Nintendo, Please Don’t Kill Super Mario Bros. 35
The limited-time freebie is a genius remix of the classic Mario formula
There is something truly delicious about nabbing a power star, ploughing through a dozen Goombas, Koopa Troopas, a couple of Hammer Bros., and three Bowsers, only to see them overwhelm my hapless opponent. We were the surviving two (out of thirty-five) contestants in the ultimate test of Super Mario Bros. skill. The last several minutes of our epic clash in the Mushroom Kingdom had resembled an escalating tennis match; a veritable Noah’s Ark of classic Mario enemies flooded back-and-forth between our gameplay sessions. It was only a matter of time before one of us was either knocked out by an enemy or fell down an endless pit after slightly misjudging a jump in our zeal for the crown.
On the weekend I remember saying something to my partner along the lines of “Yeah, I’ll be going to bed soon, I’m just going to play a few rounds of Mario”. That was well before midnight. Nearly four hours later I crawled into bed, my mind flooded with images of countless near-misses and serendipitous item drops that turned the tide of battle at the last second. That so many folks are still playing Super Mario Bros. in 2020 is a testament to the game’s almost flawless design and utter timelessness. But the addition of a competitive multiplayer element is akin to Nintendo dumping a truckload of Mentos into a pool of Coca-Cola; it’s an exhilarating marriage of two concepts that results in something explosive.
If you’re unfamiliar with Super Mario Bros. 35, here’s a brief summary. Thirty-five people are all playing Super Mario Bros. at once. You see your own game on the main screen with the thirty-four other players’ games visible on the periphery. Every time you kill an enemy, two things happen: you gain time (which is important because everybody starts with a 60 second countdown at the beginning), and you send those enemies into your opponents’ games. Much like Tetris 99, you have a rudimentary way of determining who your target is (you can focus on your attackers, folks with the lowest available time, the most coins, or a random player). There are many more nuances to the experience, but that’s the basic gist in a nutshell.
The simplicity of the formula is part of its genius. If thirty-five players were all simply racing to a finish line, that might be fun, but the absence of any ability to influence each other’s game would be a major limiting factor. In Super Mario Bros. 35, I have the dual satisfaction of the seamless platforming and the fact that every enemy I take out is another obstacle for my opponents. Better still, the action becomes steadily more intense over time. The longer you survive, the bigger target you naturally become. Hold out for long enough and your Super Mario Bros. experience will quickly escalate into a kaizo nightmare that demands greater attention and provides a rapidly-shrinking margin for error.
The more I think about it, the more I come to the utterly weird realisation that Super Mario Bros. 35 could be the best multiplayer game I’ve played in 2020. That would be totally nuts in any year, but it seems especially notable in a year that feels like something out of an alternate universe.
After dragging myself away from the game for just a moment (you know, just long enough to work, eat, sleep, etc…) it dawned on me that Super Mario Bros. 35 will only be playable until March 31st, 2021. It’s not just that it won’t be downloadable after that time, it won’t be playable after that time. I guess it turns into a pumpkin at midnight on the 30th or something.
It’s not just that I don’t understand why Nintendo would kill off the most compelling reason to subscribe to Nintendo Switch Online right now, it’s also that this game is a revelation in more general terms. The formula works so well here that I can see it being applied successfully to numerous other Nintendo classics. You could, for instance, very easily achieve similar results with other Super Mario games (perhaps noting that the level selection would need to be carefully curated so that the pure platforming/twitchy levels are prioritised over the more puzzle-like ones).
Super Mario Bros. 35 isn’t just one of the best Switch games I’ve played in the last year, it’s also a consciousness-raising exercise in general — the DNA here is pure gold, and Nintendo could do so much with it in future. So please, Nintendo: don’t kill off Super Mario Bros. 35. Instead, acknowledge that you’ve really captured lightning in a bottle here, and see how you can riff on the idea with other games in future.