Top 100 Retro Game List: Super Mario Brothers
Super Mario Brothers
Nintendo Entertainment System
In so many ways, the first Super Mario Brothers game is actually even more important to me than the Legend of Zelda. This might seem like a surprising statement given how I have spoken about that game in the past, but even before Zelda there was Mario and another princess.
We had an Atari, and I later found out, but never sat at the time, a Coleco, and they played fine. When my parents got an Apple II, so I could do school work, after being told by one of my teachers that my learning disabilities would put me behind in school without it, I enjoyed many games on it that we will discuss at length sometime later. There was one game that was missing, however, and it involved an Italian Plumber.
We were late, probably because of the Apple II, to get a Nintendo. Most people in the neighborhood already had one, and it frustrated me to have to watch others play while not having it. I knew we would get one eventually, but I was also confused as to why Nintendo did not release their games on computers! There were games that were already cross-platform, in good and bad forms, but no Nintendo games starring Mario, Link, or Samus Aran were available for my computer.
I just did not understand this. I have a vivid memory of discussing my concerns with a few relatives at a family gathering. It would be many years later before I understood Nintendo’s reasoning for not being on computers and the details of their lackluster attempts in the 90s. Eight-year-old me would not have understood this at all. I, very specifically, wanted to play Super Mario Brothers on my computer.
It would not be until the Christmas of 1988 that we got an NES. Of course, the Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt cartridge came with it. I got a bunch of games with my system: We hosted my father’s family that year, so I think games came from each sibling, couple, etc. Video Games were proving to be one of the few things I really enjoyed, so my family really indulged this passion the same way they would with my love of the library that would engulf me a few years later. I hated playing sports, flunked out of Cub Scouts, but thrived at games.
The thing with Super Mario Brothers was that it was like nothing I had ever played or seen before. It was graphically advanced and complicated in ways I had not really seen before. This game revolutionized video games. Everything that came after it was going to be compared and contrasted by gamers. While complex, Super Mario Brothers was almost straightforward enough that almost anyone could play it. I heard a number of people in my life who had a spouse buy an NES Classic say something like “I never really played video games, but I did play Super Mario Brothers a lot.” My parents were able to play it too, but my dad did like Duck Hunt more.
I played Super Mario Brothers a lot, but only beat it once back then. Really. I always ended up getting bored as I went through the game, plus there were SO MANY other games to play…rental culture really took over our town and I bounced around many games. Another big factor was that Super Mario II, the American one, was already out, which really pushed the original game back into the shadows a bit.
It would really not be until the Super Mario All Stars version that I dove back into the game.
The plot of Super Mario Brothers goes something like this: Bowser kidnaps Princess Toadstool, who is the only person able to reverse the spell placed on the people of the Mushroom Kingdom by him. Mario and his brother Luigi must free her and save the kingdom from his evil clutches.
While there was coverage of this game in Nintendo Power, it never had a cover feature due to the simple fact that it had been out for a few years. Super Mario Brothers II was on the cover of the first issue.
Later Mario games would have absolutely iconic music, and while the first Super Mario Brothers certainly does set the standards for the series, these versions are significantly improved upon in later games. Still, some of these are wonderful.
I can SMELL and feel the level clear theme from this game. I am instantly back in a friend’s living room watching him play the game. I can see the television, his drum set, Slayer poster, and the television stand. It is a very definitive moment for me.
This game has been reissued so many times at this point. Pretty much every Nintendo system has some version of this game.
For my most recent play through of Super Mario Brothers last summer, I played the game via the Super Mario All Stars collection on the Super Nintendo. I love the more advanced graphics and remixed soundtrack for the game.
It had been awhile since I really sat down to play this game, but there are so many interesting things happening all at once in it. It was incredible to play through this for a little bit each night and take notes on how much of this game predicates the evolution of modern video games.
The first noticeable thing is how physics work in Super Mario Brothers. The play control is definitely a little off from how later games would work. Mario’s jumps are really heavy. I have noted in other games we have done podcasts about how much this can annoy me. I say that about games like Duck Tales II, Mega Man IV, and others because the Mario series sets such a wonderful standard starting with the American Super Mario II that I hold every game afterwards to it.
