Super Mario Bros. (1985)

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“The chief beauty about time
is that you cannot waste it in advance.
The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you,
as perfect, as unspoiled,
as if you had never wasted or misapplied
a single moment in all your life.”
―Arnold Bennett

 

 

It’s now 2018. I wanted to start off this solar cycle with a review of some important game, a significant title that has changed the course of interactive entertainment history. When I think about requisites like these, I remember that there’s really only one title that fits that description. Well, this one and a handful of other movers and shakers.

Super Mario Bros. is one of the most influential video games of all time, first released in 1985 on the NES. It inspired a billion pretenders, shifting the industry from shooters and sports to platformers, framed design in gaming for decades to come, cemented itself into popular culture, and almost single-handedly saved the gaming industry in North America after the market crash of ’83. It was the best-selling video game of all time for decades with over 40 million units sold until it was dethroned by 2006’s Wii Sports. Now, 33 years later, it remains one of gaming’s best-sellers, currently the fifth best-selling game in history and the second best-seller of all time for a single platform.

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So how did this luminary come to be?

It began with Shigeru Miyamoto, an industry icon who changed the world with his inventions: Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda among them. Miyamoto was also the creator of the arcade game Mario Bros., and when that original adventure with Mario and his second-fiddle sibling Luigi battling turtles in the sewers showed some legs in terms of commercial success, Nintendo decided it was time to put the brothers in a new, simple game currently in development and call them “Super”.

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Guess which one is “super”? Trick question.

The original prototype was vastly different than the final result; the prototype was not a side-scroller and would’ve involved shooting bullets instead of fireballs and pressing up on the d-pad to jump. What a mistake that would have been! Though the concept that would eventually become Super Mario Bros. didn’t originally involve the plumbers, Nintendo wanted to continue their traditional emphasis on athleticism in game design and the hero once known as Jumpman fit the bill perfectly.

Super Mario Bros. was a paradigm shift for the broken gaming industry: a bright and happy game not bothered with blasting bug aliens or engaging enemy soldiers but with bright colors and blue skies instead of perpetually black screens (excusing a few levels). Super Mario Bros. concerned itself with delightful music that immersed players rather than merely attracting them with bleep and bloop sound effects. It brandished a simple but direct goal to rescue the princess instead of merely earn high scores.

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The North American industry had been decimated by the time Super Mario Bros. was ready. Shockingly, the market had faced a 97% drop in revenue between 1983 and ’85, resulting in widespread bankruptcies. That’s when Nintendo stepped in to remedy the “Atari shock”, as the crash was known in the Land of the Rising Sun, with a cheerful little man in overalls and quality game design. In 1985, Super Mario Bros. carried the sales of the Nintendo Entertainment System and with it the success gaming industry. Games were back into the good graces of consumers and into millions of homes everywhere. Miyamoto had scored one of the greatest revolutions of his career. He was just 33 years old at the time.

That Super Mario Bros. became one of the technology world’s biggest and best success stories is no secret, but the question must arise about how well the game holds up after all this time has passed. Upon its original release, there wasn’t much else as streamlined and perfected, but is it still a great game today?

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Let us lay down a supposition for the rest of this examination: A video game can be great without aging well and without remaining as enjoyable as it once was. In other words, greatness can be measured not just by enduring accessibility but by historical significance and influence. A stage in the evolution of gaming, a piece of that great jigsaw or a thread of that great tapestry, is as important as the whole of gaming as we know it. Current gen games, especially those out of the West, may not even be here without Super Mario Bros.’s rejuvenating impact, though it was quickly outpaced.

After all, face the facts. Super Mario Bros. has thus far been surpassed by its many predecessors in nearly every way imaginable. That’s how the series has kept churning out winner after winner. Mario himself, one of the most enduring and instantly recognizable icons in entertainment, has already appeared in over 200 different games.

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Later sequels expanded upon Super Marios Bros.’s cast of characters with new enemies and allies. Bowser gained the Koopalings, Bowser Jr., and a host of soldiers and baddies under his command which are too many to name. Likewise, Mario gained new comrades in Yoshi, Daisy, Geno, Rosalina, Pauline, and Toadette, and new rivals in Wario and Waluigi, and many more.

In just three years, the two sequels Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 improved upon its now metaphorically cobwebbed graphics, the area where this and other retro games seemingly age the worst. Those two immediate sequels also deepened the gameplay without sacrificing its simplicity, adding new playable characters and the gift of flight.

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So why call the original Super Mario Bros. one of the greatest games of all time if it has been so surpassed? The key to answering that question is the word “Foundation”.

Super Mario Bros. formed a foundation for the gaming industry as we know it today. Yes, gaming pre-existed 1985 in the double-A’s: arcades and Atari, but the market crash of ’83 was a recession due to oversaturation which Atari contributed to. Atari did not provide a lasting foundation for the gaming industry (consider how few games take influences from titles on the Atari 2600 compared to games influenced by Super Mario Bros. alone; that gap of comparison is enormous). Likewise, the golden age of the arcades saw its heyday with crazes surrounding wildly popular games like Pac-Man, but gaming could not take root in the consciousness of the consumer’s home without dumping the coin-op system and creating a one-time purchase console that fit nicely next to the VCR and stereo.

The New Yorker once wrote that Super Mario Bros. “…depending on your point of view, created an industry or resuscitated a comatose one.”

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Secondly, Super Mario Bros. was the foundation for a standard of quality. Nintendo was once notorious for their strict rules in exactly what could be allowed on their NES, but it paid off and gaming has benefitted tremendously from it. Quality control ensured a course correction with Super Mario as the vanguard.

