SUPER MARIO BROS.
RELEASE DATE: 09/13/1985 (JP), 10/1985? (US), 05/15/1987 (EU)
ALSO ON: Arcade (as Vs. Super Mario Bros), Game and Watch, Famicom Disk System, Game Boy Advance, Virtual Console (Wii, 3DS, Wii U), Nintendo Switch Online
DIFFERENT VERSIONS: Super Mario Bros. Special (NEC PC-8801, Sharp X1, 1986), All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. (Famicom Disk System, 1986), Super Mario 25 (Wii – Japan-only, 2010), Super Luigi Bros. (Wii U, 2014)
REMAKES: Super Mario All-Stars (SNES, 1993), Super Mario Bros. Deluxe (GBC, 1999)
Super Mario Bros. is 35 years old. That’s weird to think about, weird to type out.
35 isn’t a common anniversary number among video games or any piece of art, really. I can’t remember the last time I saw the 35th anniversary of a book, film or album. But as per usual, Nintendo does their own thing. The company celebrates Super Mario Bros.‘ birthday every five years, and con sarn it, they’re going to keep celebrating, even as the earth erupts into literal flames.
Not pictured: the world in shambles.
Let’s recap: in 2005, for the 20th anniversary, Nintendo launched a special Game Boy Micro with Famicom colors, and re-released the Super Mario Bros. GBA cart. Nothing too fancy there (although that Game Boy Micro is sublime). In 2010, for the 25th anniversary, we got the Super Mario All-Stars SNES ROM slapped onto a Wii disc. Swing and a miss! In 2015, for year 30, we got Super Mario Maker for the Wii U, a true surprise game that felt like the ultimate culmination of the Mario franchise. Finally, we could make our own Mario games and share them with others!
Truly a breath of fresh air.
In 2020, we’re getting a lot! Way more than the previous anniversaries. Super Mario Bros. Game and Watch (Limited Edition, of course), the battle royale Super Mario 35, overpriced Lego Mario sets, Super Mario 3D All-Stars, different events in Splatoon 2, Animal Crossing, and other first-party Nintendo games. You’d think with each passing anniversary Nintendo would ease up, but there’s nostalgia to exploit and profit to be had.
Lego Mario’s got that front butt.
All of this to celebrate the game that made Nintendo the company they are today. This is not hyperbole. Without Super Mario Bros., Nintendo would not be Nintendo. Who would be their mascot? Excitebike Racer? Balloon Fight Guy? I don’t think so. Most importantly, Super Mario Bros. cemented console games into the Western collective consciousness and made Nintendo into the incredibly successful fun machine it is today.
If you look at Nintendo’s progression as game developers in the early 1980s, Super Mario Bros. does not seem like an inevitability. Like all game developers in this period, Nintendo designed games for the arcade. These games – Donkey Kong, Popeye, Mario Bros. – focused on beating high scores rather than getting to the “end.” Indeed, arcade games had no end. Many of them only had a handful of unique levels before they’d eventually repeat, often with greater difficulty.
Donkey Kong Jr.’s existential crisis.
Even as you get deeper into Nintendo’s Famicom lineup pre-Super Mario Bros., most of their early titles – Excitebike, Wrecking Crew, Ice Climber, Balloon Fight – are games that wouldn’t seem out of place in an mid-1980s arcade. Eventually, many of these titles found their way to an arcade, either through a stand-alone Vs. cabinet or a PlayChoice-10 cabinet.
Dual monitors before they were cool.
On September 13th, 1985, Super Mario Bros. comes out of nowhere and literally changes everything. No more one-screen levels. The screen scrolls smoothly with the action. Mario runs, jumps, and soars from left to right with outstanding control and surprising grace. There aren’t just a handful of levels that repeat over and over again. There are thirty-two separate, distinct levels. Yes, many of these levels reuse the same assets, but no two levels are designed exactly the same.
An invitation to a new dimension.
Playing Super Mario Bros. feels like freedom. Because each level isn’t restricted to one screen, Nintendo could space out their design elements so they’re not on top of each other. You notice this immediately in World 1-1. Pipes are spaced out evenly. Enemies aren’t all clustered together. If Mario wants to, he can run and leap over enemies, blocks, pipes, etc. Want to run on the bricks at the top of the level? You can do it! Want to smash every brick, collect every coin, kill every enemy? Go for it! Want to avoid everything? That’s your prerogative.
Want to stare at a mushroom? You wouldn’t be the first!
SMB has several different types of levels, including: above ground, underground, underwater, the treetops, castles. There are bizarre one-off levels, like 4-3 which places you atop a mushroom forest. Level 6-3 paints everything completely white for some reason. Seriously, is all this white supposed to be snow? Ash? I’ve never figured this out. Levels 2-3 and 7-3 place floating bridges across the sky and launch Cheep-Cheeps into the air, while Mario runs for his life. The sheer variety of level design was simply unparalleled in 1985.
