One Giant Leap, 1985: Super Mario Bros.

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: no more precursors, it’s time for Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. is either the first or second most important game I’m going to cover in this entire feature1. It’s the moment Mario goes from “that guy from the ape game” to “the most recognizable video game character in history”. It introduced Bowser, Princess Peach, Goombas, Koopa Troopas, power mushrooms…the vast majority of the series’ most enduring iconography traces back to this game. And of course, it’s the game that essentially defined what platformers were.

I’ve been teasing this all along, but mechanically, Super Mario Bros. set a template for the entire platformer genre. Like in Pac-Land (and unlike most other games we’ve covered so far) you can adjust your jump in midair. You jump higher if you hold the button down longer. You can run by holding the “B” button, and jumps taken with a running start go farther. It’s just a few simple rules, and, with the exception of running not even any more inputs than its forbearers. But Super Mario Bros. does so much with these basic ingredients. This full suite is what allows SMB to carry an entire, “feature-length” (for lack of a better term) game with jumping as the primary mechanic.

However, Super Mario Bros. is more than just a core mechanic and template. There’s an actual game here too. And beyond being the defining example of platforming, SMB is a game about secrets. We see it with the now iconic question mark blocks, but it goes deeper. Maybe there’s something hidden in a nondescript brick block. Maybe there’s an invisible block, hidden in seemingly empty space. Sometimes pipes lead to hidden bonus areas. Three different castle levels will loop infinitely unless you figure out the secret path through. And of course, we have warp zones, hidden bonus areas that let you skip huge chunks of the game.

The warp zone hidden in World 1-2

These warp zones also present an interesting question; what does it mean to “complete” Super Mario Bros.? The game contains 32 levels, but using warp zones you can beat the final level, 8-4, having only cleared 8 of them. So, in one sense warp zones are basically just a way to cheat yourself out of most of the game; you can reach the end quickly, but at the cost of never seeing 75% of what this game offers. But on the other hand, SMB features a highly punishing lives system. Running out is a true game over, forcing you to start all over from World 1-1. So for the majority of players these warp zones might be the only way they can experience the later levels.

Super Mario Bros. isn’t an arcade game, nor does it especially feel like one. It’s far more generous with extra lives than an arcade game would be, with lots of hidden 1-up mushrooms and awarding an extra life every 100 coins. There’s not telemetry data or anything to draw on but I would imagine a far higher percentage of people who have played SMB have seen World 1-2 than Donkey Kong players have seen any level beyond 25m. It’s not a game that’s trying to kill you in 30 seconds or less; it knows it already has as much money from you as it’s ever going to get.

But I don’t think developers thought in 100% mercenary terms when designing these games. They knew they were making those games hard at least in part to increase monetization, but I also think on some level they thought the challenge made the games more engaging. Or perhaps they were just used to it. Regardless of reason, Super Mario Bros. is a game that, if played under original conditions, forces all but the best players to retry from the beginning, again and again and again. This ties into the emphasis on secrets; some of them are telegraphed, such as how there’s a series of elevator platforms right before the ceiling you need to walk on to reach the World 1-2 warp zone.

Sure, you could jump off here…but what’s up there?

But some secrets are completely arbitrary. Some bricks have hidden power-ups, or coins, or vines, and some don’t, and you can’t tell which is which without checking every single one. Same goes for warp pipes. Hell, not one but three castle levels are built on this principle; World 4-4 and World 7-4 require the player to pick the correct fork in the road out of a few options to escape endless looping, and World 8-4 requires the same but with warp pipes (with the added disrespect of wrong pipes sending you all the way back to the first segment). Honestly, it’s completely unreasonable to expect players to find even 20% of these secrets on their own. Unless, that is, they had nothing better to do because they’ve seen this level 50 times before. And so SMB’s harsh lives system ties into its abundance of secrets; you might as well comb every inch of a level, since you’re gonna be back again and again.

