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Super Mario All-Stars (SNES) artwork

Super Mario All-Stars (SNES) review

"Can't go wrong with the classics!"

Super Mario All-Stars doesn't fill any particular void, but I'm still happy it exists. First released for the SNES in 1993 and later presented in disc form on the Wii, it includes remakes of the three NES Super Mario Bros. games, as well as the original second game in the series which had until that point been confined to Japan. That's a whole bunch of nostalgia crammed into one bundle.

Ninja Gaiden Trilogy on the SNES simply compiled the first three titles in that other series and presented them as more-or-less straight ports. Super Mario All-Stars takes a different approach, presenting the included titles with superior graphics. This is a nice touch, as it gives the project a slightly more "modern" feel. Formerly sparse backgrounds are now well-decorated, which lends many levels additional personality while allowing them to remain true to their original designs. I didn't have any trouble jumping back into them and having fun.

Though absolutely ancient at this point, Super Mario Bros. still makes it easy to see how a somewhat generic arcade game evolved into a superstar franchise. There are a number of primitive restrictions in place, such as how you only can move towards the right as anything that scrolls off the screen's left side becomes inaccessible. In spite of those limitations, Nintendo was clearly onto something big, with its tale of two brothers working to rescue a princess from a big dragon-turtle.

For me, the game's appeal lies in the way every platform and monster seems to have been perfectly placed throughout the 32 levels. You can easily lose yourself in the experience, letting your hands dance over the controller as you chain one jump into the next, bouncing from platform to platform, keeping foes at arm's length because you're perfectly in tune with the level to the degree where it feels like a sixth sense is guiding you.

Nowadays, though, my sixth sense would be telling me to play one of the other games on the cartridge. Regardless of its significance, Super Mario Bros. feels like a relic. Even when they're graphically enhanced, it's hard to not notice how certain late-game levels are essentially just tougher remixes of earlier ones. Or that a pair of Bowser's castles have an annoying gimmick where you must follow a set path or risk having to retrace your steps (which can easily be fatal in a game where stages have a time limit). At least in this version, sound effects let you know whether you are advancing along the right path, but it's still not one of my favorite aspects of the game.

This brings me to Super Mario Bros. 2, which is both the odd duck of the NES entries and the one I played the most as a youth. When it first came out, I had no clue it was a port of a completely unrelated game. Nintendo had simply inserted a handful of Super Mario Bros. characters, to make things feel more familiar to Western audiences. All I knew was that it felt a good deal different from the first game, but was still a lot of fun. Stages aren't timed, and many of them require a certain amount of exploration. Each of the four characters (Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad) have slightly different attributes, with some being better jumpers and others being able to pick up items more quickly. You start levels with two hearts, but can find an additional two more by digging up potions and using them at the proper locations to create doors that allow you to temporarily access a darkened version of the current stage.

Other than the four leads and the simple fact you'll be jumping from one platform to the next for much of the time, virtually nothing in this game bears any resemblance to the activities presented in the first game. There is an entirely new cast of villains (several of which wound up being featured in later games). Bowser, the former boss, is replaced by a giant frog named Wart and his assortment of lesser villains. Many of these battles also include puzzle elements. When fighting the giant mouse, Mouser, you have to grab the bombs he's throwing at you and toss them back. Wart hates vegetables, but inexplicably keeps a machine in his chamber for the express purpose of emitting them. That's lucky for you, as you would otherwise have no way to damage the big dummy!

Level designs also show more variety. Mario and company travel through deserts, dungeons and giant fortresses, while jumping across the backs of whales and hitching rides on top of birds and magic carpets from time to time. I most appreciated the addition of more detailed background graphics for this port, which turned a few somewhat nondescript levels into more exciting locales such as jungles. Still, the fortresses were the most fun to complete. They tended to be longer and more complicated than the levels preceding them. You'll have to travel throughout each one to find a key needed to access the boss. That's easier said than done, since grabbing a key causes its guardian to plague you as long as you're holding the trinket.

