Super Mario Bros. may not have invented a genre, but its quality and cultural weight changed the gaming landscape
Super Mario Bros. is so iconic – and its characters, visuals, music, gameplay, and charm are so deeply ingrained into the world’s popular culture – that there is not much left to say about it. At the same time, though, its existence is something that people, whether they are gamers or not, have grown so much used to that it is easy to take the title’s impressive quality and revolutionary values for granted. Although platformers whose scenarios scrolled across the screen did exist before it, hence making it a game that followed a previously explored path instead of one that created its own road, Super Mario Bros. took advantage of its starring character’s major fame and, of course, its great level design to popularize its genre, turning it into the gameplay style that would rule the landscape of gaming through the 8 and 16-bit eras.
Before Super Mario Bros., the fat plumber had already caught the world’s attention in the arcade shops with Donkey Kong and Mario Bros.; however, Super Mario Bros. was the game first responsible for bringing an original Mario adventure into people’s homes. From his previous outings, the hero inherited his outlandish jumping and running skills, but upon choosing to transport the character into a world, the glorious Mushroom Kingdom, of thirty-two levels with varying enemies and obstacles, Nintendo added thin layers of complexity on top of the inborn simplicity of Mario’s arcade origins; the result is a game that is addictive, fun, and that manages to stand the test of time.
Items that have become commonplace in the franchise have their first appearance in Super Mario Bros. The mushroom, which makes Mario bigger; and the fire flower, which gives him the power to shoot fireballs at enemies, are necessary additions that give players the right to make one mistake without dying right away. Likewise, the green mushroom, which grants one extra life; and the coins, which have the same effect once 100 of them are gathered, help players extend their gameplay sessions and increase their chances of getting to the end of the game.
All of those aids, including the mighty star that lets Mario steamroll his foes and ignore whatever obstacles he encounters (save for the bottomless pits, which kill him without mercy regardless of his status), are welcome due to the simple fact that Super Mario Bros. is a gauntlet. The game does not take its time upping its difficulty considerably, as by the end of the first world gamers will start dying with a certain regularity. At its best, Super Mario Bros. treats its players to a fair kind of challenge that is built upon tricky platform placements combined with devilish enemies; at its worst, though, the game will sometimes resort to level design that requires trial-and-error.
Such level of brutality is, undoubtedly, bound to turn some younger gamers away from the title, especially considering that once Mario runs out of lives he is sent all the way back to the game’s starting point – a rather common punishment employed by games in the 80s. That reality gets even more dire when the rarity of green mushrooms and coins is taken into account. The former are rather elusive; moreover, a handful of levels, and some brutal jumps, need to go by before one can gather 100 coins and gain an extra life, as they are smartly and sparsely placed. In fact, those items are so treasured and valuable that finding the secret spots that hold one green mushroom or a bunch of coins is one of the allures, and biggest victories, one can have in Super Mario Bros.; and the same goes for locating the shortcuts that let Mario skip entire worlds and take the shortest route to the castle in which Peach is being kept by Bowser.
The new features and relatively fresh gameplay style, which is brilliantly explored via the setting up of thrilling obstacle courses, are the characteristics that made Super Mario Bros. so special back in 1985. Yet, despite them, when compared to its numerous successors, even the ones that would also find their home on the NES, it is easy to see Super Mario Bros. as somewhat bare-bones; a prototype for the greater installments the series would have in its future.
First of all, its scenarios and the elements that compose its stages are very limited. The visual changes between the eight worlds that must be traversed to rescue Princess Peach are marked only by color-palette swaps. Additionally, the game’s thirty-two stages take place in a mere five scenarios: the traditional Mushroom Kingdom overworld; dark underground tunnels; an underwater landscape; high up in the air amidst tall mushrooms and floating platforms; and Bowser’s lava-ridden castles that always wrap up the game’s eight worlds. Those tight boundaries are also found in the game’s soundtrack, which is catchy but ultimately contains only a few tunes; and in the level design twists developers were able to pull off, although in that case the tight chains that bound them are not so noticeable, as they were able to do a whole lot with a little.
The final aspect in which Super Mario Bros. would be greatly surpassed by its direct sequels is its controls. Platformers, especially those that focus on precise jumps, live and die by their controls, and Super Mario Bros. stands on a particularly weird middle ground between quality and oddity. Quality because it is a major step up in terms of physics and general responsiveness in relation to Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. And oddity because the control of the character while in midair is too rigid; Mario is slightly too slippery in the split-seconds following landing (something developers take advantage of by placing Goombas and other enemies right after long jumps); and his forward and upward momentum is mostly lost if he catches a mushroom while jumping.
Hindsight, especially the one that is offered by the masterpieces that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are, reveals that Super Mario Bros. is off the mark on some of its features. However, for a platformer that was released in 1985 – when much of the NES’ power was still untapped – it still stands up shockingly well; certainly much better than other games of the kind that were released either before it or shortly after. Super Mario Bros. may not have invented a genre, but its quality and cultural weight changed the gaming landscape, essentially becoming the lighthouse that would guide the development of various games that followed it. The fluidity of its adventure and the excellency of its level design still make the ripples of its impact be felt by most who play it.