There were too many consoles in the second generation of gaming and they were stuffed full of shoddy ports, innumerable clones, and homemade messes. Of course there were diamonds in the rough but the rough was rough indeed. The Atari 2600’s Pac-Man port comes to mind, as does the infamous E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial landfill fodder, a game so shortsightedly rushed into the market that it became a financial disaster. At the height of oversaturation, bargain bins were stuffed with cheap knockoffs looking to capitalize on this new and exciting field in technology. That was before it all came tumbling down and North American consumers lost interest.

“Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers and the market was swamped with rubbish games.”
-Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, 1986

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Cue the NES in North America with Super Mario Bros. as one of its seventeen launch titles. Once called a miscalculation on Nintendo’s part, the NES was a success, asystem which the Big N sought to protect from oversaturation by implementing early policies such as the following: no third-party developer would be allowed to put out more than three “software packages” a year for the system. Some companies found their way around the rigid product licensing by creating subsidiaries under new names (Konami of America’s approach with Ultra Games, for instance). This allowed them to develop and publish even more games for the system. The NES also included the 10NES lockout chip which ensured that nobody could make an NES game without Nintendo’s literal seal of approval, though eventual unlicensed games made it past the chip.oldnintendoseal.pngThere were ways around this as well, though, with companies like Atari vying for a piece of the pie with Tengen and even Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree entering the mix with their unlicensed games, clones that smacked of days gone by. I recommend you watch the excellent documentary by the Gaming Historian on Nintendo’s relationship with Atari/Tengen. Ultimately though, quality was at the forefront of Nintendo’s mind in bringing the NES to bear and that was clear from early on in the console’s lifespan with the thoughtful and deliberate design choices within Super Mario Bros.

It took this eye for quality control to usher in a new era for gaming with the third generation of consoles.

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My tertiary point is concerned with Super Mario Bros. becoming the foundation for a franchise.

The Super Mario brand has since expanded to include anime, film, television, toys, and merchandise of all sorts. Mario spin-offs stepped into new genres with characters taking to sports, kart racing, puzzle solving, educational games, RPGs, fighting, simulation, and even horror. In 2017 we received the much heckled/critical darling Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Mario in a dynamic and well-received strategy game! Who knew? What has Mario not been in? FPS?

As Mickey Mouse is to Disney, as Bugs Bunny is to Warner Bros., as Beethoven is to classical music, so is Super Mario to the gaming industry. Representative. Few franchises have even come close to this scope, scale, and success, beginning with Super Mario Bros. It always seems to me as if nobody really cares about Mario games. His fans are different than those belonging to the Zelda series. Nobody ever pines for more Mario, but when these games come out they’re met with roaring approval. Odyssey in recent memory is just one example of that.

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Fourthly, finally, Super Mario Bros. was the foundation of childhood for people now in their 30’s. This was certainly true for me. This is one of the earliest games I can remember playing. In a nutshell, Super Mario Bros. represents all of the happiness, the brightness, the idyllic nature and purity of stereotypical and picturesque childhood, even though many of us perhaps didn’t experience those specific ideals then. Given the amount of units sold, players that grew up with this adventure resemble a sizable group within the gaming community.

Super Mario Bros. therefore represents to a whole generation of gamers what it felt like to be a kid. It influenced our perception of video games and entertainment, thereby influencing the technology that Millennials, Gen X’ers, or Xennials create (or whatever stupid term they decide to call us this year). In this sense, Super Mario Bros. has had more effect upon the world that we live in than merely the context of gaming. It’s a part of my generation. So many millions have played it that its design philosophy, challenge, and emphasis on momentum and fun rippled out through our creative talents. We too learned to create entertainment that taught without spoon feeding.

The gaming industry would look vastly different without Super Mario Bros. Earlier I spent some time scrolling down the home page of my blog, picking out the games that might not have ever existed without Super Mario Bros. Gaming would surely have been different without this game and just maybe a large part of the rest of the creative world would have too.

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The 8-Review
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 Visuals: 5/10
While primally basic, these ancient graphics achieved a unique personality that hadn’t yet come to the fore in video games. Previously, inarticulate shapes and colors predominantly represented characters in a game, if you could find a game that even had characters in the first half of the 80’s. Again to evoke the exemplary Pac-Man, that arcade smash hit was a pioneering exception in creating a cast of characters, however simple. The way had already been paved with Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. in the arcade as well, but Super Mario Bros. took this fledgling sense of charisma and infused it into every frowning goomba, gnashing turtle, gaping guppy, undulating squid, and rictus-grinning Bowser.il_570xN.448540852_7fqe.jpgResembling more the flat colors of the second generation than the dark outlined sprites and detailed backgrounds of the third that had yet to grow to full flower, Super Mario Bros. is the clear intermediary between those generations, accomplishing more than its predecessors and opening the way for its successors, though unable to enter that promis

ed land itself. There is then the matter of this game’s placement in history as a decisive factor in critiquing its visuals.

It is an early NES game, barred from the luxury of advancement that its sequels and latter peers enjoyed. What it was able to accomplish with the tools of its time was noteworthy, though this also means that it is far from the prettiest game on the NES. Still, its brightness and warmth was a welcome change from the darker, duller imagery preceding it. Additionally, it’s unaffected by significant slow down or much sprite flicker that I could detect, Super Mario Bros. seems like a confident sampling of what the NES was capable of. Further, it utilized graphics in such a way as to communicate to the player what was dangerous and what wasn’t, so there would be little confusion in that area.

