Nintendo for NES – Action – 1985 – Rating: 10/10
There once was a time, from 1985-1990, where you could easily argue that Super Mario Brothers was the greatest videogame ever made. Even today, one could make the case for this game, or certainly one of its later sequels like Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World or Super Mario 64. Whichever one you choose, the end result is the same: we’ve been living in Mario’s world for over 30 years.
There were 2D action games before Super Mario: the 1979 arcade title, Apple Panic, which spawned a whole host of imitators, from Minor 2049er to Lode Runner; David Crane’s Pitfall and its even more ambitious sequel, Pitfall 2, often called the father of the genre; Montezuma’s Revenge, which hit on the Atari 800 and spread everywhere; Namco’s Pac-Land, which ditched the classic Pac-Man mazes for a cartoon side-scrolling world; Coleco’s Smurf Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle, the standout title on Colecovision. Heck, I even remember a little game on the Atari 800 called Snokie, a side-scrolling title where you run-and-jump over rocks, ledges, moving iceberg platforms, and dodging falling ice.
The genre of videogames that came to called platformers was still in its infancy. Super Mario didn’t invent it. But they did raise it to the next level. They took the basic elements, added several crucial innovations, and transformed it into something revolutionary. It’s very much the videogame equivalent to Miles Davis’ 1970 masterpiece Bitches Brew, which ushered in the age of jazz fusion, or The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which ushered in the modern rock era.
Super Mario Brothers closed the door on the “golden age” of arcade videogames, the age of single-screen high score contests and simple Atari cartridges, and opened the door to a new age of epic journeys. Arcade videogames were now literally, with a definitive goal, a definitive beginning and end. Yes, Mario, your Princess is in another castle, but unlike the girl in Donkey Kong, this time you’ll actually get her back. And, yeah, she’s kinda jerking you around with Bowser, but that’s an issue for another time.
There’s really two worlds at play in Super Mario Bros. The first is the normal world, the levels and worlds laid out before you. These are the platforms and precarious jumps, the giant mushrooms and underground caverns, the Koopas and Goombas and piranha plants, the castles and the showdowns with Bowser. Here, Nintendo delivers eight worlds of tightly structured platforming action. These are the arcade obstacle courses designed to frustrate you, stomp you flat. The Hammer Brothers can be especially tough if they come at you from the right angle, and that guy who rides a cloud and drops spikey-headed animals at you? That guy’s a jerk.
Then there is the unseen world, the world of secrets. Here are the invisible bonus blocks, hidden coin boxes, the green vines that carry you to the clouds. The warp rooms are the best, sometimes requiring Mario and Luigi to literally escape the confines of the videogame playfield, hop on top of the score display, and run to the secret screen off the page.
This is where Nintendo’s genius lies. It’s no stretch to say that children played for months and years just trying to find all the secrets. Often that meant slowing down and punching every single block in sight, hoping to find another coin box or 1-up, or hidden coin room. It’s entirely possible that there are one or two surprises that have never been uncovered. Don’t be so sure that all those maps online are accurate. There’s always something new to find in Mario’s world.
It’s all about exploring and discovering new surprises around every corner. It’s genius because it inspires your imagination, but also because it’s completely at odds with the arcade gameplay. Your timer is running out. Do you rush to the exit, or do you stick around a little longer and hunt for coins? This duality became a Nintendo trademark, and quickly found its way into nearly every videogame. “Easter eggs” once referred to hidden signatures in Atari 2600 games; now that definition has greatly expanded. And players began to demand these surprises as standard. “Konami Code,” anyone?
At the end of the day, what matters most is that Super Mario Bros. plays brilliantly. Its level design is tight and honed to perfection. It is built perfectly for speed runs, while offering all those secrets to keep you lingering around. The challenge is fairly high, owing to its arcade roots. The later worlds can be pretty demanding. Today’s younger players, accustomed to the newer, and considerably easier, Mario games, might be in for a surprise. Later sequels would perfect the formula, adding greater variety to the different worlds, more and different kinds of secrets, gameplay innovations great and small. But it’s all built upon that original 1985 foundation, one that, in terms of pure arcade gameplay, has never been surpassed.
I probably shouldn’t have to point out that Super Mario Brothers almost single-handedly made the NES a runaway hit and salvaged the US videogame industry, which almost completely melted down in 1983 and 1984. Everybody knows that story by now. Suffice it to say, if there was no Super Mario, we’d still be playing on Commodore computers.