Games

Nintendo's Latest Experiment Mashes Up Super Mario Bros. and Battle Royale

It's not an entirely successful experiment, but having a totally different way to experience Mario is a welcome one.
October 6, 2020, 1:00pm
Screen shot from the video game Super Mario Bros. 35.
Screen shot courtesy of Nintendo

Mario games, full of cartoonish worlds and occasionally jetpacks that spit water, are not stressful affairs. Friends, Super Mario Bros. 35 is the opposite. The battle royale-inspired take from Nintendo, released last week on Switch, has 35 players trying to survive as long as possible, while bopping through familiar levels that have taken a twisted turn, because you very well might be fighting a half dozen Bowsers that are jumping and tossing fireballs at you. It's the kind of good chaos we all could use a little more of in a terrible year like 2020. 

It's quickly caused some deeply confused looks from my four-year-old, after I've yelled at my Switch because daddy got too goddamn cute about trying to unnecessarily bop a series of enemies when he could have focused on methodically moving forward, mitigating risk, and increasing a chance at making it into the winners circle. Instead, I threw myself into a pit.

So far, the best I've done while playing Super Mario Bros. 35 is fourth place. It's shameful. It's rare that I consider myself "good" at a video game, but the one exception is platformers. My brain and fingers just seem to get platformers. The genre, however, is largely a solo affair, which means there aren't many opportunities for me to stack myself against others. 

This, in theory, should be my moment to shine, an opportunity to become a real esporter.

Super Mario Bros 35. is genuinely interesting and fun. While I have doubts about how long that fascination can last, because in reality there isn't a lot of depth for people to sink their teeth into, it's currently got me. I need to get first place, or else I will be personally haunted, and the game's experimental vibe is something I wish Nintendo would lean into more often.

Nintendo is pretty conservative with their classics, often choosing to re-release them in their original forms, without much change—even if it might actually be needed. Super Mario Bros. 35 follows the same successful riff as last year's Tetris 99, where 99 players stacked blocks for as long as possible simultaneously. Unlike other battle royale games, though, you see what everyone else is up at the same time. You have a direct feet into 34 other people playing Mario, while you try to do the same thing. The visual overload is part of the charm.

In Super Mario Bros. 35, you and 34 other players are dropped into a stage from the original Super Mario Bros. In one corner, a timer counts down. In another, how many coins you've picked up. Normally, neither time nor coin matters much when playing Super Mario Bros., but they take on a huge importance here. When time is up, you die. You can earn more time by finishing stages (15 seconds for the top of the flag, less beneath) or defeating enemies (three seconds if you jump on an enemy, one second if you hit 'em with a fireball). Coins are used to randomly gain an item, like a fire flower or a mushroom, and a pull costs 20 coins.

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Every time you bop an enemy, it sends that enemy somewhere else, the same way you can send extra blocks in Tetris 99. The economy of Super Mario Bros. 35 is thus tightly wound together, with defeated enemies providing time and garbage for other players to deal with. 

This creates a tension where a player's natural inclination might be to avoid danger and jump past enemies, but the path to victory actually involves throwing yourself into busy crowds where you're just as likely to find death or salvation. This is especially true as more players die off. Anyone who's approaching the last dance will have plenty of time and coin to spare, potentially letting them camp in safe spots on the map. You can cross your fingers and hope for a careless mistake, but that's unlikely, given how long they've lasted. Maybe you could both stand still and see who outlasts the other. But the better option is to press forward and fight a bunch of enemies, sending new risk factors for them to grapple with.

Part of the reason Super Mario Maker worked is because Nintendo expertly designed a level editor that can be used by the masses, but in the years since, it's been wildly outclassed by other efforts from indie developers, such as Levelhead. But the reason Levelhead hasn't caught on is because it's not Mario. Nintendo's cultural influence is deep and reaching, and the joy of Mario Maker is watching people subvert our expectations of how a Mario level works because Nintendo decided to hand over the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom to us.

Super Mario Bros. 35 operates similarly. At first glance, you're presented with level 1-1, something recreated countless times in countless video games. It is, perhaps, the ur-level. You know where the secret power-ups are, you know how far the flag is. It's familiar enough that you don't have to think about what to do next. But in Super Mario Bros. 35, suddenly a Bowser appears—maybe three Bowsers, even. Why is there a Cheep Cheep flying from the ground when there's no water? There's only supposed to be one Goomba there, not seven!

Knowing these weird deviations aren't the result of a clever level designer but your fellow players is key to the joy of Super Mario Bros. 35. Every run presents a different surprise.

The question, and one that becomes apparent even within a few hours of play, is how long those surprises can last. The levels in the original Super Mario Bros. are simple, and begin feeling repetitive pretty fast. There are two game modes in Super Mario Bros. 35 —one default, another where Nintendo can introduce special rules, like starting with 100 coins—but there's simply not enough to do. Maybe Nintendo will introduce new ways to play, but given it's already announced Super Mario Bros. 35 will stop functioning next spring, that's unlikely.

At the very least, it's a really fun experiment. But it'll be too bad if it can't be more.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).