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Super Mario Bros.: Platforming perfection

I spend a lot of time writing, and also a lot of time playing Nintendo games, both old and new. So it seemed only natural I should write something about them. And there's no better place to start than with the original NES game: Super Mario Bros.

My wife got me the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch for Christmas, and the first thing I did with it was to play through SMB without warping. I've played it so many times since I got my first NES at age five that the game's a breeze now, especially since I've been playing Super Mario Bros. 35. After fighting off a screen full of Lakitus, the original seems absurdly simple!

SMB is the first NES game I ever played. It was set up outside my mom's hair salon at the mall, so kids could play while waiting! After 35 years, the game has lost nothing of its original splendor and joy. I hope I won't offend any Atari fans, but I've always felt that games from that era (before the crash of '83) don't hold up today in quite the way that some NES games do. Maybe that's nostalgia-induced bias and in reality it's a clean spectrum, such that people born a few years after me would say about NES games what I do about Atari games. But I don't think so. For one, if that were true, the NES would not have been able to single-handedly re-launch the industry. The level of sophistication that the NES brought was truly a sea change. To me, everything after that seems more or less incremental.

Super Mario Bros. is almost flawless. The other NES launch titles, like Tennis, feel primitive by comparison. Of course, that's because the others go back to 1983 and early '84, when they launched on the Japanese Family Computer (Famicom). In contrast, SMB was state-of-the-art, having hit the Famicom just weeks earlier. The two main elements that make it a timeless classic are the controls and level designs. The controls are so smooth, you have almost complete control over Mario's movements. Jumping around is a pleasure. This contrasts sharply with nearly all of its predecessors, like its own predecessor arcade game, Mario Bros.. Even good games like Castlevania feel clunky next to Mario's butter-smoothness.

But this agile handling would matter little if the level design weren't solid. Every level is well designed, and they progress perfectly in complexity. The variation between above-ground, underground, platforming, underwater, and castle levels keeps play from getting stale. In addition, the clean enemy and item designs, together with the catchy light-hearted music, give the game a superior aesthetic by the standards of the mid-80's. The game's sole flaw is that the designers padded out the length by duplicating five of the 32 levels with only minor changes (5-3 = 1-3; 5-4 = 2-4; 6-4 = 1-4; 7-2 = 2-2; 7-3 = 2-3).

Despite being an overpriced collectible, the Game & Watch gave me a great excuse to give the game another playthrough at the end of 2020. Although there are many great NES games, there are only a few that are as easy to pick up and play for just a few minutes as Super Mario Bros.

Being a professor, I think I'll give this game a grade to conclude: an A, of course! Not an A+, because its simplicity prevents it from reaching the later heights of the NES. Next I'd like to play through a few of the other launch titles, none of which I played as a kid (except Duck Hunt), to see how they compare. I'm afraid I may have to give out a few Ds or even Fs!

Linked reviews
"Super Mario Bros. is one of those rare games that has never really gone away. There's always more to discover, and always one more reason to return to the Mushroom Kingdom."

"There are few games that have had such long-lasting impact for millions of people worldwide, fewer games still that are universally admired for the scope of their accomplishments. Super Mario Bros. wasn’t just a game: it was a revolution, the effects of which we’re still experiencing today."

"Super Mario Bros. laid the basis for the workings of video games in general. It defined how entire swaths of the medium should work. It’s absolutely one of the true all-time great video games, and it helped catapult the NES to global domination."

"This was a new frontier for gamers, as most had never seen a game with this deep a story and accompanying gameplay elements."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo, 5/5

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