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27 June 2015 @ 02:50 pm
Game Review: Super Mario Bros (All-Stars version)  
Until today, I'd never beaten Super Mario Brothers. I've beaten plenty of other games in the series, but every time I played the first game I'd always get stuck in the same place--World 8-1. There was a jump I couldn't make no matter how hard I tried, and eventually I just gave up and moved on. None of the other Mario games I played presented quite as much of a wall for me, and I'd only think occasionally about that jump and about how it was a spot on my gaming backlog, so this morning on a whim, I loaded it up and started playing.

Who put all those bits there?

Well, sort of. As you can see, I actually played the Super Mario Brothers All Stars version, because while I don't have any real problems with 8-bit graphics I do feel that 16-bit, or at least a 16-bit aesthetic, is the sweet spot of pixel art. The backgrounds really did a lot, from the goomba columns in view there--apparently arising out of some vast sea the platforms are bridging and the cheep-cheeps are leaping from--to the giant portraits of Bowser in each of the fortresses that let you know that you're getting close to the boss fight. The enemies all look more like the iconic ones we remember from later games, and the clouds and hills have eyes in the weird animistic way that Mario's world does. A+ on that score.

Unfortunately, the music suffered in the transition. Compare the original to the remix, which is much more understated but ends up being less effective. That was the case for all of the music, and since there's only four tracks it was extremely noticeable. If I had thought of it, I would have just turned off the music and manually played the original tracks during the appropriate stages, but I didn't think of it. I didn't really have the mental space to devote to it, because I had to spend most of my time not dying because this game is hard.

This happened to me a lot.

Even starting in Super Mario Brothers II, continuing isn't something you have to worry about since you get enough lives from the slot machines that you won't run out. In Super Mario Brothers III you just have to last until World 3-8 and then you get 99 lives, or you can do it as early as World 1-2 with a bit of work. The most recent Mario games show you how to win if you keep dying, but in Super Mario Brothers you're on your own. The timer is a merciless taskmaster, and multiple times I found myself in a mad dash for the exit, trying to beat it as it relentless ticked down toward zero. Every coin is a precious jewel, one step toward getting another life, and lives themselves are like oases in the desert.

I'm exaggerating a bit. That was true in the original version of the game, but the All Stars version allows you to save and so grants infinite continues, making additional lives primarily a means of bypassing the tedium of replaying levels you've already beaten rather than your last bulwark against the ever-rising tide of Game Over. And frankly that's fine with me. Nowadays if I have to deal with that kind of pressure, I want it to be in an actual arcade while i'm pumping quarters into the slot and trying to get a high score. If I'm at home, just let me skip the part I've done a dozen times already, especially if I don't have anything to lose and the punishment for ever screwing up is death. In that case there's no test of attrition and it's not a matter of surviving to the end with all resources intact, it's a matter of can I do the thing. And after I've done the thing already multiple times, just let me skip the thing.

More Super Meat Boy, less I Wanna Be The Guy is what I'm saying. Obviously Super Mario Brothers came early enough that this wasn't really a design prinicple at the time, but I can't help but have that reaction to it now. In the latter part of the game, I ended up using save-state a lot more just because I'd have no powerups after making it past something and then die in another challenge, then die in the earlier challenge, and once I got a feel for the gauntlet I'd save after each leg. I still had to do the work, just not as many times.

Having Bowser psychically throw hammers from his skull, though? Dick. Move.

Death approaches.

The controls also threw me off. I'm used to Mario being really light on his feet, with obvious momentum but still able to turn quickly, jump with a moment's notice, and leap off the twitching bodies of his enemies onto ever-higher platforms. Most of that is a later development. When you land on an enemy in Super Mario Brothers, Mario does a perfunctory hop even if you hold the jump button, and he feels alternately like his shoes are filled with lead and that he's careening out of control. Being used to the way Mario controls in later games--mostly in Super Mario Brothers III, where the majority of my Mario playtime is--I died a lot from trying to jump off enemies and getting nowhere, or flying into pits that I was sure I would be able to bridge, or enemies killing me when I thought I was safe because I assumed Mario's hitbox was danmaku-sized rather than Mario-sized.

I shot past that jump that always used to give me trouble on the first try, though. I really don't know why I failed at it so many times when I was a child. I guess I was just bad at video games.

How do the goombas keep those lamps lit?

Another part of Super Mario Brothers that suffers when playing it now is just the monotony. All the challenges are the same. Your only verbs are "jump" and, if you have the fire flower, "shoot." This suffers even in comparison to the second game where you can choose your character, and thus your playstyle, and once Super Mario Brothers III and its profusion of powerups comes into play, the original's simplicity stands in pretty stark contrast. It's possible to read this as a focus on running and jumping without all the complexity that later games introduce, and if it were shorter I would agree, but eight worlds of "right run, jump to the end" is a few worlds too many, especially after the halfway point when they started to recycle designs.

Maybe I'm just too used to the themed worlds from later games, but after World 3 or so, everything started blending together. I think it would have been a better game if it were tighter. Maybe four worlds rather than eight, introduce the Bullet Bills and Lakitu earlier, and then when you win and the game tells you that a new challenge awaits you, that's when you throw the remix levels at the player.

