely no mere coincidence, but something almost supernatural or otherworldly; perhaps even the work of the Devil, Himself, playing on my weakness for pain and Mario teaching titles. I held my breath for as long as I could, so as to cut off all oxygen to the brain, then sent out payment for a second round of regrets.
Bob Ross used to say that every day’s a good day when you paint. Bob Ross was never wrong about anything. I’m going to take his advice, let that negativity wash over me and inspire my creativity, for this time around I have a prototype of Mario Paint, a surprisingly enjoyable learning tool for the Super Nintendo that’s designed to teach the basics of creating art, music, animation, and more.
When Nintendo of America released the game and its accompanying mouse peripheral on store shelves in late August 1992, Mario Paint proved to be more than a simple paint program by including right out of the box enough designing tools to rev up imaginations and set them running wild with 15 vibrant colors to choose from, 75 textured backgrounds, 120 unique stamps, and up to 9-frame animations. Mixing and matching 16 distinct instrumental sounds in the additional music composition component allowed for such depth that would-be MIDI musicians still harness its power to this day with an imitation PC program called Mario Paint Composer, filling the digital concert halls of YouTube with amazingly faithful 16-bit renditions of everything from Michael Jackson to Queen. And once artists/players have reached their creative limits for the day, they’re encouraged to take a break by swatting some pesky flies in Gnat Attack, an addictive little mini-game that’s cleverly disguised to teach kids better mouse use and hand-eye coordination.
Nintendo poured $6.5 million into the Mario Paint advertising campaign that year, which included 30-second TV spots produced by Will Vinton Productions and print ads in parenting magazines that emphasized the educational nature of the software. By the end of the holiday season, half a million copies had been sold to young aspiring Picassos, and another half a million more flew out of retailers by spring the following year.
U3 EPROM [Empty Slot]
U4 EPROM [Empty Slot]
Most bare board prototypes have little distinguishing elements to differentiate them, except sometimes for the stickers over their EPROM chips. The chip labels on Mario Paint match those seen on two other well-known first-party Super Nintendo prototypes, A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart. Both of those betas are under the care of a Swedish Nintendo video game prototype collector named Johan. He was kind enough to shed some light on their mysteries.
(Image source: Jason Wilson)
A Link to the Past has two white EPROM stickers with the same design, and was unearthed at a former Nintendo of America employee’s garage sale in the Hamptons along with a Powerfest ’94 cartridge, a Campus Challenge cartridge, and several more prototypes. The lucky finder of this lot sold off these items individually on eBay, and Johan ended up purchasing A Link to the Past for $1,200.
He and his brother played the prototype side-by-side with a retail copy one summer on two adjacent television screens, completing both versions twice, but they could not for the life of them find any differences.
Johan later heard from a third party that the prototype was produced for the last leg of the Nintendo Campus Challenge tournament and, therefore, was very unlikely to contain any changes or hidden data. In fact, as SNES Central discovered, the checksum written on one of the chips’ stickers matches that of the released game (link).
As a result, he placed the game back on eBay, where the auction was won by a collector in the Netherlands.
(Image source: Johan)
That Netherlands collector, Niels Thomassen, in turn sold a prototype of Super Mario Kart to Johan for around the same amount. Super Mario Kart houses only one EPROM on its development board, with a sticker sporting the same grid-like layout, only this time it’s colored blue.
Unlike A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart holds several discernible in-game changes, including a greater difficulty level, buggier AI, no 150cc mode, altered graphics, and an entirely new music track on the Vanilla Lake course (link).
Finally, that brings me to Mario Paint. The EPROM stickers have a pinkish hue this time, instead of blue or white, and the game is marked as being “E.5,” which signifies that this is the sixth evaluation version, as E.0 would have been the first.
This prototype was originally found at an internal development studio responsible for making official Nintendo strategy guides. An unknown source gave both this board and the aforementioned Super Mario Kart to the notorious prototype magnate/magnet Jason Wilson. Wilson used to work as a senior editor of Tips & Tricks magazine, and has amassed a jaw-dropping collection of cartridge and disc-based prototypes through his industry contacts.
Mario Paint was sold to me for $500, which was largely covered by trading away the ill-fated Dr. Mario Game Boy prototype. Sadly, I have no takers yet on Mario is Missing! ‘Buyers are Missing!” is more like it.
