The game that defined the NES, redefined Mario, and had a permanent impact on the shape of video games. It’s kind of a big deal.

Super Mario Bros.

Japanese title: スーパーマリオブラザーズ • Super Mario Brothers

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-SM]
Japanese release date: Sept. 1985 [HVC-SF]
European release date: Sept. 1986 [NES-SM]
Genre: Platforming
Alternate versions: Vs. System [1986]; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade1986]; Famicom Disk System [1986]; Super Mario Bros. Special [X1/PC-88, 1986]; All-Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. [Disk System, 1986]; Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt [NES, 1988]; Super Mario Bros./Tetris/Nintendo World Cup [NES, 1988]; Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet [NES, 1990]; Super Mario All-Stars [SNES, 1993]; Super Mario All-Stars + Super Mario World [SNES, 1994]; Super Mario Bros. Deluxe [Game Boy Color, 1999]; Animal Crossing [GameCube2002]; NES Classics series [GBA2004]; Virtual Console [Wii, 2006; 3DS, 2012Wii U2013]; Super Mario All-Stars: 25th Anniversary [Wii, 2010]; 25th Anniversary Edition [Wii (limited), 2010]; Super Luigi Bros., Wii U [2014]; NES Classic Edition [2016]


The NES made its American debut in October 1985 as a limited, high-risk release in a handful of New York-based retailers—which was in no way how Nintendo would have preferred to introduce the system. Had the company been in proper possession of its druthers, the NES would have arrived a year sooner, all across the country, all at once. Yet what was destined to be the most popular game system of the ’80s had to earn its right to national distribution through a grassroots campaign.

The NES took so long in coming to the U.S., in fact, that by the time it arrived in full force its replacement had already launched in Japan. The Japanese Family Computer had been on the market for three years, and things were beginning to feel a little dicey by the end of 1985. Famicom’s cart-based games weren’t evolving to properly reflect the shifting technology of the era, limited as they were by both cartridge memory capacity and the console’s hardware restrictions. So, even as Nintendo’s engineers were redesigning the Famicom to become the NES, they were also putting together the Famicom Disk System. That’s a tale for a future volume, but the basic idea behind the Disk System was to expand the capabilities of the console by adding a higher-capacity storage medium, enable persistent data saves, and add new hardware features such as an additional audio channel for music.

Naturally, Nintendo put its top men on the task of coming up with showcase software for the Disk System. The peripheral’s first big games came from both Shigeru Miyamoto, who would design The Legend of Zelda, and Gunpei Yokoi, whose would supervise Metroid and Kid Icarus. These three games represented a fundamental shift in Nintendo’s internal development ethos. Unlike the quick-fix action-driven Famicom games that had come before, these were massive, RPG-inflected adventures that demanded players record their progress for play across multiple sessions. These games were part of a general zeitgeist toward deeper, more expansive home gaming experiences—the same trend that gave us Dragon Quest. This shift would have happened without the Disk System (in fact, Dragon Quest games never appeared on Disk System), but certainly the new add-on hastened the transition. 

Nintendo’s developers recognized the sea change represented by the Disk System and fully anticipated making the leap from carts to disks—the majority of first-party Famicom releases in the next few years would appear exclusively on diskette. And so, as these creators prepared to leave behind cartridges for the fertile pastures of magnetic media, Miyamoto’s team decided to bid farewell to the old ways with a creation that, in his own words, was meant to be the ultimate cartridge game: Super Mario Bros. 

“Best game ever”

Nintendo surely felt regret and frustration that it wasn’t able to export its console to the world’s largest consumer market until its add-on successor had nearly arrived in Japan. Ironically, though, that setback may have been the NES’s saving grace, because it meant the console debuted after Super Mario Bros. had arrived. As a result, the NES had a true, top-tier system-seller when it reached America. Had the system launched in 1984, it would have had some decent games to go along with it—some sports games, the Zapper trilogy, possibly everything up through Clu Clu Land and Excitebike. We would not, however, have seen Super Mario Bros. until much later… and that would have been a terrible shame. 