Basically, nowadays the default for an indie game is that isn't a walking simulator is a puzzle platformer, so the field that Super Mario Brothers has to compete in is extremely large. And it's true that it's a giant that looms in the background and casts its shadow on all that came later, but there's a reason I'm not playing Jumpman.

They're pretty cheery despite having been stuffed in a sack.

In the end, I'm mostly happy that I finally beat the game. I'm not going to say that Super Mario Brothers is overrated or bad or that you shouldn't play it, but that time has not been kind to it and it doesn't stand up well compared to what came after even in the same series. I mentioned Super Meat Boy, which takes the precise timing and dodging aspect and dials it up while slicing it into discrete 10-15 second chunks, and I think that's the natural evolution of that end of Mario's concept. Later Mario games are the evolution of the "run right, get to the flag" part with a bunch of extras added on and a lot more variety added to the levels, which solves the problem of "this is like the last winter level except now Lakitu is here!" that I ran into playing Super Mario Brothers.

I can appreciate it as a jewel of video game history and the impetus for so many things that came after, but I don't think there's much reason to play Super Mario Brothers anymore. Play Super Mario Brothers III if you want a great side-scrolling Mario experience, play Braid if you want the stereotypical indie puzzle platformer, play Super Meat Boy if you want to move fast and make precisely-timed jumps, and play I Wanna Be the Guy if you want to smash your keyboard in a fit of rage. This may be the one of the best-selling video games of all time, but I think its time has passed.
Current Mood: accomplishedaccomplished
Current Music: Super Mario Brothers I - Dirty Mix (A Scholar & A Physician, Binster, richBRF OC ReMix)
q99q99 on June 27th, 2015 10:54 pm (UTC)
Personally, when I play it, I'm amazed they got so much right so early on.

As for variety, have you played Super Mario Crossover? Which is just, SMB, but where you can play as Link/Samus/Megaman/etc..

Oh, and side-thing, Mario Joke ^^

Edited at 2015-06-27 11:42 pm (UTC)
dorchadasdorchadas on June 28th, 2015 12:03 am (UTC)
As for variety, have you played Super Mario Crossover? Which is just, SMB, but where you can play as Link/Samus/Megaman/etc..

I think I played an early build a couple years ago, and I beat World 1-1 with Simon Belmont, but I didn't realize they were still working on it. I just loaded it up and played it a bit when I read your comment, and yeah, that solves pretty much all my problems with variety.

Also, Shadow from FFVI with FFVI music and Ninja Gaiden mechanics in Super Mario Brothers put a huge grin on my face.  photo Emot-neckbeard.gif

Oh, and side-thing, Mario Joke ^^

Hehe. That joke was referenced in Super Mario Bros 2 (book, not game), which I just read recently.

q99q99 on June 28th, 2015 01:18 am (UTC)
Simon was the *worst* of the first version's characters to play as, IMO ^^ Tall, short ranged, less maneuverable jumping...

Oh! And I only have v2, that Shadow thing must be v3 ^^
dorchadasdorchadas on June 28th, 2015 01:33 am (UTC)
I googled for it and played the first link I found. Can you change the backgrounds in v2, because they added that too--you can skin the levels Castlevania-style, Zelda-style, etc.
q99q99 on June 28th, 2015 05:45 am (UTC)
I think most of those features existed, but with way less options.

I picked up v3 and checked the changes- Like, v1, a few characters, no skin options. v2, more characters, a few character skin options, and just a few background options. v3, same characters, way more skin options, plus some character skin options have mechanical or musical effect.
dorchadasdorchadas on June 28th, 2015 02:11 pm (UTC)
Huh. I must have last played v1, then, since I don't remember skins being an option at all.
Joelkraada on June 28th, 2015 02:05 pm (UTC)
My favorite use for SMB1 in college was to use it as an egg timer. 15 minutes to beat the entire game with warps, 45 minutes without.

It was surprisingly consistent.
dorchadasdorchadas on June 28th, 2015 03:04 pm (UTC)
I can easily see being able to just run through without stopping once you've got the timing for everything down, though I do not have that timing down.  photo emot-ohdear.png

I went and looked up a speedrun and it seems like I was way too cautious with jumping over things based on how close the speedrunner was taking those jumps. I'm pretty sure Mario's feet were clipping through piranha plants at the top of the arc.
Josh: deshinfodesh on July 13th, 2015 01:11 am (UTC)
(Hi I'm reading LJ even slightly less often than I was before.) Yeah, there are 3-to-5 total jumps in 8-1 and 8-2 that are kind of insane. But the level I could never get past as a kid was 8-3. Hammer brothers are awful. Though I must've done it at some point, because when I played once in college, for the first time in years, I had some subconscious memory of the route through the pipe maze in 8-4. It's now been over a dozen years since I last played; I wonder how my subconscious memory is at this point.

Interesting note: The original had a continue code (hold "A" when pressing start, maybe?) that dumped you at world X-1, for whatever X you'd gotten up to. So it's a pretty big setback, but not a start-all-the-way-over-again setback.
dorchadasdorchadas on July 13th, 2015 04:54 am (UTC)
I didn't know about that continue code! That explains why they changed continuing like they did, since it worked that way for the illuminati already anyway.

I think I remember the part you're talking about in 8-3. That one cost me a fair few attempts too.