The opportunity for Jimi Fletcher to play Super Mario All-Stars, the first “true” console anthology game, proved to be so alluring that he traded in his own sanctuary for it – but it created an irreversible love for retro gaming in the process.
I wanted Super Mario All-Stars so badly that I traded my bedroom for a copy.
The classic Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES felt wonderfully unique back in 1993. Up until then, old games really were old games; once-played, often forgotten. Incidentally, the original NES was also pretty damned old by that point. “Retro gaming” wasn’t a known phrase round my way in north London. Console technology was making leaps and bounds, which meant the firepower of the current SNES left its older brother for dust. Why on Earth would I waste my time replaying those ancient titles when the new stuff was pushing things forward so spectacularly?
For me, the NES wasn’t quite a case of yesterday’s papers, as I didn’t get my own one until relatively late in the day, when it seemed like everyone else was having their minds blown by the likes of Street Fighter II in Turbo mode, the Mode-7 speed thrills of F-Zero, or Starwing and its Super FX capabilities. The top-of-the-line consoles like the SNES or the Sega Mega Drive were too expensive for my mum to consider buying, so I was usually a generation behind in regards to getting the latest model.
The closest I could get to Starwing’s intergalactic excitement was Elite, which, despite being much-loved by many (including on this very site), seemed really antiquated to me back in the early 90s. Hey, I loved my NES to bits, but I was all too aware that I was behind the times, and I wanted the new stuff. By the time I finally was able to upgrade to a SNES (they started getting nicely affordable towards the mid-90s), the console was well into its peak era as a major player, which in a way was great because I already had a backlog of classics to explore.
When it comes to Nintendo, it always starts and often ends with Mario. Despite the formidable challenge posed by Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, he was still a major player, and a worthy rival. 1991’s Super Mario World was an instant favourite on release; okay, maybe it wasn’t as immense a leap from 1989’s Super Mario Bros. 3 as that game had been from its predecessors, but it was nonetheless classic Nintendo, akin to a tweaking and perfecting of everything that made the third game so good.
The next substantial progression in the series wouldn’t be for another half-decade (1996’s Super Mario 64), so in the meantime there would be a splendid sequel to Super Mario World (1995’s Yoshi’s Island) and, of course, the celebration that was 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars, which would bring together 1985’s Super Mario Bros., both domestic and international versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 (1986 and 1988 respectively) and Super Mario Bros. 3 in one cartridge. This was perfect news for anyone who had traded in their NES or maybe let those old cartridges gather so much dust that they had become unplayable.
The first Super Mario Bros. was the template: the standard, the original. We all have to love it, don’t we? I mean, if we don’t like the first Mario game, then we simply don’t like games, right? The original’s status as a monolithic landmark threatened to mutate it into a sacred cow; a hallowed, untouchable and worthy masterpiece, immune from criticism. The thing is, it dated remarkably well. So much of what it delivered has now become the standard for platforming. These days, it’s easy to take for granted just how inventive it was at the time. Everything clicks: classic level design (underground and underwater levels = check), lethal end-of-level bosses (damn those battle axes!), special items (mushrooms, fireballs, extra lives), music (still delightful), Easter eggs (warp rooms), and steady difficulty curve – it’s just so perfect.
When I first played it as a six or seven-year-old at my cousin’s house, it was absolutely astonishing. What made it a classic then is what made it a classic now: it is simple (but not simplistic), accessible, bright and utterly, utterly addictive. The NES control pad was brilliantly simple (a D-pad, two action buttons) and yet there was subtlety in its mechanics; soon enough, you’d have to be very skilful if it meant you were to successfully negotiate your way from platform to platform. Playing the first Mario today is like a palate cleanser – it reminds you of the sheer wonder of a perfectly executed video game. It may be relatively basic, but it gets all the basics absolutely right.
The second one? Well, it depends on which second one you’re talking about.
