Something that truly impresses me about World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. is that it gives you a taste of just about everything Mario can do. Short of swimming and climbing vines, his entire repertoire is contained here. And yet, the game doesn’t feel like it’s tipped its hand once you get to the flagpole at the end; you’ve experienced Mario’s capabilities in a fairly safe environment, and from here everything ramps up steadily until you reach the devastatingly difficult World 8.
First up: After leaping the first pit, Mario comes to another Question Block which contains another standard mushroom… unless you’ve managed to clear the opening hazards without bumping into anything dangerous, in which case the mushroom is upgraded to a Fire Flower. This gives him the ability to fling an unlimited number of fireballs, which bounce along the ground and obey gravity in a convincing manner. If they bounce off the edge of a platform, they’ll arc downward until they come into contact with another horizontal surface, at which point they’ll continue bouncing along. If they hit an enemy, they’ll fry the foe; if they strike a vertical surface, they’ll dissipate.
The Fire Flower completely changes the nature of the game from one of avoidance and precision offensive jumps to a full-on onslaught against enemy forces. Mario doesn’t exactly become invulnerable with the Fire Flower, but you can’t help but play more confidently when you have the ability to fry anything (or almost anything) in your path.
At the same time, you’ll quickly experience some of the nuances of the fireball here. One of the first enemies you encounter after powering up with the Fire Flower is a Koopa Troopa (a clear descendent of Mario Bros.‘s Shellcreepers). A fireball will instantly toast the turtle. Now, if you didn’t collect the Fire Flower, this works differently, as jumping on a Koopa Troopa doesn’t defeat it but rather causes it to retreat into its shell. You can then kick the shell and it’ll slide along the ground, wiping out anything in its path — including Mario, should the shell rebound from a pipe or wall. Shells invoke a strong risk/reward system, since consecutive enemies defeated with a kicked shell offer double the points of the previous foe, eventually culminating in a precious 1UP. But shells slide quickly, so you have to follow close behind, heedless of danger… including the possible danger of running into it on a rebound.
The Fire Flower, however, completely circumvents the natural state of Koopa Troopas for better and for worse. You miss out on the danger of having a high-speed moving shell in play if you fry it with fire, but you also lose out on the potential perks as well.
As a nice touch, the second mushroom block is situated beneath a higher platform from which a pair of Goombas will drop. When they land on the Question Block and the bricks flanking it, Mario can call back to his previous adventure and punch the platform beneath the Goombas to defeat them. Even if you haven’t played Mario Bros., though, this course of action is made intuitive by the fact that the Goombas drop onto a Question Block which begs to be punched. It’s a stealth tutorial: Rather than giving you tip text to say, “Punch a block beneath an enemy to defeat it!” the game simply gives you a situation designed for the explicit purpose of revealing this mechanic by enticing you to try it for yourself.
Beyond this, there’s a whole string of blocks containing rewards. The first of them doesn’t appear to contain anything; by all indications, it’s just a standard brick. If you hit it, though, a coin will pop out. But the brick won’t change to the “depleted Question Block” state right away, nor will it break, encouraging you to hit it again to reveal more coins. And chances are good that a player will want to hit the block, just because it’s standing conspicuously on its own and the act of hitting and breaking bricks feels so satisfying: You’re making a permanent (albeit fleeting) change to the world, destroying something with a simple action. And when you do hit it, you discover that some standard bricks secretly contain rewards, and that some rewards consist of multiple items.
Even if you skip over the secret multi-coin block, you’ll definitely come across the next item: The Starman power-up. Stashed in a Question Block shortly before a pyramidal arrangement of four more Question Blocks, the Starman pops out and immediately begins bounding along with tall leaps, beckoning you to chase and grab it. Here, you have enough of a run-up time to snag it before you reach the enemies approaching from the right side of the screen — they’ll times to catch up with you right about the time you’re likely to snag the Starman, in fact.
If you know what the Starman does (it makes Mario invincible), you can barrel on through the Goombas and dash toward the end of the stage. But if you don’t, and the uptempo music and vivid flashing effect that comes across Mario don’t tip you off, this section is also designed to clue you in. A normal jump to stomp the Goombas will cause Mario to react differently than usual, for one: Instead of bouncing off the Goomba as it squashes flat, he’ll pass right through it while sending it flying off the screen. However, there’s a fair chance that you’ll blow your jump anyway as you try to stomp on the Goombas passing below the low Question Blocks; if you hit your head or get snagged on the blocks, you’ll hit the enemies at an awkward angle… but they’ll die anyway rather than shrinking or killing Mario.
The invincibility star forces a choice on Mario: Go for broke and try to wipe out as many bad guys as possible before it runs out, or fuss with the pyramid of blocks? If you goofed and missed out on the Fire Flower, the topmost Question Block contains a third mushroom, which again becomes a Fire Flower for Super Mario. Working through this aerial grid of blocks takes some finesse and is likely to slow you down so that the effect of the Starman wears off before you reach the next knot of enemies. Despite its linearity, Super Mario Bros. forces many decisions of this kind on players to prevent the game from feeling too limited and keeping each subsequent playthrough lively.
As you reach the final stretch, Super Mario throws a new obstacle at you: Stairs. There are three sets in total; the first is a low set of back-to-back stairs with safe ground in between. The second is nearly identical, but the leftmost set of blocks extends slightly further, and the ground in between yawns as a fatal chasm. The first ramp lets you figure out how to deal with it safely, while the second removes the training wheels and immediately forces you to surmount the change in scenery without clumsily falling into the hole.
These also serve to prepare you for the tall staircase at the end of the stage (and most stages in the game as well). There’s no danger with the final stair mount, but getting a handle on Mario’s behavior while climbing — it’s easy to lose momentum on these tiny footholds by coming into contact with a vertical surface — is an essential part of earning maximum points on the flagpole at the end.
Mario ends the stage by claiming the flagpole, running the Koopa pennant down in exchange for points. Now, you can grab on to any part of the flagpole to end the stage, but the higher you touch it the more points you’ll receive. This isn’t essential, of course, but who doesn’t like more points? By taking a running jump with ample momentum, you can hit the top for max scores.
Of course, this causes everyone to wonder, “Can I jump over the flagpole?” Not in this game… well, not unless you cheat.
Slide down the flagpole and the level is done. Mario marches to the little fortress beyond the flag, and: Scene. Mysteriously, sometimes the Mushroom Kingdom celebrates this small victory with fireworks. How intriguing!
Even more on World 1-1 tomorrow.