In honor of Super Mario Bros.’ 35th anniversary, the Archive is playing every single release, re-release, port, and remake of the original Super Mario Bros.
SUPER MARIO BROS. SPECIAL
PUBLISHED/DEVELOPED: Hudson Soft
RELEASE DATE: 1986 (JP)
From 1984 to 1986, Nintendo allowed Hudson Soft the keys to their kingdom. Not only was Hudson allowed to port over first-party Nintendo titles like Ice Climber, Balloon Fight, and Tennis to the NEC PC-88 and Sharp X1 computers. They also got permission to make their own Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. games. Mario Bros. Special, Punch Ball Mario Bros., Donkey Kong 3: Dai Gyakushū, and Super Mario Bros. Special are four unique Mario/Donkey Kong titles that only ever released on the PC-88 and Sharp X1 in Japan.
Behold! The SMB Special title screen on the Sharp X1!
In this article, we’re only covering Super Mario Bros. Special. Before we get into the latter, let’s consider what this Hudson/Nintendo partnership actually meant. Today, of course, Nintendo would never ever allow a third-party software developer to make new games based on Nintendo’s properties and release them on competing or even non-competing hardware, like PCs. Not only did they learn their lesson with the Philips CD-i in the mid-90s (RIP Hotel Mario and The Zelda Games We Shall Not Name). But after several decades in the gaming market, Nintendo understands how important their character/franchise lineup is. Nintendo’s IPs are for Nintendo hardware only.
Nintendo was probably contractually obligated to let Philips release this, but… *sigh*
In the mid-80s, however, Nintendo was much smaller and had a lot less to lose. Their IPs – Mario and Donkey Kong particularly – weren’t as overwhelmingly successful as they are now. The Famicom was selling extremely well in Japan, but the home console and computer markets were two separate entities. Perhaps, Nintendo reasoned, porting their Famicom games to select PCs would provide them access to a whole different audience and entice PC users to purchase Famicoms.
If this doesn’t entice you to buy a Famicom, nothing will!
We have to speculate because, as far as we could tell, Nintendo has never provided an official reasoning for why they allowed Hudson Soft to have a go at Mario Bros. (twice!), Donkey Kong 3 and Super Mario Bros. Obviously Nintendo and Hudson had a close relationship. Hudson was the first third-party developer for the Famicom, and many of their early games – Lode Runner, Raid on Bungeling Bay – sold incredibly well on the console. Still, to give a third-party developer access to some of your most popular titles and allow them to make whatever changes they want is just bizarre.
No matter. This partnership happened. These bizarre not-quite-Nintendo games happened. Super Mario Bros. Special happened. It can’t un-happen, so we may as well talk about it.
Pour one out for Mario’s appearance. (PC-88 version, courtesy of MobyGames)
Super Mario Bros. Special might be the first ROM hack of Super Mario Bros. It’s certainly the only Nintendo-approved SMB ROM hack to emerge outside of Nintendo themselves.
The game also looks, plays, and feels like Super Mario Bros. unhinged. Like, what if all those mushrooms really did affect Mario’s sense of reality? That’s Super Mario Bros. Special. Take the color scheme. Mario’s skin is a jaundice yellow. His hair is black instead of brown. When he gets a fire flower, his clothes turn green which makes him look like Luigi. The stage time also counts down considerably faster than the original game, forcing you to hustle. Stage elements, like pipes, blocks, bricks and enemies aren’t where you think they should be. Everything is not what it seems.
What is this lunacy?
Controlling Mario is a prime concern, as well. Remember how smooth his running and jumps were in the original? Well, you can put those fond memories behind you. Mario can run here, but not particularly well. It’s like he’s trying to motivate himself to save the Princess, but the slightest thing – like a lone Goomba in his path – can bring him to a halt (of depression? Possibly, since his company essentially sold him out). Mario’s movements are so not Mario-like that relearning the controls is a necessity, if you want to progress.
‘Twas not meant to be.
Speaking of momentum: neither the PC-88 nor the Sharp X1 are able to render proper scrolling as seen in the Famicom/NES version. On the PC-88, when Mario jumps between screens, the screen temporarily goes black before Mario makes it to the next area. The latter is a real point of concern, since this game asks you to make some enormous blind jumps. When you jump between screens on the Sharp X1, the screen doesn’t go dark, but Mario does pause briefly while the game loads the next screen a la The Legend of Zelda.
A rare calming moment.
Both PCs’ limitations render Super Mario Bros. Special nearly unplayable, which is a shame given the game’s uniqueness. All of the levels have been completely redesigned from the original, including the secret coin areas. While most of the levels have conservative designs – some bricks here, pipes there, enemies scattered throughout, emphasis on Mario hauling balls – occasionally you’ll see something outlandish. Strange design choices range from inaccessible pipes, to stairs made from trees, to Bloopers swimming through walls. These choices aren’t as absurd as some found in future illegal ROM hacks, but they definitely remind you that you’re not playing a Nintendo-developed Mario game.
Yeah, that pipe? Forget it.
There are new power-ups and items here, including the Hammer from Donkey Kong (which does what you’d expect) and a Wing that allows Mario to fly around (which makes him look like he’s swimming in the sky). There are also clocks, which give Mario 100 additional “seconds” on the timer, Hachisuke which is the Hudson Bee mascot worth 8000 points, and a Lucky Star which destroys every enemy on-screen.
Our personal favorite: a flagpole sans flag.
We at the Archive attempted to play the PC-88 and Sharp X1 versions of Super Mario Bros. Special to no avail. Perhaps we were just impatient, but figuring out how to control Mario coupled with the jarring screen transitions, felt like an exercise in futility. Luckily, there is a solution, both for us and any interested players: an NES ROM hack of Super Mario Bros. Special. This hack effectively brings over all the levels, the crazy color scheme, and the fast moving clock, all with the same buttery smooth scrolling found in the original Super Mario Bros. The new power-ups and items seemed to be missing, and even some of the enemies weren’t in select levels; we couldn’t find a reason for these omissions. While a Donkey Kong hammer and a screen-clearing Lucky Star would’ve been nice to have, it’s enough to be able to play Super Mario Bros. Special comfortably.
That is quite the spectacle.
Unless Nintendo gets taken over by young Japanese renegades who want to throw the company’s conservative playbook to the winds, we’ll never see the likes of something like Super Mario Bros. Special again. Despite the game’s considerable flaws, the unlikeliness that a new Mario game will be released outside of Nintendo hardware again, does make its presence in our world something special indeed.
PC-88 / Sharp X1: ONLY FOR THE BRAVE
NES ROM Hack: A-
RIP Hudson Soft.
*all screenshots come from the NES ROM hack, unless otherwise noted.