Super Mario Bros. was hardly the first game with side-scrolling, character-based action. Taito’s Jungle King / Jungle Hunt had it as early as 1982, and gaming’s first true superstar, Pac-Man, got his own cartoonish side-scroller in 1984’s Pac-Land. But nonetheless, to play Super Mario Bros. in 1985 was to know that everything had changed.
It was an absolute revelation to see Mario, previously the star of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., bust free from the single-screen confines of the past and run toward the right. A whole world of adventure awaited him, packed with immediately iconic power-ups, unforgettable secrets, a real sense of vastness and depth thanks to subterranean stages, and bonus coin zones hidden in the clouds.
But of course, none of that would have mattered if Super Mario Bros. didn’t feel so damn good to play. The option to hold down a button to run, the way Mario soared through the air, the sheer bliss of getting an invincibility star and plowing right through rows of goombas and koopas, all of it elevated Super Mario Bros. far beyond any side-scroller that had come before.
It’s also, for my money, the first game in which Nintendo’s signature, subtly intuitive level design is on display. There’s a reason why world 1-1 remains iconic to this day: Shigeru Miyamoto knew exactly what he was doing, telling you everything you needed to know with just a goomba and one super mushroom. And yet, for all its fundamental simplicity, the game continues to surprise as you progress, introducing nefarious new challenges (those damn hammer bros.!) and capping off each world with a castle so treacherous that surviving leaves you feeling both triumphant and relieved.
Some might argue that although it kicked off an action-gaming dynasty, the original Super Mario Bros. isn’t worth going back to today. I disagree. I think its level design is timelessly great (unlike that of some games in the New Super Mario Bros. series), its music and visuals are enduringly charming, and its controls as pleasurable and intuitive today as ever. Games that change the landscape of gaming forever are rare, but this is one of them, no question about it. — Carolyn Petit
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