Home video gaming in the 1980’s was ultimately defined by two consoles, the Atari Video Computer System (2600) and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Sure, there were many other popular, well received, and well made consoles during that time, but it ultimately came down to two. The Atari era defined the first half of the decade and the NES defined the latter half. There was one game in particular that catapulted the NES into the stratosphere and made not only Nintendo synonymous with video games, but also a mustachioed Italian plumber named Mario a household name.
The iconic plumber’s first real adventure, having initially featured in various Nintendo arcade titles (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros) as well as cameos in others (Donkey Kong Jr, Tennis, Golf, many black box NES games), was THE reason to own a Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985–1986. I had been playing video games for a couple years in the arcades prior to my first encounter with Super Mario Bros. on a PlayChoice-10 arcade machine, finally playing the home port for the NES on some of my friends’ consoles in late 1986 and early 1987.
For me, arcade games were quick ways to spend quarters on something other than candy, soda, and baseball cards. I wasn’t yet very good at video games and my attempts would last only a few minutes, which always left me feeling a little unfulfilled. Arcade games of the early 80’s were notoriously shallow, which didn’t make them as appealing for extended playing sessions. Your missions were murky, the screens were repetitive, and while this all has a certain nostalgic appeal and is part of the reason why I still love early 80’s games/consoles, Super Mario Bros. was different.
With ‘Mario’, you had a clear mission to save the princess and the scrolling backgrounds while you progressed forward to the right gave you a sense of accomplishment as you improved. Each area of the level you uncovered by advancing further was like slowly working your way through a movie or book. You weren’t exactly sure what was going to be revealed to you, which made the game exciting as well as challenging. The PlayChoice-10 version of Super Mario Bros was great but it was more difficult than the home port as arcade games tend to be. Just to get through the first level, you would have to drop a fair few quarters into the machine. Owning a NES with Super Mario Bros meant never having to put a quarter in the machine to try and save the princess again, which was infinitely appealing to my childhood piggy bank. Super Mario Bros. was the pack-in title when I finally got my NES for Christmas in 1987. The next few weeks included multiple SMB marathons, and I’m grateful that my parents had two TV’s in the house so I could monopolize one without irritating them too much. One of Super Mario Bros.’ greatest appeals was that all of the secrets of the game were not evident to you upon first play through. My friends and I would mentally and physically document each time we discovered a hidden power up/1-up, vines that reached into the sky, pipes that you could descend, and of course the warp zones.
In 1987, the only way you could discover SMB’s multitude of secrets would either be trial and error or discussing amongst your friends on playgrounds or after school and weekend Nintendo sessions. This would typically involve 2-5 kids sitting around a TV watching someone play Super Mario Bros. and mentally taking note when you did something they’d never done before so you could try that either at home or when it was time for your turn. Nintendo Power hadn’t been released yet, and Nintendo Fun Club News wasn’t as prevalent or as informative. I was always proud of knowing many of the games secrets before the Nintendo magazines informed the masses. “Did you read how to get the infinite extra lives in level 3-1?” “Yeah, I discovered that a few months ago, its still cool though.” Super Mario Bros remains the game I am most proficient at, and I don’t see any other game ever taking that spot.
To this day, Super Mario Bros. remains one of my top 5 favorite video games. The memories I have associated with this title combined with its significance as the game that officially got me hooked as a player and collector make Super Mario Bros.’ impact unmatched.