If you are trying to pinpoint the biggest turning point in video game history, there are few better candidates than Super Mario Bros. While both platformers and Mario existed before it, Super Mario Bros. is what put them on the map and changed gaming forever.
Before SMB, arcade and console games were almost always played for a high score. They were a single level and probably a single screen — maybe 2-5 if you were really lucky — that repeated at a rising difficulty level until you inevitably died (or turned the game into a glitchy mess if you were exceptionally good).
With 32 unique levels, each with many screens worth of scrolling, Super Mario Bros. was an epic adventure no one was prepared for. It revived the console industry in North America and changed the focus of gaming from a high score to reaching an ending. If you’re rating by influence or how it stands up to its contemporaries, there is no question that Super Mario Bros. deserves the highest score possible. But how does it hold up today?
Super Mario Bros. is one of those games that everyone knows the plot: Bowser has kidnapped the princess, then known as Toadstool, and locked her in one of his eight outwardly identical castles. Mario and possibly his brother Luigi set out to defeat Bowser’s army, rescue Princess Toadstool, and thoughtlessly murder the innocent Toads that Bowser turned into the blocks Mario keeps smashing (yeah, that’s probably a reason they never mentioned that part in any future games). Believe it or not, this actually was a pretty developed story for the time, but these days, it’s pretty insignificant to the game.
The gameplay of Super Mario Bros. is as classic and straightforward as platforming can get. Mario can run, jump, and shoot if you have the Fire Flower. That’s it. With these actions at your disposal, you must navigate 32 levels. With the exception of a few castles with still entirely sidescrolling mazes, every level can be completed just by getting from the left end of the stage to the right. There are some secret areas that can be found below or above stages, but they are only for coins and never required.
Gamers used to the secret filled levels of modern platformers may find SMB a little barren, but it should be noted that extra lives actually matter in this game. This means there is incentive to explore levels and go out of your way to collect coins, even if there’s no 100% ending or hidden levels to entice you into it. Power-ups are another thing that’s always nice to find; the extra hit from the Super Mushroom and projectiles from the Fire Flower are simple, but greatly help Mario’s odds of survival.
The level design in Super Mario Bros. can still hold its own today. While the set pieces and enemy selection is limited, the game makes the most of it. Things like the platforms acting as counterweights to each other or the endless barrage of leaping fish attacking you on a bridge are examples of creative ways resources are repeated for a new type of challenge. A lot of care has gone into the levels. Things that have the potential to cause huge problems, like not being able to backtrack once you’ve scrolled the screen to the right, are rarely an issue. While not every level is unique and memorable, they are all solid and there are some standouts.
The biggest problem with Super Mario Bros. is the control. More than anything else, this part of the game has aged badly. The defining aspect of a Mario platformer is the precise control you have over your momentum and direction in the air and SMB has serious issues in this area. While you can slow down Mario in the air by letting go of the jump button or pressing the opposite direction on the d-pad, the effect is quite minor. Making a precision landing or reacting to an unexpected enemy\’s movements after jumping is not easy. This can make multiple deaths feel frustrating and cheap. However, the game is designed around your — by today’s standards — limited jumping. With some patience, your unfair deaths are minimized.
Avoiding those deaths is very important, because Super Mario Bros. can get quite challenging. You start with five lives and it will take you the majority of the game to earn another five in 1-ups. That’s if you’re meticulous about collecting coins and searching for bonus rooms. Mushrooms and Fire Floers are rare compared to later Mario games; it’s entirely possible to go through entire levels without finding any.
Piranha Plants blocking pipes you need to use as platforms, unstompable Spinies endlessly thrown at you by Lakitus that follow you throughout the level, and Hammer Bros with random variables in their pattern, in addition to the bottomless pits and lava that Mario still dreads today, are all very real threats. It’s good that the challenge holds up, because there isn’t a huge amount of replay incentive. While there is a hard mode unlocked after beating the game, its changes are quite minor. The secrets focus on making the game easier, so if you’ve beaten the game, there isn’t much incentive to search for ones you missed. However, the game is fun and not overwhelmingly long (you were originally expected to beat it in one sitting after all), so you’ll probably want to replay it every now and then just for fun.
The graphics and music obviously cannot be judged by modern standards, but they still do a surprisingly good job of setting the game’s feel. The 8-bit Mushroom Kingdom still feels colorful and whimsical. While there are only a few settings for levels and the background detail is minimal, each one feels distinct from the others and you can clearly tell what they are. Iconic Mario enemies like Koopas, Goombas, and Bullet Bills are recognizable in both appearance and behavior. The music, like the level themes, is limited in quantity, but every song in the game is catchy and has continued to be remixed in Mario games ever since. The sound effects are simple but match the cartoony feel of the game. The sound Mario makes when growing from a power-up or shrinking from a hit is something you will remember for the rest of your life.
It’s difficult to think about Super Mario Bros. without getting into its influence and importance to gaming history. It is tempting to simply immortalize it as an unquestionable masterpiece when looking at the context of its release. While Super Mario Bros. absolutely does deserve to be remembered for everything it did for gaming, it should not be confined to that. On top of everything else, SMB manages to still be a solid, fun, although certainly not perfect, game, even when separating it from its historical context. Super Mario Bros. is still worth playing today as a game and, considering how many new things it tried, that’s incredibly impressive.