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Audio icon Audio: 7/10
How could musician Koji Kondo have known that the score he wrote for Super Mario Bros. would become some of the most famous video game music ever? Six songs are all that occupy this icon’s musical landscape yet they were clearly lavished with attentive design that hadn’t been seen before in gaming, excepting the fewest examples. To highlight the theme of athleticism in the game, Kondo composed tracks that were fast paced and kept the player on the edge of their seats. As the timer runs down in a level, the music famously speeds up, in turn reflecting upon the gameplay and making it seem even more frenetic (though this was not the first game to do this). The relationship between music and the actual experience of playing the game is one that we now take for granted as always having been there, but Super Mario Bros. was the game that made this the standard that we think it to be.

Kondo was a part of the design team from the beginning of the project, when it was in its prototypical stages, and he therefore approached writing and adapting the music for Super Mario Bros. with the concept of “theme” in mind, crafting music to fit the game rather than merely accompany it. Previously, music in video games typically took the form of sound effects and individual notes, or if they were melodic then they were confined to sound bites and little ditties. Introducing thematic music to games in Super Mario Bros. created a marriage that has remained wedded since. Kondo wanted his music to not be ambiguous, but create concrete imagery and emotion in the person playing the game, in turn influencing how they engaged with the game as a whole. Remember that the next time you enjoy your favorite video game soundtrack and the emotions it conveys.

“…the [Super Mario Bros.] music is inspired by the game controls, and its purpose is to heighten the feeling of how the game controls.”
-Koji Kondo

Perhaps the most famous video game songs of all time, the “Super Mario Bros. theme” aka the “Overworld theme” or “Ground theme”, is one that millions can recall to mind. I tested this out on my relatives and found they could identify the song as belonging to Super Mario Bros. if I played them a brief clip of it, or they could hum it themselves, without even having played the game in thirty years. Despite this theme apparently being the most difficult and time-consuming track to compose for the game, it has since become the musical foundation of the entire Mario franchise, the foundation for immersion in game music, and one of the most recognizable themes in the entertainment world.

Such is the power of music that emphasizes imagery and emotion. The “Overworld theme” grants a sense of leisure, such as in taking a walk. I always thought of the percussion in the song as synonymous with Mario’s footsteps somehow. The song also creates a sense of hurrying about. The calypso style channels the Caribbean (indeed the theme is often interpreted with steel drums), making it feel lighthearted and pleasant. It’s a happy introduction to the game and has a sense of interactivity with Mario’s movements.

In direct opposite to the “Overworld theme” is the “Underworld theme”. At only about 12 seconds long, the theme is dreary and repetitive. It’s the darkness to the Overworld’s light. It utilizes a reverberating motif which evokes the sensation of sound underground, echoing in a sewer or dungeon. Beyond that, I’m not certain what else I could say about the “Underworld theme”. It’s famous? Yeah, it is.

From underground now to the “Underwater theme”. This is actually my favorite track from Super Mario Bros. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in and around and on the ocean. When I learned to snorkel and later to dive, I sometimes heard this song in my head. You’ll notice again that Kondo’s compositions accentuate what happens on the screen while the music plays: this song evokes the ebbing current and weightlessness of being underwater. Going with a 3/4 timing, there’s an elegance to the “Underwater theme”, like a slow waltz. It feels like a break from the faster-paced platforming in the rest of the game, perhaps underscored here (underwater score) by the change in Mario’s controls while swimming.

And back to frantic running again! It seems like the “Castle theme” was so designed to make your blood boil like the lava pits. It’s energetic and dark, highlighting the frustration that can come from missing your jumps or getting trapped in the looping mazes. It’s a track that feels as if it would fit right in with The Legend of Zelda, which Kondo (credited as Konchan) composed the music for. Not only does it sound like a faster version of The Legend of Zelda’s dungeon theme, but it similarly uses the bass track to prescribe the melody rather than the repeating high notes.

The last two tracks are the “Starman theme” aka the “Invincibility theme” and the “Game Over theme”, as well as a handful of fanfares that play upon level completion, timer rundown, and death.

Audio icon Gameplay: 8/10
Why play a Mario game? Because they are about momentum, fun, and gameplay.

“The first game prototype we had going wasn’t very good because you couldn’t see very far ahead of you. People wanted to have more of the world visible onscreen, but I didn’t want to make Mario any smaller than he was. So we decided to build the world on the scale of a smaller Mario, then make him larger in the final version. That’s the moment we struck upon the idea of starting Mario out small and letting him get bigger later. Since the game’s set in a magical kingdom, I made the required power-up item a mushroom because you see people in folk tales wandering into forests and eating mushrooms all the time. That, in turn, led to us calling the in-game world the ‘Mushroom Kingdom,’ and the rest of the basic plot setup sprung from there.”
-Shigeru Miyamoto

Super Mario Bros. provided a foundation for design philosophy in gaming. To demonstrate this, I’d like to take the time to analyze one of gaming’s most iconic stages, World 1-1. This level is deceptively simple but it was crafted with careful thought as shall be seen. It was designed to teach the player about the game by creating situations for the player to react and learn. It is a dialogue-less tutorial.

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World 1-1 begins with this wide open space. It’s the digital equivalent of an empty canvas for the player to experiment with, get a feel for Mario’s pace, and discover that the level scrolls to the right. It cannot scroll to the left. I’ve witnessed a variety of individuals from gamers to people who never play games at all taking a few seconds in this emptiness to try out different things and familiarize themselves with the game world. I don’t think that too many retro games from the era granted players this luxury. Many of them start out with enemies immediately racing toward you.

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Moving forward, the player encounters two new things: a golden question mark block flashing appealingly in the air and an object moving toward Mario along the ground. The object turns out to be an enemy but realizing it is bad and not good is easy considering the developers decided to put eyes on it. It is a Goomba of course (kuriboh, meaning “chestnut”, in Japanese) and the frowning expression was meant to convey to players that it was dangerous, something which was basically cross-cultural.

