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8-Bit Chronicles: Mario Bros.

Mama Mia!
mario bros arcade

Bleeps, bloops, and pixels: the cornerstones of classic gaming. The innate addiction coded within the circuit board-powered arcade cabinets and NES cartridges render them precious artifacts, their primitive graphics and relative brevity revered even today. But why is that the case? Join Anthony on his 8-Bit Chronicles, wherein he studies the industry’s building blocks in famous coin-munchers, failed experiments, and obscure gems.

Today’s review is based upon HAMSTER’s Arcade Archives release of Mario Bros. for Nintendo Switch, as well as the numerous ports and remakes entailed within.

Question: how often have you had to explain 1983’s Mario Bros. — the multiplayer arcade game introducing Luigi — is a different one than the legendary 1985 masterpiece that swept NES consoles across the globe? Common knowledge among us gamers, sure, but when considering said arcade game was eventually ported to Nintendo’s 8-bit console, I can only think of the poor 80’s parents who marched down to the toy store and found themselves confronted with practical twins. In an age where deciphering kids’ crazy new gaming terminology was akin to translating Greek, it’s no surprise they’d look identical — would their kids’ hearts be broken in receiving a watered-down arcade port void of blue skies and Super Mushrooms, or were the crab-infested sewers what they desired all along?

Chances are their hopes and dreams aligned with the former — not that Mario Bros. is anything to sniff at, but its “just fine” quality doesn’t hold a candle to the platforming Nirvana delivered upon the world some two years later. This may produce an unfair comparison — I’d like to think comparing arena-based fisticuffs compared to an ambitious sidescroller would yield little results, as I’d rather discuss the game’s design and legacy on its own terms. Regardless, even if Mario Bros.‘s progenitor identity doesn’t posses the timeless quality of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, its development between the former and Super Mario Bros. warrants retrospection.

Beginning as a collaboration between series creator Shigeru Miyamoto and Game Boy designer Gunpei Yokoi, while figments of Super Mario Bros. sprout up — you’ve got nasty turtles, green pipes, the occasional coin collection, and the brothers’ superhuman feats in infallible jumping prowess and ability — the game’s competitive emphasis presents an entirely different kind of beast. There’s the premise, for one: Mario Bros., for the uninitiated, has Mario and Luigi ridding one sewer after another of turtles (“Shellcreepers”), crabs (“Sidesteppers”), and oversized bugs (“Fighter Flies”). As the critters crawl and flutter about, the two brothers can either work together to exterminate these pests or compete for the high score.

You do it like so.

mario bros arcade

Complications arose in conception: while Miyamoto relented on removing fall damage — Mario Bros. already leaned into the fantastical, so why not bestow shock-absorbing legs upon the portly plumber? — he shared Yokoi’s concerns regarding the game’s “cowardly” playstyle. Initially, the game’s method of combat revolved around bopping the floors from underneath the sewer monsters, but both designers quickly realized this method provided none of the risk-and-reward mechanics so vital to arcade classics. The process, they decided, required an additional step — after the enemy’s stunned, Mario or Luigi rush over to kick them away. (In fact, this is how the turtle came to be — what other animal would struggle so much to recover after being flipped over?)

We could, like Donkey Kong before it, describe Mario Bros. as a meticulous blend of platforming anarchy, yet the homogenized arenas drops the laborious obstacle course in favor of a simple test of survival. Not that Mario Bros. doesn’t challenge thanks to incidental agents; for instance, take the Freezie (or “Slipice,” as they were originally known; you may recall it as the deadly Smash Bros. weapon with the perplexed expression): touching it’s obviously a no-no, but let it linger and it’ll freeze over any one platform, leaving the Mario Bros. prone to accidents via reduced traction. While Mario Bros. gracefully permits Freezie’s elimination via only one floor bop, it wisely reserves its introduction for later levels, when we’re already occupied with storms of flies and crabs.

Could we argue Mario Bros.‘s two-step process gets a little long in the tooth? Perhaps, but the game still applies risk and reward in enforcing movement and split-second decisions. Linger too long in one spot — likely in waiting for that last Sidestepper to emerge from the pipe — and a stray fireball stalks you; potentially two, even! The sudden panic will certainly induce a lost life, be it fried overalls or pinched plumbers. Meanwhile, tempting as the ground-shaking POW Block is, using it too much causes it to disappear, and we’re forced to rely on on our wits. Like Donkey Kong, the cartoonish anarchy mutes our frustration in favor of addiction — it is calculated chaos, where ever-rising tempo and difficulty provide a never-ending supply of spontaneous gaffes.

What’s even going on here?!?

mario bros arcade

Naturally, said gaffes only double in the presence of co-op. Nintendo’s first multiplayer game features the humble origins of Mario’s brother Luigi — created for the second player, constraints paved the way for a green palette of his older brother. Players can choose to work together,  but with competitive action games being what they are, accidents or even outright mischief are bound to occur — as seen in this co-op footage of the NES port, even simply punching the POW Block can cause a fatal accident! Can we even begin to guess the number of ways one can commit fratricide down in those sewers?

