Now that Mario has conquered the far reaches of outer space, it's hard to imagine that he ever navigated a world as primitive as the original Mushroom Kingdom.
Actually, "navigate" pays Super Mario Bros. a little too much credit. With the help of Nintendo's re-release of Super Mario All-Stars, thousands of players will rediscover that they can only move in one major direction for the entirety of the plumber's first adventure. It has no vertical climbing sections like those in Mario 2 and definitely none of the backtracking of Mario 3.
Still, the game manages to incorporate a number of hidden exits, subterranean shortcuts, and carefree cloud rides without ever letting the screen scroll any direction but right. In fact, Super Mario Bros.' inability to backtrack provides several unique experiences the series has never managed to recreate.
Those with an eye for game design have written entire articles on the first two screens of Super Mario Bros. and the subtle tutorials held within. One of the most significant is the way the first screen urges the player toward the right by positioning Mario on the far left. This urge to move forward, combined with the knowledge that you can never turn back once the screen has moved on, provides a strong sense of momentum. No other game in the series can quite top Super Mario Bros.' sensation of forward motion because none of them chase the player down with a massive, invisible wall that threatens to ruin them if they chicken out mid jump.
The next major lesson is only a few screens away from the beginning. New players won't realize it, but veterans have a decision to make in the game's first series of pipes. One of the tubes can net you a few coins before spitting you out near the level's exit (the better for speed runs), but you'll miss out on a nearby 1-Up mushroom hidden in an invisible block if you take the underground shortcut. The extra life is more valuable, but once you're experienced enough to be aware of it, you may just be in a hurry to reach the warp point in the next stage. If this were any other Mario game, you could pass up the pipe, grab the life, then return and still save a bit of time. That oppressive screen refuses to budge once you've made any forward progress, though, so you're forced to make a decision.
At the end of each non-castle level waits a menacing flag. If you can reach the very top of the pole, you earn 5,000 points. These points aren’t the game’s focus, but players are still interested in the satisfying sensation that comes with reaching the flag, even if they don’t care about the high score earned by doing so. The New Super Mario Bros. games brought the flags back, but the modern features of those games (like screens that can scroll up, down, left, and right) only showcase how the original's restriction makes skillful platforming more rewarding. By the time you see the flag, your success is almost always guaranteed, so that last difficult yet inconsequential jump is more of a tiny victory lap. Stopping and resetting if you botch the approach later games defeats the entire point of the flag as a fun bonus challenge.
It's doubtful any game today could get away with scrolling in only one direction without critics slamming it in their reviews. Still, it's easy to give Super Mario Bros. a pass considering the role it plays as probably the most-famous video game of all time. I wouldn't devote 600 words spinning what can be a frustrating flaw into a creative feature for just any old game. Thankfully, Super Mario Bros. isn't just any old game.