Hot on the heels of our dive into The Legend of Zelda franchise, we now jump, stomp, and dive into the most iconic and popular video game franchise ever, the Super Mario Bros. series. Each week, we’ll take a unique look at each game in the series, and discuss aspects you may not have considered. First off, naturally, is the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES.
Mario’s popularity is not simply massive. It’s a global phenomenon. In the 1990s, one survey showed that the Nintendo mascot was more recognizable than Mickey Mouse. I don’t know how true that would be today with Disney owning the intellectual property of almost everything in the pop culture lexicon. Hell, Disney is even rebooting my life story, giving my journey of becoming a freelance writer the gritty reimagining it deserves.
Look, I don’t know how old you are, but I’m old enough to remember playing Vs. Super Mario Bros. in the arcade. I’m also old enough to remember tabletop Ms. Pac Man and Galaga, but we don’t need to get into that, or what a rotary phone is today. Suffice it to say I have decades of video game knowledge, and ever since I started writing here, I’ve begun looking at video games in a whole new way. I never really knew why I liked a game, but I always knew that they either clicked with me, or they didn’t.
However, now that I spend a good bulk of time writing about those intangible factors that make a game addictive, I’ve also developed an eye for what game designers do to make a game appealing and accessible to players.
There’s an art to it. It’s not luck. Or at least, it’s not all luck.
World 1-1: The Tutorial Level
Playing Mario for the first time, I remember watching the demo play before inserting a quarter and giving it a shot myself. This brief snippet of gameplay shows you stomping on a Goomba and jumping over a pipe. Not all that informative, but it’s informative enough. The devs behind the original Mario Bros. retroactively disliked their decision to kill the player if they jumped on the back of a turtle. To them, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense that such an act would hurt the player. That’s why Mario could stomp on enemies in SMB, and why the demo shows you this. There was no way to make you aware of it in-game. From there, the intro level teaches you something new constantly and simply through visuals.
You learn that:
- You can hit, but not break bricks as Regular (or Small) Mario.
- You can hit Question Mark blocks to get a coin.
- Some Question Mark blocks have Mushrooms that turn you into Super Mario.
- As Super Mario, you can break bricks.
- (If discovered) you find that there are hidden blocks you can reveal that hold 1 Up (extra life) mushrooms.
- Some pipes are accessible by pushing down on the controls.
- You must jump over pits or die.
- If you hit the platform an enemy is walking on from below; they will die. This gameplay was akin to that of the original Mario Bros.
- Some Question Mark blocks have Fire Flowers that turn Super Mario into Fire Flower Mario.
- Some regular bricks, when struck, will hold several coins, the amount of which you receive depends on how quickly you repeatedly strike the brick after hitting it the first time.
- Turtles can be stomped on, causing them to hide in their shells for a bit (again, another carryover from Mario Bros.). You can either hit them again to kick them in whichever direction you are facing, or ignore them, at which point they’ll come out of their shell and resume wandering. Conversely, you can also just blast them with a fireball.
- Some Question Blocks have Stars that shoot out of the block and proceed to bounce around the level. If Mario catches it, he becomes invincible. A helpful iconic Koji Kondo tune plays during this period and even gives you a subtle music cue when the power is about the wear off.
- The level ends with you ascending a large stairway and jumping on a flagpole. You are awarded more points the higher you are when you grab the pole.
All of this is explained to you in World 1-1. It’s a tutorial without being a tutorial. That means you’re not stopped every three steps so a helper character can go, “Hey Mario! You see that turtle? You can jump on them to stun them. Jump on them again to kick them. Try it!”
The game shows you something, which in turn gives you the knowledge to overcome the next obstacle. This then leads you to the next, and so on.
World 1-2: We Can Be Happy Underground
As someone who mastered this game as a kid, only to become a serviceable player later in life, there are certain little things I always try to do when I play this game. It’s usually some trick or hidden item that I get because it’s simply part of my gaming routine such as:
- When you first begin the underground section of 1-2, you are approached by two seemingly conjoined Goombas. If you jump on both of them at once, you get 100 points for one and 400 for the other.
- There is a part where you are too big to walk under a wall as Super Mario. You can break the bricks above and pass through, or if you’re regular fun-sized Mario, you can pass under it.
Me? I like to get an invincibility star, get a running start and crouch-slide under it as Super Mario.