Miyamoto has stated that they originally intended to put a Koopa Troopa there but the turtle could not be defeated so easily. The player would have to jump on it and then kick the shell, which could possibly ricochet off the nearby pipe and kill Mario, so the Goomba was invented as a simpler enemy that could be beaten with a single stomp to prevent players from being discouraged by defeat so early in the stage.

The question mark block is placed in such a way that if a player rushes for it and attempts to reach it quickly then odds are they’ll fall right in front of the Goomba and lose a life. This is the level’s way of teaching you to be more careful. However, the first question mark block contains a coin which appears with a two-note jingle (b and e notes, as far as I can tell). The sound is notably bright and is meant to make the player feel happy as a “reward” for having collected the coin, making them want to gather more. The player also collects 200 points from the coin, a quantifiable and measurable way to make them feel like they accomplished something.

One of the four question mark blocks in this immediate area contains a mushroom. It doesn’t have a frowny face but it has brighter, more appealing colors than the Goomba did. This is meant to demonstrate that it’s good, not bad, though the area is so designed that striking the block from below to reveal the mushroom gives the player little time and little space to attempt to avoid it. If the player does nothing, the mushroom will contact them when it bounces off the nearby pipe. If the player attempts to avoid it, they may just bump Mario’s head on another block (some of which are destructible and made of bricks) and fall into the mushroom anyway. Either way, when contacting the mushroom, the player is shown that it makes Mario bigger, an indication of more power. This is again reinforcement for the player to keep playing to find more rewards.

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The next section introduces a green pipe followed by three more taller pipes. The increasing height of the pipes forces the player to confront the fact that higher jumps can only be attained by holding down the jump button. You cannot complete the level without learning this. The pipes’ visual design also indicates to the player that they’re not just walls. Walls would come up and end like simple rectangles but these objects have protruding rims, flanges, that suggest they may be hollow and feature an opening on top. Since bigger Mario has a ducking animation, players may experiment with that (I’ve also seen jumping) on top of the pipes in an attempt to go down into them.

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Squatting into the fourth pipe rewards the player with a secret bonus room with a trove of coins floating in the air. The other end of the room warps Mario to the end of the level, telling players if they can discover this secret that there are multiple ways to get through the game, hinting at the warp pipes hidden throughout the levels later on.

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In this next section, provided the player didn’t take the pipe to the bonus room, there’s an invisible block with a green-spotted mushroom inside, which grants an extra life. In those pre-internet days, secrets were much harder to find but the easiest way to find out was from someone else. When someone told you about the secret 1up mushroom, it would make them feel good, like the game was their own and they knew something special about it. The secret 1up helped veteran players of the game build an attachment to it (I experienced that myself taking my kid brother through World 1-1 and telling him about the secrets).

Beyond that, there’s the first pit Mario has to jump over. It’s a small pit but even if players mess up, they don’t have to go that far to get back to this spot, since death only takes you back to the beginning of the level. The second pit is larger and automatically seems to tempt players to get a running start, providing the first hint for them to learn about Mario’s dashing ability.

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Prototype button mapping

The question mark block between the pits contains another mushroom if Mario suffered a hit, reducing him to his tiny state again. This is a second chance at the power up but if Mario is still big when he reaches it, then the question mark block yields a flower power up that lets Mario throw fireballs. One of the prototypes of the game mapped the up button for jumping and the two red buttons on the NES controller for jumping and shooting respectively and exclusively, but that was fortunately changed. Mario can toss fireballs standing still or lob one and then get a running start. If he doesn’t use the fireballs to defeat the Goombas descending from the platforms above then he gets another opportunities with the enemies on the other side of the second pit where more coins await.

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This long stretch of an area introduces the invincibility star power up as well as choices for the player to make. When the player is provided with choices that possess real consequences, it highlights the interactive experience with the game. Games are unique in the choices that they can give players since virtually no choices take place while passively watching a film or reading a book or listening to music, other than stopping.

Here, the player can nab the bouncing star and Mario begins flashing. If they do nothing, the nearest enemy will collide with Mario and fall dead, demonstrating that Mario is now invincible. The player can run Mario through this area, taking down the train of foes, or they can try for the rewards inside the many question mark blocks and look for secrets. Either way, the invincibility power up soon runs out. The game seems to be encouraging the player to run faster, but they’ve already learned that leaping headlong into the fray can lead to disaster, so some players may play this section more conservatively.

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This section with the twin pyramids is important. The player will have a tough time clearing the jump in the first steps without learning how to get Mario to dash. If they don’t dash, there’s a chance fall into the pit. Even if they fail, though, it’s ok. It’s a learning experience. Good thing it’s not a dangerous pit, they think, and then they jump out and continue on their merry way. But uh oh… now there’s another similar set of steps with a real pit in front of it. The platform on top of the steps is slightly larger, encouraging a running start.

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With the level almost complete, or quickly complete if they took the bonus pipe, the player is confronted with a few final Goombas, which will seem like nothing next to their new-found confidence. There’s a risk of getting hit by one of them if the player attempts to jump on them under the blocks, which limit the height of Mario’s leaps, but even if they do, they may still be a big Mario and so a moment of flashing invincibility helps them escape unscathed.

The conclusion of the stage is a tall set of steps, a recurring feature in most of the game’s levels, so World 1-1 is preparing the player for that. At the top of the steps is a broader platform such as the player saw with the twin pyramids a few moments ago, that again encourages the player to run and make a big jump for it (since they may not exactly see the flagpole waiting to catch them). Striking the flagpole at a greater height yields higher points so player’s begin to wonder how high they can get, and they’ll have the chance to do that in subsequent stages.

