NES Essentials: Mario Bros.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Mario Bros. ever since I first encountered it — not on a Nintendo platform, as you might expect, but on the Atari 8-bit range of computers.

This 1983 arcade game from Nintendo isn’t the most fondly remembered installment in the portly plumber’s long-running adventures — but revisiting it today reveals it to still be a lot of fun and eminently worth playing.

Plus, if you have a Nintendo Switch Online membership, it is, at the time of writing, one of the many NES games you get included as part of your subscription.

Like its immediate predecessor Donkey KongMario Bros. was the work of now-legendary Nintendo designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Speaking with the late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata in 2009, ahead of the release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Miyamoto explained that the new game was the result of a discussion (and disagreement) between himself and Yokoi.

“[Yokoi-san] proposed that we make a competitive game, and development started there,” Miyamoto recalls. “In Donkey Kong, if Mario fell any distance that was greater than his height, he would be stunned and you’d lose a turn. But this time around, Yokoi-san said ‘why don’t we let him jump down from higher places?’ I thought that if we did that, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But as I pondered it, I thought ‘why shouldn’t Mario be able to perform some super-human feats?’ Then we made a prototype with Mario running and bouncing around and we realised that this was great fun.”

Indeed, we likely have Mario Bros. to thank for Nintendo’s games moving away from the conventions of early 1980s platform games — which was, as in the case of Donkey Kong, to only allow player characters to fall a short distance before dying. This has not been part of the Mario series ever since Mario Bros. — right the way through the Super Mario Bros. series and onwards into the various 2D and 3D subseries we have today. I suspect most of you will agree with me that this was a change very much for the better so far as the platform game mechanical genre as a whole is concerned!

For the unfamiliar, Mario Bros. differs from its Super successors in that Mario and Luigi are unable to defeat enemies by jumping on their heads. Instead, you must stun an enemy by hitting them from underneath the platform they are on, then reach the location where they lie stunned before they recover to deliver a decisive kick and defeat them once and for all. The reason for this two-step mechanic was that Miyamoto and Yokoi initially experimented with only requiring the hit from underneath, and felt that the game was much too easy; Miyamoto described it as “a really cowardly sort of game”, which is not what they were going for.

This mechanic also led to the creation of what we now know as Koopa Troopas, the turtle-like enemies who form the backbone of the forces Mario typically has to fight against in his various adventures — though throughout the various releases of Mario Bros. they were known as either Shellcreepers or simply “Turtles”.

“We thought about what kind of creature could withstand being struck from below and would eventually recover,” explained Miyamoto. “We racked our brains thinking what we could use. The turtle was the only solution! Strike it from below and it flips over! Leave it for a while and it rights itself!”

As Mario Bros. progresses, you also encounter some other enemy types: Sidesteppers, who are crabs that require two hits to stun; Fighter Flies, who “hop” around rather than walking (or, indeed, flying) and can only be hit while on the ground; and Slipice, which, unlike the other enemies, can be defeated with nothing more than the hit from underneath, but which changes platforms into slippery ice if left unchecked for too long.

The structure of Mario Bros. — a single-screen platform game in which the objective is not to traverse an obstacle course, but rather to defeat all the enemies — would go on to be quite an influential one in later years. Titles such as Taito’s Bubble Bobble series, Jaleco’s Rod-Land and many more besides all followed the Mario Bros. formula — even each going so far as to usually require some sort of two-step technique to defeat an enemy. Bubble Bobble, to continue with the previous examples, requires enemies to be trapped in a bubble then popped, while Rod-Land requires enemies to be hit with a wand then slammed on the ground repeatedly until defeated.

This isn’t to say Mario Bros. was entirely original by itself, however. The basic formula had already been established by Williams’ Joust, which came out the previous year — though that game differed by featuring characters that could fly rather than simply jumping as in Mario Bros. The inspirations are clear, however — Joust also featured enemies that needed to be defeated quickly in a specific way, a “wraparound” screen where one could leave on the left and reappear on the right, and a simultaneous two-player mode that can be enjoyed either cooperatively or competitively according to how much you like your partner.

Mario Bros. was no straight clone, though, and while its various arcade and home releases failed to make as much of an impact as Donkey Kong did — a fact attributed at least in part to the primarily American video game crash of 1983 — it’s clear that it set a lot of things in place for subsequent Mario games, be it the existence of Luigi as Mario’s counterpart,  the use of turtle-like enemies, the collectible coins (and the sound they make!), the presence of the POW block (and its function to damage everything on screen) or even the now-iconic green pipes that allow enemies to reach the bottom of the stage and return to the top.

The NES port is regarded by some as an “inferior” version of Mario Bros. when compared to the arcade original — most notably, it lacks the original arcade game’s “falling icicle” hazards — but taken on its own merits, it remains a highly enjoyable game even today, whether you’re playing solo for high score or, preferably, fighting alongside a friend to prove once and for all who is the best plumber.

If you’ve got yourself a Nintendo Switch Online membership, give Mario Bros. a go; you might be surprised just how compelling and addictive the portly plumber’s early adventure is!

More about Mario Bros.

The MoeGamer Compendium, Volume 1 is now available! Grab a copy today for a beautiful physical edition of the Cover Game features originally published in 2016.

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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4 thoughts on “NES Essentials: Mario Bros.”

  1. I love this game! You know, it’s one of those odd situations where the Atari 8-bit and 5200 versions are visibly different from each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I only ever played the 8-bit version. As I recall, it required the use of a “translator” to make the music work properly on XL/XE machines. Funny the things you remember!


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