Without Mario’s masterful odyssey through the Mushroom Kingdom, the NES would have had little to truly set it apart from the failed consoles of the early ’80s.  Nicer graphics than Intellivision, sure. Light gun games, definitely. But Super Mario Bros. was the game changer, a work that represented a true generational change from the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision. The phrase “best game ever” has been thrown around so often and so casually to have lost any real sense of meaning, but in 1985 you legitimately could have made that claim about Super Mario Bros. without drifting into the realm of hyperbole. It truly did stand head and shoulders above pretty much every other game published to that point. Super Mario Bros. achieved the elusive hat trick of game design: It represented a tremendous technical feat, it looked fantastic, and it played almost perfectly. 

It can be difficult, more than 30 years later, to fully appreciate just how mind-blowing Super Mario Bros. truly felt circa 1985. The game has been so widely referenced, imitated, and iterated upon that it has lost some of its specialness. But if you ever have the chance, sit down sometime with an NES, a copy of the game, and a decent CRT television. Clear your mind, forget about the many and varied sequels the game has seen, and take a fresh look at the original Super Mario Bros. 

The NES could have succeeded in America without Super Mario Bros.—the Famicom certainly got by in Japan quite well before it came along!—but with Super Mario Bros., it couldn’t have failed. 

Mario’s grand adventure created a sort of bookend pair with Donkey Kong. They were, in a sense, spiritual counterparts. That’s not just because of the Mario connection, and it’s not simply because each game bore the brunt of selling the hardware in different territories (Donkey Kong having been the lead title for the Famicom’s 1983 launch). Rather, the two works share a connection on a more functional level. See, Nintendo designed the NES hardware to play a near-perfect game of Donkey Kong; several years later, they designed Super Mario Bros. to push the hardware to its limits. 

Super Mario Bros. is literally as good a game as can possibly exist on stock NES hardware. The Famicom Disk System with its expanded memory and audio capabilities was to arrive shortly after its debut, and a few months after that the first game powered by an advanced memory mapper chip (the UNROM) would appear in Capcom’s Ghosts ’N Goblins, allowing NES software to stretch the capabilities of the console beyond its basic limitations by offloading some of the work to the cartridge. Super Mario Bros., however, accomplished its greatness within the same boundaries as the likes of Baseball and Ice Climber. It presented a breathtaking leap forward in terms of scope, consisting of 32 multi-screen stages, each packed in turn with hidden areas. It featured the best-looking graphics to date on NES. And, perhaps most importantly, it introduced just absolutely perfect controls and physics to the mix. 

There are a few moments in video game history that you can point to and say, “This is where everything changed.” Super Mario Bros. contained a seemingly endless succession of those revelatory moments.

Where everything changed

The sheer joy of playing Super Mario Bros. quite possibly was the game’s greatest achievement. Until this point, platformers tended to be fussy, awkward, and clumsy—even those developed internally at Nintendo. 

Donkey Kong had been fine in 1981, with its simple jump arc and unforgivingly fatal height penalties, but the genre barely improved over the course of the next four years. Look at 1983’s Mario Bros., or even Ice Climber, which debuted just half a year before Super Mario Bros. In both of those earlier games, leaping felt stiff, clumsy, imprecise—an especially egregious failing in Ice Climber, which revolved entirely around leaping and ascent. Platform games by Nintendo’s competitors were no better. Run-and-jump games simply weren’t fun to play before Super Mario Bros. 

It was only here that the simple act of platforming became sheer pleasure. Mario moved with greater sophistication and subtlety than any hero before him, and his physics completely changed the nature of play and would influence hundreds—thousands!—of games to come in the following decades.

For starters, Mario’s jump had a variable height. Though the NES offered players only a single, digital button to command Mario to jump, this game made the act of pressing the button into an analog process. The longer you held down the A button, the more “force” the game would apply to Mario’s leap. A quick tap would cause Mario to perform a short hop, but sustaining your button-press until Mario landed would cause him to gain as much height or distance as possible. 

