If you somehow haven't noticed Super Mario turning 35 this year, Nintendo has spared no expense in its celebration of the prolific plumber, and are releasing a bunch of games, toys and even a pair of running shoes to mark the occasion. None of these things are really gifts though, since you still have to fork over your cash, except for Super Mario Bros. 35, that is. In this game, which is free for all Switch Online users, the classic NES game Super Mario Bros. meets that battle royale genre, which seems to be all the rage with the kids these days. But does the new format help keep Mario fresh, or is the game the first sign of a burgeoning midlife crisis?
In Super Mario Bros. 35, you and 34 other players are competing to be the last Mario standing. You get eliminated in classic ways, by either getting hit by an enemy, falling into a bottomless pit or running out of time. Ironically, most deaths, at least at the start of a game, are caused by players falling off the map, which is just one of the many dangers that have been brought over from the original. However, once the newcomers have been eliminated, it's all about monsters and the clock.
In many ways, Super Mario Bros. 35 is a sequel to Tetris 99, which was released last year on the Switch eShop. In that game, you play a normal round of Tetris, but each time you eliminate a line it will be sent to one of your opponents, and of course, that also goes the other way. Super Mario Bros. 35 keeps this system, but with monsters instead. Each time you stomp on a Goomba, or send a Koopa flying in its shell, you get a little bit of time, and the enemies you eliminate enter an opponent's game. It sounds great on paper, and it can be quite fun and hectic when underwater enemies start appearing on land, or when Bowser suddenly pops up mid-level. Unfortunately, a bunch of small issues keeps this brilliant concept from turning into a truly great game.
On the most fundamental level, the game is just not hectic enough for my taste. The enemies that get sent over are a slightly different colour, so it's clear that they don't belong in your game, but even without the difference in palette, it's still quite obvious which enemies are designed to be on your map. Many times you'll see smaller enemies get stuck in spaces where they were never meant to be, and just harmlessly bounce between the walls until you put them out of their misery.
And "harmless" is, unfortunately, the keyword here. Most of the time, the string of Goombas marching toward their doom are simply not that dangerous. Where the extra lines in Tetris constantly put you under pressure, much of Super Mario Bros. 35 experience is simply a stroll through familiar territory with added sights along the way.
It does get better toward the end of a game. When there are only five players left, the clock starts ticking down much faster, and you have to kill enemies much faster to stay in the race, as each kill adds a few precious seconds to your clock. In the beginning, you can mostly rely on the fireballs you get from the flower power-ups, but towards the end, you have to eliminate enemies in the old fashioned way by stomping and kicking shells, as it adds more seconds, just as it gave you more points in the original game. It's too bad that the game only shines in the phase that only more seasoned players will get to experience regularly.
Besides the normal powerups found naturally during a level, you also earn a random crate for every 20 coins you collect. You already know the mushroom, flower and star from the original, but this time a "new" power-up has been added to the mix in the form of the POW block that debuted all the way back in the original Mario Bros arcade game. Just as was the case in that game, the block kills all enemies on the screen, which can come in handy in the latter parts of a game, but is a nuisance if you get it early as only the star and flower are really useful for the long game.
Just like in Tetris, you can choose which players to hassle with the right thumbstick - you can send monsters to the player that attacks you, the one with the least time left, or the one who has collected the most coins. However, due to the overall control scheme and the way you hold your Switch, I kept hitting the thumbstick accidentally, changing the input. It's not a big deal, as you are mostly focused on your own run, but unless I'm holding my console in some weird way, I can't understand why they haven't changed it.
These issues aside, the game is well made. You being able to see the other players progress on small screens is a great way to fill the widescreen, with the original 4:3 taking centre stage. At times you feel like a security guard in some dystopian version of the Mushroom Kingdom, and there is even a spectator mode included for when you are knocked out. The visuals and music you probably already know from the original Super Mario Bros. and that the core game holds up all these years later, speaks to how brilliant the original is.
Besides the joy of winning, completing games awards you with levels and different badges to collect. However, as this game is a limited experience set to expire on March 31 next year, you probably shouldn't get too invested in collecting every badge and doing the daily missions. With the game being free for all Switch Online users, it's hard to complain too much though. The game is certainly fun to play although it doesn't quite reach the frantic heights of Tetris 99. A battle royale should be fun all the way through and not just with a handful of players remaining. Hopefully, Nintendo will balance things in further updates because when the game fires on all cylinders, it is truly excellent.