Mario Bros. – NES
Release Date: July 14th, 1983
Rating: 7 out of 10
Although Mario made his first official appearance in Donkey Kong as “Jumpman,” Mario Bros. properly introduces the timeless video game legend himself along with his brother, Luigi. We also see Mario’s occupation changed from carpenter to plumber, to account for the subterranean setting. The premise behind Mario Bros. is that Mario and Luigi have gone down to the sewers of New York City to battle all these strange creatures, hence the pipes. This title would see far less success than Super Mario Bros., primarily due to the video game crash of 1983 that plagued North America. In fact, many casual Mario fans are altogether unaware of Mario Bros. The game fared much better in Japan, however, and remains as an arcade classic alongside the likes of Pac-Man, Joust, Space Invaders, and Centipede.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that the original Mario Bros. is different than the versions inserted into countless other Mario titles as mini-games. The basic concept has been duplicated various times, but not always is it a perfect translation. Most people will associate these screenshots with the simple versus game in Super Mario Bros. 3 which is played when one of the two players in a 2 player game attempts to enter a level that the other has already completed. This version (again, one of many) introduces powerups and spinys to the mix, neither of which were present in the original title. The image to the right IS NOT from Mario Bros. It is the versus mini-game found in SMB 3.
Gameplay is simple. Each level (called a “phase”) consists of platforms at varying heights, with two pipes at both the top and bottom, one on the left, the other on the right. Enemies come out of these pipes, work their way down the platforms, enter the pipes at the bottom, and then reemerge from the top. Mario must defeat all enemies to progress by jumping up and bumping the platform under the adversary. Once the foe is flipped over and immobilized, Mario can then “kick” the creature off screen by running into it. Both enemies and Mario can “loop” around the playing area, for instance if Mario walks off screen on the left side, he will reappear at the same height on the right side. This mechanism can be used to great advantage as long as one keeps in mind that enemies will loop around the screen as well. If nothing else, it prevents the player from ever being technically cornered, a problem often encountered on these fixed screen types of games.
For each enemy defeated, a coin is released from one of the upper pipes and continues its path down screen until it goes into a bottom pipe, never to be seen again. Although not required, Mario can collect these coins by either running into them or bumping them from below. While there is no need for currency in Mario Bros., coins are worth points. After reaching the first 20,000 points, the character is granted an extra life. I do not know how or if further extra lives are available, but they are not awarded for each additional 20,000 points. Besides combat phases, bonus phases are scattered around giving the character a chance to earn more points. Bonus stages are filled with 10 coins and a short time limit. If Mario collects all 10 coins in the allotted time, a large number of points are received.
To increase the difficulty, different enemies are introduced with unique abilities. Turtles can be flipped over with one bump, while crabs take two. The first bump of a crab makes it faster, and is necessary before administrating the incapacitating blow. Flies also require only one bump, but they spend some of their time in the air, so jumps must be timed carefully. Various other obstacles are present, such as the green and red fireballs appearing out of thin air, and the icicle-ish things that come forth from the pipes and eventually freeze certain platforms if not disposed of quickly. If an enemy is flipped but not destroyed in a certain amount of time, the foe returns to its upright and mobile position, only faster than before. Usually, the final enemy in a given phase speeds up considerably, and in the case of some baddies like the crabs, can actually gain a bit of intelligence. While foes generally descend the platforms in one direction unless interupted, the hyper-crabs will occasionally change direction at will in order to chase Mario!
A last resort exists in the form of a “POW” box located in the center of the bottom platform, and when hit from below it does damage equivalent to one bump to all applicable enemies. Unfortunately it can only be used 3 times, after which it disappears forever. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no way to replace or replenish the POW feature. It can be easy to accidentally trigger when dodging enemies on the lowermost platform and when rushing to get coins in bonus phases, so be careful!
The two-player co-op mode is a great way to play through the seemingly endless phases of Mario Bros. Although at first I was wary of having yet another moving object on the screen, the second player turns out to be a valued asset. In many instances attacks can be coordinated where one player hits the enemies from below while the other player kicks them away. Bonus levels are much, much easier; even though each player only gets points for the coins they collected, the bonus for getting a perfect score is split between the two. With the screen’s looping feature, cornering each other isn’t an issue since there are no vertical walls to trap a player against. Even with an inexperienced player at the helm, one will almost assuredly progress further in 2 player mode than alone.
While Mario Bros. is far more important from a historical standpoint than it is renowned for its gameplay, it’s still fun and addictive, with an appropriate difficulty gradient throughout the phases. Controls are a little more responsive than I would’ve guessed after playing Mario Bros.-e, though Mario still cannot jump left or right from a standing start. Since the platforms are meant to be bumped from underneath, this means that Mario cannot move to high platforms with a straight upwards jump. Instead, he has to be running when A is pressed to jump, qualifying the move as more of a leap. This can take some getting used to and lead to a loss of precision, but for the most party Mario is able to jump high enough to clear the platform if A is pressed too early, but if pressed too late he’ll bump his head.
The graphics won’t impress anyone 30 years later, but if one starts digging into similar games from the time period, Mario Bros. looks quite colorful in comparison. The enemies are fairly well detailed with clear and recognizable sprites and colors denoting how rapidly the foe is moving, and how many hits have been inflicted. We don’t yet have the instantly identifiable catchy chip tunes of future Mario games, though if you listen carefully you can hear bits of remixed background music from Mario Bros. in subsequent titles. While not particularly memorable, the sound is unobtrusive enough not to become annoying as it does in many so-called “arcade classics.”
For the modern gamer, there may not be much of reason to hunt this title down. It’s lack of popularity in 1983 has caused it to be mildly scarce today, and unlike much of the old NES library, this is title that fetches a solid $20 for a used cartridge in good condition with no box, book, or even dust cover. Mario Bros. is one of the earliest examples of a platformer, and that should count for something even if it’s barely recognizable as such today. All in all it’s one of the stronger games from the early 1980’s, and when placed next to similar games like Frogger and Joust, its strengths are obvious. Certainly it is repetitive as nearly all earlier games are, but it is a hell of a lot more fun and a lot less monotonous than many of its brethren. Mario Bros. hasn’t exactly aged as gracefully as its ancestors Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3, however, the challenge involved and simple gameplay should be enough to entertain any astute gamers out there.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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