Those factors, too, proved to be variable. Unlike in his previous outings, Super Mario no longer has to be constrained by the realities of physics and motion here. In Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., our hero found himself limited to the arc of a jump based on his position and movement at the moment he left the ground: A forward leap would take him the same fixed distance forward every time. With Super Mario Bros.’ more complex physics, however, players gained the ability to alter Mario’s momentum and direction in mid-air. 

Hop straight up in Donkey Kong and you can only jump straight up, following a rigid path up and then back downward again. Hop straight up in Super Mario Bros., on the other hand, and you can bend Mario’s path through the air by pressing the controller in one direction or the other.  You can even move in both directions in succession during a single jump, which proves to be the key to making the incredibly precise movements necessary to ascend to platforms directly above Mario’s head while standing precariously at the edge of a pit.

The amount of nuance and fine-tuning possible in Mario’s aerial movements here was truly revolutionary, and those factors could be modified even further than by simply altering their duration, height, and direction. Mario served a master called inertia, and the momentum of one action carried through into the next. This lent Mario’s movements even greater variety. Jumping forward while walking would allow you to cover more distance than jumping forward from a dead stop, but even jumping from a dead stop gave Mario greater forward clearance than leaping straight upward and altering your jump in midair. 

And that wasn’t the extent of it; Super Mario Bros. gave its hero a run button to add further variance to his movements. By holding down the B button, Mario would dash rather than walk, building up speed over the space of about one-half screen length. Besides being handy for evading enemies and pursuing turtle shells in pursuit of chain counter score bonuses leading to 1UPs, Mario’s dash ability also fed into the physics of his leaps. While a walking jump could give him some respectable forward clearance, a running jump would send him sailing forward. As with his normal leaps, players could control Mario’s dash-jumps in mid-air, pressing forward to squeeze every last pixel of momentum out of it, letting go of the A button to cut a leap short, or pulling back on the D-pad to alter the trajectory of his movement. 

All of this turned Mario into the most fluid, graceful, versatile hero video gaming had ever seen. Inertia dictated not only Mario’s jump physics but his movements in general. For example, he would continue to move once players let up on the D-pad, running out his momentum over the space of a ground block or so. The more briskly Mario moved, the greater the distance he needed to come to a full stop. Both Nintendo and many other developers had experimented with the concept of inertia before, but Mario made it an essential consideration for players: Now players had to master landing as well as jumping. Stopping well became an important part of moving well. In keeping with the thoughtful design that permeated Super Mario Bros., Mario himself cleverly emphasized this with a visual hint: When players brought a him from a dash to a summary halt, he leaned back against his movement with an animation reminiscent of old Warner Bros. cartoons.

In short, Mario’s physics weren’t exactly realistic, but they were convincing. It takes players a moment to get a handle on how this hero moves and stops, but it quickly becomes second nature, and once you come to terms with the basics you’ll soon begin to intuit new tricks and techniques as you play, without the need for external prompting or tutorials. 

The credit for Mario’s incredible, convincing, immersive handling belongs to the unsung member of the game’s development team: Programmer Toshihiko Nakago. While Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka may have called the shots regarding Super Mario’s game design, Nakago interpreted their concepts into code and created a sophisticated game that was truly and simply a joy to play.

When the bad was also good

Which is not to say Super Mario Bros. is without its flaws. The tiny dev team crammed a huge, ambitious game into a tiny cartridge—that was the entire point of the venture, really. It’s impossible to perform a feat like that without encountering a few bumps along the way. It’s also impossible for a game to become a hit on this order of magnitude without being wrung inside-out by fanatical players, and Super Mario Bros. fans quickly shone light into its most troubled corners. Precise as the game seemed, it contained minor bugs—collision errors, for example. Vertical surfaces such as walls aren’t totally smooth and unbroken, as Mario can interact with them at the single pixel of the topmost corner of a tile. This can cause Mario to snag on the scenery… a bug that skilled players (or those using emulation-based tool tricks) can use the one-frame glitch to cause Mario to wall-jump. Nintendo would officially introduce wall-jumping into series canon 20 years later, with 2006’s New Super Mario Bros., but it was technically possible here.

