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Retro Review - Super Mario Bros. (1985)

A look back at the origins of the Mario franchise


One of the great things about modern Nintendo consoles is how some of the most influential games of past generations are easily available. And so I’ve ended up with many of the original Mario games to play through again, and I’ll be going through many of the major entries in the series over the next few months as I finish them. If you’re not a fan of Mario don’t worry, I’ll be alternating with other games as well so that I’m not just on the one subject for a while.

The original Super Mario Bros was the game that defined the Nintendo Entertainment System and Nintendo for years to follow, and acts as the blueprint for the series even to today.

Released as the pack in game (from back when you would buy a new console and it would always come with a game to play on it) for the NES, Super Mario Bros was the introduction of Mario to many players, though he had previous appearances in Donkey Kong and Mario Bros it was the release of Super Mario Bros that really brought him to the fore.

At its most basic, the game has the player, as Mario, moving from left to right across the levels, jumping over pits and on enemies to proceed to the end of the level. The controls are simple, with one button to jump and another than when held allows you to run and when pressed throws a fireball if you have the fire flower.

Many of the most familiar elements are present from this game. Mario and Luigi are both playable, Princess Peach (back then Princess Toadstool) needs to be rescued from Bowser (Koopa). The common enemies are Goombas and Koopa Troopas, mushrooms make Mario grow in size to be Super Mario and so on. If you’ve ever played a Mario game, all these elements will sound familiar and were set right from the start.

As a kid I never had a NES, but did play on one often enough to play a good amount of the game. The early levels are quite easy, and incredibly familiar from the large number of times I’ve played them over the years, but I think I’ve possibly only run all the way through to the end a handful of times. The difficulty level of the game rises quite sharply from around mid-way through with the later levels being particularly taxing, especially if you die and lose any power-ups you might have had.

The final level in particular I was stuck on for a good while in my most recent play as I died early on. The level has no power-ups, meaning after a death you have to play the entire level as standard Mario, and can die in one hit. The beginning wasn’t so bad once I learned the pattern, but right at the end there is a Hammer Brother who’s placed just so that getting past or over him is a nightmare, and even when I did I’d almost immediately be killed by Bowser who, for the final boss fight, not only shoots fireballs and jumps on you, also throws hammers. I was just very glad that I had a lot of continues.

Books have been written on the level design of Super Mario Bros, and it’s easy to see why. They’re almost perfectly constructed with every few levels bringing in a new aspect and building the game up stage by stage. Much of the level design is still reflected in new Mario games, in particular the increasingly tricky jumps to the flag at the end of the level.

Graphically, it’s not aged too well, but then is the best part of 30 years old. The main problem really is the limited colour palette capable in NES games of the time, so most things have similar colours to them and Mario lacks his classic blue and red, with the blue instead being brown. Even so, all of the sprites are instantly recognisable as the characters and enemies as they’re now depicted. The music is iconic, and most of it still appears in new games in the series, largely unaltered.

It’s still great fun, even after so many years and other Mario games, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy playing through it all again a couple of years down the line and forget all about the later worlds, but I’ll still hate that last Hammer Brother forever.