Super Mario World was likely the first smooth-scrolling platformer that I ever played, albeit briefly at a family friend’s house. Later, PC games like Jill of the Jungle and Jazz Jackrabbit were the first of the genre that I owned and played heavily. It wasn’t until a bit later in life that I got an NES and fell in love with… well, a ton of games for the system, but most relevantly the first and third Super Mario Bros. games1. The first, in particular, with its simplicity, quick plays, and the convenience of being bundled with Duck Hunt spent a lot of time in my NES. I’m not describing some special, unique experience here, of course, but I am of an age that the first Super Mario Bros. game is firmly implanted in my mind.
Nintendo recently released Super Mario Bros. 35, a 35-player online battle royale interpretation of the original. The premise is rather simple: survive (with only a single life) longer than anyone else, feeding a constantly down-ticking clock and collecting coins that can be spent to activate a random power-up. Killing an enemy will send it to whoever you are currently targeting (Tetris 99-style), and bump up your clock by a number of seconds dependent upon how you killed it. At first blush, it feels like Super Mario Bros., just with a few more Goombas here and there. Then Bloopers start flying through the sky like you’re running a randomized ROM. Because levels are selected from a pool chosen by all 35 players at the beginning, you find that your options in the first warp zone are 1-1, 1-2 (the level you’re already in), and 3-4. Things are decidedly abnormal.
Strategy, therefore, becomes very different than in vanilla Super Mario Bros. Quick platforming is less important, and coins actually mean something. Fire flowers becomes vital when your path is littered with errant Piranha Plants. Skipping things to gain a ton of time by knocking out a major line of enemies with a Koopa shell is often worth it. You can’t play it like Super Mario Bros., even though it’s so familiar.
Tetris 99 is the obvious point of comparison as far as player interaction and targeting UI. As with Tetris 99, the right stick chooses between four targeting styles: random, most coins, least time, and attacking. The left stick allows you to manually select a target. Unlike Tetris 99, this feels… minimally important, at best. Tetris is a game where you have at least some handle on a player’s current standing; you can readily see if they’re stacked up poorly or loaded up with junk blocks. In Super Mario Bros. 35, another player’s screen might, at best, give you an indication that you’re about to be hit with a Bowser. The options don’t make a ton of sense to me either. Sure, more coins means that you’ll acquire more if you KO the player, but it also means they have more up their sleeve to deal with enemies. Likewise, the player with the least time on their clock may be at a disadvantage, but you’re helping with that problem by giving them enemies to kill.
Unlike Tetris, Super Mario Bros. also tends to lull toward the end. Once there are only five players left, the clock speeds up significantly, but otherwise… there’s a lot less of a threat, simply because fewer players means fewer enemies getting tossed around. It becomes far more empty and far more like a normal game of Super Mario Bros., which is weird from a typical difficulty curve standpoint. The endgame kind of drags because of this, and you’re likely to just get hosed by the timer because of the lack of enemies. It’s not a problem, per se, it’s just a rather unusual flow.
All in all, Nintendo has done quite well to make a fresh Super Mario Bros. experience. I’ve become quite addicted to it, and hate that in a few years when they’ve released a new console and have no interest in running their Switch Online servers anymore… well it’ll all be an unpreserved memory. These unique multiplayer experiences are wonderful, especially in this year of isolation. I can’t help but think about them as deliberate ephemera, however, albeit less in a planned obsolescence sense and more in the sense of a simple lack of caring.
- I played a lot of Super Mario Bros. 2 as well, primarily because it was a game I could play as a lady, woo! But it never had the same appeal as 1 and 3 for me, and I find its controls rather unpleasant today. ↩︎