Speaking of the NES version, it features your typical 80’s arcade-to-console port downgrades: the already-primitive graphics lost some detail (The Mario Bros. themselves, particularly — check out how they lose their pupils), brief cinematics tutorializing the gameplay were cut, and the sound…was actually improved? Yes, I find myself returning to the NES version since the running noise isn’t the incessant slippery squeakiness found in the original arcade release, but instead a more balanced, charming application of 8-bit cacophony. (Interestingly, browsing through some arcade-capture feeds on YouTube reveal this already-annoying noise was even more grating in the original release! Anyone know what’s up with that? Incidentally, I did read a similar change was evident for Donkey Kong‘s Arcade Archives release…)

Any ideas on who the dude in the pink suit is?

 

Meanwhile, in my never-ending quest of study gaming history, I’m never not surprised there’s always one more Mario title eluding my awareness; in this case, Kaetekitta Mario Bros. (Mario Bros. Returns), a Japan-only upgrade released for the Famicom Disk System. A collaboration with the Nagatanien food company, advertisements for “Mario Curry” alongside the just-released Super Mario Bros. 3 accompanied improved graphics, the ability to change direction in mid-air, and “Nagatanien World” — a mode awarding promotional code drawings via high scores for Mario playing cards and copies of Super Mario Bros. 3. (And hey, if you didn’t win, at least you earned a Mario keyring; unfortunately, my co-related journey into studying all things Mario yields no results for this coveted trinket.)

(Incidentally, a 1993 European reissue of Mario Bros. was based on this version. Who knows what was behind this random re-release, but it’s such an obscure product that a cursory eBay search reveals only two copies in a sea of 1986 NA/PAL cartridges. At least we got this neat Yoichi Kotabe boxart out of it; ooh, I never get enough of the nostalgic, homely warmth within his Mario works!)

However, I imagine those like me who grew up in the Game Boy Advance era would be most familiar with Nintendo’s infamous practice of jamming an enhanced Mario Bros. remake into all four Super Mario Advance games. (And, yes, even the RPG Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, because…y’know, brothers!) Running on a modified Super Mario Bros. 2 engine — recall the original Super Mario Advance was based on Super Mario All-Stars’s 16-bit enhancement of the veggie-filled platformer — this mini-game was quickly branded a symbol for Nintendo’s cynicism, yet for what it’s worth, I actually consider this my favorite version. Much as I could cite the easier difficulty, the famous Underground Theme fitting like a glove, or adorable Charles Martinet voice clips, I find myself especially taken with the new backgrounds: as seen here, poor Mario’s working the holiday shift, but the falling snow brings me back to the 2001 holiday season. (Okay, I got it at launch in June, but still. By the way, did I mention this is the first edition to feature four-players?)

Regardless, its use of Spinies as opposed to Shellcreepers actually hails back to Super Mario Bros. 3. If you’ve never played Mario Bros. but experience déjà vu with its layout, chances are you’re familiar with that game’s Battle Mode, where two players compete for coins as they dodge enemies. At that point, Mario’s stomping prowess had been ingrained into players, so the spike-adorned Spinies replaced Shellcreepers — or should we say Koopas? — to visualize discouragement. This time, there’s no cooperation, so you can off either brother with a clear conscience.

The legacy hardly ends there — there’s the Super Smash Bros. stage, with its enemy-throwing mechanics described by director Masahiro Sakurai as throwing “all the basic rules of Smash out the window!” In its return for Ultimate, the gang at Namco even took the time to include the “wraparound” mechanic present in the original. (And those aforementioned NES footsteps, too! Guess I’m not the only one who prefers those.) In honor of the Year of Luigi — and by association, the game’s 30th anniversary — “Luigi Bros.” was packed with Super Mario 3D World to celebrate, this time featuring Luigi as the 1st Player; a cute touch!

With all this and everything from Mario Tennis courts, WarioWare micro-games, and yet more Atari ports, you’d think Mario Bros. took the world by storm ala Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros., but why wasn’t that the case? Let us not forget 1983 was the year of America’s infamous video game crash, and with arcades also falling victim to the crunch — The New York Times mentions over 1,500 parlors closed their doors — so that certainly smothered its potential. Perhaps it’s for the best — there’s relative sparseness of innovation compared to the other two, and even despite its improved controls over Donkey Kong, Nintendo remained on the cusp of smoothing out stiff movement absent from future endeavors in Super Mario Bros. and Balloon Fight.

And yet, none of those are subject to intuitive cartoon mischief such as this. Much like Luigi himself, Mario Bros. remains humble with with its identity as number two, laser-focused on its heartening objective in bringing players together. What can be more brotherly than that?

Although, those shifty eyes say otherwise…

mario bros

(By the way, surely you recognize that’s Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik accompanying the arcade version’s enemy demos, right? Given my endless fascination with gaming orchestras, I’ve been wanting to get into the classics for some time — any suggestions?)

Anthony Pelone
Eating, breathing and living video games on a daily basis, Anthony is particularly fond of the Nintendo variety, but is by no means a console warrior. Somewhere in the midst of his obsession with cat pictures, he finds the time to pen about his favorite hobby. Having previously written for over three sites, Anthony remains dedicated to spreading the gospel of EarthBound.
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