So, is Super Mario Bros. worth playing today? If we’re talking the original NES release, I would probably answer no; the harsh lives system is sure to frustrate, and there are better ways to spend your time than running into a brick wall again and again until you learn which individual bricks are actually secret passages. But SMB is one of the most popular games of all time, so thankfully your options are not limited to the original printing. If you subscribe to the Nintendo Switch’s online service you can play an emulated version of Super Mario Bros., complete with save states and instant rewinding to effectively give you infinite lives. However, I’ve found that playing games this way can require extreme discipline. There’s a huge temptation to rewind after every mistake, and essentially TAS2 your way to a perfect playthrough. And maybe that’s exactly what you’re after! But for a lot of players, playing like that trivializes the game to the point where it’s no longer really engaging. If you can trust yourself not to abuse rewinding, I think playing emulated and making a save state after every cleared level is a pretty decent compromise for modern sensibilities. Beyond that, the game was remade for the SNES as part of Super Mario All-Stars; in addition to improved graphics and some quality of life upgrades3 the game saves your progress at the start of each of the 8 worlds, giving you something to fall back on if you game over. This version is also available to Switch Online subscribers. However, if you can track it down I think the Game Boy Color version, Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, is the definitive edition. It features many of All-Stars’ QoL improvements (minus the 16-bit graphics), saves after each level instead of each world, and has lots of other fun goodies too.

And ultimately Super Mario Bros. is worth it. I tend to half-jokingly refer to everything in gaming pre-1985 or so as “pre-history”; no disrespect to anyone who loves those classics, but games made in that era don’t really feel like “real” games to me. There’s a mindset to arcade design, the expectation that the player should hit a game over in less than a minute, that just inevitably makes those games feel like trinkets to anyone besides the most dedicated fans. But that’s not present in Super Mario Bros., which was part of a larger movement away from the arcades and towards the home console as the primary platform4. There’s still some of-its-time design choices being made, but it still feels of-a-piece with games being produced today. If you’ve never played this before, give it a spin; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Stray Observations:

  • There’s a certain amount of “RNG masquerading as AI” in Super Mario Bros. that can get frustrating at times. In particular, the jump timing of Bowser and the Hammer Bros can be very frustrating to figure out. Placing these actions on regular cycles would be a lot less frustrating, but that sort of solution wasn’t common knowledge just yet, unfortunately.
  • I’ve always thought it was neat how Piranha Plants won’t come out of their pipe if you’re standing on or near it. It’s a surprisingly fair feature for such an old game, made sort of baffling by the fact that every5 future game to feature them doesn’t do this. I guess this is the positive flip side to cycles not being in common use.
  • Coins are such an underrated bit of design. They’re technically a reward, representing 1/100th of an extra life plus some points, so players will be motivated to collect them. But they’re such a minor reward that you can be very generous as a designer with how you place them. A really useful tool to reward exploration, subtly signal the path forward, and so much more.
  • How Super Mario Bros. handles power-ups is something of a mixed bag. Having Mario’s big form double as a power up and an extra hit point is an economical bit of design, and adds a neat tension to the more precariously placed super mushrooms; you want it for the protection it offers, but is taking a risk to get it actually any safer? But on the other hand, the game is at its easiest when you have a fire flower. Like, the game’s offering assistance to the players who demonstrably need it the least. I guess it was the 80s…

Other 1985 platformers of note: Not a lot, but this is the last year in a while that’ll be true for, once Super Mario Bros. has a chance to reverberate throughout the industry. However, we do have Brain Breakers, a Japan-exclusive game for the Sharp X1 series of PCs. It starts with the player crash-landing on a hostile alien planet with no tools. By exploring, they can find permanent upgrades such as a laser gun and a jet pack which progressively unlock more of the map for exploration. It’s basically a Metroidvania game, 1 year before the release of either of that genre’s namesakes6. Speaking of which…

Next Time: Bounty hunter Samus Aran goes on a dangerous mission to the planet Zebes to stop Mother Brain and the dastardly Space Pirates in the classic Metroid.