Mario Bros.: Before They Were Super

I gave Mario Bros. a bad rap for the longest time. In my defense, I was first introduced to it by way of its mediocre port on the NES, a jilted and poorly executed version that I had not context for because I didn’t come into video games until platformers were much more refined than their forebears. By the late eighties it just felt tired and old by comparison.

I wanted to like it so badly; by this point I had grown fond of Mario not just because I had spent months mastering Super Mario Bros. because it was the only game I had, but because he was a very endearing character and fell in love with the Mushroom Kingdom. It was also a game that focused heavily on cooperative play; a brilliant way for me to get even more game time in because I could use it as an excuse to play with my brother, which secretly led to many bonding moments unbeknownst to me at the time. But I was looking for something that hewed towards the platformers I know and love to this day and not what I saw as a very basic and clipped game. Where were the levels, the variety, and the secrets? There was no way I was gonna fall for Mario Bros. because I was never going to give it a chance in the first place.

Thank God I’m of an age where I like to revisit older games because I finally figured out that arcade games don’t show you your progress through the stodgy concept of level advancement – they show it by letting your skills grow, which is then proven by the almighty high score. Getting older and by virtue wiser does have its benefits.

Mario Bros. is a good analogy to actual work. Strip away the fact that Mario and Luigi are in fact doing the job of being exterminators (Sure, Nintendo says they’re plumbers, but have you ever hired one to knock a turtle over and then jump on it? I don’t think so.) and what you have is the platforming equivalent to micromanaging and multitasking. Turtles, crabs and the biggest goddamn flies you’ve ever seen come pouring out of these conspicuously placed pipes in the sewers and you have to mitigate which ones to bop first while avoiding others and maybe picking up a spinning coin along the way. Do it too slowly and your pace is hastened by some volatile and bouncy fireballs that keep you moving if you stand in place too long. If it all becomes too much to handle you can give yourself a bit of a reset by smacking a POW block and slowing things back down.

I wish I had a POW block at work, honestly.

Just to keep the work metaphor rolling, playing Mario Bros. collaboratively alleviates a lot of the pressure of doing your job, assuming your partner is on board with helping out. You could theoretically divide and conquer by having one player dump the animals while the other hops on them, but it makes the game feel rather redundant very quickly. What’s more interesting to me is including your partner in the chaos and reacting to the board rather than each of you doing a specific task. Like a lot of cooperative games, Mario Bros. is at its best when you’re setting each other up for success in a variety of situations which, if it clicks just right, brings on one of those rare moments of Zen where you just kind of become one with the joystick and smoothly wipe out all comers.

Even though it has its own kind of jank, it doesn’t feel as detrimental as it does in the NES version. Like Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. it feels more like a stylistic choice that you need to get accustomed to rather than cheap design. As to whether or not it’s either is up for debate. On that same tip, the visuals and artwork align with those games as well, giving it a charming cohesiveness.

Even though I’ve finally kindled an admiration for Mario Bros., I have to admit that it’s a game that is best played under certain circumstances or when I’m in a particular mood. I’d rather be playing it with somebody else, which kind of pushes it out of that realm of pick-up-and-play kind of game. Which is fine and, quite frankly, better than just loathing the game like I once did. Congratulations Mario Bros. you aren’t tired and old – you’re a classic.


DEVELOPER: Nintendo

PUBLISHER: Nintendo

PLATFORM: Arcade

RELEASE DATE: July 20th, 1983

Contra: An Introduction to Intergalactic Cold Wars

Playing the arcade version of Contra has been an interesting study in perception.

Growing up in the 80s there was always this assumption that the arcade was and always would be where the cutting edge of video games laid. They didn’t have to make a console that had to be adaptable; developers could pour all their energy into one project and set it loose on the world in a large, plywood cabinet. The most popular ones did get ported to the home market, but often at a loss in visual fidelity, an inability to match the game mechanics one to one or with content cut. If it “kind of” felt like its bigger sibling in any capacity it was usually enough for the average player, myself included.

Contra for the NES was one of, if not the, first video games I ever played. I wasn’t aware it was based off of an arcade game until probably twenty years after the fact. I lived in an age where the internet didn’t exist as it does today; so what you knew was based on what you’ve seen, or if you were lucky ogled in an old gaming magazine at best. Based on screenshots alone Contra in the arcade looked more grandiose and bombastic. Having played it though…it’s not in any way better than its 8-bit predecessor.

The set-up is the same – two loosely interpretative soldiers named Bill and Lance run and gun their way through an opposing military threat only to discover that said military threat is actually a ruse for alien conquerors in what could be best described as an homage to any and every 80s action flick up to that point. It’s a nice melding of “athletic” games (what we now call platformers) and shooters that probably drew a lot of people’s attention with its cultural iconography and buzzword-like title. The game splits its time between side-scrolling and a pseudo-3D corridor style as you dodge a hail of bullets regardless in its one-hit kill, three lives game play. Had I played it when it first came out I have no doubt I would have been impressed. As it stands it’s only a stepping stone to greater things,

Even when you take away my personal bias towards the NES version, it’s pretty easy to see that Konami gave a lot of the arcade game’s ideas room to breathe and be expanded on when they moved it to a home console. The visuals, while definitely of a higher fidelity, seem busy in comparison to the NES version’s use of the Konami house style. It lacks a cohesiveness both when it splits its time between viewpoints but also in sizing of the character models to the world. The levels themselves are much larger and thought out on the NES, perhaps to make it feel fuller for a home audience with different expectations up to that point. In the first stage alone the NES Contra felt like a bull charge in the vein of how other games interpret the battle of Normandy from World War II. In the arcade you cross the seminal exploding bridge only to suddenly find yourself at the steps of the first fortress a few feet beyond that, losing length and gravitas in equal measure.

I’m not a fan of slagging on anything, but it’s so hard not to make comparisons when they did Contra better elsewhere and impressively on weaker tech. It’s entertaining enough in its own right, perhaps even more so with a more analytical angle with an emphasis on iterative progression, but it also feels like a footnote to what came after. Whenever I get around to writing about the NES Contramy Contra — it’ll probably be this sweeping missive about its importance to me and gaming at large. And I doubt I’ll even give this one a mention in all of it.

It’s like Neil Young said – it’s better to burn out than fade away.


DEVELOPER: Konami

PUBLISHER: Konami

PLATFORM: Arcade

RELEASE DATE: February 20th, 1987