Super Mario Bros. 35 shows that Nintendo’s deep well of classic games not only holds up on their own individually after so many decades, but also make remarkable tools for modern experimentation. Coming on the heels of Super Mario 3D All-Stars, which delivered three undisputed classics in a fairly lackluster package, Super Mario Bros. 35 is creative, accessible, and proof that there’s still a lot of mileage left for the iconic platformer. While it’s neither the deepest battle royale nor the deepest Mario game, it’s an incredibly entertaining amalgam of the two — and a formula that I’d love to see Nintendo continue tinkering with long after the arbitrary March 31, 2021 expiration date it’s imposed upon it.
Compared to other major battle royale games, Super Mario Bros. 35 seems small, and not necessarily in a bad way. Much like Tetris 99, it’s a free download for anyone who has Nintendo Switch Online. Once you’ve booted up the game, the lack of menu clutter and simple UI makes jumping into a match a breeze. And in the dozens of matches I’ve played my connection has been seamless, and hopping into a game has only taken a few seconds. This feels like warp speed compared to something like Fall Guys. And I haven’t had any dropouts or disconnections, which is a pretty remarkable thing to say for an online Nintendo game.
But with that feeling of being small come some downsides as well. So far, the only real unlockables in the game, apart from a larger pool of stages to start your match on, are the player icons, which pull from all of the classic 8-bit sprites from the original game. Given how fun personalizing your character in Fall Guys or Fortnite is, including certain items that can only be obtained via substantial wins, the fact that we’re stuck playing as the same Mario sprite is kind of a bummer. This is especially true when considering how many different skins existed in the original Super Mario Maker, ranging from Toon Link and Sonic the Hedgehog to EarthBound’s Master Belch and a literal Mercedes-Benz GLA. No, seriously.
By comparison, you won’t be spending time with Super Mario Bros. 35 because you’re trying to unlock the next cool tier of goodies, but rather because the gameplay itself captures that original 1985 magic while adding in a lot of the controlled chaos that makes the battle royale genre so popular in 2020. The basic premise here is simple — 35 players hop into a string of levels from the original Super Mario Bros. and see who can survive the longest. There are no lives or 1-Ups or continues — if you fall down a pit, get hit by an enemy when you’re not powered-up, or run out of time, you lose. The caveat here is that every enemy you defeat, whether it’s a simple goomba or Bowser himself, gets sent over to one of your opponents, which makes for a great tug-of-war feel to rounds.
Right off the bat, the presentation wonderfully mirrors that of Tetris 99 by letting you see what every player is up to throughout the entirety of the match. While your screen is front and center, it’s flanked by 17 windows on each side that give you a glimpse into what all of your opponents are up to. Just this view alone adds a chaotic dose of pressure to World 1-1, which is ingrained in a lot of our memories to the point where we could make it to the flagpole with our eyes closed. Individual screens flash and send enemies over to other screens, forcing you to pay attention to your own run amidst the cacophony of everybody else’s. With each opponent you see getting KO’d, the pressure of your run grows and grows.
Super Mario Bros. 35 succeeds in marrying the basic muscle memory, level layouts, and enemy behavior that a lot of us have known since we were kids with an entirely new and entertaining twist on them. Simple things, like being able to spend the coins you collect on a random power-up mid-level, or sending over a particularly nasty swarm of enemies to another player, make you think about these familiar stages, enemies, and power-ups in a completely different way.
In a sense, playing through Super Mario Bros. 35 feels like when you’re having a dream that you’re wandering around your childhood house, but things are just slightly off. That lamp in the corner doesn’t belong there. These two rooms shouldn’t be side by side. Oh god, why are there so many turtles in this hallway?
Every so often, I’ll get down to the end of a match where it’s just me and one or two other players who clearly have their platforming sealegs. These tense duels can draw out for quite a while, until one of us inevitably makes a dumb mistake. But while they last, these white-knuckled stretches create a fantastic competitive layer of tension, while also helping me achieve my dream of being Fred Savage’s little brother in 1989’s feature-length Nintendo commercial The Wizard.
My hope is that the March 31, 2021 self-destruct date is a weird gambit by Nintendo and that we’ll be seeing the game somehow evolve after that in a way similar to how Tetris 99 continues to have themed events. I can’t help but imagine what this formula would be like if it pulled in elements of Super Mario Maker 2 and finishing each stage tossed you into a random level from Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or New Super Mario Bros. Or if this chaotic and competitive formula were used on other Nintendo franchises, like The Legend of Zelda or WarioWare.
While we don’t know what the future of this game might hold, I’m glad that it exists for both longtime fans of the NES Classic and any newcomers that might somehow be out there. As it stands, Super Mario Bros. 35 has done a remarkable job of injecting new life into one of the most ubiquitous games ever made.