Sometimes even an ancient Atari game can surprise you.
Everybody knows Mario Bros. If you’re a certain age (old), you may have seen this primitive Mario experience in arcades. If you’re slightly younger (generally still old), you likely have fond memories of pseudo-Mario Bros. in the two player mode of Super Mario Bros. 3. And, if you’re one of six “lucky” people on this planet, you might even remember Mario Bros. for its spiritual sequel, Mario Clash, the Virtual Boy game that may have damaged your retinas. Mario Bros. might not be Donkey Kong or Super Mario Bros, but it’s still a beloved piece of Nintendo history, and most Nintendo fans have played the game at least once.
But… almost everyone that played Mario Bros. played it on actual Nintendo hardware, whether it be a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or (INSERT NAME OF GAME SYSTEM THAT STARTS WITH “NINTENDO” HERE). Today’s game is Mario Bros, yes, but it’s Mario Bros. for the Atari 2600. It is, effectively, Mario Bros. before Mario. This ain’t Steamboat Willie, this is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Poor Papa. And, sorry to say, nobody has fond memories of that damn rabbit.
And, let’s face facts, there are a lot of reasons to assume Atari Mario Bros. would be terrible. Have you ever played Atari Pac-Man? It might be the worst port of a single videogame ever made. There is one ghost, the screen proportions are all wrong, and somehow even the “dots” aren’t properly distributed. Yes, someone somehow got a game that can be summarized as “a ball moves around a maze” completely wrong. And Pac-Man isn’t alone; at best, an Atari port would be something that reduced the cutting-edge arcade graphics of Joust or Kangaroo down to small-screen appropriate pixels, and, at worst, you’d wind up with something a few degrees better than E.T. (reminder: the game that destroyed the entire industry). And, while we’re at it, let’s note that Mario Bros. is a port of Mario Bros. not actually directed by Nintendo. I’m trying to remember how it turned out when some other Nintendo franchises were handled by studios other than Nintendo, but I’m distracted because I’m so hungry right now, I could eat an octorok.
So, suffice it to say, I went into Mario Bros. Atari expecting pretty much nothing. The 2600 could barely render a protagonist that resembles a pizza pie, I couldn’t even imagine how overalls would be interpreted. And the iconic proto-koopa troopas and crabs of the arcade were known for their expressive, cartoony movements during an epoch where the best you could get out of most games was “beware the angry red square”, so their Atari interpretations were inevitably going to be a letdown. The graphics are primitive, blocks are all around, and you are likely to be eaten by a white hue. And, yes, as someone that has played NES Mario Bros and been unimpressed by the port quality there, I didn’t have much faith that Atari could succeed where Nintendidn’t.
But, surprises of surprises, Mario Bros. for Atari ain’t bad.
First of all, it’s definitely Mario Bros. All the familiar gameplay quirks are here, from flipping over turtles to the central POW Block. Even the between levels bonus stages are here for your failing pleasure (seriously, has anyone ever collected all those coins in the proper time limit?). I only have so much patience for playing early pre-Super Mario experiences, but I tromped through the first ten levels of this port, and it seemed like Mario Bros. all around. It was even as difficult as ever to flip over that final, hastened-by-the-demise-of-his-buddies crab. That’s some genuine Mario Bros. action right there.
But even more surprising than the fact that this game is actually playable is that there are a few items in this game that did not resurface in the “real” NES port. Mario Bros. NES does not feature our friend the turtle exiting his shell and kicking it while flipped over (an adorable bit of animation only seen in the arcade), but it is in the Atari version. Or, okay, the whole animation isn’t in there, but a turtle will stand up and face the player before obtaining a faster shell. It makes it… seem like something is happening. And icicles may fall from the ceiling in the arcade and Atari versions, but no such thing happens on the NES. Like Donkey Kong losing an entire stage, this was likely a concession to accommodate primitive NES programming, but it’s droll to see Atari attempt to stretch the limits of the hardware before Mario’s parent company.
Mind you, Mario Bros. Atari isn’t perfect. Apparently, no one on the Atari team could make the fireballs work “right”, so they’re just constantly respawning around the sides of the arena, and are more of an omnipresent threat than the leisurely fireballs that seem designed to merely keep a Mario from standing still too long in the arcade/NES. And, since the Atari had less onboard memory than an abacus, anytime a monster enters a pipe, it effectively respawns, so you have to double-flip those crabs during one stage tour. Oh, and the graphics, while passable, are still pretty “Atari crappy”. I have no idea why a moving “coin” is represented as a square, but here we are. Guess it was just too much trouble to shave off those four pixels and make something that kinda looks like a circle.
But, minor gripes aside, Mario Bros. Atari is actually Mario Bros, which is no small accomplishment. An arcade-to-Atari port not directed by Nintendo has every right to be absolutely horrible, but, nope, this is actually pretty fun. Maybe some games are good no matter the medium, maybe one team just happened to understand Mario Bros. and “get it right”, but whatever the case, Mario Bros. Atari is a pretty fun time.
Don’t judge a game by its system, I suppose.
FGC #268 Mario Bros. (Atari)
- System: Come on, man, it’s right there in the title for today. I suppose I’ll note that we are talking about the 2600 here.
- Number of players: I assume there’s a two player mode, but I literally don’t know where my second Atari control stick has landed. Just as well, I think I chewed on those things as a kid.
- Favorite Enemy: The Fighter Fly has a very muted hop in this version, but he’s still my favorite. It’s like they’re trying to jump like our hero, Mario, but just not quiiiiiite making it.
- Did you know: The turtles are known as Shellcreepers, and the crabs are Sidesteppers. Back in the Eighties, strange alien signals were beamed into children’s brains, so that’s how we knew the names of all the random, weird enemies in NES games. However, these names appear completely new to me, so Nintendo clearly only started subscribing to that service after the release of the NES.
- Would I play again: This is a really impressive Atari game! Unfortunately, if it’s between playing an Atari game and cleaning my back porch, I’m unfortunately going for the broom. But if I’m stuck on a deserted island with only an Atari library to keep my company, this will be my first choice.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins for the PSP! Arthur is reborn and then quickly forgotten! Please look forward to it!