With World 1-1 complete, Mario jogs into the nearby castle. Players arrived there by interacting with the level naturally, learning from their mistakes, experiencing the joy of discovery on their own. World 1-1 does not dictate to the player, it allows them the chance to succeed and fail, a sense of freedom that later games would either rise to capture or ignore for the sake of expository and rather dull tutorializing.

Armed with the masterful tutelage of World 1-1, the player can then go on to face every obstacle in the game with the tools in hand to overcome them. To say it’s brilliant isn’t giving it enough credit. World 1-1 teaches the player what Super Mario Bros. demands of them and introduces them to the unique precision of Mario’s controls and the physics of this digital world, its gravity, its friction, the weight of its objects, all of them remarkable things about this game.

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accessibility Accessibility: 10/10
Building on what I’ve just said, the very first question mark block in World 1-1 tempts players. Consider how easy it would have been for the developers to use a Japanese character for the symbol on the block but then that would have confused players abroad, such as in North America where the NES was being launched when this game was released. Instead, the design team used the question mark symbol which has a far more global meaning, enticing a wider audience.

This is how everything works in Super Mario Bros. I recently played Yars’ Revenge for the Atari 2600, originally released in 1982. It’s not my intention to bag on Atari but these are my experiences, after all. Anyway, I’d received several recommendations to play Yars’ and the cover art looks science fiction-ish with the glistening silver insect. The game itself, like many of the games of its time, doesn’t do a good job of telling you how to play it. Is that bar of colors a force field or a hazard? Am I supposed to collect things or shoot things? What am I supposed to do with the objects across from me on the right side of the screen? What changes between each round? Similar to other games from the time, Yars’ Revenge confused me.

There’s little of that in Super Mario Bros. because objects and enemies are clearly labeled by their visual design: frowns, fire, spikes, and so on. Everybody understands that falling into lava is bad or that taking a hammer to the face is bad. Together with the simple control scheme and easy to understand goals in each stage, as well as granting time and space for players to learn, Super Mario Bros. is one of the most accessible games of all time.

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diff Challenge: 8/10
Super Mario Bros. may be easy to learn but I’ve always thought of it as quite difficult. I saw it beaten once as a kid but was baffled that you had to start over the game again, a sort of “Second Quest”, only now the familiar enemies were swapped out for tougher ones. I was never able to beat the game for tricky jumps and castle hazards when I was young but by golly if I didn’t try! As an adult, I can report that I have indeed beaten it but I don’t know that I could keep beating it over and over again on a loop.

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Defeating Bowser was always a fun challenge, trying to get past him and grab the axe to cut the bridge. Alternatively, you can defeat him by repeatedly tossing fireballs at him, which reveals a death animation where he falls and appears to be a gray Goomba… I lose sleep over this every night.

replay Replayability: 6/10
So many qualities come together to make Super Mario Bros. a fun game to play. Immersive music, tight controls, happy rewards, the balance of ease and difficulty, familiarity and nostalgia. This is not a game I come back to every year but when I do, I always have fun.

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unique Uniqueness: 10/10
With so many words behind us, what more could be said to convince of Super Mario Bros.’s uniqueness? There have been a handful of video games in history which served as bookends to an era and landmarks to influence the next. This is one such game.

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pgrade My Personal Grade: 7/10
When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was ubiquitous. It was everywhere. I cannot remember a single home I visited as a young, young child that didn’t have a Nintendo. In some homes, Super Mario Bros. even rose to the level of a substitutionary description for video games themselves. I remember people saying “play some Mario Bros.” and then they’d go to play either that game or Duck Hunt or Excitebike or Punch-Out!! or some other title on their NES. When Kleenex becomes the stand in word for tissues, when Coke becomes the stand in word for soda, when Mario Bros. becomes the stand in for video games, that’s a rare measure of success.

To me, Super Mario Bros. was a constant in my formative years. Sometimes I had to stay with relatives or spend nights with people I didn’t know too well but no matter where I went in my occasionally turbulent childhood, odds were that familiar gray cartridge would be there, hooked up to a tube TV with rabbit ears. The game was like an oasis and I’d never experienced anything quite like that up to that point. I didn’t even know what to call it or how to describe it at the time. I just remember trying to make Mario jump higher by lifting the controller with my hands.

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Super Mario Bros. represent a genesis, the beginning of the stories of so many players out there, millions of them. When I created this blog, I never assumed that I’d create so many reviews for Mario games, yet here I am. Super Mario Bros. is in my DNA. I too tend to forget about Super Mario but I never cease to enjoy playing his games.

This may not be your favorite game. It doesn’t have to be, but I hope you now consider it with me to be a great game, nonetheless. I want to know if Super Mario Bros. was your game growing up, if it served as your introduction to the digital world. If Super Mario Bros. is a significant game to you, let us know about it in the comments below!

I’ll leave you with this…

“What if, on a crowded street, you look up and see something appear that should not, given what we know, be there. You either shake your head and dismiss it, or you accept that there is much more to the world than we think.”
Shigeru Miyamoto

 

Aggregated Score: 7.6

 

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84 thoughts on “Super Mario Bros. (1985)

  1. Great review! I couldn’t agree more with your observations. I died in this game A LOT, but always had fun playing it anyway. Also: “Fourthly, finally, Super Mario Bros. was the foundation of childhood for people now in their 30’s.”- I completely agree! I can’t think of my childhood without Mario, or video games in general.