Silly Mario! You can’t eat mushroom trees!
Thirty-two levels. Unique level design. Large scrolling screens. Freedom to progress how you want. Mario runs and jumps like a true OG. If that’s all Super Mario Bros. provided to the world, it would be enough to call it a classic. But oh no! SMB innovates on absolutely every level.
Comin’ for you, Piranha Plant!
Power-ups? Yeah, Mario’s got ’em on lock. We all know what they do: the mushroom makes him grow, the fire flower provides fiery long range projectiles, and the golden star briefly turns him invisible. Power-ups are commonplace and expected now. In 1985, few games included elements that enhanced the main protagonist’s abilities.
The amount of pixels present indicate that this is a highly hallucinogenic fungus.
Music and sound play a crucial role here, as well. The main overworld theme is so ubiquitous and timeless that even people who don’t play video games know what it sounds like. The underworld, underwater, and castle themes aren’t as memorable, but their limited melodies perfectly convey their respective landscapes. The sound effects – Mario jumping, squashing a Goomba, grabbing a coin, pausing the game – are perfect. These ditties and bleep bloops are tattooed in my brain, to the point that I couldn’t imagine SMB without them.
Secrets are prevalent in the Mushroom Kingdom. Hidden power-ups, hidden coin boxes, pipes to mini bonus rooms, warp pipes to future worlds, vines to the clouds. If you land on the flagpole at certain times, fireworks erupt over the castle. Destroying each fake Bowser with fire balls will cause their true forms to manifest. That trick in stage 3-1 where you hit the koopa shell against the block and get a million lives. The Minus World. I’m probably missing some, but you get the point. Super Mario Bros. is stuffed with secrets.
Let’s do – the Warp Zone – a-gain!
Super Mario Bros. also pioneered the perfect control setup for platformers: ‘A’ to jump, ‘B’ to attack. Many NES games would try to implement alternate control schemes – ‘Up’ or ‘B’ to jump, for example – but none of them felt right. As such, many of the NES and SNES’ most cherished platformers use this classic control scheme.
So how did Nintendo go from Donkey Kong to Mario Bros. to Wrecking Crew to Super Mario Bros.? Here’s a quote from Miyamoto himself. “It wasn’t an idea that just came out of the blue,” Miyamoto said. “It was the culmination of a variety of factors. First, we had a lot of technical know-how built up from games like Excitebike and Kung Fu. Second, the Disk System [a Japan-only attachment] was coming out shortly, so I wanted to make a game that would put a final exclamation point on that era of cartridge games. Third, I wanted to build upon our tradition of what we called ‘athletic games’ at the time — games where you controlled a guy and had to jump a lot to overcome obstacles. We felt strongly about how we were the first to come up with that genre, and it was a goal of ours to keep pushing it” (Famitsu, 10/2010).
“Mario, you’re just so athletic!”
In 1989, my dad brought home an NES Action Set. It wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. It was any ordinary day, which made the surprise all the greater. He hooked the NES up to our old Hitachi TV, turned on Super Mario Bros. and I began to play. As Mario ran, I ran. As he jumped, I jumped. I didn’t understand that I was playing the game. To me, Mario was an extension of myself. As the first Goomba rolled his way towards me, I panicked and dropped the controller. This happened several times. I can’t say if I got past the first Goomba that initial afternoon, but I remember my parents chuckling from behind me as they watched their son wrestle with this odd video game. “Truly a phase!” I’m sure they remarked to one another. Little did any of us know that this small, frustrating experience on a random weekday afternoon would be the genesis of my decades-long love of video games. This wasn’t just my first time playing Super Mario Bros.. It was my first experience with any game, and it changed my life.
Now we’re playing with childhood…
For this article, I played through Super Mario Bros. again. I’d say the memories came flooding back, but that’s not true. I’ve played SMB so many times throughout my entire life that the memories are present, not past. What impressed me about this playthrough, however, was how the game is less of a standard platformer and more of, to use Miyamoto’s expression, an ‘athletic’ game. He’s right. For me and millions of others, SMB is pure muscle memory. Perfect timing, reflexes, and rhythm are all necessary to get through the game relatively unscathed. Super Mario Bros. 2 (US) and Super Mario Bros. 3 are certainly more immersive and varied games that encourage more exploration. Super Mario Bros. is an endurance run, and that’s why I love it.
Can’t stop, won’t stop.
Super Mario Bros. is 35. It remains a landmark. The graphics inspired legions of artists. The music is as timeless as any Beethoven sonata. I challenge you to find more pitch-perfect controls in any other 2D side-scrolling game. There are arguably better games than Super Mario Bros; subjectivity and all that. Few games have had such long-lasting impact for millions of people worldwide, fewer games still that are universally admired for the scope of their accomplishments. Super Mario Bros. isn’t just a game: it was a revolution, the effects of which we’re still experiencing today.