One Giant Leap, 1983: Mario Bros.

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we’re halfway between Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. with just plain Mario Bros.

In the year of A Lord 2020, Mario has become an icon. He’s one of the most recognizable mascots in the world, right up there with Mickey Mouse, Garfield, or Ronald McDonald. Like those characters, Mario feels eternal, as if he always has been and always will be. But of course, this isn’t true. All of these characters were invented, and none of them were in their final forms on day 1.

Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald used to look like this:

Garfield used to speak absolute nonsense:

wtf this isn’t my boy

And Mario, of course, is no different. 2 months ago we explored his very first appearance, and 2 months from now we’ll be looking at Super Mario Bros., which while not 100% modern (you could argue Mario’s aesthetic doesn’t fully settle until 2006’s New Super Mario Bros.) is at least fully recognizable as the Mario we all know and love. But 1983’s Mario Bros. is the Charmeleon of early Mario.

Mario Bros. is another odd duck in the platformer genre. It owes nearly as much to Joust as it does Donkey Kong. It’s a competitive PVE1 game, where you try and score more points than your opponent by killing various pests in the sewers. You can also play it single-player and just try and make it as far as possible.

On the “progress” front, Mario no longer jumps like a real-ass human. He can jump several times his own height, and doesn’t take fall damage. There’s also a bit of momentum to his movement; Mario keeps his horizontal movement for a few moments after you let go of the joystick, and changing direction is no longer instantaneous. We also see some elements of the Mario setting coming into place; Mario now has a brother named Luigi, and is a plumber instead of a carpenter.

But, we aren’t yet in the Mushroom Kingdom, and those green turtles are “Shellcreepers”, not Koopa Troopas. Jumping on their heads kills you, not them. Instead, you need to jump into the ground below them, to flip them on their backs. Only then can you run into them directly to finish them off. It makes sense on its own, but in a post-Super Mario Bros. world it can’t help but feel wrong, so much so that most remakes of Mario Bros. replace the Shellcreeper with the spikey-shelled Spiney.

And this sense of “almost right but still very wrong” extends to the mechanics, too. I mentioned previously that this game introduces horizontal momentum to Mario, which adds some wrinkles to movement. For instance, if you are running right, then release the joystick and a beat later jump, Mario still has rightward momentum so he’ll jump right. But, despite this gradation of horizontal velocity, Mario Bros. still only has two jumps: fully horizontal, or fully vertical. Forget mid-air adjustments, you don’t even keep your horizontal momentum beyond a basic “were you moving to a side or weren’t you”. So while running on a level plane feels pretty good, jumping is still very stiff by modern standards, and whiffs happen. Such is life as a gangly middle stage.

Mario Bros.‘s score-chasing, multiplayer focus also makes it feel a little less substantial than Donkey Kong. There’s something akin to level progression, with new tilesets, new enemies, and the occasional coin collecting mini-game. But everything has the same layout, and there’s no end2 goal. You’re not climbing a tower to face off against a giant ape; you’re not even moving anywhere specific. You’re just trying to kill a bunch of weird sewer creatures.

And that’s basically Mario Bros. On the one hand, an important predecessor for one of the most important games of all time, one that introduced some key concepts and ideas to a brand that would soon become iconic. On the other, a weird, of its time dead-end, one that even two years later couldn’t possibly exist as a mainstream title.

Also Mario has a blue hat. 0/10.

Other 1983 platformers of note: We finish our tour of arcade-era Mario platformers with Donkey Kong 3, a game that doesn’t feature Mario and isn’t really a platformer. Instead, it’s a Centipede-style shooter staring Stanley the exterminator.

Donkey Kong 3, alongside Mario Bros., shows that Nintendo wasn’t really thinking of these games as platformers, at least not yet. Jumping was still a means to an end, unlike in something like Pitfall. It’s also a super weird game that Nintendo doesn’t really reference anymore, outside of cameos in Super Smash Bros., so it’s worth taking a peek at just for that.

Next Time: Hey, speaking of Super Smash Bros. it’s time to learn what’s up with Pac-Man’s stage: it’s Pac-Land