Mario’s uncanny array of skills—such as jumping, ducking, sliding, and flinging fireballs—can be combined in unexpected permutations with unintended effects. Bump into both Bowser and the bridge-chopping axe he guards as Fire Mario in the exact same frame, for example, and you’ll shrink to regular Mario size while retaining your fire power. When you fling a fireball as tiny Mario, you’ll grow in size to Super Mario for a split second each time, as regular Mario lacks a fire-throwing animation. Such discoveries quickly circulated through word-of-mouth and tips-and-tricks books alike.

Another shortcoming: The game doesn’t deal well with 8-bit buffer overruns. This has quirky effects of its own. Namely, if you earn enough 1UP (for example, by exploiting a collision shortcoming that appears with a certain turtle on a certain staircase in World 3), you’ll eventually flip back around to 0 and earn a game over despite having collected hundreds of lives. 

And yet, such was Super Mario’s excellence that most people didn’t care about these quirks. On the contrary, they’ve become an integral part not only of the game’s legacy but of the lore of gaming in general. For example, the idea of Minus Worlds. Interact with a specific block just so outside the secret warp zone area in World 1-2, and instead of finding the expected warps to Worlds 2, 3, and 4, you’ll instead find only one pipe designated world [blank]-[dash]-1. Most people read that as minus-1, and thus the term “minus world” entered the pop culture lexicon. This was a defect rather than a secret—the game struggling to deal with an unforeseen outcome and barfing up garbled data at players and trapping them in an infinite loop—but it’s become a beloved element of the game. It inspired players’ imaginations, leading them to wonder what other secrets might be hidden within. It drove kids to explore the absolute limits not only of Super Mario, but of sibling releases like Metroid and Zelda as well. The discovery that Super Mario’s Japan-only Disk System port contained multiple minus worlds due to the difference in data storage structures only fueled that fevered curiosity. 

It didn’t hurt that Mario contained secrets in abundance, often so obscure in nature that the notion of the glitches being deliberate didn’t seem unreasonable. You probably weren’t meant to wall-jump or get infinite lives by hopping on a specific turtle. But then again, the landscape was littered with hidden rooms and invisible blocks, and sometimes fireworks would mysteriously explode when you completed a stage for no apparent rhyme or reason. So who could really say, back in the days before Iwata Asks existed to shine a light onto the enigmatic recesses of the game?

Decompression algorithm 

Super Mario Bros. offered a multi-layered game experience. It’s not enough that the game contained a whopping 32 levels; many of them featured hidden areas and alternate routes! And while it’s true that 32 stages may not seem like that much in terms of raw numbers, the nature of those stages set Super Mario apart. For example, Wrecking Crew may have had 100 stages, but each of those levels consisted of two screens, tightly packed with features and hazards. Super Mario Bros. was one of the first games to decompress game design, stretching it beyond a single contained space. 

Compare this game again to its predecessor Donkey Kong, which helped establish and typify the “clear the board” game design that ruled before Pac-Land and Super Mario Bros. transformed scrolling worlds into a standard paradigm. Donkey Kong crams numerous hazards into its four individual screens; Super Mario Bros., on the other hand, doles those obstacles out across a landscape range, and scrolling forward to a new screen tableau introduces a new, self-contained situation to overcome. Games like Atari’s Pitfall! and the Manic Miner sequels and clones that dominated 8-bit microcomputers in Europe helped introduce this approach to game design, but the introduction of fluid forward scrolling changed the feel of the affair. Pitfall!  and Jet Set Willy presented each of their hundreds of screens as a new, standalone challenge. Pitfall! generally placed its primary obstacle—a pool filled with alligators, a scorpion, a pit—in the center of each new screen, while Jet Set Willy took a more chaotic approach. But in both games, each room or screen presented a discrete, bounded challenge to overcome.