Super Mario Brothers is also faster than I remember it being…Mario moves just slightly faster than later games, and it is a little off-putting for sure. I lost a bunch of lives in early levels because Mario keeps moving just enough that it throws me off. The same thing happens in the first Mega Man game, as opposed to later games in the series.
Each world follows a fairly distinct pattern for its four levels: An over world level, an underworld level, a level that is very active, and then Bowser’s dungeon. I had not fully realized that until this play through. I think this is really cool.
The underworld stages are by far my favorites. I really like being able to climb above the screen and avoid enemies. -1 World was something I had trouble getting into as a kid. For some reason, I just could not get the jump right. Another kid had to show me how to do it. We always thought this was a built-in feature to the game, but it turns out it is actually a bug in the game! That makes a LOT more sense, of course, but I liked thinking Nintendo actually built this weird bonus stage into the game.
It does seem like the kind of thing Nintendo would do, doesn’t it?
Speaking of the underworld stages, I do love being able to climb up above a screen and run around. Obviously, this makes levels easier to deal with it, but it is also pretty cool to run past your score and the timer. I remember feeling such a thrill when I realized it could be done. It is a little thing, but does fun to be able to do. Whenever I get to 1-2, the first thing I want to do is climb up above the screen.
Each Bowser Dungeon does an outstanding job of adding new stuff each time. Some versions add platforms, others add fireballs. Each is a little different from the last. They may seem like small changes, but the little differences between each are joyful and interesting. I had a friend growing up who often commented that they “just ran under him” each time, and while that is possible, it is certainly not ideal, nor is it the best strategy for some of them.
Trust me, I tried it.
The design of the game also teaches you how to play it. The level design is extremely instructive. Super Mario Maker certainly made me think about this, but I have become a lot more conscious of this now that I have friends who have kids. I watch videos on social media of them playing Super Mario Brothers for the first time and quickly picking up how to jump, how to defeat enemies, how power-ups work, etc. They learn through practice and advance after a few frustrations. This works so well for the game and sets a fine standard for the genre.
Warp Zones are another aspect of this game. Most of the time back then, I skipped immediately from world 1-2 to world 4. Hey, the warps were there intentionally, so why not take advantage of them? I have a vivid memory of the one time I did not use them. I recall being in world 3-1 and thinking I should go through the game this way more often. I would in future play throughs.
This time I went through each level one by day. I did a few each day until I completed the game. This is really how Super Mario Brothers should be played.
Looking back, games like this one and Legend of Zelda are real turning points for complexity and critical thinking requirements on home consoles. Text adventures had been complicated in other ways, but there is so much going on in Super Mario Brothers and it really pulled me in even more than say Adventure had before. I think this is the major legacy, moving forward, of the game.
There are a few levels I would like to highlight here. World 5, in general, is pretty hard. 5-1 is fine, but the jumps at the end of 5-2 can be pretty tricky. I had to try them a few times before I got it right during this play through. There are a few platforms in 5-3 that can prove difficult. The HUGE flames in 5-4 are hard to get around. Of course, I just watched a video on Youtube where someone completes perfectly every step in this world, but I found parts of it to be troublesome enough that I wrote down a note about it.
Is 4-2 really hard? I have seen a few videos online noting this in regard to speed runs. It does have a few tricky jumps, for sure, but I don’t remember having any trouble with it.
Speaking of jumps, one definite demerit to this game is its slow, nonreactive, jumps. Like the first Mega Man game, Super Mario Brothers just isn’t as smooth as later games would be in either series.
You can sometimes fall through ramps in underworld stages. They come off as generally a little glitchy.
I think it is easier to be small in this game…you can slip through countless openings and generally bounce around a lot more than when you are big. Since I was playing through each level, this made it much easier to explore different nooks in levels.
The biggest lesson though is to take your time. It is so easy to try and race through this game. This is especially a problem in very familiar levels. I have heard from many people who acquired an NES Classic that this game was a lot harder than they remember it being. From talking to them, a big issue is trying to rush based half remembered levels to prove proficiency.
Like numerous Mario games, a big message the games offers almost immediately is to slow down, assess the situation, and then react. Super Mario Brothers is one of, if not the best games of all time. Its merits and influence will ripple out into video games forever.