- There’s a 1 Up mushroom most SMB fans know about midway through. That’s a given.
- When you exit a pipe as Super Fire Mario, you can “skate” around with one foot up in the air if you hold down the fire button. This is what passed as a “trick” back in the day.
- There is a Warp Zone that leads to Worlds 2 – 4 at the end of the level. I always skip this because I’m all about getting to the Princess “the long way ’round”, as The Doctor would say.
I don’t usually try to access the Minus World because it traps you in an eternal loop that you can only escape via death. However, I did do it during this playthrough because 1) I was writing an article about the game and 2) Nintendo Switch Online has a rewind function, so I could get the screen captures I needed and then turn back the clock and proceed as if it’s business as usual.
World -1: Deja Vu, All Over (and Over) Again
According to people, who love glitches far more than I do, there are many negative worlds in the game; however, this is the one almost everyone knew about when I was growing up.
You access it by leaving the last breakable brick before the exit pipe in World 1-2. Then break a few bricks to the left of it and position yourself at the far left edge of the exit pipe. Face away from the brick and then jump up and push back (right) on the controller. If you do it correctly, you will move through the wall into the Welcome to Warp Zone area. Enter the first pipe and you will find yourself in World -1.
I suppose if Nintendo ever embraced a Trophy/Achievement system, this is the sort of thing you’d be rewarded for doing. Unfortunately, outside of your own sense of accomplishment, this area does nothing except trap you inside a replica of the water section of World 2-2, the only difference being once you exit the pipe at the end, you get dropped right back at the beginning of the level. This repeats itself until time expires or you do yourself in.
World 1-3: Platforms and Turtle Physics
Here we are introduced to gameplay mechanics such as horizontal and vertical moving platforms. We also see how turtle shells behave when kicked off the ledges. If we didn’t kick a shell into enemies in World 1-1, perhaps we’ll do it here for the first time. The evolution of gameplay grows incrementally.
World 1-4: Bowser’s Castle
By the time I discovered Super Mario Bros. in the arcade, it was 1986. Video games were not known for having full-fledged levels, and most weren’t even side-scrollers. They were usually one screen at a time (or just one screen total). So when I reached World 1-4 the first time, I thought I was at the end of the game.
The arcade version of Super Mario Bros. (which was called Vs. Super Mario Bros.) was more difficult than the version we got for the NES. While my article and screen captures are all from the NES version, I recall that Bowser’s castle was more difficult. For one, the home version has less rotating fire bars.
If you defeat Bowser with fireballs, he is revealed to be a Goomba disguised as Bowser. If you merely jump over him and hit the ax, you retract the bridge and he falls into the lava. Either way, you are led to the next room where a Mushroom Retainer (which we now know to be Toad or a Toad) tells you, “Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle.” You may have heard this line referenced in a few hundred games over the years.
World 2-1: Oh, What a Feeling, When We’re Dancing on a Green Thing
World 2-1 introduces trampolines, piranha plants poking out of pipes, and magical beanstalks that grow ever so high into the clouds. As a young gamer in 1986, there was one thing you always did when you got to the bonus area in the clouds. You just had to dance! It was one of those weird little quirks (like “skating” after coming up from a pipe) that every gamer knew about.
Look, I get it, sometimes you just can’t stop the feeling. I know, there’s a reason I don’t make too many modern music references.
World 2-2: Cheep Cheeps, Bloopers, and Wicked Undertow
Have you ever heard the common criticism that underwater levels in video games are usually awful? Well, there’s a reason for that, and it’s usually the controls. Few games give you fluid controls in underwater levels, and back in the 8-bit era, you could almost guarantee it.
I don’t find the controls in SMB water levels to be any trickier than they are when you’re on land. The Cheep Cheep fishes sort of shuffle forward slowly and deliberately. It’s the Bloopers you have to watch for. Their jerky, sudden movements, and their tenacity can be a problem when the pathways tighten up a bit, but it’s all completely manageable.
Besides, this level is merely acquainting you with the environment, meaning there will be an escalation in challenges down the line.
World 2-3: Bridge on the River Cheep Cheep
Where World 2-2 introduced you to the underwater level, World 2-3 introduces you to the Bridge Level. It’s basically a long stretch of broken up bridges; only red Cheep Cheeps are shooting up ostensibly from the water below.