Super Mario Bros. didn’t have to observe such strict demarcations. One danger could lead into the next, meaning you might dash past the projectile volley of a Hammer Bro. only to encounter a pit that could only be traversed by hopping on a spring. Yet the Hammer Bro. still existed behind you in that same contiguous space. Even if the enemy didn’t actually pursue you to the pit, the residual impression made by its presence and proximity exerted a subtle urgency that drove players forward even more effectively than the timer tirelessly counting down at the top of the screen. 

Mario’s scrolling design also allowed for more stressful sustained scenarios, like the flying turtle Lakitu dogging Mario’s every step and carpet-bombing him with Spiny eggs for an entire stage. Another example came in the form of the post-aquatic bridge stages, in which an endless succession of flying fish would leap from the water, homing relentlessly on Mario, forcing him to make a mad dash for the end.

Nintendo didn’t invent scrolling. Super Mario Bros. was preceded by landmark scrolling titles such as Moon Patrol and the aforementioned Pac-Land. Mario’s September 1985 debut in Japan meant that it arrived more or less simultaneously with Capcom’s similarly ambitious arcade cabinet Ghosts ’N Goblins, which not only allowed players to scroll forward but to backtrack as well, with even more deadly persistent threats in the form of the relentless Red Arremers. However, Super Mario Bros. achieved a feat none of those games could claim as of September 1985: They presented scrolling platformer action on a home console. 

Again, this was a game that wrung every ounce of performance out of the NES hardware’s design. Thanks to the console’s support for scrolling, Mario could venture forward through a continuous world, and players could learn the ins and outs of the Mushroom Kingdom on their own terms. No limit to play based on the quarters in your pocket. No pushy arcade patrons claiming next game to goad you into rushed failure. No closing time, except that decreed by your parents. 

In light of this, the developers packed the game as densely as they could with content. The four stages within each of the eight game worlds follow a sort of pattern: An overworld level, an underground scene, an action-heavy scenario, capped by a claustrophobic, trap-laden castle that ends in a Bowser showdown. There’s remarkable variety with that structure, though. So, too, is there a great sense of rising and falling difficulty: A world’s second level is typically much more challenging than its first, with the third offering a mild respite before reaching the ominous danger of a Bowser castle. Crush one of Bowser’s illusory minions (the true foe only awaited in World 8-4, with Mario’s fireballs revealing all earlier Bowsers to appear in the game as normal foes ensorcelled to resemble the final boss) and the first stage of the next world would offer a relatively relaxed breather.

Mario was a sort of potbellied G.I. Joe: Fighting for freedom wherever there’s trouble, over land and sea and air. Mario could run like a pro, and sometimes he could find hidden vines leading to bonus worlds in the sky. And sometimes, he had to swim—paddling underwater with excellent control physics that the Mario team gleaned from Satoru Iwata’s work on Balloon Fight.  Water changed the rules of the game, as Mario could no longer defeat enemies by striking them from above. In the sea creatures’ home turf, they had the advantage on Mario. You could only hope to out-swim them, using the game’s Y axis in a different way than was possible in terrestrial levels where gravity ruled the day. Or you could blast them with fireballs… assuming you could hang on to the requisite power-up long enough, that is. 

Miyamoto’s team turned the limitations of cartridges into an advantage time and again. In order to cram 32 huge stages into a ROM whose file size was smaller than the text of this retrospective, the dev team had to duplicate content. Their solution was to turn that repeat material into iterative challenges that created a sensation of ramping complexity. 

For example, Bowser’s first castle layout in World 1-1 showed up again toward the end of the game as World 6-4, but its later appearance took on a far more challenging form. Empty blocks in World 1-4 suddenly had twirling fire bars attached to them in 6-4, sweeping through the air and forcing Mario to make nimble, precise leaps to avoid getting toasted. Meanwhile, Podoboo fireballs would leap from fiery surfaces where none had been present before, and Bowser himself added a stream of hammer projectiles to his bag of tricks. The helpful platform floating above Bowser’s head in World 1-4, allowing players to bypass the conflict entirely, was nowhere to be found in 6-4.