Two games for seconds
For years, I always thought there was one and only one Super Mario Bros. 2. It was the one we got here in the UK, subtitled Mario Madness. Here you could play not just as Mario or Luigi, but also as former captive Princess Toadstool, or former nuisance Toad. It was so different to the original! Different worlds, different items, different bosses (remember Wart?), different music… it was quite a diversion, and it seemed like a bold, risky move given the perfect template of its predecessor.
For example, instead of vanquishing foes with the classic jump ‘n’ squash, here you would pick up enemies and chuck them away, preferably onto another enemy, killing two birds with one stone. It was a simpler strategy than in the first one, but that’s typical of the second game’s approach – fun, but not so elegant and a bit clunky. Why mess with such a winning formula?
It wasn’t until Super Mario All-Stars came out that I discovered the reason.
Super Mario Bros. 2: Mario Madness was originally a completely different game called Doki Doki Panic, reskinned with a Mario makeover to create a convincing, legitimate sequel. The reason for this was because the genuine Super Mario Bros. 2 never got a release outside of Japan. That was a much more traditional Mario game; in fact, it was the textbook sequel. More of the same, and by that, I mean more difficult.
The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 – retitled The Lost Levels for this release – was so regularly unfair that it became kind of hilarious. I mean, what kind of game offers you as a gift – the first one available – a mushroom that kills you when you grab it? Total, unparalleled trolling. The developers decided that non-Japanese gamers weren’t up to the challenge/cruelty. They were probably right. Still, it was a terrific enhancement of the original, even if it is mostly more of the same.
At least Mario Madness offered something different, although like with Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, such diversions from the template meant that it was, and still is, often regarded as the weakest in its respective series. Which one is better? I prefer the uniqueness of Mario Madness, but it’s arguably the least traditional Mario game ever. It’s also weird to see the now-lovable Birdo here as an egg-spitting nemesis. What is it with Nintendo and good guys having shady pasts? Mario and Donkey Kong were also villains at one point. I bet we’ll find out one day that Toad was a psychedelic drug pusher in his early days. I mean he is a mushroom. I can imagine him literally selling out his friends.
“Third” time’s a charm
One thing’s for sure, neither version of the second game can match Super Mario Bros. 3. Damn, that was the one. A concerted effort to place Mario back at the top, it delivered adventure on a scope that was previously unheard of, making all Mario games before it seems so tiny. They could have called it Super Mario World, it was that big. Instead, they decided to save that title for later.
It was the game that was so insanely anticipated that a 1989 film called The Wizard pulled in audiences solely because it happened to have some scenes that previewed the game. Unlike the first two or three instalments – where the levels were, despite some minor cosmetic adjustments, very similar in layout and atmosphere – each world here was totally distinctive.
The first world settled in with some textbook Mario level design, but by the end it felt like we’d gone everywhere and back. The map design, which helped you appreciate the scale of the game as well as offering the opportunity to take alternate routes to the boss, felt refreshingly interactive. Plus, there were neat bonus games to rack up extra lives and goodies (although Mario Madness got the ball rolling with its fruit machine bonus stage), and a bigger variety of bosses. Instead of merely serving up Bowser and Birdo on repeat, here we got Bowser’s monstrous extended family, all of whom were named after musicians, which makes this the only Mario game with references to Beethoven and Iggy Pop.
Mario 3 was the title that came free with my very own NES when I got one on Christmas Day 1993 (I told you I was behind the times – Super Mario All-Stars had already come out on the SNES by this time!) and even though the dinner at my grandparents’ that day was really lovely, all I could think about was getting home and jumping back into that game, of getting through the levels with the forced-scrolling, the haunted castles and the airship boss levels, while memorising the placement of the playing cards in the bonus levels in order to get loads of extra goodies. With this game, the platformer had been elevated to epic levels, and at the time it sold a stupendous number of copies.
