In 1981, Donkey Kong emerged in arcades, hypnotizing a generation with its frightening difficulty, barrel-throwing ape and unassuming mustachioed hero, Jumpman. Four years later, that hero took his first step on the path to international stardom with Super Mario Bros, a game which would sell a legion of consoles and popularise the Italian plumber as one of the medium’s most familiar characters.
But nestled between Donkey Kong and that later console hit was Mario Bros, which first appeared in arcades in 1983. It was a solid, if not remarkable hit, but nowhere near of the same magnitude as Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros. So why is Mario Bros, which served as the hero’s first eponymous outing, relatively obscure compared to the games which followed?
Like Donkey Kong, Mario Bros was a collaboration between Nintendo game designers Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Having also worked together on the sequel Donkey Kong Jr, they began working on a new title starring Jumpman (although by this point, Jumpman had been rechristened Mario by someone at Nintendo of America – the name famously came from a warehouse landlord, Mario Segale).
Miyamoto was, he later admitted, inspired by a hit arcade game called Joust, designed by John Newcomer and released by Williams in 1982. Unlike the Donkey Kong games, Joust could be played simultaneously by two players, and saw them flying around a static screen and knocking down enemy knights.
Intent on making a two-player arcade game of their own, Miyamoto and Yokoi began throwing ideas around, including making Mario more athletic than he was in Donkey Kong, and creating the character’s brother Luigi – essentially a palette-swapped version of the Mario sprite.
Their ideas ultimately evolved into a fast-paced platform game, in which Mario or Luigi defeated enemies by striking the platform beneath them. Thus stunned, the player then jumped on the enemies to finish them off.
This double-strike mechanic – the first to stun, the next to kill – ultimately led to Miyamoto’s slightly surreal idea of having turtles as enemies: they’re vulnerable while they’re lying on their backs. These turtles would turn up in later Mario games as the Koopa Troopers (or Nokonoko in Japan).
Looking back, Mario Bros is clearly a midpoint between Donkey Kong and Super Mario: the way platforms react when Mario strikes them from beneath is the same as that later game, spinning coins look remarkably similar, and the series’ distinctive green pipes make their first appearance, too. Miyamoto later revealed that the inspiration for these came when he spotted some pipes sprouting from a concrete wall on the way from work one day. He couldn’t, however, remember why he decided to color them green.
Perfectly designed for the quick-fix atmosphere of the ’80s arcade, Mario Bros is still a lot of fun when played today, particularly in two-player mode. It’s more forgiving than the brutally tough Donkey Kong, too, though the sense of elation when a screen is completed isn’t quite so pronounced because of this.
Mario Bros may have been a bigger hit were it not for the unfortunate timing of its release – it appeared in American arcades when the country was in the midst of a video game slump. Mario Bros was, however, ported to a wide range of home computers and consoles, with Hudson Soft handling its port to Japanese machines like the PC-88, Ocean responsible for western 8-bit machines like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. It’s a testament to how casual Nintendo was with its properties at this point in its history that it even allowed Hudson Soft to create two sequels, Mario Bros Special and Punch Ball Mario Bros, released exclusively for Japanese computers.
Nevertheless, Mario Bros would soon be roundly eclipsed by Super Mario Bros, a game grounded in the ideas established in that 1983 title, but also expanding on them; where Mario Bros was a single-screen game which took place against an austere black backdrop, Super Mario Bros was alive with movement and color. Its levels took in a range of locations as well as dingy underground areas. Mario could swim, change size, and, for the first time, spit fireballs. If Mario Bros was a biplane, Super Mario Bros was, by comparison, a fighter jet.
When Super Mario Bros launched in the US in 1985, the game became synonymous with the NES, and as a result, Nintendo became far more protective over the title and its characters. The days of ports to other machines were over.
Eclipsed though it was by the success of that 1985 hit, Mario Bros still occupies a vital place in gaming history. Nintendo certainly hasn’t forgotten it. The game has been released on several modern systems, including the Wii, 3DS, Wii U, and the Switch. Containing the same buoyant, fun spirit as the later Mario games if not their variety, Mario Bros remains a fascinating waypoint in the series’ history. Plus, it gave the world commercials like this…