Marios early levels wear out their welcome in Super Mario Bros. 35
Back in 2018, at the dawn of the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds phenomenon, designer Brendan Greene told Ars Technica that he thought every genre—not just shooters—could potentially benefit from sampling the last-man-standing concept of the battle royale genre. Since then, games like Tetris 99 and Fall Guys have proven how flexible and robust that idea can be across the industry.
Super Mario Bros. 35 (available for free today through March 2021 as part of a Nintendo Switch Online subscription) should be a welcome addition to that collection, mixing the time-tested gameplay of the Mario series with the endless competition of the battle royale genre. Unfortunately, some odd design decisions have made my first day with the game a repetitive, overly simplistic mess, and it doesn't feel like the game will have much staying power.
All hail the Fire Flower
Here are the basics: Super Mario Bros. 35 looks a lot more like Tetris 99 than it does PUBG or Fortnite. (No, 99 Marios aren't dropping from a Koopa airship to find a single Princess Peach.) You and 34 online competitors get your own self-contained instance of levels from the original Super Mario Bros., and everyone plays the classic game simultaneously in isolation, as opposed to 35 Marios jumping around the same playfield. (You can see everyone else's progress in tiny preview windows around the screen, and you'll recognize when they're underground or in a dungeon while you're elsewhere).
The name of the game is surviving as long as possible, and that survival is made more difficult here by a strict timer that starts at just 45 seconds. The primary way to earn more time is to kill enemies, which can add anywhere from one to five seconds to your personal timer for each kill. Killing an enemy also sends a copy of that same enemy a few screens down on an opponent's current board, a competitive move somewhat akin to the "garbage blocks" you can send opponents in Tetris 99.
On paper, this seems like it would be a great system for the sort of risk-versus-reward, push-and-pull needed for a good battle royale competition system. In practice, though, those extra enemies (shown in gray on your screen) are not quite the existential threat the game wants them to be.
Part of this is because the placement of those enemies is altogether random; Goombas will often appear in a location where they harmlessly walk off a cliff seconds after appearing, Koopa Troopas will harmlessly trawl the ocean floor in a water level, etc. Mostly, though, I found it way too easy to mow down entire lines of "garbage" enemies with a Fire Flower.
When compared directly to the official, Nintendo-emulated Super Mario Bros. on the same system, your character in Super Mario Bros. 35 feel just a tad slower to respond to inputs. This may require some adjustment of your long-honed Mario muscle memory—Ars' Sam Machkovech found it nearly impossible to make simple jumps at first.
There are a few other small gameplay differences here: Mario can bounce much higher off of enemies than in the original Super Mario Bros., for instance.
The Fire Flower simply feels overpowered in Super Mario Bros. 35, letting you dispatch dozens of extra enemies just by standing still for a few seconds and tapping the Y button repeatedly. Everything from Goombas and Koopa Troopas to Hammer Bros. and even Bowser himself can almost always be defeated with ease and from afar through a flurry of fireballs. Floating Bloopers and Cheep Cheeps can be a little tougher to avoid thanks to more complex movement through the air, but they have shown up more rarely so far (and fireproof Buzzy Beetles haven't shown up at all).
Being able to clear extra enemies so easily means that it's harder for those enemies to take away your Fire Flower in the first place. If you do get hit, though, additional power ups aren't too hard to find in the game's endlessly repeated early levels (more on that in a bit).
Even if a power-up isn't handy, you can tap X to spend 20 earned coins and get a random item. A quarter of the time this will get you back to your overpowered, Fire Flowered state. The rest of the time you'll get a Mushroom, Starman, or screen-clearing POW block, all useful enough in their own right (getting a Mushroom or Fire Flower when you don't need that upgrade grants you extra time as well).
I hope you like Level 1-1
To be fair, there are still a few threats a Fire Flower can't help with. Bottomless pits are still a risk, and one missed jump can end a run instantly. Firebars and Podoboos in the odd castle stage also need to be managed with good timing.
But even these threats have been few and far between in my first few hours with Super Mario Bros. 35. That's because those threats aren't especially present in the game's first two levels (aka 1-1 and 1-2), which I have played over and over and over again this morning.
Progression from level to level in a Super Mario Bros. 35 match doesn't go in the same sequence as in the original game. Instead, as far as I can tell, everyone chooses a level at the start of the match and then the game shuffles through those chosen levels randomly in the same order for each player.
The main problem with this, at the outset, is that every new Super Mario Bros. 35 player only starts with a single selectable level unlocked: Level 1-1. Players can unlock additional level selections as they play, but it's not exactly clear how. After nearly three hours of high-level play this morning, advancing my account to "level 34," I've only unlocked the first 10 of the game's 32 levels for selection.
For now, in practice, this means the level selection is overwhelmingly weighted towards the game's first two levels. In my play this morning, I completed Level 1-1 41 times and Level 1-2 23 times, according to the in-game count. I've completed all other levels (from a selection of eight distinct levels) a combined total of 46 times, meaning over 58 percent of my gameplay has been made up of those first two levels.
To give you some idea how ridiculous this can get, here's my level sequence from a recent match:: 1-1, 1-2, 1-1, 1-2, 1-1, 1-4, 1-1, 2-2, 1-2 (finish).
Don't get me wrong, these first two levels are classics of game design, a testament to the Mario series. But unless you're a pro-level speedrunner, they're not compelling enough to play dozens of times over a matter of hours. Theoretically, the addition of new enemies sent by opponents would mix things up, but as long as you have a Fire Flower, it's still way too easy to blaze through the levels just as you have every previous time.
Maybe the level selection will expand more as the days and weeks go on and as either Nintendo or other players unlock more levels. For now, though, this constant level repetition makes a horribly dull first impression.
Im just too good
I guess this is the point where I brag about how good I am at Super Mario Bros. 35. Over 15 total matches I played this morning, I have finished in first place five times and in the "top five" 14 times. Considering that I got my start in this industry running a Mario fansite over 20 years ago, maybe this doesn't make me a representative judge of the game's appeal for more casual players.
But it does make me well-equipped to evaluate the "late game" experience of fighting with one or two other players for that coveted top spot (which earns plenty of bonus coins and experience points to unlock new multiplayer icons). And I can tell you that these late-game matches quickly begin to feel interminable.