No one has actually asked this, but someone may be wondering. Why, in the five years of this site, have I not reviewed Super Mario Brothers? It’s the seminal title in the minds of many, it defined the NES, it almost single-handedly created the platforming genre, it pulled Nintendo out of the crash of ’83, and rose “Jumpman” from a simple character to a mascot that has endured for decades. So why not talk about this recognized classic? I could say that I didn’t see the point in writing yet another review about Super Mario, and that would be partially true. Ultimately, the real reason was that I was too intimidated. I mean, this is a game loved by people who don’t even love games. This is a game that damn near anyone can play and enjoy. On top of that, this is a game that started so many people’s gaming careers. How can you write anything more than a tribute?
Let me put this another way. My father has only played three videogames in his life, and this was one of them. He has only played three because when he wanted to play a videogame, neither he nor the heavens would rest until he completed that game. The man is harder-core than I am, and I run a damn website about old games! He finally burned out and swore off videogames altogether, but not before kicking me off the TV every weekend for about two months while he tried to finish Mario. It had no save feature, so he’d even play the asshole card and leave the console on during the day with the instructions “do NOT touch that, because I’m going to beat that game when I get back from work.” Yeah. Sure Dad. I’m sure you’ll get Bowser this time.
It’s important to remember the game situation at the time. The arcades were still wonder zones of creativity and graphics, but the home systems were at least five years behind. Sure, the ColecoVision had color, and a little more pizzazz than the fat lines of the two Ataris. It even had Donkey Kong. It even had side scrolling in the form of Cosmic Avenger. But nobody had what Super Mario was about to unleash, and Nintendo knew it.
You can tell by the opening screen, which starts like a very standard, static, one or two player select menu. But just at the moment when you stop paying attention, little Mario starts running for the edge of the screen and keeps going. He’s off to the races, through the bright and colorful countryside of the Mushroom Kingdom. I remember heads literally doing double takes at this, and a friend who started looking down at the controller, caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, and snapped his head up to watch, open-mouthed, for a full two minutes before I reminded him he could play it himself. Indeed, as soon as you press Start, you’re bashing bricks and leaping through the clouds as Mario on a journey to rescue the beleaguered Princess Toadstool.
I’m not certain what was so special about the game back then. Maybe it was the freedom it seemed to offer – this concept of a world that stretched on forever, with something new waiting just on the right edge of the screen. The scrolling screens made the game universe seem giant in comparison to the single screen maze of Pac-Man, or the little patch of Earth you defend in Missile Command. It really was the first time I remember the game “playfield” seeming like an actual world.
And it was FUN. You start off with piddly little Mario, thinking that’s going to be the entire game. But after your first mushroom, you see that (probably intentionally) undersized Mario can turn into a Mario three times his size and can literally smash the level apart. That was power, and level deformation was a fairly unique concept for the time. You could smash out your own paths, and discover plenty of secrets by doing so. Once again, players never really stayed inside a “world” during a game before, so secrets and Easter eggs like that were another new concept. Timing you though the level was another challenge, and with a second player as Luigi, some genuinely exciting competition was created. And I don’t know why, but the little 5000 point flag jump challenge at the end was just a final piece of brilliance – a cherry on the top of a delicious dessert made of pure joy.
I’m aware that I’m making the game sound like it was crafted out of pixy giggles and sunshine, and that’s probably nostalgia taking over. There were, as with any game, some unpleasant things about it. For one, the world was so huge and the later-level enemies so tough, that playing the game through in one sitting became improbable. The semi-secret Warp Zones helped with this, but it was still tough going. Enemies started off as the mushroom Goombas, who would be easily and stylishly dispatched with a flippant kick of a Koopa shell.
But they quickly graduated to the spiky turtles you couldn’t jump on, and that cloud-flyin’ motherfucker who would drop them on you, while gigantor bullets fired at you out of cannons. There were the black beetles who were immune to the previously unquestioned power of your fire flower. There were the levels where you had to time your jump to hop on and off of the flying Koopas lest ye fall into a bottomless pit. Maybe it was just me, but the Hammer Bros. always caused me trouble. Those spinning flame sticks that always decorated Bowser’s lair were particularly nasty as well. And Bowser himself could be a real turd – though hitting the axe and watching the bridge collapse under him kept getting funnier every time I saw it.
I’ve already covered the graphics, but they bear repeating. Their bright colors not only made the game inviting, but also made everything within it clear and understandable. To this day, I do not know what the hell is going on in Yar’s Revenge, but in Mario, a cloud looks like a cloud, and a pipe looks like a pipe. It wasn’t quite Saturday Morning come to life, but the cartoonish drawings gave the game a unique personality and visual splendor. The graphics also probably did more for games then we’ll ever really know. I suspect they both disarmed parents who were wary of buying the system for their children, and simultaneously set the expectation that videogames were for kids – something that would haunt the industry decades later. Still, they make an interesting point that you don’t need to have dark and serious visuals to make an enjoyable game, nor do you need multi-million dollar 3-D engines to keep players captivated.
What can I say about the sound? When John Williams leads the Boston Pops in a perfect orchestral rendition of your themes, you need not question if you’ve made a classic. I don’t know how he made them so recognizable out of such simple pieces of sound, but Koji Kondo needs a medal. At the very least some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award, because he kicked ass here, and kept right on kicking ass with excellent, memorable pieces for generations of future Nintendo classics. Mario’s themes get inside your brain, and unlike most others, you welcome them in with a cup of hot cocoa. The water level theme is being whistled by me as I type this, and I haven’t even played the game all day.
Controlling the game was a masterpiece of simplicity, and set up the standard that platform games would live and die by for years to come – one button to jump, one button to attack. Gliding to new platforms was an effortless task, as was running to leap for a batch of coins, as was timing jumps from Goomba head to Goomba head for your point multiplier. Really, any fault of the controls came down to a fault in your timing, which is all you can ever really ask for.
So if Super Mario is so great, why isn’t everyone playing it today? Sure, it’s been outclassed – even by itself. Super Mario 2 is a little more visually charming, and Super Mario 3 is closer to reaching up and shaking the hand of God, but the original still remains a blast. It’s inviting, it’s challenging, it’s simple enough for anyone to play, and it’s fun for just about anyone. Even if you can’t get the timing down and can’t muster the desire to play to the end, you don’t walk away feeling cheated. It’s not a model for all games, and it’s not a shining example of what videogames are all about – but it’s a perfect example of what they can be.
Nintendo’s classic that proved consoles had more potential than purveyors of quarterless arcade ports.
Long-ish game with no saves or passwords, and some tough jumps and timing in store toward the end.