Although the graphics in the game are basic, the designers made small choices like having the water level dovetail into the bridge level, carrying over the Cheep Cheep characters from the former to give a sense of continuity to the latter.
World 2-4: Elevator Action
The second of Bowser’s castles is a short level. It’s made significantly easier due to the fact many of the fire bars that appear in a later version of the level are not activated here.
There is a brief section where you jump from one set of elevator platforms to another. The elevators themselves are reminiscent of the ones featured in Donkey Kong. Even back then, Nintendo would take a concept from an earlier game and build on it in a future title, even if it was merely a callback or visual reference.
Like I said before, this is a short level that can be completed in about 30 seconds once you get the lay of the land.
World 3-1: Nighttiming
“Now it’s dark,” as Frank Booth would say. Again, the original Super Mario Bros. was not exactly the most visually exciting game. Sure, it was streets ahead of other games of its time, but there were hardware limitations and size restrictions, so the programmers and designers had to make subtle, economic changes to give the appearance of variety.
As many know, the clouds and bushes are exactly the same, only with different colors. Sound cues are reused in different situations. Here in 3-1, the blue sky of daytime is swapped out for one black as night on a moonless night.
This is also the level where you encounter the Hammer Bros. for the first time, and they are a real problem. They usually work in tandem, meaning you have two nimble turtles jumping up and down tossing hammers at you. Their movements leave little margin for error and make them perhaps the most formidable enemies in the game. You can find yourself running low on lives after a few unlucky turns facing off against them, which is why the 1 Up Trick at the end of the level is so helpful.
Are You Turtle-y Enough for the Turtle Club?
The 1 Up trick isn’t something that a player discovered. It was placed there by the game designers intentionally. It allows you to rack up massive amounts of points and (most importantly) many extra lives.
For the uninitiated, 3-1 ends as all non-castle levels do, with a tall stairway leading to the end-level flagpole. When you arrive there, two turtles will be walking down the stairs. Bypass the first one and wait for the second to drop to the step above you. If you time your jump properly you will hit the turtle, causing him to hit the stair and ricochet back towards you just as you land on his shell again. This process will repeat itself, causing your point total to multiple up to a max of 8000 points, after which you will be rewarded with an extra life (1 Up) for each subsequent bounce.
There is no real method of continuing this process endlessly. Sometimes you will only get a few consecutive bounces. Other times you’ll get so many extra lives the game will glitch out and end your game entirely.
The safe bet is to get a few dozen extra lives and move on. I know the greedy gamer inside you will want to push your luck for as many extra lives as possible, but please, be prudent.
World 3-3: Speed Run
World 3-2 doesn’t have anything new to offer, so we move along to world 3-3. I remember this being one of my favorite levels as a kid because there is a section of it where you can break off a pretty cool run. It’s about as close to fast-paced action as this Mario game gets.
I remember that if I screwed up a run I would intentionally die so I could start over and do it again since there were so few places where a non-speed runner like myself could fly through a stage and feel like an expert gamer.
World 3 ends with a fairly standard castle level, as 3-4 offers up some basic jumps, fireballs, and pitfalls. Nothing to shout about—defeat Fake Bowser (a Buzzy Beetle incognito this time) and move on.
World 4-1: Nevertheless, Lakitu Persists
The game ups the difficulty in this world as Lakitu makes his debut. He’s the sneaky little fella hiding in a cloud dropping Spiney guys on you from up high. He can be defeated, but another one will soon follow to take his place. Allow him to live, and the level with becomes engulfed in spiked Spineys.
Even the bonus areas up the ante. It takes a skilled Mario player to clear a bonus area such as the one below. You must first slide under the middle portion with very little room to gain momentum. Then, you must run towards the exit pipe, jump and crouch (in mid-air mind you) and squeeze in between the brick and pipe to gain a power-up.
World 4-2: Oh, the Places You Can Go
Here is a pivotal level in the game. It contains not one, but two warp zones; one where you can warp directly to Worlds 6, 7, or 8; and another located over the exit pipe wall, much like the warp zone in 1-2. That one takes you directly to World 5.
The Warp Zone to Worlds 6, 7, and 8 is a bit trickier. You need to hit invisible bricks in a particular order to reach and access the beanstalk that leads to the Warp Zone area. If you hit certain invisible bricks (such as one directly below the brick that reveals the beanstalk itself), you can prevent yourself from accessing the warp zone.