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  2. I have not played the original version of this game, but I have played the deluxe version available on the Game Boy. I remembered a lot of aspects of the game discussed in the article, especially the description of the first level. I did not realise that this game invented many things so recognisable in other games, such as the music speed increasing, the way characters are designed and the use of bright colours. I was also unaware of the reasons for some of the stranger aspects of the game, such as the use of mushrooms and why Mario changes size. I did not realise the first level was designed to teach the player how to play the game, which actually seems very clever (I remember hitting the block, only to crash into the Goomba). The game probably does resemble an idyllic idea of a childhood journey, following a path with bright sunshine, a lot of greenery, tropical seas and occasional travels into dark castles and underground areas. I remember the second, harder game (especially a particularly difficult running jump in the eight world). The music was very recognisable and seemed to fit with the levels. I agree that the Mario games do not seem to be eagerly awaited, but are always widely praised when they are released (I wonder if this is because people always consider them to be childish, until they play the newest instalment in the series and enjoy it). I enjoyed the description of how this game affected the computer game industry and the new ideas utilised in the game.
    Do you feel the later games in the series reflect the ideas used in this game? Do they show an idealised childhood? What is the actual story for the game? What are the Goombas supposed to be?

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      1. I read through some of your other comments and I believe that while the music of SMB was so simplisticly catchy; the bright colors, innovative level designs/concepts, and a battery of original enemies really made SMB3 the benchmark.

        Though to be fair, I was always more a MegaMan guy myself.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Mega Man was my favorite franchise growing up! As I mentioned toward the end of this behemoth, I always enjoyed Mario games but I was never really a part of a fandom that pined for them. That’s contrary to Mega Man. Couldn’t get enough of those games.

          My take on SMB3 is that it’s the perfect game so far only one of two perfect games I’ve reviewed. It surpassed the already stellar SMB1 in every way that I can think of, so my score here is a reflection of that, using the 10/10 I gave to SMB3 as a barometer for the score I gave to SMB1.

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  3. Amazing review Red – that’s a great start to 2018!

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said, though I think I would have rated SMB higher – it’s one of my most played and favourite Mario games. As you know, I was a Sega kid, but I did have access to SMB and loved playing it. To me, it’s the perfect platformer – simple, fun, clever and addictive!

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    1. Hey thanks, RR! I’m happy you took a look through. There are a few elements I’d be comfortable fluctuating on, such as Audio, but I’m pretty comfortable with the aggregate otherwise. The being because I attempted to show how the future games surpassed the original in specific ways, meaning therefore that the original SMB in my view cannot hold the same score as SMB3 or be perfection that has been surpassed. Part of that stems from my admittedly personal grade on the game, it not being my favorite Mario game by a longshot, forming a piece of the aggregate score.

      Of course it’s great that you hold that SMB is perfect! I mean, what a game! My question that follows would be do you think that none of the many sequels after SMB surpassed it in any way, shape or form? So for example, I do actually think that SMB3 is perfect (taking into context its limitations due to hardware) and that it hasn’t been surpassed by its predecessors, making it the only game in the Mario franchise I’d give a 10/10 unless I thought another was its equal, not its better. I’m curious as to your thoughts! I’m guessing this is a difference between our two interpretations of the score 10/10 and perfection in this context, which I’ve discussed with other bloggers before. Thanks! 😀

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      1. That makes sense to me – I can see how you’ve graded SMB in comparison to SMB2 and SMB3. I don’t think I’ve explained myself too well…maybe perfect isn’t the right word. I think SMB1 is a perfect example of a platformer, but I don’t think any game ever made is perfect. It’s the cynic in me I guess, I do really like SMB1 though, lots of fond memories…maybe 8/10 or 9/10 for me?

        I haven’t played enough of the sequels to be be honest. SMB2 doesn’t grab me – it’s not really a Mario game. SMB3 is great, from what little I’ve played of it, but I’m absolutely hopeless at it. One day, I’m going to dedicate some time to it – it’s another classic game that I have neglected.

        I do believe that SMB3 has surpassed SMB1, it’s just my lack of experience with SMB3. Hopefully, I’ll get to experience the perfection of SMB3 when I finally get to play it properly!

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        1. SMB2 is definitely the black sheep of the bunch. Interesting in its unique way but definitely a strange Mario game. I can agree with you that SMB1 is the perfect example of a platformer, if you mean it would be the perfect title to cite to explain to someone what a platformer is. I think I guessed right that our impression of the 10/10 rating is different? Have you graded any game 10/10 before? And just for me to understand your perspective, those games wouldn’t be perfect in your eyes, then?

          I hope someday you get the chance to settle into SMB3. It’s incredible.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Sorry Red, do you mean the Personal Grade rating? I meant the overall rating! I’m a perfectionist you see…I’d go 9/10 for Personal Grade for SMB1. I probably would go 10/10 for a game’s personal grade, but it would need to be outstanding!

            Yeah, I hope to get into SMB3 too. Super Mario World is another one I need to play too…I’m going to be very busy!

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            1. I’m sorry. I should do a better job of being clearer! I mean 10/10 in the overall. I gave a 10/10 overall and personal grade to SMB3, marking what I believe to be rare perfection. It’s sometimes tough for me to have these conversations about specificity and remain specific lol

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  4. You could make the reasonable argument that Super Mario Bros saved the gaming industry. I was too young to know about the Atari slump (or whatever we called it in the states); I just remember us getting an NES when I was five and playing (and dying) in SMB for hours, not to mention trying to shoot that damned dog in Duck Hunt 🙂

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  5. “I too tend to forget about Super Mario but I never cease to enjoy playing his games.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. No truer words could be spoken, Red.

