Super Mario Bros. – NES
Release Date (NA): 1985 (Actual date undetermined.)
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Reviewed by The Cubist
What better way to celebrate the impending release of Super Mario 3D World than taking some time to cover the classic itself? Super Mario Bros. may not be where the story of Mario begins, but it is without a doubt the beginning of Mario’s illustrious career as the Prince of Platforming, the Monarch of Mushrooms, the Sultan of Squash, the Lord of Leaping. For many of us in our late 20’s to early 30’s, this was the first video game we ever played, or at least the first video game we ever owned. Nothing can ever quite replace those infantile notions of accomplishment and progress for those of us who embarked on Mario’s first serious journey through the Mushroom Kingdom. Indeed we all have our own fond memories of Super Mario Bros. so I don’t intend to waste your time with mine. For a few minutes, let’s look at the game objectively and uncover what was so groundbreaking about one of (if not the most) well known video game ever.
SMB pretty much set the standard for jumping on the heads of enemies, a trend that’s still popular today in certain genres. While it makes absolutely no sense in the real world, there is a sort of video game logic to squashing foes underfoot that is rooted in us all. I don’t know the entire history of gaming well enough to say whether or not this was the first game that used such gameplay but I think it’s safe to say it was the most popular. Platformers in general weren’t very well defined at the time with most games taking place on a fixed screen or a steady side-scroll where the player controlled a vehicle. SMB introduced the world to a very novel concept of systematically overcoming obstacles before reaching a stopping point (the flagpole). It retains the idea of levels getting progressively harder, but instead of other games where enemies were simply faster or more numerous, SMB had very different looking stages that played off of different strengths and weaknesses such as jumping, swimming, and at times a little bit of exploration and problem solving.
Having so many unique gameplay elements is really what makes SMB shine and what encouraged future developers to add more substance and variety to their own games. No longer is the player forced to endlessly hone a skill based on speed; instead, there’s a fairly large degree of freedom when it comes to deciding when to stop, whether to go over or under a block, to kill or avoid an enemy, to search blocks for powerups, etc. It’s one of the first games where the player could make choices beyond the “die” or “don’t die” dichotomy of previous video games. And since the levels don’t endlessly repeat there’s a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Although SMB includes points, it’s hardly a focal point of the game. For one of the first times, the player is presented with an opportunity to reach the end of the story rather than rack up points as the game approaches infinite difficulty. SMB has a beginning and an end.
We now take so much of this for granted that you’re probably feeling like I wasted your time on the above details, but pick up a game from 1983 or before. Any game, any system. No, they are not all 100% devoid of everything I’ve already mentioned, but you will quickly notice patterns that make these games irritating and quite often just plain boring. SMB is what rescued us from this monotony and showed the world just how much potential video games could have. Before SMB’s North American release, the entire industry was on the verge of collapse.
Known as “The Video Game Crash of 1983,” many consumers saw the technology as a passing fad. In may ways they were right; nearly every electronics and toy company attempted to cash in on the craze somehow. With so many companies fighting for a piece of the pie, they used low costs to appeal to consumers, and they were able to charge such low prices due to cutting corners wherever possible. One of the quickest and easiest ways to raise profits and lower costs was to churn out poorly made games as fast as possible. Everybody was trying to copy everybody else and it soon came to a point where consumers could no longer trust the quality of what was on the shelves, and so almost overnight the industry tanked. That’s not to say there were no good games back then or that there isn’t any absolute crap out there today, but the problem of developers not even trying to produce a good game, merely a cost effective one, is almost non-existent presently.
Video games were still thriving in Japan, and Nintendo was eager to cash in on America. Of course there’s a lot of licensing stuff that Nintendo set up to ensure quality (much of which still exists today in some form or another) but the single thing that tipped the scales in the eyes of the public was how wildly different SMB was than the multitudes of mediocre puzzle games and assortment of lackluster shooters.
Another great feature that Mario gained (and retains) is his excellent jumping ability. Even from the get-go Nintendo made damn sure that precision came first. Similar games would stay years behind Mario when it came to jumping, and if you ask me, no one else has gotten it exactly right since then. Several nonsensical quirks would go on to become mainstays of popular culture; the mushrooms, flagpole, goombas, Bowser, and the term “1-up” just to name a few.
For what appears to be a straightforward game superficially, Nintendo did a decent job of peppering in a few little secrets, namely the warp zones. Again, SMB almost single-handedly set the precedent for hidden areas and skipping large sections of the game.
The graphics haven’t aged particularly well, but they do have a beauty that you’ll be hard pressed to find in anything that came before. No longer do we have a void; SMB gives us some context to work with such as the forest, underground, or the stunning snow-covered trees in World 6-3. The castles (or dungeons as I’ve always called them) are tremendously inventive and unforgettable, especially in the final stretch leading to Bowser in 8-4. Nintendo also did their best to add to the replay factor by having goomba’s replaced by buzzy beetles after finishing the game and letting the player select which world to begin anew at.
If by chance people should forget about the finer details of this game, there’s one element that will forever persist both within gaming culture and society as a whole: the music. Known the world over, SMB introduces us to the most well known piece of video game music in history along with recognizable themes for underground, underwater, and castle levels. Beyond the music, most of the sound effects are instantly recognizable like picking up a coin, jumping, grabbing the flagpole, entering a pipe, and of course, the short melody played when Mario loses a life.
Is Super Mario Bros. the best video game of all time? No. It’s not even the best Mario game of all time as far as I’m concerned, but it is without question one of the most important of all time. Without it, we may have seen video games go in an entirely different direction. Its faults are minor and likely the result of my own bias towards other early NES titles that I like better, but it should always be regarded as a turning point in the development in games. And unlike other games that have gained recognition for their innovation only in retrospect, SMB has stayed near the top of the list of best selling video games ever since its release. While it pales in comparison to the depth and complexity of other games that would come along less than 5 years later its influence is unmistakable. Super Mario Bros. may not be the best, but it certainly was the first.
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