Updated: Aug 26
System reviewed: NES, Famicom Disk System
Released: 1985, 1986
Did I finish: Yes
Buy: Available on Nintendo Online (Nintendo Switch)
Review Video: https://youtu.be/9ozrF5BQrE4
Writing a review for the original Super Mario Bros. is a bit like writing a review for water. We absolutely need it, and it’s fundamental to so many things. It’s nothing special on its own, and we don’t need to add much to improve it, but I can’t imagine a world without it. I’m taking a crack at it, anyway.
Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, is a first-party Nintendo title for the company’s industry-shattering first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System, popularly known as the NES. Some people say “en ee es” but I’m one of those guys who prefers “ness.” Argue amongst yourselves in the comments if you like.
Nintendo billed the game as an “athletic game,” which is a fitting descriptor. Now we’d call it a platformer, but I can see the idea. You run, jump, and bounce off springs and enemies to reach a flagpole or defeat Bowser (or other creatures pretending to be Bowser) at the end of the stage. Mario is a legit athlete.
This game popularized, if not outright defined, several modern elements in the platformer genre: Horizontal scrolling, platforms, power-ups, collectables, springs, killable enemies, shooting (Fire Flower Mario), crouching. You could even argue it played a part in the eventual rise of speedrunning with a clear level timer ticking away on the screen.
Super Mario Bros. 2 (known as Super Mario Bros. 2J to prevent confusion) was released in Japan for the Famicom Disk System in 1986 and didn’t make it to the States until 1993, rebranded Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels and packaged in Super Mario All-Stars for the Super NES. Super.
The sequel was infamously “too hard for an American audience,” leaving us to get Super Mario Bros. 2 (known in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA) instead, the Mario-reskinned Doki Doki Panic remake. Some people say we got the short end of that deal, but I’ll leave my verdict on SMB2 for a future review.
As a Famicom Disk System game, Super Mario Bros. 2J had the extra resources to improve the game’s graphics, though mechanically, it’s almost identical. New elements include windy stages, green springs, poison mushrooms, and Luigi as a unique single-player character.
Luigi debuted in the original title as the second player in two-player mode, where he was no more than a green-suited copy of Mario. In 2J, Luigi has very different physics and presents an entirely new play experience through the same levels.
While there's no two-player mode for 2J, that was the weakest part of the original game. Players would alternate through the game, essentially playing two parallel runs at the same time. If either player ran out of lives, their punishment was to watch the other player continue the game until they also got a game over. Not the best experience.
Nintendo were clever with using the limited resources of their underpowered gaming machine. To build out the original games’ 32 unique levels, they pulled from a pool of four level types: land, underground, sea, treetops, and castle. For extra variety, some stages use different palettes to distinguish day and night.
Level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. is the quintessential tutorial level. Anyone looking to make a platformer should study this level in depth to see how the masters worked their craft. With simple guidance and choice tile placement, you can learn almost all the elements of the game—everything but swimming, climbing, puzzle castles, and Bowser.
The puzzle castles are one part where the game shows its age. These are castle levels where you need to follow a specific route, otherwise the level loops on itself. That on its own isn’t a problem, but there’s no feedback whether you get it right or wrong, so sometimes it’s difficult to tell what’s happening. Nintendo knew this and added a chime in the All-Stars version to tell the player when they’re on the right track.
Another problem quickly solved in future entries is that screen only scrolls to the right. This limits a lot of the level design, since there can’t be any vertical areas or back and forth. But it wasn’t long before Nintendo overcame this hurdle, as the next pair of Mario games expanded significantly in this area.
If you played other Mario games and come back to this title, you may be surprised when Fire Flower Mario gets hit by an enemy. In every other Mario game, any power-up past the Super Mario stage gives you an extra hit, sending you back to the Super Mario state. But in the original and 2J, you always go back to small Mario on a single hit—even if you have a fire flower.
This change seems insignificant but results in a much steeper difficulty overall, since you can only be a maximum of two hits from death at any time.
2J is hard, but if you look at it as the game you play after mastering the first one, it’s not a huge leap. The difficulty ramps up at a reasonable level aimed at Super Mario Bros. masters. Maybe it’s better to think about the two games as one extended experience.
On the other hand, 2J does occasionally go too far with its backwards warp pipes and occasional trolly design. It expects you to have near pixel-perfect mastery of Mario’srun and jump in several places, and several levels are difficult to handle in one shot.
Luigi offers a nice way to replay 2J and double the available content with the benefit of a higher jump offset by the difficulty of slippery controls. While the original SMB offers a second quest, all it does is replace Koopa Troopas with Buzzy Beetles, ultimately making very little difference.
Though Super Mario Bros. and its formerly Japan-only sequel are dated in some ways, they're still timeless fun
Do these games stand the test of time? I think they’re eminently more playable than a lot of other games of the era, but it’s important to approach them through a historical lens. Super Mario Bros. 3 vastly improves on the formula, but it’s important to realize that was a full five years later, almost equal to the gap between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64.
They’re worth a play, especially if you want to study simple, solid platformer level design. And they’re still very fun. Though, if you get irritated by “NES hard” experiences, as I sometimes do, you may want to avoid the masochistic experience that is 2J.