Original version: Super Mario Bros., released on 1985/09/13 for Nintendo Famicom
Recommended version: Super Mario Bros., released on 1986/02/21 for Nintendo Famicom Disk System
I’m pretty sure you already heard that music in your head before playing the audio file. It is burned into all our brains! The impact that Super Mario Bros. has had on modern culture is astounding. And why shouldn’t it be? SMB defined the platformer genre and inspired generations of games. Although not the first platformer, it stands in history as the iconic grandfather of modern platformers and is the earliest memory I have from my childhood. Before I could even speak full sentences I was already defeating Bowser.
The last time we saw Nintendo, it was on the article for their 1983 arcade hit Mario Bros. Nintendo was continuing to enjoy their newfound success in the video game industry and was poised to take the console world by storm. SMB was originally conceived as a sequel to Mario Bros. and was meant to be the Nintendo Famicom’s swan song, since the Famicom Disk System was soon coming out. Funnily enough, the Disk System ended up being the shorter lived of the two. Thanks in part to the massive success of SMB, the Famicom lived on for over a decade after its original release.
SMB wasn’t the first platformer, but it set the standard. Even today, every platformer owes some of its identity to SMB. Nintendo originally labeled Famicom games with categories such as Athletic, Adventure, etc. This was one of the Action Series titles. Nintendo’s new mascot Mario left the single-screen arcade platformer to set out on a brand new adventure spanning 32 levels, all of them bigger than a single screen width, and all of them scrolling smoothly as you moved. Sure, that doesn’t sound impressive now, but it was big news back then. In 1985 there were only a few games with scrolling (chief among them Ghosts ‘n Goblins, 1984’s Pac-Land, and 1982’s Moon Patrol) but these were all arcade titles. SMB was the first to bring it to a home console.
The sheer brilliance of SMB‘s game design is astounding. It’s easy to take it for granted because the game is so well known, but the designers put a ton of work into making the game as intuitive as possible. The levels are designed to guide and teach the player without needing to show a single word. Add to that a bunch of secrets (such as hidden blocks and warp zones), a catchy soundtrack, and iconic visuals, and you have an enormous success.
Every level except the castles has an invisible midway checkpoint. The overall difficulty curve of the game is well-paced, with world 2-1 being much easier than 1-4. Every castle (1-4, 2-4, etc.) serves as a test of sorts of the player’s skill. Unfortunately, three of the castles also include a “puzzle” which can only be solved by trial and error. At least they only make up a small portion of the game. Another flaw is the occasionally repeating levels. 5-3, for example, is a copy of 1-3 but with Bullet Bills added. It’s understandable why the developers did this. They wished to test player skill by reiterating a level with a new twist. But it falls flat. These modifications are suitable for the New Game+, not for the regular game. Perhaps we can forgive them for this, too, considering that they had to design levels painstakingly on graph paper….
Despite the recycled levels, SMB contains plenty of gameplay variety. Aside from the castles, there are also water levels. Some players love them and others hate them, but the developers can be given credit for at least trying. New enemies are introduced gradually–in the water levels there are bloopers which are tricky to get past and cheep-cheeps which are easy to avoid. Later on, however, the cheep-cheeps are shown leaping into the air and they become dangerous projectiles. The Hammer Brothers are also introduced later on, giving Mario a worthy fight. Mercifully, the first time the Hammer Bros. are introduced, there’s an invincibility star right before. The stars are placed sparingly enough through levels, and last for such a short duration, that they don’t break the game’s difficulty. The buzzy beetle and Bullet Bill are fireproof, meaning that Mario can’t coast through the game with his fire flower.
Coasting is certainly not an issue in a game that requires great dexterity. Mario is difficult to control at first. He has inertia which causes him to skid to a stop, and the faster he’s moving the longer he needs to come to a stop. A new player may repeatedly slide off a ledge to his death before learning how to handle the physics. Mario walks too slowly for comfort and the game actually can’t be completed without running, which is difficult to control at first. Imagine if you needed to drive through a parking lot at 50 mph and you’ll get the idea. But once you’ve become intimately familiar with Mario’s movement, it empowers you to do many amazing things. What starts off as a hindrance becomes a strength. You can easily control the trajectory of Mario’s jump while in midair using one or more buttons, and Mario’s jump can be controlled from start to finish using the D-pad, B, A, or a combination. Such fine and versatile control was unprecedented (Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. had no such flexibility in Mario’s control), and it enabled advanced players to pull off terrific feats of speedrunning. Furthermore, most enemies have small hitboxes, allowing advanced players to keep going without a moment’s hesitation. It’s difficult to appreciate today just how revolutionary this nuanced and complex control system was.
Even with all the features that meet the eye, SMB would have been a huge hit. But what catapulted even further above the competition was its wealth of secrets. In the very first level there’s a block that’s placed so that a player who jumps too soon to make it over a bottomless pit will instead hit the block and receive a 1-up. Also in 1-1 is a pipe that the player can go down. This is common knowledge now, but was a big deal in 1985. If you touch the flagpole when the last digit of the timer is 1, 3, or 6, then a corresponding number of fireworks appear in the sky.
In world 1-2 it’s possible for a player to run on the roof above the normal play area–doing so reveals a secret warp room that allows you to skip a few worlds ahead. Nintendo predicted that adventurous players would try to “break the rules,” and rewarded them handsomely for it.But they stayed one step ahead of players. If you try the same trick in world 4-2 you’ll be disappointed to find only a single warp pipe leading to 5-1. If you wish to find the room containing three warp pipes, you’ll need to look elsewhere in the level. This clever and playful subversion of expectations on multiple layers brings a smile to my face. The player knows that they’ve been played like a violin, but they don’t feel double-crossed or exploited. It’s a mutual experience, you see. Super Mario Bros. is playing you as much as you’re playing it, and everyone is having fun.
