The original Super Mario Bros. has been officially re-released no fewer than 19 different times over its 35-year history. From graphical updates (Super Mario All-Stars) to handheld upgrades (Super Mario Bros. Deluxe), to various Virtual Console re-releases and most recently its inclusion in Switch Online’s NES catalogue, if you’ve somehow not played it by now, you must have been actively avoiding it.
For the most part, it’s played exactly the same way each time. The odd bonus mode or visual tweak aside, fans of the game will know exactly what they’re expecting every single time they fork out for the umpteenth port, and they’ll enjoy it each and every time regardless. With Super Mario Bros. 35, however, Nintendo has overhauled its most famous game and in doing so has managed the unthinkable: it’s taken an experience that has by and large remained identical for three and a half decades and made it feel fresh and exciting all over again.
At its most fundamental level, Super Mario Bros 35 is similar to Tetris 99. Both games have you playing against a large number of opponents, and both have you sending obstacles to other players while trying to survive until you’re the last one standing. They both even share the same presentation style and opponent targeting system: it’s clear we’re talking two games from the same series by the same developer (Arika) here.
That said, we’ve seen multiplayer Tetris a million times before and 99-player Tetris was a fairly straightforward fit: you could have probably done a decent job of imagining how Tetris 99 played before getting your hands on it for the first time. Turning the NES-era Super Mario Bros. – which even in two-player mode was a strictly one-at-a-time affair – into a massively multiplayer competitive battle is perhaps a bit trickier to immediately picture.
Here’s how it works: all 35 players start off on the same stage, with 35 seconds on the timer. Every time you defeat an enemy two things happen: you’ll add a few extra seconds to your timer and you’ll send that enemy over to an opponent’s screen to make life a little trickier for them. The aim is to keep making your way through random stages and keeping your timer topped up until every other player either dies or runs out of time.
It’s a simple concept on paper and is easy to learn in practice too: it only takes a couple of games before you get the hang of it and start planning strategies. For example, collecting coins may initially seem like a waste of time because it uses up time that should be spent simply running through a level, but once your coin tally passes 20 you can trigger a little roulette that randomly gives you one of four power-ups – a Super Mushroom, a Fire Flower, a Star or a POW block – that may help you out.
Interestingly, the game shares one other quirk with Tetris 99, in that it may actually be beneficial to find yourself on the back foot. In Tetris 99, when opponents start stacking blocks on your screen, they invariably continue to leave a gap in the same place, meaning before long you have a stack with a single column of open space. Let the stack get high enough and you can just drop a bunch of long I-shaped pieces down that gap to rack up some Tetrises and devastate someone else’s game. It’s a similar situation here.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a barrage of enemies, if you’re good enough it could be a blessing in disguise. Not only can a Fire Flower or Star make it easy to absolutely plough through them all and send them all back to your opponents, but if you can put together a combo the number of seconds added to your timer will increase with each hit. Bounce on a bunch of enemies without touching the ground (the physics have changed to let you bounce higher off enemies, feeling more like Super Mario Bros. 3) or kick a Koopa Troopa shell into a sea of the sods and your time limit will rocket up: as such, it arguably pays to be targeted by others at times.
A lot of this makes Super Mario Bros. feel more fun than it has in years. The most satisfying elements of the original were when you took out enemies with some well-aimed fireballs, booted a Koopa Troopa through a load of Goombas and used a Star to plough through baddies like they were made of soup. When Super Mario Bros. 35 is at its most manic and throwing countless extra enemies at you, these three actions in particular are dialled up to 11, essentially turning the game into an endorphin factory.
It can take a little while to feel like any progress is being made, especially if you’re a Super Mario Bros. devotee who’s been playing the game for decades. For the first few hours you’ll find yourself playing the same levels over and over again, facing little more than Goombas and Koopa Troopas. The whole thing might feel quite repetitive after a while and you'd be forgiven for thinking there's not much more to it than that.
The other consequence of this is that some battles can get pretty long, especially if you’re a Super Mario Bros. expert and you find yourself in a group with one or two others who also don’t have a habit of dying too often. Whereas you can brute force someone’s screen up to the top in Tetris 99 and force out even the best players fairly quickly, here it’s not uncommon to see a lengthy back and forth between the last two or three players as they run through an endless series of levels, sending enemies forwards and getting more back until one of you finally makes a mistake. The timer does eventually start counting down quicker and quicker so it doesn’t go on forever, but there can be some fairly epic (yet repetitive) battles.
As you continue to level up and reach stages from later on in the game, however, things start to get more interesting. When you start regularly encountering the likes of Hammer Brothers and Spinies and start sending them over to your opponents’ screens instead of the usual, weaker enemies, there are far more opportunities for error (especially if they aren’t armed with the Fire Flower, the Holy Grail of this game); even enemies that are considered more stage hazards than anything can be sent unfittingly to your opponents, such as Piranha Plants and even Lava Bubbles. You're suddenly forced to think about balancing your time and your coin counter, as well as play the levels you've no doubt played dozens of time before without your rhythm being thrown off to the point that you fall down a bottomless pit. As a result, those repetitive “just hurry up and diiiiie” moments against the last couple of opponents finally start to feel like you’re making an impact.
Sending a bunch of easy enemies over ultimately makes you start thinking: “This person I’m playing is no amateur: I’m only going to get these enemies back again in a few seconds.” When you start taking out the likes of the Hammer Brothers in stages like 3-1 and 5-2 you’ll instead start thinking: “Yessss, let’s see you handle that!” Just like in Tetris 99, when you’re playing against a lot of people at the start it’s hard to get a real sense that you’re impacting on any of these games, but when it’s only down to the last few you can tell that a big move is making a difference and it feels far more satisfying.
In general, then, the little lull around hour two or three aside, we absolutely love how Nintendo and Arika have taken a timeless game and made it feel new and exhilarating. The only real problem now is where we go from here, because Nintendo has already stated that the game will be shutting up shop on 31st March 2021, which is another one of those quirky “oh, Nintendo” decisions that has us wondering whether they’ve actually got a mischievous Magikoopa calling the shots at their Kyoto HQ.
There is so much potential for this game to end up like Tetris 99 and become an ever-evolving product that adds new modes over time. You know those limited time events in Tetris 99 where you can earn a new theme based on something like Splatoon 2, or Animal Crossing, or Fire Emblem? Think of what they could have done here with the same idea, had they decided to give the game more time.
It’s not like it hasn’t been done before: remember all the skins you could give Mario in the original Super Mario Maker? Why not dig those out again and, say, promote Pikmin 3 Deluxe by running a limited time event where performing well enough lets you unlock an Olimar sprite for Mario? Imagine playing a year or two from now, after a bunch of these events, and seeing the likes of Link, Sonic, Samus and K.K. Slider running around on the other thirty-four screens instead of them all showing the same Mario sprite.
Instead, we have a game that – for now, at least – has been given just six months left to live. We really hope this is a ploy to get people to think “oh, I’d better hurry up and play it then”, fall in love with it, campaign to keep it and ultimately have Nintendo look like the gallant hero by calling off the end date, essentially untying the damsel from the train tracks six months after it was spotted buying rope. It's not like this is set in stone – Jump Rope Challenge recently had its three-month end date waived – so we'll just need to keep our fingers crossed that Nintendo sees sense and keeps this genuinely brilliant multiplayer game alive.
Super Mario Bros. 35 gives Nintendo's most iconic game a jolt of life and it's massively welcome. Its matches could do with being a little shorter and it's difficult to see whether it's actually going to have changed much a few months down the line, but it says a lot about the quality of the experience that the biggest problem we have with it is that come April 2021 it won't exist anymore.