Finally Wandering to the Right

Super Mario Bros.

When you compare 1985's Super Mario Bros. to the games that came before in its series -- Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Wrecking Crew -- the game feels like a revolution in comparison to those titles. The basic elements of Super Mario Bros. certainly resides in those titles -- the hero, the running, the jumping, and weird enemies -- but the NES title (which also appeared in Arcades in some forms) takes those bits and pieces and crafts something practically unseen before 1985.

That's not to say there weren't platforming games before Super Mario Bros.; there were, and not just the previous titles we mentioned from Nintendo. We could highlight other games -- Pitfall from Activision, Pac-Land from Namco, Track Attack from Broderbund -- but the magic of Super Mario Bros. is how to effortlessly synthesizes all that came before into an adventure that's so easy to pick up and play. The controls don't take effort to understand, the game play is smooth, and the goal is obvious and easy to grasp for anyone. It's just a seamless, wholly complete game that changed the way platforming games would operate going forward.

For those that haven't played any Mario game ever, although most specifically the first one, Super Mario Bros., the game is a platformer. Mario, our hero (who remains, to this day, a plumber even though he hasn't done any plumbing since the original Mario Bros.), travels from left to right across the screen, running, jumping, and hopping on enemies all so he can reach the end of each stage of the 32 in the game (eight worlds, four in each world), grab the flagpole at the end (or, for the boss stages at the end of each world, kill Bowser) and move on to the next stage. Even without the game giving you any kind of goal to reach, it's easy to see what you're supposed to do, how you do things, and how you're supposed to complete the game.

There's something special about a Nintendo game, which is exemplified here in Super Mario Bros. The game essentially teaches you how to play it without ever holding your hands. The early stages of the game give you the lessons without being obvious. When you start the game you press buttons and you'll see Mario jump. Press and hold the B button and Mario will run. Jump under question blocks and Mario will get a prize. If you find a mushroom, Mario gets big and then, if you jump under normal bricks, they'll break. You'll see enemies and if you happen to land on one you'll squish it. You'll see tall, standing pipes and sometimes plants will go up and down in them; this might clue you in to try and press down on a pipe and go down into a secret area. Everything just comes naturally without you even realizing it.

It's a simple brilliance to the game, that it teaches you and guides you but let's you experiment how to get through it. While the stages are all simple, you can take your own path to get through them. GO fast, go slow, find secrets, avoid enemies, do what you want. The only goal in each stage is to get to the end so you can skip around and do what you want without worrying that you've missed a goal or failed to grab a collectible. The game lets you do what you want and it's absolutely freeing.

Compare that to Donkey Kong or Mario Bros.. In those games there's a clear-cut goal but you essentially have only one path to take, on goal to reach, and you're forced to do it, more or less, the way the game intends. Experimentation is low in those games, it's all rote skill and memorizing patterns. Super Mario Bros. breaks that mold and it changes all expectations about how a game of this nature "should" be played.

But it's not just in breaking the goal that Super Mario Bros. changes everything. This game also has some of the most refined controls of any classic platformer in the era. In most games before Mario, your jumps were locked in. When you jumped you had a single arc (or, if you were lucky, two arcs) a character would perform and you were locked into it. Miss aim the jump and it wouldn't matter, you were committed. While it's not entirely realistic, Super Mario Bros. lets you tweak and twist and bend your arcs in mid-air, letting you refine any jump and control your landing. Mario is all about his jumps, and this game lets you refine them as much as possible.

Mario controls so tightly that when you die it's your fault, not the game. Yes, as a little kid you probably bitched at the later stages of the game because "the computer cheated", but Super Mario Bros. is incredibly consistent. There's very little RNG, with fixed enemy positions and levels that are laid out the same way every time. Practice enough and you'll see the same situations, the same things, the same patterns every time you play a level. This wasn't a game that was designed to beat you, it was meant for you to learn it, gain the knowledge you needed, and then break it wide open as you ran along. In short, this was a game designed for home consoles that moved completely away from the arcade, quarter-munching experience.

Super Mario Bros. is incredibly freeing. It was revelatory when it came out (as someone that used to play games on the Atari 2600 back in the day, I can attest that this game felt like nothing I'd seen before). While it looks dated and chunky now, it was a breath for fresh air in comparison to the primitive games on the Atari, and while the Intellivision and ColecoVision provided more detailed graphics even they couldn't compare to the graphics on display here. Super Mario Bros. looked and felt like an arcade game of the era without the difficulty and punishing experience that would bring along, and it was in your home. This was the new age of video gaming, ushered in by Nintendo, and it promised a future that wouldn't be the same.

Nintendo would revisit this game over the years. The most obvious example is with the first sequel: Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan, aka Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels in the U.S. This was a more difficult version of the original game with new levels, new challenges, and the difficulty cranked up to 11 (we'll chat about this game in more detail next time). It wasn't brought over to the U.S. initially because Nintendo of America thought players here would want a more detailed, slightly easier, and much more varied experience than the original sequel would provide.

But, if you played in Arcades, you got to see some of what the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 had to offer in the form of Vs. Super Mario Bros. This arcade game was a "hard mode" version of the original Super Mario Bros., with some changes made to stages to make them harder, some tricks removed, and in some cases entire stages changed to new, harder stages to challenge the player further. This included six entirely new stages that were later reused in The Lost Levels.

There was also All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. which, again, reused elements of The Lost Levels, including giving Luigi "new" jump physics (similar to his controls in The Lost Levels, a cribbing some stages from that sequel. And, of course, there was Super Mario All-Stars, the SNES remake of the first four (counting The Lost Levels) games in the series. We'll also discuss that version of the game later, but it was a fantastic remake with lush graphics to accent the classic game play