Released: October 1985
US Cartridge ID: NES-SM-USA
Genre: Action Platform
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 320 kilobit
Mapper: NROM-256 (32k PRG, 8k CHR)
Super Mario Bros. is widely considered the savior of the American video game market, marking Nintendo’s dominance after the fallout resulting from the infamous industry crash of 1983. The original NES version alone has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and until it was overtaken by Nintendo’s Wii launch pack-in game, Wii Sports (2006), the Guinness Book of World Records recognized it as the best-selling video game of all time (and in 2012, it still sits at #2). Though Nintendo had already experienced success in America with the arcade game Donkey Kong (1983), it was Super Mario Bros. that made Nintendo’s name synonymous with gaming for an entire generation of players.
At the time of Super Mario Bros. release, platforming games were hardly novel – they’d existed in many forms well before 1985. Shigeru Miyamoto, the mastermind behind the game (as well as countless other classics, including The Legend of Zelda, Excitebike, Ice Climber, etc.), focused on having the gameplay itself take center stage, rather than the high score chasing that laid at the heart of most games from the era. Using a character that was already familiar to Nintendo fans (albeit in a wholly different capacity), Mario was given a brand new back-story, a brother that could be controlled by another player, an appealing aesthetic (later accused by many of being laden with drug references), and one of the most easily recognized soundtracks since the beginning of electronic gaming.
Justifying the gameplay is a simple plot featuring the abduction of the Mushroom Kingdom’s Princess Toadstool by Koopa, king of the turtles. Hearing about her troubles, Mario sets off to save her and the Mushroom Kingdom from the evil reptilian foe. Exploring 8 worlds (32 stages), Mario will encounter Goombas (walking orange mushrooms), Koopa Troopas (green and red turtles), hungry Pirana [sic] Plants that unexpectedly sprout from pipes, and more. Most of his foes can be dispatched by stepping on them, but Mario can also power himself with Magic Mushrooms (doubling Mario’s size while allowing him to break blocks from below), Fire Flowers (granting the ability to throw fireballs), and Starmen (giving Mario temporary invincibility from everything besides bottomless pits) to give him an edge over Koopa’s underlings. These powerups, along with coins and 1-ups, can be found by hitting bricks or yellow question mark blocks that hang suspended over all land-based stages.
Most stages task Mario with running left-to-right, destroying enemies, collecting items, and reaching the final flagpole before the time limit is reached. Some stages feature aquatic environments, where Mario must swim while avoiding the beasts of the deep; other stages feature hidden bonus areas. By climbing hidden vines or ducking into pipes, Mario will be granted access to areas filled with coins to collect, or to a “Warp Zone,” which skips Mario to later levels without playing all of the preceding ones. The fourth stage of each world places Mario in the enemy’s castle, where he must negotiate simple puzzles and fire-traps to reach Koopa. King Koopa, who always fights on a bridge suspended over a pit of lava, may be defeated with fireballs (if Mario is sufficiently powered-up), or by jumping on a switch that retracts the bridge, unceremoniously dumping monster into the boiling lake below. In most of the castles, Mario is not greeted by the Princess after defeating Koopa as is expected, but rather is told that she is in a different castle, prompting the continuation of Mario’s quest.
Several aspects of the game made Super Mario Bros. stand out against its contemporaries. It was the perfect game to show off Nintendo’s new NES controller, which was completely different in style to the joysticks that gamers had known and were familiar with. With two action buttons, jumping without moving the joystick up became a possibility. Multiple action buttons also allowed the player an unprecedented amount of control over Mario’s running and jumping: the B button, when held down, would make Mario run. If the A button was pressed while Mario was already running, he would jump farther and higher than usual. Most games at the time did not allow for varying character speeds or jump heighths; Super Mario Bros. use of these new mechanics provided for an amazing number of possibilities in gameplay, including timed jumps over hazards that required the player to consider momentum, as well as the freedom that it granted the player in exploring their environment (taken advantage of by the development team with the inclusion of several secret items and areas scattered across the game). Perhaps most importantly, the player could alter Mario’s speed and direction mid-jump, and accurately judge where Mario would land without any tedious trial-and-error exercises required to figure out Mario’s handling.
Super Mario Bros. graphic and sound design were considered revolutionary by the standards of the time, and still look excellent today. Unlike the majority of early 1980s home computers, the NES supported proper hardware screen-scrolling, allowing the screen to smoothly move from left-to-right, rather than displaying solely single-screen areas (Mario Bros.) or jarringly choppy scrolling (most games on the Japanese MSX computer, like Wonder Boy). The general vivacity of Mario’s world, with the liberal use of bright color (especially the blue skies in lieu of the traditional black) and large, detailed characters sprites like Super Mario (whose sprite is actually an aligned set of 8 sprites that are synced to move together) gave the game a real sense of character and personality. The soundtrack, composed by Koji Kondo, was one of the very first to react contextually to the game action. When the timer showed that only 100 seconds remain for Mario to reach the goal, the music speeds up. While Mario is invincible, the music’s pace increases dramatically, suggesting the urgency with which the player is likely moving through a stage in this state. All pieces in the game were additionally designed to match Mario’s movements, ensuring that the music never clashed with the sound effects, as well as providing a heightened sense of immersion for the player.
At its core, Super Mario Bros. exemplifies the best qualities of the 8-bit era. It’s simple enough for anyone to sit down and play, yet has the complexity that can reward the effort and skill of dedicated players. The sheer fun that comes from participating in the game world has been matched by few games since, and even fewer have had such a direct influence over the growth of the entire industry. That the game has been ported and
remade at least ten times, has over a dozen direct sequels, spawned two television shows and a movie, along with a whole line of food and household products speaks volumes about Mario’s appeal and legacy. While Super Mario Bros. sits among the most historically important games of all time, it is an incredibly fun classic that is still as relevant today as it was nearly three decades ago.
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