I always forget there even is a Warp Zone to level 5. Whenever I do play Super Mario Bros. these days, I’m looking for the full experience, meaning I’m not interested in shortcuts, since I want to re-experience those levels I may have given short shrift to as a kid.
World 4-3: The Long Way Around
If you’re in World 4-3, you’ve committed to getting to the endgame the long way around. There are no further warp zones after World 4-2. This level looks very similar to the area where you discover the Warp Zone to worlds 6, 7, and 8, with the giant, yellow and red-spotted mushroom platforms. Almost as if this level takes place in the same location of the Mushroom Kingdom, only perhaps at a lower altitude. Again, that could be me over analyzing them merely using the same elements they used in the previous level, but it gives the game flow and consistency that I don’t think is accidental.
World 4-4: Bowser’s Castle of Illusion
This level is the first one to employ the gimmick of having to traverse a very specific path to progress. Failure to do so will lead to segments of the castle repeating themselves. These castles aren’t my favorite, but they are a part of the Super Mario Bros. series. Several games in the series have the castle (or Ghost House) levels act as mild brain teasers.
Unlike the SNES Super Mario All-Stars version, there are no helpful sound cues to let you know if you’ve done a section right or not. You just have to figure it out for yourself once you realize the level just repeats itself on an eternal loop during certain sections.
World 5: That Escalated Gradually
By World 5, the game has pretty much shown you all of its bags of trickery. Now it’s time to see just how much you’ve learned as a gamer. The levels themselves even start to change. Notice how at the end of World 5-1 the signature staircase leading to the flagpole begins to degrade, with sections missing.
In World 5-2 some bricks can be accessed as your bigger, Super Mario self, but require you to evolve your skills. In the one pictured below, you need to get a running start, crouch, and slide under the brick to access it.
World 5-3 is basically World 1-3, except with Bullet Bills being fired off-camera from the right, while World 5-4 is basically World 2-4, except with all the fire bars lit this time around. While this is almost definitely a result of sparse disk space, it also does what nearly every Mario game eventually does; it shifts from a game anyone can play to a game that requires a bit more strategy and faster reflexes as it goes on.
World 6: The Pipes, the Pipes are Calling
While World 5 reused previous levels, World 6 offers brand new levels with unique ideas like pipes that hover in midair that often requiring pinpoint platforming to reach. The lure here, of course, being that you’ll want to reach these pipes in the hopes of accessing bonus areas that can offer coins, power-ups, and the opportunity to bypass potentially dangerous portions of the level. It’s an idea that grew throughout the series, as potential rewards were dangled in front of you, making you choose between merely blasting through a level and possibly powering up Mario. Believe me; there is a major advantage to having a Fire Flower Mario vs a Super Mario in SMB.
Jumps become more dangerous, bottomless pits become wider, and running without caution will almost certainly end in death. It’s all manageable, and the game plays fair, but you need to play carefully and not squander any power-ups you find.
World 6-3 evoked a winter feeling only by the color palette shifting to mostly white. There are no gameplay changes, and no surfaces are slippery, but it was almost certainly referred to as the Snow Level by most players back in the day. Your imagination fills in more elaborate backstories for things when you’re younger for sure, but none of this is accidental, not with legendary game designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka at the helm.
World 7: Risk vs. Reward
Now that the game has introduced every enemy it has in its repertoire, the level design itself gets more sophisticated. In the picture above, notice how all those breakable bricks are appealing to the eye. You could easily be lured down there only to hear the sound of two Bullet Bills firing out of the cannons to the left, forcing you to have to make some rapid decisions. It’s a common lure the Super Mario Bros. series uses often.
In some games, the coins serve as a path, guiding you where to go when your choices seem unclear. In this game, you are often led into situations that don’t seem dangerous at first blush and are often hard to escape once you commit to them.
In World 7, you are introduced to how the game feels about the Look Before You Leap mentality; it doesn’t recommend it. Whenever a jump seems like the obvious choice, you’d be well-served to take a quick look at your surroundings and consider the words of the great Admiral Ackbar.
World 8: Another Castle, At Last
The final four stages are the true test of your talents. Gone are the mid-level checkpoints. Die anywhere in the level, no matter how close to the end, and you go right back to the beginning of that current stage.
