Reviewing Super Mario Bros. for the NES is probably the weirdest thing I have ever done. This game is so fundamental, so ingrained in gaming culture, it’s almost like trying to review brown bread. Sure, some people might prefer white bread, but few would argue that Super Mario Bros. was the must-have game upon the NES’ launch, and was such an innovative game for its time that it set the bar for the booming console platforming genre that would follow in its wake.
Everybody knows 1-1
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Super Mario Bros. is a 2D platforming game wherein players control Mario. The game features 8 worlds with 4 levels each, 3 of them being regular platforming stages where players must reach a flag at the far end of the stage, and the fourth being a castle level where they must defeat Bowser.
What set Mario apart from so many other platformers we’d see on the humble NES are the stellar controls. Mario has a real sense of momentum as he builds up speed and doesn’t instantly stop when you let go of the button. You can also hold B to increase his speed and jump with A. The mid-air controls are excellent, as you have a lot of grip over Mario and can safely steer him towards platforms. Even the hardest of platforming bits with the tiniest of platforms felt fair and doable, thanks to this level of control.
There is a variety of enemies that will try to stop you and all of them have their own subtleties that make them fun. Jumping on a Koopa will have them retreat into their shell, which you can then kick away to take down even more foes. However, the shell will bounce off blocks and other obstacles, so you may hurt yourself if you are careless. The game is never too hard, but getting to the end is made tricky due to how easy it is to slip up and get hurt. You only have 3 lives to start with and only get extra ones if you collect a 100 coins. When all lives are lost, it’s back to 1-1 and try again.
You can gather items to give Mario more of a fighting chance, however. Mushrooms will make him taller, meaning you can no longer pass under some obstacles, but can get hit a second time. The fire flower will also give Mario a fireball attack mapped to B, allowing you to take down most foes without having to land a jump on them. The star is a rare power-up, but if you find one it will make you invincible for a short amount of time. These items are all hidden inside blocks you can break, so exploration can be worthwhile. However, a single hit will always reduce you back to Mario’s small form, so a fire flower doesn’t give you an extra hitpoint.
I had a lot of fun with Super Mario Bros. and enjoyed many of the gimmicks that give the game that edge over its competition. Platforms attached to scales that rise and lower as you stand on them, using enemies to bounce off of to get more air-time, and even the rare bridge and swimming stages are all welcome additions. Super Mario Bros. is not a long game by any means, so these clever mechanics keep it feeling fresh. A feature I didn’t appreciate, however, are the springs. These help bounce you up to high places and cross larger gaps, which is nice if only they were reliable. The input for when you need to press jump to actually get good height is a bit too precise, so oftentimes I’d just get a small jump and land a few centimeters in front of the spring, or in a pit of course. Fortunately, those are rare.
The fourth stage in any level is always a fight with Bowser, who becomes increasingly difficult with each encounter. It’s fun to have this recurring boss that just keeps getting stronger and the last few times you face off against him will be a challenge indeed. I do have to say that I don’t quite like stage 8-4, which is the only non-linear stage in the game and can have you running out of time because you get lost in its layout.
Gameplay score: 9/10
Oh yeah, story!
I forgot to mention it, but Super Mario Bros. does, in fact, have a story to it tucked away in the manual. It’s a fun little paragraph detailing how the Koopas used black magic to turn the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom into random objects like bricks, plants, etc. Only the princess can undo the spell, so the leader of the invasion and King of the Koopa people, Bowser, has abducted her. Mario has come to save the day by rescuing the princess.
I am going to chalk this story up as an extra, because there is clearly no focus put on it besides a few references in the manual. With that said, there is a bunch of replay value to this game thanks to all the secrets you can find. Some pipes will lead to hidden zones with goodies in them, levels allow for multiple approaches to beat them, and there are special secrets that allow you to skip entire worlds! Nowadays these are common knowledge that you take for granted, even if they are amazing features when you really think about them. There is also just fun to be found in returning to this game to get better at it! The difference in speed between an amateur player and somebody really good at Super Mario Bros. is amazing, and I certainly felt thrilled in levels where I was going especially fast. Even if, in my case, it was mostly down to luck.
Extras score: 9/10
Love the mushroom dudes
With 8 worlds that have 4 stages each, Nintendo, of course, had to use its few assets as often as possible. You’ll find that a lot of the levels look a bit similar, but Nintendo made considerable effort to minimize this. There are already a lot of decorative background sprites, like bushes, hills, and clouds, but every few levels you get something special like an underwater stage with its own theme music, or the sky color changes to something new.
The enemies are also well-designed and have since become some of the most iconic foes in video games. Who could forget the ever-grumpy Goomba or the Koopa and Lakitu. That’s not even to mention Bowser himself, who just has so much personality worked into such a simple sprite. I don’t think it would be amiss to call him the face of NES-era villains.
Presentation score: 8.5/10
Of course Super Mario Bros. is a great game! Nobody here honestly came to me today wondering if I’d feel otherwise, right? It was a great game then and while it may be short if you play it nowadays and use rewind features/save-states to get around its limited lives, or take all the shortcuts that the internet has made sure everybody knows about. I took my time, however; played every stage, didn’t use shortcuts, and man does this game still hold up. It’s a fun challenge that never gets annoying and, while the penalty of starting at 1-1 all over again is rough, the difficulty is never too high to overcome for even a casual player with time on their hands.