Most secrets in the game can only be found by experimentation and secret-swapping with your friends. Some of these secrets are repeatedly lost and rediscovered. No one has ever forgotten about the warp rooms, but most players have forgotten that if you hold A and press START during a game over screen, you’ll be dropped back into the same level rather than being sent back to 1-1. Also, if you hold B and press Start on the title screen, you can start a New Game+ in which the enemies are tougher.
Speaking of enemies, you find Bowser in each castle, and in the first seven castles you drop Bowser into the lava only to see him in the next castle as if nothing happened. Well, if you hit any of the first seven Bowsers with your fire flower enough times, the Bowser will die and reveal that it was just a goon in disguise. This was certainly a nice touch that explained the apparent plot hole.
And on some occasions secrets can mess with your head. The player quickly learns that small Mario can’t break bricks but Super Mario can. In the picture below the player faces a dilemma. If this is just a normal brick then jumping into it will break it, making the brick walkway above inaccessible. But if it does contain a goody then you’re missing out by not hitting it. It’s a gamble, and this moment is almost a mini-game of its own.
Players enjoyed this as much as I do, apparently, because SMB was a smash hit.
SMB was so successful that it actually helped to revitalize the video game industry in North America. America, as you may recall, was in the midst of the Video Game Crash of 1983. Although there were a few arcade and home computer successes, the industry by and large was comatose. It took some creative thinking and amazing games to revive it. Nintendo of America’s senior vice president Howard Lincoln (who previously defended Nintendo in their Donkey Kong lawsuit), along with Arakawa Minoru, the founder and president of Nintendo of America, came up with a plan to make video games palatable to the American market once again. Their plan was simple but effective:
- Change the name of the Famicom (abbreviation of ‘Family Computer’) to “Nintendo Entertainment System.” For marketing purposes, it couldn’t be a video game system–it had to be an entertainment system. The console was redesigned to feel like a VCR and look like a big, grey box of technology.
From happy and family friendly to “I’ll kick your butt,” the NES redesign made the console much larger so that it seemed powerful, mature, and not at all like a video game console. The simple top-loading cartridge slot was moved to the front and given a loading tray that made inserting a cartridge feel like inserting a VHS tape into a VCR. From the very first commercial, the NES was made to feel like an experience, a journey into a world where you’re playing with power.
And indeed, within a year NoA adopted the tagline, “Now you’re playing with power!”
Welcome to the ’80s.
They used this tagline for several years, changing it to “portable power” for the Game Boy and “SUPER power” for the Super NES. The additions such as R.O.B. and the NES zapper were just gimmicks for the most part. They were heavily advertised at the start so that the NES seemed like a versatile system and not-a-video-game. The addition of R.O.B. was a huge help in inspiring confidence in retailers. Of course, Nintendo’s no-risk guarantees didn’t hurt. For their test run in New York City, Nintendo told retailers that they would pay Nintendo nothing up-front, and that Nintendo would handle all store setup and marketing costs, and would accept returns on any unsold units. Retailers agreed to these generous terms. An aggressive marketing campaign that included everything from demos in shopping malls, to telemarketing and a special Nintendo “swat team.”
By the time the NES was available nationwide the following December, R.O.B. and the light gun were no longer needed. A stripped-down version that included only the game deck and two controllers was available for purchase.
Next in the plan:
- The box art for every game had to feature actual graphics from the game. No more deceptive fanciful depictions; what you see is what you get.
When you looked at the box art for an Atari 2600 game, you saw this:
When you played the game, however, you saw this:
Understandably, customers were aggravated at the blatant deception. Obviously no one believed the game graphics actually looked like the box art, but when they were that different, it was a bit over the line. When you looked at NES box art, you saw these:
There were actual game sprites–embellished a little by the artist, but always within reason. The cover also displayed the Official Nintendo Seal so that the customer was certain it passed quality control. And as previously mentioned, the lower-left hand corner told you which category it belonged in so that you couldn’t inadvertently buy a game in a genre you disliked.
With the exception of the Nintendo Seal, these rules applied only to first-party games. Third-party developers did pretty much whatever they wanted…
…but by then, the NES was already a hit with American consumers. And the biggest hit, of course, was Super Mario Bros. itself. SMB went on to sell over 40 Million copies, not including the various ports and the Virtual Console re-release. This made SMB the best-selling game of all time until finally being dethroned by Tetris in 1989.
Super Mario Bros. received a graphical overhaul in the SNES collection Super Mario All-Stars. I personally prefer the original version but I cannot deny that the update is objectively better because of the enhanced graphics and sound. There is no enhanced gameplay, but this version does include continues and saves, as well as additional features. Here’s me running through 1-1.
An electronic copy of SMB can be purchased for the Wii U. A physical copy can be found here. The Famicom Disk System version is exceedingly difficult to find and the disk itself has likely deteriorated by now, making it unplayable. But if you own a copy you can download a backup rom here and play it with FCEUX. (mirror) A physical copy of Super Mario All-Stars can be purchased here. If you own a copy you can download a backup rom here and run it with bsnes (mirror) or snes9x. (mirror)
<< 1984 video game notes Hang-On >>