Jumps require some thought, pre-planning, and precision. In the arcade version of later levels the jumps are borderline improbable, requiring you to jump at just the right moment in order to bounce off a flying Koopa Trooper at just the right moment, to reach safety on the other side. Still, nothing here reaches that level of difficulty. Death is inevitable, but persistence and some clever problem solving should get you through the tougher parts.
Again, if you choose to run through the levels and ignore the more challenging aspects you can certainly do so. However, there are no conveniently placed power-ups. If you want to survive the sheer number of Hammer Bros. the game tosses at you, you’ll at least want to attempt to power yourself up.
Super Fire Flower Mario is ideal, as you can mow down most enemies with it while dodging Bullet Bills and stomping Buzzy Beetles. Lose your flower power, and the game becomes measurably more difficult.
World 8-3 is an interesting level, in both design and challenge. Its background is unique, although not all that visually arresting. It’s full of Hammer Brothers, only this time they are not jumping up and down from platforms, they are on the ground. You can no longer take them out from below. Your only method of attack is to bounce on them when they are not tossing hammers, which is not very often. Even the act of jumping over them becomes difficult because they still leap up in the air at inopportune moments. When you reach the stairway at the end of the level, it’s barely a stairway anymore. It’s just a few blocks in the air that suggests a stairway once existed there.
The final level of Super Mario Bros. is (now) old hat to me. I know where to go, I know what to do. It’s another one of those castle levels that loops you around in certain areas. Additionally, some pipes will take you backwards in the level.
It requires trial and error, but it also requires you to recognize visual clues to progress further. Emerging from a pipe and seeing a few Buzzy Beetles coming towards you will indicate ‘Crap…I’m back here again’, but it also means you can rule out one more pipe you never want to go down again. Have I seen that suspiciously inaccessible pipe hovering up there before? These Cheep Cheeps are undoubtedly new; this must be the way.
Once you reach the short underwater section, with its unique aesthetic, you’re almost home. The sound and sight of Bowser’s flames indicate that the end is nigh. One more Hammer Bro. and it’s a final battle with the real Bowser himself.
In my playthrough, I was powered up, so I took him down using fireballs and rescued Princess Toadstool. It’s all a bit anticlimactic, as you can just as easily take out Bowser by jumping over him (if you can absorb one hit, or are regular Mario and want to risk it) and hitting the ax to drop him into the lava, but that’s what games were back then.
The Last Word
There really is nothing to do once you’ve completed SMB, even with Princess Toadstool’s promise of a “New Quest.” You’re given slightly faster enemies, and some weaker enemies swapped out for slightly tougher ones. Defeating the game again does not give you a new or different ending. Additionally, when you finish the game and start over, your points reset to zero, meaning you can’t carry over your score into the new playthrough.
With little reward for completion, and an entire series of games beyond it, newer gamers may not spend much time with this game now, but it is without a doubt one of the most influential video games of all time.
Nintendo has built an empire on Mario, and this game was the beginning of a franchise that is still going strong today, as the latest entry Super Mario Odyssey may very well be the best entry yet (although I am willing to offer that for debate, and most certainly will as this series on Super Mario continues).
- Player 2 is referred to as Luigi, although he is merely a color palette swap of Mario. He does not possess any of Luigi’s unique traits that he would soon adopt in both the US and Japanese versions of Super Mario Bros. 2.
- I didn’t mention jumping over the flagpole in World 3-3, and other such well known “secrets” because we’ve all been suckered into reading those clickbait slideshow articles already. I’m trying to bring something new to the table here, folks.
- This was the first game I played at home that was an almost exact visual replica of the arcade game version. As someone old enough to remember playing Donkey Kong on Colecovision and Intellivision (before there was Jump Man, there was the Intellivision Running Man), those games were ported with varying degrees of success. Super Mario Bros. on the NES felt like you were cheating the system. No more quarters!
- Make no mistake; this is the game that saved the video game industry. When the Nintendo Entertainment System released in America, the video game industry was on life support. The NES and the fact Super Mario Bros. was bundled in with it, saved the entire industry, meaning that whatever console you ride or die with these days, it’s Nintendo, and two lapsed plumbers that made it possible.
- Next time, we take a look at the Japanese follow up, Super Mario Bros. 2, also known as The Lost Levels to American audiences thanks to the SNES Super Mario All-Stars title. Don’t worry, we will also cover Mario and company’s trip to dreamland as well, so there is no need to (Doki Doki) panic.