Retro Game: Super Mario Bros.

Original Release Date: September 13, 1985

Platform Played On: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

Welcome to the inaugural segment of Retro Reflection, a feature where I sit down with a retro video game and go over what I liked about it, what I did not like, how it stands up today as compared to when I played it as a kid (if applicable), and any thing else funny or strange that I may notice in my time playing. This first entry will take us all the way back to 1985 with the first big hit for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), a game that inspired countless others after it, and perhaps the most well recognized games of all time, Super Mario Bros.

As mentioned, this game was developed in 1985 by now legendary game developer Shigeru Miyamoto and was a resounding success for Nintendo, solidifying it as the top contender in the video game industry worldwide. The game has a simple implicit story of an Italian plumber named Mario who sets off to save his beloved Princess Peach from the grips of the evil turtle/dragon hybrid named Bowser. There’s nothing to really get invested into here but it serves as a sufficient motivator for the player to actually progress through the game.

Sitting down with the game today, the first thing I noticed was how superb the controls were, in spite of their simplicity. Movement and motion feel impossibly tight for a game that was released nearly 30 years ago and even feels better than many games designed today. The inclusion of momentum, the force that affects your speed and acceleration and how far you move after letting go of the d-pad, gives the game a feeling of fluidity that allows the player precise control over Mario and ends up making this game feel incredible to play. Another thing that adds to the overall feel of the gameplay is the amount of control the player has over Mario’s jump arc. In other games of its age, such as Castlevania and Ghosts and Goblins, a character’s jump arcs are predetermined so when you decide to jump, you will always land in the same spot and have no control over the jump while in the air. This works well in the aforementioned games because the levels are generally designed for methodical and strategic platforming that require you to slow down before deciding your next action. In Super Mario Bros, where the levels are more open, having a jump that you can control to your desire is a great thing.

mario jump

Finding hidden pathways (by warping down pipes) in this game made it  a prime example of how exploration was perfectly possible in 2D platformers. And though the idea of finding such secrets within a horizontal level was not perfected in the franchise until Super Mario Bros. 3, the original must be given credit for giving the idea the first attempt. Discovering new ways to complete the game was afforded to those who had the desire to explore the seemingly straightforward levels and uncover the secrets. There is no better example of this than the first warp zone in world 1-2, where  exploitation of the environment allows you to run on top of the level and come down to an area that would warp you to one of the next three worlds.

Although there are not a lot of songs featured in the game, the music of Super Mario Bros is undeniably one of the most important, memorable, and eternal parts of it. While the whole soundtrack (about six songs) is well done and has stood the test of time quite well, the main theme song, featured in the first level and others, is by far the most memorable and could possibly be the most iconic song in all of gaming. That the theme could remain so instantaneously recognizable and resonate so well with gamers over several generations is a testament to the kind of thought and care that was put into choosing such flawless melodies and tunes, the kind of perfectionism that Miyamoto would become known for in his quality control.

The graphics and visuals, while appearing primitive and uninteresting at first, actually deserve some praise as well. Consider that this game came out very early on in the NES’s life cycle, so there was not any sort of benchmark to compare with and the full potential of the system would not have been reached yet. The sprites, while not exactly rich in detail, are effective in their simple presentation because they have enough key identifiable features that you can identify who’s who. You can clearly tell that Mario is a mustached man with a hat and overalls, Bowser a dragon/turtle hybrid that he would continue to be in the series, and Toad a mysterious short man with a toadstool for a hat. The designs are simple enough, but the uniqueness of each character also helps them all stand out from each other, as opposed to other 8-bit games that feature, for example, endless amounts of same-looking soldiers or military people.

The color palette, while limited, is also quite effective. Browns and greens are used well to represent the land and nature in the background, which is contrasted with a clear and lively blue that is the big clear sky. Perhaps my favorite use of color is in the dungeons of Bowser’s castle, where there is actually a striking lack of color. There is only black to represent the dark halls of the background, grey for the stone pathway Mario must take to reach the end, and red for the fiery pits of lava, where all that awaits you is your doom. This combination of colors evokes feelings of darkness, despair, and evil that together with the music makes you feel like Mario’s journey to reach his beloved will be wrought with malicious forces (mostly Bowser) that will try to stop you at every attempt. That’s why, when you finally do jump on the switch and send Bowser into a searing bath of fire, there is such a feeling of triumph, of good conquering evil, light conquering darkness.

super mario bros bowser's castle

Being that this game was made so early on in the life-cycle of the NES, it deserves all of the credit and praise it gets. It is a quite well designed game with few technical flaws at all and feels good to play and progress through. With that said, it is definitely not the best that Nintendo has offered, even on its earliest system.

Despite some encouragement to look for secrets and explore briefly, most of the main levels feel very straightforward, too much so occasionally, and aside from adding in a few more challenging enemies in later stages, each level type feels quite similar in design and style. As such the game does somewhat feel a little repetitive, though it is hard to knock the game for that if what is being repeated is enjoyable. If you play the game with some level of care and focus the game offers a modest challenge but nothing that cannot be overcome fairly easily. The levels are also mostly quite short and, having been spoiled by modern platformers, I was often left wanting more. The fact that you only have three “moves” at your disposal (run, jump, and fireball) left the game with a little less variety than I am used to in more modern platformers as well. Keeping it this simple, however, offered a more focused experience, one that any number of people can (and did) find enjoyment out of.

Also, the water levels were bad, as usual.

super mario bros water level

These were my thoughts on the most classic of games, Super Mario Bros. In its age it was a heavy hitter for Nintendo and the most popular game on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Today, the game holds up really well in a lot of ways, with some small issues that leave it with less of an impact than some future titles in the Mario franchise. Come back next time when I take a look at another retro game from my ever growing collection.