So, a formidable run of games, right? True, but they were old. They were 8-bit. Even as I was dedicating hours of my life to conquering Super Mario Bros. 3, I knew at the time that it was old stuff. So in an era when looking back wasn’t really a thing (not for me, I was only twelve!), the presence of Super Mario All-Stars was unusual.
Now even though there had been already been compilation packages released for the Sega Mega Drive (1992’s Mega Games), these were more an exercise in value than anything approaching a retrospective. Super Mario All-Stars felt like the first time when a piece of gaming’s history was being properly put into context. Nintendo was taking stock, giving itself a well-earned pat on the back and letting us know that it had a legacy to be proud of.
Yet this wasn’t a matter of merely compiling older games in their existing state, of reselling us stuff that we already owned; after all, an easy thing for Nintendo to have done would be to have ported the original games in their original form. Instead, they were given a substantial makeover so they could fit in nicely with the SNES’s more contemporary style, yet not so much that the spirit of the original games was betrayed.
By the time I had got a SNES during Christmas 1994 (in retrospect, I’m amazed that I only owned a NES for a single year) bundled with Starwing, Super Mario All-Stars had already been accepted as a bit of a classic. The game was selling in the millions and critical praise went through the roof – the UK’s Total! magazine awarded it the much-coveted 100% rating, with a justification that the cartridge offered stupendous value. Even if none of the games had been awarded the maximum mark separately, together they provided an unbeatable package.
I wanted it. Yet that was the new problem when finally acquiring a console – getting more games.
Sure, Starwing was absolutely terrific (and still is, despite the Super FX not seeming so super these days), but I wanted more! Unlike today, where browsing online can get you good second-hand deals or brand new sales, I had to make do with regular visits to car-boot sales where the odds of finding a SNES game was nil, or the now-departed Toys R Us when it had a good sale on. That’s where I managed to get decently-priced copy of F-Zero and didn’t have to make do with staring at the demo on display in Dixons on a Saturday.
Because of its popularity, Super Mario All-Stars was still pricey, and so it was to my surprise that a tiny second-hand shop next to my local train station, a shop that traded in video tapes and games, had a copy of All-Stars for a tenner, without the box or instructions. I didn’t care as I wanted the game so badly. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford it. Hey, I thought… maybe if I stand near the game looking sad, someone will feel sorry for me and buy me it? That strategy didn’t work for me, nor did it work for Bart Simpson a few years later, but unlike him, I didn’t resort to shoplifting.
No, instead I thought about how my elder sister was keen to have a bigger bedroom. You see, the three of us (me, my mum and my sis) lived in a maisonette that included two regular-sized bedrooms and a smaller, box-sized room. When we were growing up, my sister and I would share one of the two bedrooms, which was about as much fun as it sounds – my sister, bless her, was seven years older than me, and having to contend with a little brother who was mostly well behaved but could still be a bit of a brat probably wasn’t the biggest giggle in the world. I guess it must have been so bad that she took the opportunity to have her own room later on, even if it was that tiny box room.
Years later, sometime in 1995, she had been on my case for a trade – it was time to swap rooms. She was the bigger child, she should have the bigger room, right? I mean, in retrospect, it’s amazing that she was happy to have the smaller room in the first place, and she’d been there for quite some time. I think she’d even offered me a fiver for it, but I didn’t see that as a very good deal, even back then. I mean, that room was tiny. Of course, the decent thing to do would have been to give up my room for free, but I wasn’t thinking that way, not at the time. Selfish or what, right?
That was until I saw Super Mario All-Stars for only £10. Walking home from town, my brain was weighing the options and as I walked in through the front door and into my home, I suggested that I would be happy to give up my room in exchange for the money necessary to buy the game. It was a crap deal – I was giving up my little sanctuary for a tiny room where I could hardly move, but all of a sudden I had £££ signs in my eyes, except they were only a fiver per eye and when I blinked the signs kept changing into the shape of cartridges.
