10 for ’10: Super Mario Bros. Crossover

Super Mario Bros. Crossover

Developer: Exploding Rabbit / Nintendo

Publisher: Exploding Rabbit

U.S. Release Date: April 27th, 2010

Genre: It is a Mario game… and a Mega Man game… and a Contra game…

My favorite game of the year? Quite possibly!

The idea here is so, so simple, dredged as it is from the imagination of millions of eight-year-olds worldwide: What if Mario, having jumped to his death in 8-2 one too many times, recruited his video game buddies to help him save the Princess? So it is here, with basic SMB1 Mario being joined by Link, Mega Man, Simon Belmont, Samus Aran, and the Contra guy, with Ryu from Ninja Gaiden and Sophia the 3rd from Blaster Master joining in later revisions. Each of them brings with them not just their signature weapons and skills, but also their mechanics — Mega Man has a weak jump but can bring out Rush Coil to give him a boost; Samus has high, floaty jumps but is pretty slow and has to duck to hit groundbound enemies. This completely changes the original game, but in a familiar way — since each character is themselves a classic gaming icon, we already know how to make them move the way we want to, and can easily apply those skills to Mario’s world. Indeed, it’s stunning that the new characters adapt as well as they do — aside from adding a few small platforms across the longer gaps so that even the weak jumpers can make them, the levels are all here, brick for brick, virtually unchanged.

Then again, it isn’t really that surprising. Mario 1 is the baseline for sidescrolling platformers, after all, with virtually every game that came after riffing on it. (Except Bionic Commando, I guess.) As Mega Man and Contra Guy and the like are all just Mario derivatives at their core, sticking them in a real live Mario game feels like coming home. None of the characters control exactly like they do in their home games, but they’re close enough, and most of the changes are concessions to make the game more fun. Simon Belmont doesn’t have good jump physics in his original game, but he’s got them here, and a double-jump besides. Samus can’t duck and shoot in the original Metroid, but she can here. Some characters are better suited for certain stages than others, but all of them have some quirk that makes taking them for a test-drive worthwhile. Some people feel the game is fundamentally broken because you can just pick the Contra Guy and Spread Gun your way through everything, but… those people are wrong. Broken characters aren’t a bug in this game, they’re a feature. SMBC isn’t about challenge (although you can make it one, if you like), it’s about seeing to what lengths this classic game can be stretched.

More interesting than how well-suited the characters seem to the game is how well-suited the game seems to them. Super Mario Bros. vanilla is a fun game, more polished and well-crafted than it had any right to be back in 1985, but it’s a well-worn path for most players at this point. It’s gotta be on the short list for most-played games ever. While it can still entertain, it’s mostly lost the capacity to surprise.

The new characters breathe new life into the game, giving it greater modularity and versatility than ever before. In SMB1, you pick Mario, you run, and you jump, and that’s about it. In SMBC, you can use the entire cast as a toolbox of options, always picking the best character for the challenges ahead… or you could challenge yourself by playing through as only one character, forcing you to compensate for that character’s weaknesses (which can sometimes be pretty subtle). If you like surprises, you can try the random mode and receive a new character at the beginning of each stage; if you like cutting yourself, you can unlock challenges which increase the difficulty (mainly by increasing the game’s Hammer Bros. quotient). Or you could turn on the Infinite Time cheat and use the levels as massive 8-bit playgrounds, doing things like destroying every brick in 4-2 with the Contra Guy or killing Bowser from the ceiling with Sophia the 3rd’s homing missiles. It’s very much the definitive version of Super Mario Bros., cramming the game with features until it groans.

What’s next for Super Mario Bros. Crossover? The creator, Jay Pavlina, has vowed to continue supporting the game with new characters and modes of play, but I’d personally like to see another game tackled with this philosophy in mind. While it would be fun to break The Lost Levels over my knee after what it did to me back in the day, what I really want to see is Super Mario Bros. 3 Crossover. SMB3 is bigger, funner, and more varied than SMB1, and if SMBC’s bigger, funner, and more varied philosophy could be translated to the former game, we’d really have something special on our hands.

Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy what we’ve got. Set aside a few hours and go here. You won’t be disappointed.

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