I’ve never played Mario: Super Mario Bros. (1985)

A first time play of the Mario series stars with the NES classic!

It’s true. To my shame, I’ve been a gamer for over 30 years and I’ve never played Mario. I’ve decided to fix that by going back to the start and playing through as much as I can. Can a gamer in 2018 really appreciate the impact of the franchise?

I grew up in a PC gaming household. When we did have a console we opted for Sega (though I did later get my hands on an N64 and a GameCube), so my experience with the Mario games is only fleeting or what pop culture has told me. I know that these are predominantly platform games that involve a lot of jumping on enemies – but I have to also admit that I used to view console gaming as a bit too simplistic compared to my desktop games at the time. I’d be happy to have that assumption proven wrong.

I’m starting off with the game which is generally regarded as Mario’s beginning: the original Super Mario Bros., released on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Of course, it wasn’t the first game to feature Mario, but it’s the one which really established the franchise. It’s very easy to get a hold of these days, whether you pick up an original cartridge, opt to download it through the Virtual Console, get yourself a NES Classic console or just emulate it.

The manual tells me that Princess Toadstool has been kidnapped by Bowser, King of the Koopa, and that Mario is the only one in the entire world who can be bothered to save her. I assume Luigi is around too, but he’s not mentioned. From what I know, this is the general plot of most Super Mario games, but I’m up for it.

My expectations are for quite a primitive game, so I’m pleased to find that the things feels more technically advanced than I had readied myself for. Still, my initial reactions are mixed but erring towards the positive. The minimal colour palette on screen makes everything feel very washed out, and yet I’m immediately struck by how smoothly the game flows – I believe the side-scrolling action was something of a revelation once refined by the capabilities of the NES – and after only a minute of playing it’s very clear just how influential it has been. To this very day there are games which clearly copy the model established here and don’t seek to change too much. Despite my feelings about the colours, I see that the sprites manage to stand out and Mario moves fluidly – but I soon discover that the controls take some getting used to.

This is something which most reviewers don’t seem to agree with, but I found that the controls lack precision. Mario has a lot of inertia which means he doesn’t always stop when you want him to, and often I when I try to move or jump nothing happens. I eventually figure out that this is because the game really doesn’t like my big hands accidentally pressing up or down at the same time as I’m trying to move. Using the D-pad is a lost art now, so I never really overcome this annoyance throughout the game. I do seem to be in the minority, because people generally praise the natural movement built into the character.

The level design is clever in its simplicity. There are eight worlds each with four different stages, and there’s a natural progression of difficulty as I go though. New enemies are introduced along with the need to become better with my jumps through more difficult and dangerous platforming. Variety is limited but definitely present; there are a couple of underwater levels, numerous underground levels and some which take place at night which actually feel quite oppressive and intimidating when compared to the sunny daylight levels.

I played through with the mentality of getting from the start of each level to the end, and continued all the way through like that. I’ve now learned that this is not necessarily the right approach, as the Super Mario games are famously full of secrets and reward exploration. The most prominent of these are the hidden warp zones which allow you to jump to later levels in the game. I managed to find exactly none of them. I can imagine being a kid in the ’80s and having all the time in the world to just mess about in these games (we often had to exist on just one or two new games a year as birthday/Christmas presents), but it’s a different story as an adult.

While I wouldn’t call Super Mario Bros. a truly difficult game, it definitely takes some skill to master and I have to admit that I definitely would not have finished the game if not for the ability to save that the modern versions have introduced. For a while, I did play the game as it was intended and began back at the beginning after losing all my lives, but eventually I had to succumb to the joy of reloading. Being able to pick up where I left off certainly made the experience more enjoyable, even if the challenge was removed.

Some of the enemies I encountered, such as the Hammer Brothers, were nightmare opponents that regularly killed me whenever I got near. Later levels feature tricky Bullet Bills and Cheep-Cheeps which need to be dodged. At the end of each world I’m treated to boss battles against (fake) Bowsers which were surprisingly simple. I had been expecting to put up more of a fight.

From a modern perspective, I’d say the the game holds up well and doesn’t feel particularly removed from the 2D platform games we get today in terms of gameplay. The game did receive a nice visual upgrade when it was re-released a few years later for the Super Nintendo console (and I do plan to check that out), so if the primitive graphics really bug you then that option does exist.

The game’s super simplistic story and quick ending means I complete the experience without feeling all that satisfied as I defeat Bowser in exactly the same way I’ve defeated his doppelgangers seven times previously throughout the game. I’m offered the chance to replay the game with a higher difficulty level, which isn’t all that enticing but I can imagine being a tempting challenge back in the 1980s. On reflection, though, I have to admit this was a compelling adventure that kept me coming back. I was often playing in bursts of 15-20 minutes before I felt like I’d had enough, but the game would just keep calling to me. If that’s not a mark of something good then I don’t know what is.

I am quite impressed with my first taste of Mario and am looking forward to continuing. Next up would be Super Mario Bros. 2.

Matthew Notley

Updated: Jul 25, 2018

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