Super Mario Bros. is a game that needs no introduction: It opened possibilities in game design that no one else at the time had begun to think of. It launched not only the Super Mario series, but kickstarted Nintendo’s many franchises to come. It resurrected gaming after the medium’s massive crash in the early 80s, and many of gaming’s most prolific minds cite it as an influence in their work, if not the reason they got into gaming to begin with. No game before or since has captured Super Mario Bros’ impact. Thirty years after it launched on the NES, the adventure that made Mario ‘super’ remains a benchmark in video games.
The great news for modern gamers is that Super Mario Bros. is also tremendously fun to play even today. Super Mario Bros. established the basics for the rest of the series to follow, so it may seem a bit simple when compared to its successors, but it’s impossible to deny just how much fun those basics are.
Mario can walk, run, and of course, jump. Grabbing a Super Mushroom makes Mario bigger, which makes him able to break blocks and duck, as well as providing him with added durability (he shrinks back to his starting size when struck by an enemy, instead of losing a life immediately). Grab a Fire Flower and Mario truly lives up to his “super” monicker, as throwing fireballs can make quick work of even the most bothersome enemies. Grabbing a Starman might be the biggest treat, as it grants Mario with temporary invincibility and gives players a listen to the most hypnotic eighteen notes in all of gaming.
Mario must traverse eight different worlds – each with four courses apiece – in his quest to save Princess Peach (then called “Princess Toadstool” in the west, apparently before Nintendo realized how unappealing of a name that is). The levels all follow one of four simple themes: Overworld, underground, under water, and castles. The overworld stages have a little more variety in their color schemes than the others, and tend to be easier. The castle stages cap off each world, and culminate with a showdown with the King Koopa himself, Bowser.
Some players might be surprised at how challenging Super Mario Bros. can be at times. You start the game with only three tries, you can only gain extra lives by collecting one hundred coins and finding 1-Up Mushrooms, and “continues” are not part of the equation. Coins aren’t spread quite so liberally as they are in today’s Mario, and you may find it takes a good few levels before you hear that reassuring jingle of an extra life. Similarly, 1-Up Mushrooms are considerably more rare here than they are in the likes of the New Super Mario Bros. series, and finding even one of them brings a sense of joy as if you’ve uncovered buried treasure.
An added sense of difficulty stems from Mario’s inability to backtrack in this adventure. Once all of the characters, objects and scenery are out of the screen, there’s no turning back. Even if you have the whole game memorized and know where to find a Starman or a secret shortcut, if you skip anything you’ve missed your chance and can’t do a thing about it during the same playthrough.
That’s all part of the appeal of the original Super Mario Bros. though. It feels a lot more like an arcade title than its sequels, asking players to try their best to memorize all its inner workings until they master the experience. But it’s also more adventurous than any arcade title of its time. Mario could keep moving forward while other characters were confined to a single screen. The Mushroom Kingdom was a joyous, bizarre fantasy world whereas other video game levels were simply that. In short, Super Mario Bros. was a perfect transition for gaming from the days of the arcade to the world of home consoles.
From its colorful sprites, wonderfully infectious music, and precise gameplay, it seems just about all of Super Mario Bros’ elements are both iconic and timeless. There’s little that can be said about it that hasn’t already been said.
If there is any drawback to Mario’s trailblazing NES debut it’s simply that, in retrospect, it has the inescapable comparison to its sequels. And while Super Mario Bros. remains a fantastic piece of game design, it would be a bold claim to say it’s as imaginative and deep, or even as fun, as Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. It is timeless, to be sure. But its best sequels prove that even timelessness can be improved on.
That said, if simply being “not quite as good” as the classics it inspired is Super Mario Bros’ biggest problem, then that just speaks for how well designed the game was, and how great it still is. Thirty years later, and you still can’t but help be hooked on the brothers.