Mario Bros. is the very definition of a Nintendo arcade classic. It features fun, easy to play single-screen action that earned itself many a quarter in arcades back when it first released in 1983. Sending Mario back to his plumbing roots, it features many design elements that are still Mario staples to this day, such as pipes, turtles and most importantly, the introduction of Luigi, who would go on to define a generation (right?!).
The fact that such a game has been featured on almost every platform under the sun, from the Atari 2600 to Nintendo’s failed e-Reader peripheral, is hardly shocking. Whether or not you’re playing the game in cartridge or swipe-card form, you can expect a classic, well-executed arcade experience. However, there are a handful of lesser-known variations on the original Mario Bros. formula that have been undoubtedly missed or forgotten by many.
Whilst it’s no surprise that some of these variations have been left in the past, unlikely to receive any acknowledgement from Nintendo, let alone re-release, it’s interesting to see how the timeless arcade experience of Mario Bros. has evolved over the years, in the hands of different developers and across a plethora of different platforms.
Punch Ball Mario Bros. is perhaps the simplest variation of Mario Bros. on this list, but this is part of the reason it’s so absurd. Imagine the original Mario Bros. concept; you control Mario & Luigi, madly dashing from left to right on a single-screen level, striking enemies from below to trip them up before booting them off the stage to their demise. Now imagine that suddenly, the titular Brothers are no longer able to trip enemies by hitting the ground below them, but instead require the use of something called a ‘Punch Ball’, a rubber-looking ball that can be picked up and thrown a short distance, to stun them into submission. Why? I have no idea! Punch Ball Mario Bros. is supposedly one of the earliest licensed Mario games ever developed and there’s little clue as to why the late Hudson Soft, creators of Bomberman and Adventure Island (who are sadly no longer with us, thanks to Konami; if you can’t tell, I’m a little sore about this!) where chosen to work on this peculiar re-invention of a formula that doesn’t appear to require any re-invention.
It’s possible that the existence of this game is a result of the technical limitations of the PC-8801, something hard to ignore when playing the game; controls are jaunty, the screen’s frequent coloured flashing is potentially seizure-inducing and the music is incredibly grating, but when you consider the weakness of the system, Hudson Soft haven’t done too bad a job at bringing the arcade experience to home computers. Whether or not we’ll ever see the ‘Punch Ball’ in a Mario game again is yet to be seen…
Mario Bros. Special
Developer: Hudson Soft
Release Date: December 31st 1984 (Japan exclusive)
The second Hudson-developed offering on this list. Rather than being a straight port of the original, Mario Bros. Special is a more traditional arcade-style platformer, similar in many ways both visually and formulaically to the likes of Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. (and with a similar number of stages too). Whilst the original Mario Bros. requires that you defeat every enemy in each stage to progress through the game, Special has a heavier focus on the platforming elements, with the main goal to help Mario reach the very top of the screen, avoiding enemies and pocketing huge dollar signs and some sort of treasure described as ‘rare rings’ on his way (something that I’m certain Sonic nabbed from this incredibly high profile release to use in his own game 7 years later).
The game only has four different stages, but once you have completed them the game continues seemingly indefinitely, with the difficulty increasing progressively by adding in more enemies and obstacles such as falling platforms every time. Whilst playing slightly smoother than its Punch Ball-wielding counterpart, Mario Bros. Special falls short as a faithful adaptation of the arcade classic, lacking the trademark multiplayer feature and limited by the absence of variation between the small number of stages. Again, much of this is likely down to the technical limitations of the PC-8801, so you have to give it to Hudson for trying, but if you’re looking for the best of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. rolled into one package, you’re better off just going and playing those respective games.
Kaettekita Mario Bros. (The Return of Mario Bros.)
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo (Sponsored by Nagatanien)
Platform(s): Famicom Disk System
Release Date: November 30th 1988 (Japan exclusive)
It’s strange to think that what is likely the most authentic version of Mario Bros. on this list is the one filled with adverts for curry. Kaettekita Mario Bros., released exclusively for the Famicom Disk System, is an expansion on the standard Famicom version of Mario Bros. that features a whole host of extra content. Firstly, the included version of the original Mario Bros. is a faithful conversion that retains the multiplayer absent in the home computer ports, as well as adding in new stages, improved graphics and the ability to save high-scores, something absent in the original Famicom release but now possible due to the use of the Famicom Disk System. Perhaps the most interesting addition is the inclusion of in-game advertising between levels, some for other Mario games such as Super Mario Bros. 3, others for food products produced by Japanese company Nagatanien, who sponsored the game. The game supposedly even features an advert for Mario-themed cereal that was available at the time (although it’s probably not a good idea to get too excited after seeing the advert, because even if you were to acquire a box of said cereal, I’m not sure it would be good for you to eat it 27 years on).
The second mode featured in the game was called ‘Nagatanien World’, a variation game similar to the original Mario Bros. mode, but with the introduction of a number of extra mechanics; upon losing all of their lives, the player could participate in a slot machine minigame that gives them the chance to continue playing without their score re-setting (although this feature could only be used once per game). This ties in with a real-world promotion run by Nagatenien; any player who reaches 100,000 points is awarded with a promotional code that can be mailed in to Nagatenien, in exchange for a free pack of Mario-themed playing cards. Alternatively, those able to reach 200,000 points could even win themselves a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3, which had released a month prior! Nagatenien were even decent enough to give anyone who mailed in a free Mario keychain and the promotion was run up until 1989. Whilst the main attraction of Kaettakita Mario Bros. may no longer be running, this is possibly the best home version of Mario Bros. available on the Famicom and is a must-have for any FDS owner.
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Platform(s): Virtual Boy
Release Date: September 28th 1995
It’s scary to think that the most well-known version of Mario Bros. in this feature is likely to be the one that released on the Virtual Boy. Mario Clash is an interesting title for a number of reasons and despite its appearance, it’s actually not too awful! It’s undeniable that it isn’t the most inspiring-looking game; 99 levels of dull, red and black rooms quickly become very monotonous, but this is mostly down to the hardware’s shortcomings. Mario Clash offers simple, Mario Bros.-like gameplay with a unique perspective that actually makes decent use of the Virtual Boy’s 3D effect, with later levels expanding on the original’s format, introducing new enemies and more complex stage layouts that up the level of challenge. As a primarily score-based game (Spoiler Alert for a Virtual Boy version of Mario Bros: the game returns to stage 1 after you beat stage 99), there’s at least some element of replayability there too.
Mario Clash plays off many of the strengths of the original; it’s simple, it’s fun, it’s a good time-waster and likely would be right at home as an arcade title. However, it’s let down by its hardware, the visuals simply becoming tedious to look at after a while through the Virtual Boy’s ‘screens’, making it a difficult game to score-attack when your mind can likely only take so much! Some have stated that the 3DS offers the perfect opportunity for a remake that retains the 3D effect, but if you’re looking for a portable Mario Bros. fix, I think I’d just recommend sticking to the many GBA versions available; I can’t picture Mario Clash coming back any time soon!