Discussing Super Mario Bros. is virtually impossible without discussing its legacy. Yes, I’m talking about the big “video game crash of 1983,” in which Nintendo single-handedly ended with the release of Super Mario Bros. Not only did SMB legitimize the home gaming industry, but it revolutionized how games were made. Shigeru Miyamoto’s iconically designed, World 1–1 introduction stage not only feels as if it paves the way for the 8-bit, 8-world, 32-stage gauntlet the player is about to embark on, but for gaming as a whole.
What makes Super Mario Bros. one of the most groundbreaking video games of all time is just how unyieldingly accessible it is. One of Nintendo’s primary philosophies when developing SMB was emphasizing the player, to ultimately make it “their game.” Watch this video and this video and try to convince me you are not witnessing either a genius, an innovator, or both at work.
This philosophy as a developer, of putting oneself in the shoes of the audience, alone makes Super Mario Bros. an already accomplished game. The translation from developer intention to player activity can be felt — every placement of every block, enemy, pipe, item, obstacle, and hidden secret feels deliberate. Yet, SMB does not feel as though it is nagging at the player on how to play, where to go, or what to do. In that sense, SMB ultimately shines and Nintendo achieves their mission: the game becomes the player’s, and a real, palpable magic unlocks in realizing that.
How does Nintendo achieve this widespread accessibility? The answer lies in the game’s visual and interactive learning. (If you watched the two linked videos above, forgive me, because I am going to essentially plagiarize what they analyzed for World 1–1.) No instructions, no tutorials, and no words are used to tell the player how to play. It’s all in the level design: the empty, open space to the right, the shiny, intriguing blocks, and the incoming, potential threat (the singular Goomba) all entail significance within a matter of seconds and teach the player a multitude of fun rules that a paragraph never could. Teaching viz. level design is an oft-forgotten art, and today’s developers should definitely consider taking a page from Nintendo’s book. (Showing without telling is possible, guys! See The Witness for a modern example.)
Speaking of level design, Nintendo takes not a single misstep in the following 31 levels. When it comes to dynamics, Nintendo has always been second to none, and that is no different with Super Mario Bros. Every level takes on a unique approach by experimenting with a new idea, enemy, or layout, and every single one works. No solid ground to save you from below? An onslaught of Cheep Cheeps flying out from under you? A barrage of Bullet Bills barreling towards you from the behind and front? All of those stand out and perfectly exemplify Nintendo’s knack for experimental fun.
Not only does every placement of every asset feel deliberate and every level offer something new, as I have mentioned, but so do the details, which elevate the game even further. Nothing feels more satisfying than hitting a random brick block to uncover a 1-up mushroom waiting inside, or hitting one that sprouts a vine reaching the heavens where loads of coins await the player’s pocket, or jumping onto the top layer of bricks in a tunnel level to discover warp pipes lying just on the other side of the normal exit pipes.
All of those examples contribute in proving Nintendo’s selfless ideology. They simply want players to have fun; they just want them to “be happy” as Miyomoto says in one of the videos. I haven’t even mentioned the core items: mushrooms, fire flowers, and power stars, certainly all of which play their respective parts in making the player “happy” as well. It’s hard to imagine being a kid in 1985 (like me, born way after) stumbling across the many exhilarating surprises encountered in this game and proceeding to mentally note all of them for following playthroughs to achieve maximum efficiency.
Super Mario Bros. was far from being the first game to appear in the platformer genre, but it was certainly the first to nearly perfect it. Mario’s movement feels natural, and his momentum functions smoothly, both of which feel as though they set the precedent for smooth console controls (not so much for the momentum, I would have to admit, but the mechanic would go on to be refined in the franchise’s subsequent titles).
Influential does not equal perfect, of course, as Super Mario Bros. comes with its flaws. The game shows its age every so often — strange enemy hitboxes (both good and bad), the weird momentum I mentioned, unpolished graphics (I once phased right through a levitating platform), and the inability to traverse backwards — but to me, these quibbles count for very little when it comes to such a seminal, timeless, and iconic game as Super Mario Bros. I was initially going to use its age as an argument to dock one point from my score, but I think it’s fair to compromise and call Super Mario Bros. an imperfect masterpiece. It deserves it.