While technically not Mario’s first appearance ever in a game, Super Mario Bros. was the first of the famous Mario “trilogy” for the NES that featured both Mario and his brother Luigi in their very own platformer.
In hindsight it’s definitely a little rough around the edges, but it was still a landmark game for a number of reasons. And more importantly it is still good enough game to spend some time on today, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.
That being said, it’s impossible for Nintendo fans not to feel nostalgic when popping in this cartridge. We must remember that it was one of the first platformers to have secrets, 1-ups, hidden items and areas, and warps to other levels. Already the developers were showing the kind of innovation that would make Mario so popular and turn him into a bonafide franchise later on. Some of the things that were later to become instantly associated with Mario were first introduced in this game; for example, the Fire Flower that enabled Mario to shoot fireballs at his enemies, the Mushroom that made him bigger, and the invincibility star. The goal of the game is of course to rescue Princess Toadstool (who later became known as Princess Peach) from the evil Bowser while stomping on koopas, goombas and other assorted enemies.
Control is very basic, but this is to be expected considering there were only 2 buttons on the NES controllers. One button is used to jump, and the other (when held down) to run. Most enemies can be killed by jumping on top of them, or by shooting fireballs if you get the Fire Flower. The control is pretty good but not quite as responsive as in later Mario games; on top of that is the fact that the NES controller isn’t the most ergonomic of devices. A few other quirks include the fact that the screen scrolls in only one direction (forwards) and it is impossible to go backwards and revisit the places you’ve already been. So if you walk past something important you’ll either have to die and restart the level or forget about it and just keep going. Also, if Mario becomes Fire Mario and gets hit he will revert immediately back to small Mario (unlike Mario 3 where he would go to big Mario first). This isn’t a problem per se, it just cranks up the difficulty.
Super Mario Bros. is a decently long game, with 8 levels divided into several smaller stages. The levels are a combination of outdoor and cavern-like locations, some of which look better than others. Generally it’s the indoor stages that suffer due to dark backgrounds and lots of dark colors that don’t allow much detail. Mario himself looks rather chunky (as does Luigi…the brothers look exactly the same except for different colored overalls. The fat and thin characterizations would come later.) On a whole the graphics look quite primitive due to lack of black edges around objects to give them more definition and detail, but the outdoor levels are more colourful and make up for the gloomy blue and black cave areas.
The music in Super Mario Bros. was written by Koji Kondo, one of the best known video game composers in history who has since worked on most of the other Mario games as well as the Zelda series and Star Fox 64, to name a few. There are only about four tracks in the game, but it is truly the mark of great music when these few tracks of relatively short looped melodies never get annoying no matter how many hundreds of times they are heard. Given the age of the game, four tracks of decent music is quite an accomplishment especially when compared to other games of its time that had scant music at all. Furthermore, these are tunes that everyone who has even the vaguest idea of who Nintendo should be able to hum. The songs have just become so well-known over time that even people who don’t play video games will likely recognize them.
Another pleasant surprise is the sound quality of Super Mario Bros. While the sounds are distinctively “old school,” being all rather tinny and trebly, there is a wide variety of them for every situation from jumps to being sucked into a pipe to bopping a koopa on the head, which goes a long way towards keeping the game interesting.
One thing that will definitely throw newer gamers for a loop is the lack of a save feature in Super Mario Bros. It was extremely uncommon for older games like this one to have savegame abilities, and Super Mario Bros. is no exception. (Keep in mind that the game was released in 1985.) Super Mario Bros. still had one foot deeply rooted in the arcade tradition of a certain number of lives and limited continues. Therefore, except to start over often from the beginning, and be prepared to set a few hours aside if you want to play through the game from start to finish (unless of course you use warps, in which case it is possible to complete the game in a matter of minutes!)
There is always a danger with old games of looking back on them through the lense of childhood nostalgia and giving them a higher rating than they deserve. This is definitely not the case with Super Mario Brothers, however. Not only should it be remembered as a classic for the innovations it brought to console gaming, but most importantly Super Mario Bros. is still a decent game today for those who were too young to have known it when it was “fresh.” Super Mario Bros. is one of those titles that with a little graphical tweaking could easily be released on the Game Boy Advance and would probably become a hit all over again to a new generation. Hell, if Nintendo can do it with Super Mario World, why not go back a little further to where it all started: to Super Mario Brothers, the seedling that later grew into a giant Mana Tree. Oh wait, wrong game and wrong company. Oh well, you get the idea…