The Super Mario Brothers franchise is bar none one of most important properties in the history of gaming. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Mario was more popular than Santa Claus. This is the character that brought gaming back from a crash and created a whole ‘Mario Generation’: Myself included! Mario had four outings on the NES, but even that was not enough for fans, so the Big N touched up these legendary classics, giving them a 16-bit facelift, allowing save files, and updating the features. Thus, Super Mario All-Stars was born.
You all know how great these games are. I am also willing to bet that you don’t need a gameplay overview, either. So I am going to approach these games from a different angle. Let us explore why these legendary games are so undeniably special. What is it about these games that make them so much more compelling than the imitators? I played both the NES and the 16-bit All-Stars versions. I spoke with gamers and non-gamers alike. I even looked to Nintendo themselves for answers (They were silent. If I can ever get anybody to talk to me, I will post it in this feature).
Here is what I came up with.
Super Mario Bros.
This is the game that made me a gamer. Looking at it now it seems primitive, but back then it seemed Mario games were always given top-notch production values. I remember being in awe at just how much bigger this game was in scope and variety than the other games that I played. You had day and night levels, snow and maze levels, water and underground levels. You even had castle levels! The sheer variety was staggering!
Another thing that set this game apart from many other platformers was the fact that the game played like one coherent adventure through the Mushroom Kingdom. I love how each level began right where Mario left off from the last one. This made the adventure seamless. I also loved how each castle teased you with a toad, making the moment that I finally conquered the game and saved the Princess all the sweeter.
All of these elements were tied together by gameplay that can only be described as transcendent. I love how you cease to think about what you are doing as you get into a groove. You literally become one with the game, something that no other game series can do quite as well. There is never any empty space, just more things to interact with. Enemies act more like another obstacle than bad guys you must defeat. Even the bosses could be dodged, though you could defeat them as well if you managed to stay powered up through to the castles.
At the end of the day, I think that is the key to Mario’s success. This game offers you a choice in a way that few games do. Want to try to break all the blocks, collect all the coins, bop all the enemies? You can decide to do that! Want to ignore all the above and speed run through the game? You can do that too. Will you use a warp pipe to get to the later levels, or will you get there fair and square? Everything seems to have a logical reason for being where it was placed. My favorite example comes from World 1-1. You can go down the pipe and get the coin stash, or if you know about it (and who doesn’t?), you can walk to the right just enough and hit the invisible block for a 1-up. YOU CANNOT DO BOTH. I have tried!
The difficulty is perfectly balanced, another factor that would become ingrained in the series. There were only seven 1-ups, and while 100 coins gave you more of them, there were not that many coins. You were largely expected to beat this game with the resources given, and you would do so eventually because the game was fair. And when you completed the game you were treated to a second quest.
I should mention 2-player as well. I love how they treat each player’s games as separate, which allows both gamers to complete the adventure at their own pace. The more experienced players cannot drag the other player along, forcing him to miss content, and the weaker players cannot end the more experienced player’s games. This makes the 2-player mode almost seem like a race to save the Princess, and allows for weaker players to watch and learn from the more experienced. This is how I learned the game-by watching my Dad’s runs and trying to emulate them.
What you are left with is the perfect game. Super Mario Brothers helped end a game crash that had many entertainment analysts thinking that gaming was a dead fad. Very few games can claim that. Everyone should play this masterpiece.
Super Mario Bros. 2
This game is a bit of an odd duck, as it is very different from the other games. Still, it did add many elements to the series that are still used to this day. Things like throwing objects, differentiation between Mario and Luigi, and that catchy ragtime music would inspire the Mario series for years to come. It also added mini-games to the Mario series for the first time on consoles, a feature that Mario 3 would run with.
This also marked the first appearance of some of Mario’s most famous foes. Birdo, the Shy-Guy Tribe, Pokey, and even the Bob-Ombs make their debut here! The game still felt like a coherent adventure, taking a cue from the original and often starting you where you left off the level before. For instance, if you ended in a cave, the next level started in a cave that you climbed out of. Subcon was an interesting place, though different from the Mushroom Kingdom in many ways. I loved the twist ending, which allows the departure from the traditional Mario gameplay to make sense.
Still, many Mario fans did not like this game. This opinion only increased when it was discovered that we never received the REAL Mario 2 (Lost Levels). Despite this, I think that this game stands on its own merits, keeping what makes Mario work, just doing things differently. Gameplay is still tight and level design is still superb. Despite its negative stigma, Mario fans should give this one a shot. It’s already on the game, after all! I never played this one on the NES, and after playing the All-Stars remake, I think I missed out.
Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels
Now we’re talking! This is the game that we all wanted but never received until years later. This game also expanded itself with differences between Mario and Luigi, with Luigi jumping higher and Mario controlling more precisely. It also built on the gameplay in all the right ways, allowing for a boost in height for jumps off of enemies. The game also expanded one of my favorite things about the original Mario Bros; the secrets. There were not just 8 worlds anymore! Now you had worlds A, B, C, and D, on top of a world nine for those who beat the game without using a Warp pipe! That upped the already sky-high replay value to infinite heights!
Of course Mario is also about fair difficulty, and while this game was fair, it was also MEAN. I’m talking really mean! There were less power-ups in the levels, and less coins. They added random poison mushrooms that basically had the same effect as an enemy if you touched one. Certain levels had things like wind, and enemies were faster and had different movements. Hammer Bros. now walked towards you while throwing hammers! But I’ll never forget the worst! There is a warp pipe that will take you all the way back to World 1 if you are unfortunate enough to use it!!!! Gahhh!!! That is just evil!!!
I love this game. In fact, I like it better than the original. Nintendo really helped by adding a save feature to this version. In its original state I cannot really fault Nintendo’s decision to leave this one in Japan. I think that it would have just been too hard for most people without the save. Still, it would have been cool if they would have allowed a limited run in the States. Play it, just remember to bring your A-Game!!!
Super Mario Bros. 3
The perfect game. I remember going to see The Wizard just because it had a few minutes footage of this game in it. The movie sucked, but that gameplay made it all worthwhile! Super Mario Brothers 3 entered the market at the height of Mario Mania, and what a climax it was! It expanded on every idea, every gameplay mechanic it possibly could. It was filled with challenge and creative level design. It’s, well…let’s take a look!!!
If The Lost Levels was a little too hot and Mario Bros. 2 was a bit too cold, Mario 3 was JUST right. Coins and power-ups were more common, but the world was much more challenging and dangerous. It had that perfect balance. Rather than something different, it was an expansion of the purest kind. There was now a world map, and the secrets that were already prevalent in the levels were also present in this setting as well. Each world felt unique and further expanded the Mushroom Kingdom. Worlds like Giant World and Piranha Plant Plaza were filled with personality, and everything felt like a grand adventure. I will never forget beating that one fortress in World 5 and climbing it like a tower, and then the next thing you know, you’re in the sky! It was an incredible feeling.
The power-ups themselves not only gave the game some personality, but they also changed the way we played! Items like the Raccoon Tail let us take to the sky. The Hammer Suit allowed us to step into the shell of one of Mario’s greatest adversaries. The Frog Suit ensured us we would never have to fear another water level again! Each of these suits also opened up new paths through a level, taking the replay value up a notch! This was a game that was different every time you played! These power-ups also extended their influence to the World Map, where you used unique items to bypass obstacles and create shortcuts through the world. Remember the first time you found a Warp Whistle and whisked away to a faraway place?
The level designs in this game were the best ever! You now had scrolling stages which would test your ability to keep up. The fortresses were as dangerous as ever, not to mention the Airships at the end of the worlds. Mario had to retreat to a safe area after being defeated. I loved the idea of Mario being overwhelmed and had to rest before trying again. A game over meant going back to a the beginning of a world, with any fortresses or shortcuts Mario discovered intact. This allowed for a sense of progression not found in the later titles.
I could go on and on about Mario’s grandest adventure, but most of you already know because you have already experienced the magic firsthand. I still find it amazing that Nintendo was never able to top this game. I love Super Mario World, but it does seem like a backwards step compared to this! Its weakness is evident just by the fact that the two are compared at all. A 16-bit game vs. an 8-bit game? It should be unanimous, but it is not! That alone shows the strength of this title! The greatest game for the NES is also the greatest game on the SNES. It never gets old and it never will!!!
I hope that you all enjoyed this change of pace. Despite that this is not a true 16-bit title, it is just too important not to talk about. Later they released a version of All-Stars that included Super Mario World as well, so if you can find it, get it. That makes five of the greatest games of all time on one cartridge! I often talk about how this generation was the best of both worlds, with systems finally having the ability to fulfill the developer’s visions while at the same time having the solid arcade game designs that I hold sacred. No game illustrates this point better than Super Mario All-Stars. Oh, and if you had any doubts…
5 OUT OF 5 STARS!!!