    For me, my first experience with Mario was also the first video game I’ve ever owned; Super Mario Bros. 3. I have to tell you, that game taught me a lot. I only played the original years later and I remember being put off by the simplicity of the graphics. Nonetheless, I agree that it’s a great game in terms of advancing the gaming industry to the level it’s at today.

    This was an excellent read! Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot! I appreciate the encouragement! SMB3 is one of my favorite games of all time and one which I’ll fight tooth and nail to proclaim as perfect! SMB isn’t my favorite title, but yeah, we can see how it pushed the industry forward in its time.

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  6. Easily stands the test of time, and worthy of its legendary status. This is one that I do go back to when I want something to jump into quickly and kill a short spell of time. It matters not that I never give myself enough time to finish it, it’s just plain fun.

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    1. Yes! I recently saw that they added this game to the Switch for $8 and I was like “people are still going to buy this game”. Considering how much the industry has grown since ’85, it is crazy how high this game still ranks among the best sellers of all time!

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  7. Excellent article, and proof if proof were needed (I don’t think it is by this point!) that enthusiast sites are the place to go for in-depth analysis and well-written exploration of games, rather than clickbait mainstream commercial sites! Keep up the great work.

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      1. Unfortunately they are! I don’t know anyone who actually reads them any more though; pretty much every one of them seems to be a laughing stock these days. I often wonder how they stay in business, particularly as so many of their writers seem to hate what they do and who they’re writing it for!

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        1. I really don’t know of anyone who is a fan of the mainstream sites. Nobody I know has a Polygon logo tatt. I think some of them are useful for the odd walkthrough now and then but my dislike for them doesn’t even begin to encompass some of their video content. Everything I’ve watched in that regard was an immediate turn off.

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          1. Yeah, this is exactly why I started my site too — that and I wanted to continue what I had previously been doing at USgamer before I got laid off from there. I found that quite a few people actually followed me from USG to my site, and at least one of them has become a close personal friend in the process.

            I’ve built my site into something I’m really pleased with and that I feel offers something unique and interesting. You’re doing much the same thing here, and the nice thing about all of us being non-commercial sites, getting income from Patreon rather than ad revenue, is that we can all just enjoy writing and reading each other’s work rather than feeling like we have to be in a race to be “first” or directly competing against one another. That’s much more conducive to creating a diverse, friendly community that it’s a pleasure to be a part of.

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  8. This was beyond impressive! You started by exposing the historical context that surrounded the game and why it was so important, went on to comment on how games can be judged and appreciated even though they have clearly been topped by products that followed, and moved on to dissect it and analyze it to its smallest bits. Astounding work, and a read that was entertaining all the way through!

    I can’t say I have a deep emotional connection with Super Mario Bros. I was born in 1990, so by the time I first put my hands on a videogame controller the Super Mario games that were in vogue were Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. As such, I ended up learning to play and love videogames with the former (as I would only get a SNES later). But, obviously, I still admire Super Mario Bros. deeply!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for being so encouraging! This wasn’t an easy article to put together but the response from our readership has helped make it worth it. There’s still so much I wanted to explore and discuss with this game, though. I’m so happy it entertained you!

      In the same vein as you, SMB isn’t the Mario game closest to my heart. That’s SMB3, likely because of my date of birth, but it’s impossible not to admire what this game did for the industry.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I think I’ve beaten it three years running now and I decided this year that it’s the game I want to kick off my new year with. It’s a return to my roots, albeit not all the way down to the 2600, but it’s also a series I have a deep love for (more than any that came before it at least).

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  10. I’ve been a Mario fan since Mario Bros. the often overlooked Mario game. And with Super Mario Bros. why wouldn’t it be? But the building blocks were kind of there in Mario Bros. The shell creepers became Koopa Troopas. Strategic jumping was paramount, and it was the first appearance of Luigi.

    Still there’s no question that SMB was a phenomenon that solidified the platformer as a mainstay genre. One of the major reasons the NES was able to resurrect the console market was indeed, Super Mario Bros. As near, and dear to my heart as the Commodore 64, and Atari 2600 are, there’s no question Super Mario Bros. was something special. It was more than a killer app for the NES. It’s a timeless game. Like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Space Invaders or Berzerk. It’s something you can still pick up, and enjoy as much now, as we did in 1985. I didn’t even get my NES until 1989, but spent four years playing a lot of SMB at friends’ on theirs with them.

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    1. I remember playing Mario Bros. just once in an arcade when I was very young and in writing this review I got to thinking about why it was so overlooked, why it didn’t necessarily form the cultural consciousness basis for the Mario franchise. Maybe it’s because SMB is more expansive in content and concept?

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      1. I think with SMB being the pack-in game with the majority of NES releases like the ACTION SET (Came with SMB/Duck Hunt on one Game Pak) It always comes to mind first. Mario Bros. was still a big success for Nintendo in the arcade, and saw ports to everything from the 2600 to the Commodore 64 to the NES. People often remember its inclusion in Super Mario Bros. 3 as well.

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        1. That was likely where I first encountered serious play of Mario Bros., in SMB3. It’s still the most memorable version of that game for me personally because of that original encounter. The version of SMB I had was the combo with Duck Hunt. When Nintendo announced the Switch without a pack in launch game, I immediately thought of SMB.

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  11. I really loved Super Mario Bros. and it was the first game I ever picked up. I can still remember my dad walking into the first goomba, throwing down the controller, and never picking it back up again. I always found the first game to be really tough and still do and really loved the second game in the NES trilogy. It’s still my favourite of the three! It was nice to read some of the history of the game here and get to know it through your eyes.

    Also, I can totally relate to raising the controller up trying to jump higher. It was my mom’s favourite move as well and is one of my favourite memories of her!