Likewise, Worlds 7-2 and 7-3 amounted to a redux of 2-2 and 2-3, forcing players to navigate a lake followed by a hectic bridge. But despite their identical layouts, 7-2 featured many more Bloober squids that would seek out and actively harry Mario, whereas 2-2 had largely been dominated by plodding, passive Cheep-Cheep fish. Then, the Cheep-Cheeps came out in force for the subsequent bridge stages in both iterations. The difference between their behavior in 2-3 and 7-3 was that they appeared in far greater numbers in the later stage, and they now were accompanied by a variety of Koopa Troopas patrolling the bridge—meaning the “run for it” approach that could whisk players safely through 2-3 had to be balanced with an element of caution lest Mario dash into the bounding beak of a Paratroopa.

And then, of course, there were the maze stages: Levels 4-4, 7-4, and 8-4 could only be mastered by navigating their passages in the proper order. These grew considerably in complexity with each new challenge, culminating in World 8-4’s maddening pipe maze. It forced players to play roulette in hopes of uncovering the route forward to the true and final showdown with Bowser—though its layout included a trick for observant players.

The game’s iterative design worked in other, even more clever ways, too. The devs added the game’s famous Warp Zones as a concession for the game’s home-console nature: Since they didn’t need to worry about extracting a steady drip of quarters from players, they could afford to offer shortcuts so advanced players didn’t have to repeat every single level every time they played. While this does have the unfortunate side effect of turning Worlds 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7 into “flyover states” of a sort—when was the last time you played through World 7?—the power to advance so rapidly had to be earned.

You could only reach the first Warp Zone at the end of 1-2 by “breaking” the game, using an elevator platform to leap outside the scenery and run along the top of the screen. This would take you past the pipe to 1-3 and into a special room where three pipes lead you world 2-1, 3-1, or 4-1. It was a nice secret, hidden but not impossible to find—after playing for a while, everyone begins to wonder what lies beyond the flagpoles at the end of each stage, or what would happen if you jumped on top of the ceiling in the underground. It turned out the answer is, “You can skip a lot of stages.” In other words, Nintendo not only predicted players’ bad behavior, they rewarded them for it. 

They did it again at the end of the second big underground stage, 4-2. Here again you could skip past the pipe to the flagpole and find a warp zone. This one, however, contained only a single lonely pipe leading to World 5-1. Skipping ahead a mere two levels doesn’t seem worth it, really. But that’s because the real 4-2 warp zone was hidden earlier in the level behind a series of invisible blocks that lead to a vine to a secret place in the clouds. Even if you managed to uncover the blocks, you still had to hit them in a certain order to prevent being locked away from the vine.

This perfectly embodies the underlying cleverness of Super Mario Bros.: The innate brilliance of its design. The creators set out to produce the biggest, best platformer they possibly could… and then, despite sharp restrictions of time and memory space, they managed to integrate not only secrets, but tricks and traps based around the actual play patterns and reasoning of players. All in an adventure featuring beautiful, colorful visuals, crisp sound effects and catchy syncopated music, and iconic characters and concepts. 

About the only thing Super Mario Bros. took from its predecessor Mario Bros. was its hero, some pipe and turtle imagery, coins, and the idea of jumping and punching blocks. Everything else that has become iconically Mario debuted here, invented whole-cloth: Starmen, Bowser, Goombas, Toads, Princess Peach, Super Mushrooms and Fire Flowers. The imagery and mechanics that debuted in this game have survived through three decades, not just in sequels but through an infinite array of imitators or games simply built on these principles—not out of any derivative intent, but because Super Mario Bros. laid the basis for the workings of video games in general. It defined how entire swaths of the medium should work. It’s absolutely one of the true all-time great video games, and it helped catapult the NES to global domination. Super Mario Bros. may have been designed to make the most of the NES’s innate strengths, but ultimately the NES itself succeeded largely on the strength of Super Mario Bros.


Gallery

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Screenshot Gallery

Note: Screens were captured from RGB-modded NES hardware and upscaled to 720p. This has resulted in a small degree of softness and artifacting.

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