In the first edition of Square Roots a few weeks ago, I mentioned that candidates for the column usually answered to the qualities of straightforward yet difficult. With that- and Nintendo chronology- in mind, I’d like to talk about Super Mario Bros., released in September 1985.
Straightforward, yes: you are Mario. Travel through the Mushroom Kingdom, left to right. Somewhere in it Princess Toadstool is without her plumber prince. Find her. Stay alive.
Though Super Mario Bros. was not the first side-scrolling game, it did inspire a contemporary journalist to create the term. Most of the genre’s pioneers had put players in jet-fighters, where deliberate positioning overpowered the law of gravity. For the recently named Mario, new was the world of horizons unfolding end over end. After success in Japanese arcades, the game was ported to and bundled with Famicom (or NES) units. That is was bundled with the massively successful console surely gave the title an advantage in becoming the second best-selling game of all time: many sources indicate over 40 million copies sold, a figure only surpassed by Nintendo’s own (and similarly bundled) Wii Sports.
Yet strangely, Super Mario Bros. lives on mostly as a legend, the game that gave Mario his niche as challenger to the recurring trial of Bowser and his castles. I downloaded it on Virtual Console soon after its availability, less as a game to truly dig into than as a test run for this new Wii thing I had hooked up to my TV. What I didn’t realize (and that I recently have thanks to Square Roots) is that Super Mario Bros. is hard. Brutal, even (and I say this as a seasoned platformer!).
Players start with three lives, and losing each is like taking a nearly irreversible step towards the end of the adventure. In simpler (but forbidding) terms, the Virtual Console’s digitalized instruction manual confides: “If you lose all of your lives, the game will end.” Indeed. No matter how deep into the eight worlds you may be, zero lives means redirection to the menu screen, with only your highest score to honor past sweat, and the start button daring you to beat it.
Naturally, games today never do this. They’re too long to allow it. But Super Mario Bros. isn’t the quickest affair, and sitting in front of a game of was akin to swimming away from shore just to see how far you could get. Rocks and buoys on which to rest are hardly to be found; finding 100 coins to add to Mario’s life count is an occasional providence as much as a deliberate priority.
Screens like this have become all too familiar.
And enemies quickly evolve from the meekness incarnate of Goombas, an enemy making its first gaming appearance along with Hammer Bros., Piranha Plants, Bullet Bills and Lakitu, into more fearsome foes. The Bloopers (squids) of level 2-2 offer no respite, and the parabolic Cheep-Cheeps (fish) of the next can only be survived with careful consideration of their trajectories. I’ll admit it, I have not yet rescued Peach this time around. Doing so without the use of Warp Zones or infinite life exploits would be a proud accomplishment. Is Nintendo’s toughest gauntlet this one here, 25 years of age?
Yes, the adventure contains some difficult sprints, and combines that with the lengthiness of a marathon. One anecdote on the game that has greatly stuck with me lies in a discussion of an entirely different game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. “Playing it,” Adam Sessler shares, “I could recall getting the first Nintendo system and sitting down with my brother to play Super Mario Brothers. Upon reaching the subterranean level 1-2, the dramatic aesthetic shift awakened us to the giddy thrill of realizing that we had no idea what the game had in store ahead, and our excitement became an uncontained rapturous exaltation.” Punctuating Mario’s travels between certain levels (e.g. just after 1-1) is a short animation of his venturing into a small, reverse L-shaped pipe. Logically, this wouldn’t take the plumber far, but as a symbol of sorts, the animation suggested that the Mushroom Kingdom was not just fun, but a universe of caves, skies, fire and water far bigger than you could see.
Saturated as the game market is, we do have to stop and think of the excitement brought about by finding secret chambers of the game, or discovering that Super Mario can crouch-slide under low blocks if given enough momentum. Super Mario Bros. stood as a great game even as Mario trotted in the plain daylight of the first level. In its side-scrolling originality, its twists and turns, its length and its difficulty, it still stands as an exceptional one, and a worthwhile visit on Virtual Console.