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    1. Hehe a lot of people walk into that first Goomba, eh? This first game was tough to me too and my favorite is the third game in the NES trilogy. There’s still so much history I left out, I feel like, and listening to and reading some interviews with Miyamoto was really fascinating while researching for this article.

      I was trying to think of what to call it: raising the controller! Glad you knew what I was talking about! I guess motion controls are intuitive in that respect. We were already trying to do that ourselves.

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  12. I feel Super Mario Bros. has held up reasonably well, though its sequels have since surpassed it. What can’t be contested is that it was in a league of its own in 1985. It was the game that helped revitalize the North American industry after its nasty crash two years prior, and it has its place in history because of that.

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    1. Definitely! It’s certainly aged better than other games from the mid-80’s. I was born in ’85 but this is one of the first games I ever played. I never lived in a pre-Super Mario Bros. world but going back to play games from ’83, it’s like night and day, like I mentioned with Yars’ Revenge.

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      1. If it’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that the simple experiences from this era tend to hold up better with time than the more complex ones. I think it’s because the complex ones made a lot of sense to the people playing them at the time, but to newcomers, they would be unintuitive. I know a lot of pioneering computer RPGs would be difficult to approach from a modern standpoint; back in 2012, I played through Ultima IV, and it felt more like work than fun – though I truly appreciate the impact it had on the medium. Back then, most of the people who had computers needed a degree of expertise (which was necessary to use DOS without giving up in frustration), and that expertise meant no one was really complaining when made to navigate a complex interface (that would be considered needlessly obtuse by today’s standards) because it wasn’t too much of a leap.

        I was born a little later, but because Super Mario Bros is one of the greatest selling games in history, I guess it’s not terribly surprising that it ended up being one of the first games I played myself. I too don’t remember a time when Mario wasn’t significant (or video games in general, for that matter).

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        1. I haven’t played many old PC games. King’s Quest is probably about as old as I remember, but going back to some of the proto-RPGs (as I’ve heard them called) on consoles has been that same experience of work over pleasure.

          My dad was into computers in the 80’s and had a lot of tech friends. I’ve been talking to him about that and discovering what that pre-Super Mario Bros. world was like. It’s pretty fascinating, that part of history. The only 2nd gen consoles I have are a Vectrex and an Atari 2600, but I’d like to go older if I could find anything. That’s an entire era to explore, if at least for the historical education.

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  13. I had the combo cartridge, and I usually played Duck Hunt over Mario Bros. I knew I had so much trouble on the first couple levels that there was no way I could finish the game. Shooting the ducks (and trying to shoot that annoying dog) was just more fun to me. I watch some speedruns of Mario Bros though, and it’s really amazing.

    I learned a lot about the history. Very fascinating! Although I wonder how much would have changed if Donkey Kong had been a Popeye video game.

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    1. I had the combo cart too but I don’t recall which I played more. Duck Hunt was definitely more casual though and I could get good at that whereas I couldn’t hope to beat Super Mario Bros. as a kid! Glad you were fascinated by the history. I was too! I had to include a lot of that. I remember hearing something about Donkey Kong being Popeye? Is that right?

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      1. Yep, Nintendo failed to get the rights for Popeye characters for the game, so Popeye = Jumpman/Mario, Pauline = Olive Oyl, and Bluto = DK. Of course, no one knows exactly how far Nintendo had planned the idea before being rejected, but definitely some striking visual similarities.

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  14. I definitely understand where you are coming from with the Mario fandom – I’m never crazy stoked about a Mario game, yet when they come out I play and enjoy them. There’s something about Mario that makes the series special even when it doesn’t draw out the same level of fanaticism as other games. I personally was always terrible at this game and as a result I didn’t love it as a kid – I still don’t love it now – but there’s no denying what this series has done for the industry as a whole. I wouldn’t want to live in the world where Super Mario Bros did not put Nintendo on the map and lead the gaming industry to where it is today!

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    1. It’s weird, right? So many fandoms get insanely obsessive. If there is even a Mario fandom, it’s super chill and casual. I’ll likely play a new Mario game if I have the platform but it doesn’t raise the same impending excitement as a new FF or a new Zelda.

      This isn’t my favorite Mario game by far, either, and I sucked at it when I was a kid too, but yeah it’s pretty much a necessary game for the industry as we know it today.

      I appreciate the comment! What’s your favorite Mario game and which do you like the most out of the NES trilogy?

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      1. Hmm, when you say “Mario game” are we talking traditional Mario or anything that he appears in, haha? I’d say my favorite Mario game that isn’t necessarily a mainline title would have to be Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. That game gels perfectly with my sense of humor and how I like to play games, it is perhaps my all-time favorite game (so far, anyway). In the mainline series, I’d have to say Galaxy. I really enjoyed completing that game as both Mario and Luigi, and shared a lot of fun times playing it with my brother.
        As far as the original trilogy, I have to give it to Super Mario Bros 3. I played that one a lot with my mother, cousins, and even my grandparents, and it to me has the most interesting power-ups. Not to mention a fantastic soundtrack! I believe from reading previous posts that 3 ranks pretty highly for you too as well?

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        1. I guess since this is a looser fandom, I’d just say any game where Mario figures prominently as the hero, so yeah I’d count Paper Mario. I have yet to play Thousand-Year Door but I liked the first Paper Mario. Galaxy is definitely one of my favorites!

          You are correct concerning SMB3. It was the first game I ever gave a perfect 10 to and it’s still only one of two games I’ve given a 10/10 aggregate to here. Whenever people question me on that, I just talk to them about physics for an hour lol!

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