Although most prototypes dump easily enough, every now and then I run into one that doesn’t want to cooperate. Mario Paint fought me tooth and nail, but in the end, I was ultimately able to get a stable working file after forcing an overdump. The retail game is 1 megabyte in size, but the prototype dump comes in at twice that amount.
The invalid banks and extraneous data have since been removed from the overdump, bringing the file size back down to normal. However, since prototypes often have the wrong header, SRAM support was not detected during dumping, so stamps and other data cannot be saved. (This can be fixed by replacing the prototype header with the retail header to allow SRAM saving.)
You don’t have to go very far into the prototype to begin seeing the differences. After clicking on the letter “N” to trigger the staff credits, the normal title screen music plays instead of the North American retail game’s bongo medley.
Also during the credits, the prototype lists only one programmer, Kenji Imai. The other two names, Kenji Nakajima and Genji Kubota, as seen in the retail version, are missing in action.
Under the Mouse Maker Staff category of the credits, the prototype displays each name separately instead of all together on one single screen.
The prototype does not show any Special Thanks credits.
Clicking on the “P” in the title screen causes fire flowers to bloom all over. These flowers produce electronic telephone noises in the prototype when you click on them. A baby’s cooing is heard in the retail version.
The prototype calls the Coloring Book “Coloring Pictures” instead.
On the prototype’s second coloring picture, crocodile is spelled clocodile, the words “monkey” and “camel” are positioned differently, and the snake graphic appears farther to the right of the monkey.
On the third coloring picture, the prototype shifts the spacing around, causing the intended “Happy Birthday” to appear as “Happy Birth Day.”
The fourth and final coloring picture also contains a change, albeit much more subtle than the others. If you look closely inside of the cavernous underwater reef, you’ll notice a slightly bolder outline touching the tail fin of the bottom fish in the prototype.
In the music composition mode, the retail version produces a lower, deeper sound effect when choosing the double bar.
In the music composition mode, the retail version produces a lower, deeper sound effect when placing the double bar.
Also in the music composition mode, the clear button produces a much squeakier sound.
In addition to that, the eraser tool also emits a squeakier sound in the prototype.
The clicking sound effect of choosing the one-star mouse speed is more muted in the prototype.
The clicking sound effect of choosing the two-star mouse speed is also more muted in the prototype.
The clicking sound effect of choosing the three-star mouse speed is once again more muted in the prototype.
The sound effects of cycling through the color, patterns, and stamps in the palette differ, with the retail version sounding more hollow.
The sound effect of clicking on certain icons in the bottom drawing toolbox, like the arrow or coloring books, also differs, with the retail version also sounding more hollow.
The drum-like sound effects that you hear when cycling through the various uppercase letters in the Text Stamp toolbar are lower-sounding in the prototype.
The drum-like sound effects that you hear when cycling through the various lowercase letters in the Text Stamp toolbar are also lower-sounding in the prototype.
The drum-like sound effects that you hear when cycling through the first set of Japanese characters in the Text Stamp toolbar are yet again lower-sounding in the prototype.
The drum-like sound effects that you hear when cycling through the second set of Japanese characters in the Text Stamp toolbar are once more lower-sounding in the prototype.
The drum-like sound effects that you hear when cycling through the third set of Japanese characters in the Text Stamp toolbar are, you guessed it, lower-sounding in the prototype.
The music that plays during the full screen “block eraser” is composed differently in the prototype.
When drawing a motion path in Animation Land, the sound effects are rather harsh and drawn out in the prototype.
In addition to that, the same sound effect is played when you push the clear button in the prototype. No sound effect plays in the retail version.
The sound effect that plays when choosing a 4-frame animation is different in the prototype.
The sound effect that plays when choosing a 6-frame animation is also different in the prototype.
The sound effect that plays when choosing a 9-frame animation is again different in the prototype.
The changes seem to end there, as the rest of the prototype includes the same options, menus, and features as the final retail game.
Let this be a lesson to everyone. If at first you don’t succeed, buy, buy again. You’re a real piece of work, Mario Paint. Now to find a prototype of Mario’s Time Machine to get back to losing what’s left of my fragile little mind.