If someone were to ask me what my favourite game was I wouldn’t know what to answer, but if the question was what my most-played game was I would answer without hesitation the original Super Mario Bros. Whenever I get an NES emulator working on a machine I end up putting Super Mario Bros. on it sooner or later. It wasn’t even my first Mario game, it’s simply that good.
The other day my younger brother was over at my place and we decided to give an old game a spin just for fun. So we picked Super Mario Bros. from All Stars on the SNES (I don’t own a NES, so that’s the closest to real hardware I have) and we wanted to see who would beat the game first. The SNES version has this cool thing where players take turns after ever level, unlike the NES version where you have to wait for the other player to lose a life first.
We both managed to make it to 8-4 without continues, but he lost all his lives at the end and I was only able to beat it using my last life and without mushroom. We used warp-zones to get to the end faster, otherwise it would have taken too long. It was a blast. Here are some things I noticed:
– The game is merciless. That’s not to say that it’s hard, it’s not, but when you make a mistake there is no tolerance, you lose. You don’t revert from Fire Mario back to Super Mario first (like in Bros. 3), you don’t have a spare item (like in World) and there certainly is no health bar (like in the 3D games).
– Coins and lives actually matter. After the original Bros. every game kept giving you more and more coins and with World the inflation was already so high that they were basically meaningless. Here you actually care about coins because getting a hundred takes time and when you find a secret the game gives you maybe ten or fifteen coins, not fifty. This makes coins feel actually special and worth getting. The same goes for lives, green mushrooms are rare and when you run out of lives you start over. Not necessarily on the SNES, but it was that way in the original.
– The game is very tight. There is not a single screen wasted, there is always some obstacle or enemy. You are basically in motion the entire time. This is true for most Mario games, but many other platformers fail in that regard.
– There is quite a lot of diversity in the game. With some very simple graphics tricks the developers have made night levels, snow levels and autumn levels. It doesn’t really change anything in the game, but it’s cool because it makes it feel like an adventure instead of just a sequence of re-arranged sprites.
But most importantly, what makes me come back time and time again to Super Mario Bros. instead of the other Mario games is that it hits a certain sweet spot where it is simple enough to pop in every now and again, but still complex enough to be worth re-playing. If I were to compare platformers with first-person shooters Super Mario Bros. would be Doom, while Super Mario Bros. 3 would be Quake, it may technically be the better game, but there is a certain simple charm to the older one that just feels right.
There are some NES games like the arcade ports of games like Donkey Kong, which are fun, but they are too simple for my taste. Still worth turning on occasionally on an emulator, but nothing I really feel like having to play. Newer games on the other hand take to long, they have larger levels, overworld maps, vertical scrolling, flying, more moves… Great fun, but sometimes I want less.
What is also very impressive is how fast the game is. There is no time wasted, no intro sequence, no cutscenes (aside from Mario walking into the pipe), you just press Start on the title screen and you get to play the game. When you die you are back in the game very quickly. If you are good at it you can skip the earlier stages with the Warp Zone.
As I mentioned above, the game is very tight. What I mean by that is that there is hardly a moment where you are just walking, you always have to pay attention. This is something especially western platformers (think Commander Keen) get wrong, there are so many moments where you are just walking or collecting a bunch of “coins” thrown all over the screen. The only time when you can take it slow is when you have found a secret area. I don’t think there has been a game in recent years where my brother and I were laughing, screaming and even swearing so much. He lost his last life when he was jumping over the lava past the last hammer bro. (I like to imagine he’s Bowser’s right-hand man or personal guard) and the fire from the lava hit him mid-air. He literally jumped off the couch and yelled “fuck” at that moment. That last castle still makes my heart race after all these years.
I think Super Mario Bros. is an ideal choice for someone’s first video game. It has a lot of content (32 levels), straight-forward level design, simple controls that require only two actions and a ton of replayability. Replayability these days is measured in unlocks or alternate paths, but that’s not what I mean, those are just teasing the player. What I mean is that I can play the game over and over again and get a different experience every time. When my brother and I were playing our play styles were different even though we were playing the same levels.
You won’t get any argument for Super Mario Brothers being the choice of people’s first video game. For the NES generation, this WAS their first video game.
Super Mario Brothers is more accessible than the other Mario games. Super Mario Brothers 2, 3 and World are for experienced Mario players.
The NES was like the Wii. However, the advanced games like the Mario sequels and endless platformers and shmups were targeting kids who had the time to play the games all day. But games like Tetris and Dr. Mario were smash hits because adults liked them as did women.
I think the intro game and more experienced sequel is a good one-two method. If you liked Super Mario Brothers, you would like Super Mario Brothers 2/3/World. The Legend of Zelda was unique in that it had TWO QUESTS.
Metroid was designed for the advanced gamer. Metroid was not and has never been about the accessible gamer.
“But Malstrom!” you say, “doesn’t that lose sales.” Not necessarily. The arcades are about accessibility, but anti-accessibility games such as Defender did extremely well in the arcades because hardcore gamers could play it.
The question is not that all games should be accessible and all games should be for the experienced. You need both. And the only way to do it effectively on a single game is to do a Second Quest like Zelda did. It is better to have different games. First Mario game is easy, the second Mario game is hard. Even Super Mario Brothers 2/3/J2/World were seen as extremely easy back in the day as the hardcore kept getting more hardcore.
Cheat codes also are an effective way to make a game more accessible. Contra and Gradius both made heavy use of the Konami code.
When the SNES came out, it had the best launch games available…. except it didn’t. The SNES launch games were for the hardcore NES gamer. Think about it! You had Mario World which was for the advanced Mario gamer, you had Gradius 3 for the experienced shmupper, F-Zero for racing, Castlevania 4 for the Castlevania fans, Suepr Ghouls and Ghosts which is insanely hard, etc. This is why the SNES lost to the Genesis at the beginning despite having the ‘best launch line up ever made or will ever be made’.
Sonic beat Super Mario World because it takes one button to make Sonic jump and do things. It is a simpler game. Sonic was more accessible than Super Mario World. Nintendo couldn’t understand it at the time, but today they know having one button to jump rather than all these different commands in Mario World was the right business move.