LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews: Super Mario Bros., SMB 3, and Tecmo Bowl!

In the very descriptively titled LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!, LittleMac puts in 30 minutes playing the NES and SNES games on Switch Online so that you can make more judicious decisions about how to spend your retro gaming time!

Whenever there’s a new batch of releases, we’ll cover those! Otherwise, we’re going back to the start and playing through every game in order. For at least thirty minutes. Yes, including Clu-Clu Land.

Don’t believe me when I say I have recently played these games for thirty minutes each? Well, I brought receipts!

This week, we’re starting from the start in NES Online! Let’s dive in to Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Tecmo Bowl.

Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Developer: Nintendo R&D4
Publisher: Nintendo

Thank goodness I’ve started this series, so you can finally make an informed decision about whether you want to give this “Mario” thing all the kids are talking about a try! The granddaddy of multi-stage, side-scrolling platformers, Super Mario Bros. is one of the most popular video games ever made, and you’ve almost certainly played it. Even if you haven’t played it, you’ve read about it in Dramus18’s One Giant Leap series (or, if you haven’t, you should!).

Super Mario Bros. immediately locks down a control scheme that will, with minor additions, power 2D Mario games up to the present day: the D-pad moves, climbs, and crouches, the A button is a jump button, and the B button is an “action” button. Holding down the action button causes Mario to dash, which can make his jumps much more impressive. Otherwise, the action button performs other actions, which in SMB amounts to “shooting fireballs if you have a Fire Flower power-up.”

Have you ever noticed that 1-1 uses the arrangement of bricks, blocks, and pipes to subtly guide a player into touching that Mushroom and discovering what it do–oh, everyone has? Nevermind! Source: Moby Games on Pinterest

I won’t belabour the nuts-and-bolts description of the game. Did you know that level 1-1 is designed to teach you how to play as you play it? You probably did! I’ll once again recommend Dramus18’s excellent One Giant Leap review for the details (though when you finish you should proceed immediately to the comment section and find me correcting the one glaring factual error in the article! I promise, you can continue after a Game Over!).

The gameplay itself absolutely holds up all these years later, largely due to two hallmarks of Shigeru Miyamoto’s approach to action game design: highly satisfying play control (Mario’s momentum has a real “weight” to it, and you have a wonderful amount of control over his jumps) and excellent level design. Almost every course in the game (save a few castles with maze-esque elements) is a straightforward journey from the left to the right, but even at this early stage Miyamoto and his co-designer Takashi Tezuka took care to maintain variety in aesthetics (underground! Outside, but at night! High atop the peaks of giant mushrooms!) and structure (chased through the stage by a Lakitu! Running across a precarious bridge while Cheep Cheeps leap up at you! Battling through waves of Hammer Bros.!).

Going back to older Mario games, it’s fascinating to watch the iconography of the Mushroom Kingdom slowly come together. Here, in Mario’s first trip to that faraway land that he’ll eventually be retconned to have always lived in, there’s a lot that’s already in place–every enemy and powerup in this game will recur in every subsequent game in the series–yet, at the same time, there’s a very sparse nature to the world itself (v1.0 of the Mushroom Kingdom is almost entirely made of bricks, and there’s an alarming lack of eyes on the clouds, hills, and powerups). Of course, at the time the relatively sparse environments didn’t feel sparse at all: every arrangement of blocks and colour palettes seemed iconic. I know I can’t have been alone in this feeling as a child, because Kraft Dinner powered an entire promotional strategy around collectible back-of-the-box renderings of 20 significant sections in the game.

I even had the poster that you could attach the cardboard cutouts to! Source: Phelan Porteous on Twitter

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

I have played many, many half-hours of Super Mario Bros. in my lifetime, and will almost certainly play many more. It can feel strange to go back to the true original SMB now (later versions port back Mario’s now-standard “super jump off an enemy by holding the jump button when you land on them” move, so it’s jarring to just do a tiny little hop!), the game has remained popular for over 35 years for a reason!

Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
: Nintendo R&D4
Publisher: Nintendo

There are, famously, two games known as Super Mario Bros. 2, but Super Mario Bros. 3 feels like the true follow-up to Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels) puts a few minor aesthetic and gameplay upgrades on the original game’s engine, but otherwise comes off as a level pack for the original game (and the levels aren’t great!). Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) is an entirely different take on side-scrolling platforming (and an entirely different world, with an entirely different set of villains!). Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, calls back to the general gameplay and narrative of SMB while improving and innovating upon almost every aspect.

For all intents and purposes, the controls are unchanged from Super Mario Bros.: move, climb, and crouch with the D-pad, jump with A, and perform actions with B. This time around, though, there are a lot more potential actions to perform with that B button! Holding the action button will allow Mario to carry Koopa shells and certain types of bricks around. New powerups add even more actions. In Raccoon form, Mario can swing his tail at enemies and blocks (oh, and he can FLY!). In Tanooki form (the tanuki is a raccoon-dog native to Japan), Mario can do his regular raccoon things, but can also press Down+B to transform into a statue and resist attacks. In HAMMER BRO form, Mario can turn the tables on one of his fiercest enemies by hurling hammers of his own.

In addition to upgrading Mario’s suite of skills, SMB3 adds a range of instantly iconic new foes (Boos, Thwomps, Chain Chomps, Spikes, Flying Buzzy Beetles, and Bowser’s not-children, the Koopalings, all make their debut here) and starts the process of integrating Doki Doki Panic/Super Mario Bros. 2 USA‘s roster of Sub-Con denizens into the Mushroom Kingdom via Bob-omb. On top of that, we get a massive expansion of Mario’s world, as his journey takes him through eight aesthetically (and ludically!) distinct worlds, each with a colourful, detailed map serving as a level select screen. On top of that, these world maps house secrets, mini games, obstacles, and alternate routes.