Super Mario All-Stars screenshot Super Mario All-Stars screenshot

Super Mario Bros. 3 largely restored the original game's format, with Bowser again serving as the main adversary, and each stage once more featuring a time limit. However, it also maintained the second game's stage variety, while offering far more ambitious scope. Much like the first game, the included stages are spread across eight worlds. Most of those worlds now have a lot of levels, though, with a number of them reaching double digits. One neat feature of All-Stars is that you can save your progress and start fresh from the beginning of whatever world you last reached. I most welcomed that option with this game, because the original cartridge had no save or password feature. If you didn't have an entire day to spend with it, you had better hit up the warp zones, because that was the only way you'd even sniff Bowser's castle. I've spent more time with the sixth and seventh worlds in the remake than I ever did with the original, just because it was more feasible to do so when I didn't have to worry that seeing more of the game would prevent me from reaching its end.

There's a reason why many fans of the series consider Super Mario Bros. 3 to be one of its best entries. It is overflowing with content. There are tons of levels loaded with hordes of monsters. Power-ups do more than simply allow Mario to gain size or chuck fireballs. Now, Mario can fly, throw hammers and even swim with far greater proficiency -- making those underwater levels child's play (at least while wearing a frog suit). Each world has its own theme, ranging from the second one's desert to the fifth's tower leading to a land in the sky. The first seven worlds culminate in an auto-scrolling level that takes place on a flying ship manned by one of Bowser's offspring, before the final world ends with a showdown against the big baddie in his castle. Scattered throughout each world are fortresses reminiscent of those castle levels featured in the first game. They include rotating fire bars, fireballs flying out of lava, as well as new obstacles such as ghosts which only attack when your back is turned and skeletal Koopas that can't be permanently dispatched by being stomped, the way their living kin can.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is the sort of game I could spend this entire review raving about. Not only does it boast dozens upon dozens of levels, but there's so much content that ideas aren't repeated so much that they become tiresome. Take Boss Bass, for example. This gigantic fish is essentially a death trap, as it can swallow Mario whole, even if he's powered up. Making things trickier, Boss Bass appears in levels where the water level rises and falls, so a safe spot can turn into a fatal respite in the blink of an eye. If the developers had saturated the game with appearances by this guy, things could quickly have gotten annoying and frustrating. However, they placed it in only two levels. That choice allows it to serve as one of many tricky challenges. It's something that might give you fits… and then you'll be past it, off to conquer the next obstacle standing in your way. Just like the evil sun that descends from the sky in an attempt to incinerate your character, or those accursed laser-shooting statues in Bowser's castle.

The only aspect of this cartridge I had a lukewarm opinion of was The Lost Levels. So, what was the original second game in this series like? In short, it's Super Mario Bros., but with a much higher degree of difficulty. The screen still only scrolls from left to right, with anything you've walked past lost forever. Your only power-ups are the ability to become larger or toss fireballs, while the bestiary is essentially the same as in the original game. On the other hand, power-ups are either far rarer or at least a good bit trickier to obtain, so I found myself stuck as small Mario for much of my time playing this one. There also are poison mushrooms that are definitely not beneficial. On the positive side, this actually is the first game where Mario and Luigi controlled differently, something that was carried over to the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we got in America. Overall, I found this to be the least essential or fun part of the collection.

And when it comes to Super Mario Bros., fun is the name of the game. Even though I own multiple more recent titles on the Wii, DS and 3DS, it's easy to come back to Super Mario All-Stars from time to time. The original game might be a relic, and The Lost Levels more a curiosity than legitimate entertainment, but I still get a lot of enjoyment from 2 and 3. The former featured a sort of dreamlike creativity that routinely popped up in future games, such as the SNES' Yoshi's Island. The latter simply established itself as the mark of excellence to which all future offerings would be compared. With those two games readily available on the NES and elsewhere, this compilation isn't essential, but it's still a very enjoyable one that I've had a lot of fun with over the past 20-some years.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (December 22, 2016)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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