Super Mario Bros. 35 – a bitter, vindictive and brilliant birthday bash

By Neil Merrett

Super Mario Bros. 35, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Nintendo

As an icon of videogame design, 1985’s Super Mario Bros is many things.  

For many it is a comforting piece of 8-bit nostalgia – a game that set the template for decades of more colourful and open-ended 2D Mario titles.

It is a title that some people can pick up and play almost entirely via muscle memory. Millions of players have spent months and even years trying to uncover the game’s many secrets, hidden items, warp pipes and beanstalks that developers have squirreled away in random spots in the game’s world as well as its glitches.

It also retains a viable sense of challenge. The original game’s sharp focus on precision platforming charged the player to find an effective balance of patience and speed when traversing bottomless pits and lakes of lava and has made Super Mario Bros. a perennial option for speed runners to try and blaze through.

Players are required to choose whether to try and sprint through a section of a level, holding down the B button and trying to barrel themselves through enemies and traps – or alternatively go slow and steady and risk falling short during a dangerous jump or running out of time.

As we have previously noted at Squareblind, Mario games, since their inception, have had one of the more interesting approaches to conveying speed in games.

Alternatively, the Mario Maker series, over the last decade, has let players of all ages and nationalities build their own kind of Super Mario levels that can range from cryptic puzzle games, to gruelling feats of dexterity and timing.

Yet even with these innovations, the Super Mario Bros game remains one of the most known quantities in gaming. Every secret, glitch and potentially game breaking shortcut is collectively known among the millions to have played the game around the world.

Ten years ago, The Guardian reported that based on Nintendo’s estimations, over 40 million copies of the game had been sold as of 2010.

Writing for Gameyrant in 2016, Ryan Engstrom noted that the timelessness of Super Mario Bros stemmed from the effectiveness of its controls, which he argued were some of the best ever put into a videogame – even with 35 years of innovation.

“As the game progresses you find items to help in your journey: a super mushroom to increase your size and allow you to take an extra hit, a fire flower that will let you shoot fireballs at enemies, and a star that will grant invincibility and an insta-kill on Bowsers minions.”  

“Throughout the game, you will also encounter 1-UP mushrooms and numerous coins and question bricks that can contain any of the items in the game.  For you secret hunters out there, Super Mario Bros. has numerous hidden items and paths for you to find to aide in your quest to save the princess.”

Backwards to go forwards

It is something of a pleasure and surprise then on the 35th anniversary of the game to see its simplicity taken and transformed into a tense ‘Battle Royale’ game where 35 players compete against each other online.

Super Mario Bros 35 mimics a similar approach taken to repurpose the classic puzzle game Tetris into a gruelling 99 player online contest with Tetris 99 last year.

Both games require the player to do their best to play through a beloved classic and determine how best to dump their defeated foes or discarded blocks onto other players.

The choice is boiled down to four options. These relate to either selecting a random target to punish or instead go after the players that are directly attacking you. Alternatively, you could get a huge bonus of coins by being directly responsible for defeating the player deemed to be the one most struggling or most effective at that point of the game,

Part of both games’ appeal as an online multiplayer contest is deciding the best people to target at a specific point of the game and whether it is best to make yourselves known as a significant threat or antagonist to your fellow players. Doing so risks a pile-on that could overwhelm your delicate progress.

Unlike Tetris 99, and the original Super Mario Bros, progress through Mario 35 is not necessarily about getting as far into the game as possible.

The number of levels completed is less relevant when compared to the amount of time left for the player before they die. 

This time can be extended by defeating enemies in certain ways, such as bouncing on as many as possible in a series without hitting the ground, or perfectly timing the use of a power star to blast through as many powerful foes at once – building up your time to a maximum of 400 seconds, while also dropping the defeated enemies into your opponents’ game.

Gone also is the importance of extra lives. Whereas collecting 100 coins would previously grant you an extra go at the game in Mario Bros, Mario 35 affords the player just one chance of life each game.

Coins therefore serve the process of giving a random power up to a player if they find themselves overwhelmed by multiple Bowsers, Goombas, or perhaps the cloud riding assassin Lakitu, who seeks to rain down spiny death onto a player – regardless what level they are on.  At the cost of just 20 coins, the player may able to take a second hit, gain the ability to lob fireballs, or become temporarily invincible or simply just destroy everything on screen instantly.

Coming upon a perfectly timed power star can suddenly flip a game on its head as you speed through enemies with the spiteful glee of thinking of how they may ruin your opponent’s game – it’s a joyous experience never before present in a Mario game.

This reshaped economy within the game can also suddenly give a storied Mario player the added pleasure of being rewarded for having an encyclopaedic knowledge of secrets hidden in the game’s first level. They can capitalise on knowledge of a specific world that they may have spent endless hours of their youth literally smashing apart to uncover its treasures and hidden warp zones.

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Within the marathon-like structure of a Mario 35 session, which can theoretically last forever, or at least until just one single player is left standing, suddenly these beloved levels serve as something of a sanctuary to escape into to build up a player’s time and coins.  

It becomes possible to get a semi-constant run of repeating these levels, thanks to hidden warp zones, while other opponents may push onto the game’s harder levels to burden rivals with a higher number of enemies such as flying jellyfish and hammer hurling b&*£$rds.  One too many of these enemies can suddenly make a favourite level into an absolute misery when both your time and coins are dwindling.

Therein lies the strategy to the game. Success or victory can depend on opting to go slow and steady, or risk everything for an attempt to overcome some dreaded or unknown level in the hope of imposing some terrible penance on your rival players as a reward for the risks and gambles you have taken.

Behind the simplicity of Super Mario Bros 35, lies the classic game mechanics of risk and reward, with no one particular path being necessarily the correct one to land a coveted first place.

In essence, Mario 35 – currently expected to remain free to play for a limited period before being removed from the Switch store in 2021 – reinvents the classic gameplay of Super Mario Bros, while remaining true to the original appeal and design of an icon.

A happy 35th anniversary indeed – until your next 2nd or 3rd place finish of course.

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