World 5 (Sky Land), starts out seeming like a repeat of the opening Grass Land, but halfway through it hits you with the twist: you’re going to the Sky, baby! Source: Super Mario Wiki

This is another one that I shan’t belabour, though! Odds are very good that most readers are familiar with one of the most popular and enduring games of all time, and I retain the luxury of just saying “hey, Dramus18 has covered this beautifully in the One Giant Leap series!” SMB3 picks up the gauntlet from SMB and improves upon immensely in every way, save perhaps for “cultural penetration of the standard overworld theme music.” Mario feels even better to control and can do more things. The world is brighter, livelier, and more varied. Technical advancements in the NES cartridge chipset (the game uses the MMC3 chipset, which I can confidently say offers the capability to do things that SMB3 does!) allowed for features like diagonal scrolling, which greatly expands the range of possibilities in course design.

It’s worth mentioning that in addition to technological enhancements, the game relied greatly on the programming (hacking, really!) ingenuity of Nintendo’s R&D4 team. With development starting three-and-a-half years into the Famicom’s lifecycle, and with Miyamoto’s growing design ambitions, the team had to come up with some serious workarounds to get this thing to run. It’s easy for our modern, wizened eyes to see that SMB3 is a Cadillac held together with scotch tape. Even with a status bar occupying the bottom portion of the screen, there’s an entire multiple-pixel-wide column at the left side of the screen that the game doesn’t even attempt to draw, and even those accommodations combined can’t get the screen to scroll as smoothly as it did in the original.

The thing about these notable performance shortcomings, though, is that we didn’t care about them as children because we were mesmerized by the parts of the screen that the NES could handle drawing on, and anybody who cares about them today can easily access a range of remakes/remasters that do away with them. This Cadillac’s a great ride, scotch tape or no.

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

Everything I said at the end of the SMB review holds true here, with the exception of it being jarring to not be able to super jump off an enemy’s back (you can totally super jump off an enemy’s back!). Oh, and the game hasn’t been popular for 35 years yet, since it was first released in 1988. At any rate, this is a massive, across-the-board improvement to one of the most beloved games of all time. I will play weeks more of this game in the fullness of time.

Tecmo Bowl (1989)
: Tecmo
Publisher: Tecmo

American Football (hereafter: “football”) was not a sport that video games nailed right from the start. There’s a lot of strategic complexity in football, which was surely tough to program into early arcade machines and consoles. Also, each team fields 11 players, which is 22 sprites on screen at once, assuming that the developers opt out of having the ball appear on screen. Early arcade hit 10-Yard Fight (later to appear as one of two NES launch games not developed by Nintendo) got around this problem by not even attempting to present a realistic football experience. The original John Madden Football got around this by having John Madden himself lock two EA programmers in a dark room for years until they figured out how to field full teams on PC.

Tecmo Bowl splits the difference between the 10-Yard Fight and Madden approaches. A concession to memory limitations sees teams of 9 take to the field, and the gameplay leans more towards an arcade action experience than a deep strategic appreciation of football, but we’re playing real football here, with offence and defence, play selection, varied player stats, and the core of football rules (no penalties, but we’ll be fighting for first downs, kicking field goals and extra points, and doing our best to force turnovers across four full quarters of play).

While the original game had the NFLPA license, the NES Online re-release does not, so you’ll need to remember Bo Jackson’s jersey number to be sure that you always give the ball to the most overpowered character in the game. Source: Video Game Music Preservation Foundation

The game presents three modes for your enjoyment: One Player, Two Players, and Coach. One Player mode is an arcade-style mode: more than an exhibition mode, less than a season mode, it challenges you to win a bunch of games in a row, but you get Game Over if you lose once (the only teams that can be Tecmo Bowl champs are teams with flawless records!). Two Player is an exhibition: play a game against your friend! Coach is one incredibly tiny step towards a “manager/franchise owner” mode: two players each pick a team, and then watch the AI play a game, with the only input being the selection of plays (as the team’s coach, you can choose between any one of the four plays you were able to come up with for all the money they pay you! I don’t think John Madden would approve of this game as a teaching tool).

The actual gameplay captures the skeleton of football without much meat on the bones. After each down, you select one of four plays. Teams have unique playbooks, but each playbook consists of only four offensive plays (on defense, players also choose one of the other team’s four plays, essentially trying to guess exactly what their opponent will do). When passing, quarterbacks can select a receiver with A and throw with B. Runners can stiff-arm opponents by mashing the A button. Defensive players can attempt diving tackles with B, or try to power through blockers by mashing A. All kicks are achieved with a single timed button press to stop a rapidly filling (and then resetting at the top!) power meter.

NES Online players may no longer know who scored the touchdown, but at least they can watch that mystery teammate exchange the world’s stiffest high five with another mystery teammate. Source: Moby Games

What the game lacks in depth, it makes up for with the snap-to-down gameplay. This is a fast, easy-to-learn, and satisfying arcade-y approach to football, so as long as you’re not looking for a simulation, you can have a breezy time going through a game if you have 20 minutes to spare (especially if you and a friend have 20 minutes to spare, since early sports games have a tendency to present AIs that you can “learn” pretty quickly, which drains them of challenge and leaves you spamming the same moves again and again).

If you are looking for a simulation, this is not the game for you.

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

You know, I just might! A lot depends on whether I can find a friend who would be interested in playing it with me, though: I don’t see myself digging in on the single-player mode. Also, if Nintendo ever persuades Tecmo to let them add Tecmo Super Bowl to the service, there will no longer be any point in returning to this one!