This review is by the site's webmaster, Casey A. Malik. It is part of a new series of Platsperpiece Reviews, that charts the history of platformers. We hope you enjoy this series.
When you go back to a retro game typically, you notice oddities, or strange design decisions that work for that game but haven't been explored much in others. For instance, Castlevania 1 has its fixed length jump, its use of invincibility powerups in addition to subweapons, and its score system being seen as important. It has a lot of things overall that more modern Castlevanias lack, and would never fly today. The same goes for SMB3, primarily with its powerup storage that includes such things as the ability to skip levels, in order to make a hard game a little more accessible while still gamifying that accessibility. While that system has been approached by other Mario games, particularly in the New Super series, it's never quite been replicated (that's for the next article though). Particularly with retro games, due to this, there's a process of learning to speak their language, figuring out what the game wants you to value and how it should be approached. In Super Mario Bros 1, this is not necessary, because the language it speaks is the language video games have spoken ever since. There is nothing strange or unfamiliar about it: every inch of SMB1 has been stripmined and used as a mechanic in some modern videogame, Mario or otherwise. This raises the question though: if it's truly so familiar, is SMB1 even worth going back to?
Of course the answer is yes, although the reasons are more subtle than any of the big draws of its NES brethren. While SMB1 speaks a language one might expect, it certainly speaks it with a strange accent: it has several differentiating factors from modern Mario games. One is the stiff physics: while you have more and better control over Mario than any video game character up to that point, he has a real weight and momentum to him: it doesn't feel effortless to get him over the pits. The challenge is figuring out exactly how Mario works, and how to maneuver him. The level design contributes: although it's all around solid, it also isn't too flashy or showy most of the time. As you play the game, you start to get almost into a flow state, where the enemies and the brick blocks kind of fade away, and your path through the level becomes automatically clear. The level design of Super Mario Bros, due to its simplicity, is incredibly legible. In this flow state, the only thing that matters is controlling Mario: it is not a game of fighting enemies or of jumping over pits, but one of pure momentum management. (Of course, some levels do force you to contend with their design moreso than this control scheme, particularly later on in the game, but this is simply a way of adding variety and upping the ante.)
You may notice this bears a lot of similarities to early Sonic games, and there's a reason for that. Sonic was itself born out of Mario speedrunning: optimizing movement to get through a level as fast as possible. Still, Sonic is laser-focused on this concept, while part of the fun of Mario is how it works on levels other than managing your momentum. Even if you're a young kid, and can't engage with the game on that level, you can still have fun defeating the enemies, kicking koopa shells around, and trying your hardest to get past world 1.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the exact opposite end of the spectrum, the Mario 1 speedrunners. I mentioned earlier that this inspired the Sonic games and for good reason: Mario 1, moreso than any Mario game, seems tailor made for speedrunners, with one exception. Due to a hardware limitation, it is only possible to improve the time of each individual level in increments of 21 frames (about half a second). Because of this, Mario speedrunners have come very close to perfection. The current speedrun record is 4:55.43 (set just three weeks ago!), whereas the current TAS record is only around 14 seconds faster. To get this far, SMB1 speedrunners have pulled off tricks that many believed were not doable by humans, pushing their abilities beyond anything thought possible just to save those 21 frames. It boggles the mind to think how far the speedrun could go if not for that unfortunate limitation. Unlike Super Mario World, with its arbitrary code execution, and Super Mario Bros 3's random elements, the Super Mario Bros speedrun remains about the limits of human reflexes, which I think makes it one of the best to follow.
So, this is what makes the game ultimately unique today: it's a Mario game, with solid Mario-style level design, with an unusually strong focus on momentum, and negotiating with Mario to get him to do what you want. The achievements later Mario games make in giving you perfect control over the character is incredible, but this first games shows the magic that can happen when the controls put up a bit of resistance. In this case, the controls become the game.
Plays: Played through worlds 1-4, partial playthroughs of worlds 5, 6, and 8.