My sister accepted the deal with the rush of someone who realised they should take it without delay, less her brother’s temporary insanity disappears as quickly as it had manifested. I think I went straight back in town that evening – there’s nothing worse than an empty space on the shelf where that thing you so badly wanted used to be. Luckily it was still there, as clearly nobody else in Enfield Town wanted that second-hand, box-free, instruction-less game more than me. You know that feeling where you save up for something and the day you get it, you feel it’s utterly earned and totally deserved? Well, that’s not how I felt. I’d taken a shortcut and gave up my nice room just for the quick fix.
I didn’t care. I no longer had a NES and I hadn’t realised how much I wanted to play those games again. I started up Super Mario All-Stars in my room that was shortly to become my sister’s, and prepared myself. The Nintendo logo was followed by a scene set in semi-darkness. There was the indecipherable sound of voices talking to and amongst each other. Where were we? It’s like we’re getting ready to watch a performance and we’re taking our seats. Up on the screen, familiar figures were silhouetted. I didn’t like the look of the big guy to the left. And then, a bright light, the actors were fully illuminated, and what do you know, it’s Mario! Luigi! The Princess! Toad! Bowser! Birdo! That spiky shell thing! It felt like a reunion of sorts! It was good to be back.
We’re putting the band back together
The menu screen of Super Mario All-Stars was where the Tardis-like contents of this cartridge became obvious: the sheer giddy thrill of being able to select from not one but four games was tremendously exciting. It was like a prototype of that feeling you’d later get at the start of Super Mario 64 where you would enter the castle and see all those paintings that were doorways to other worlds.
Starting off with, say, the first Super Mario Bros. (I imagine this is what everybody did on their first go), the differences were obvious – this eight-year-old game now felt like the perfect blend of old and new. The music sounded richer and with greater depth, the backgrounds more detailed, the colour more generously applied… maybe I’d have thought differently if I’d lived with the original games for longer and they had meant more to me in the process, but at the time I was absolutely floored with these new versions.
It was like in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy left her sepia-toned world behind and saw all those colours. The new versions looked beautiful, they sounded spectacular and yet they were essentially the same games. Nowadays, if anything I love from my youth is given a modern-day makeover, I lose my rag, but back then, the look and feel of Super Mario All-Stars was utterly wonderful. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it essentially kicked off my interest in retro gaming, yet it did it with such flair and extra bells and (warp) whistles that none of us back then felt like we were stuck in the 80s; these games were still hot stuff.
The potential awkwardness of playing these NES games with a SNES control pad with all those extra buttons was quickly dispensed with. You still only needed to use the same number of buttons as before, and if you didn’t like the set up, you could change the configuration to suit your preference. Although if you’d already played Super Mario World, then playing these games with the SNES control pad was a doddle. One thing that was notable was that the games were made slightly easier. Not only were some glitches corrected, but little things like the poison mushrooms in The Lost Levels were made to look more overtly suspicious. That didn’t stop me walking happily into it the first time, though. Also, instead of starting off with three lives, you got five, and continues were unlimited.
And finally, there were save points. Lovely, lovely save points.
In an era where you can save your progress in a game at almost any point, the days of having to play a game from start to finish in one session (allowing for toilet breaks and popping downstairs for dinner) seem like a very long time ago. Not many games had a save option (unless they featured battery back-up), although some did feature passwords, which were as good as. The Mario games were entirely free of save options or passwords. If you started, you had to finish. This could make for some marathon sessions, especially in the case of the third game in the series.
Plenty of persistence, trial-and-error and careful acquisition of extra lives and continues were essential. Oh, and a surplus of time. Still, if you were old enough to get away with it (and young enough to, you know, not have to work for a living) then what better ways were there to spend the summer holiday than inside intently trying to save the Mushroom Kingdom? Natural light? Pah. Of course, this approach could be exhausting, so when Super Mario World came along and offered save points for the first time in the series, it felt like a blessing. Now you could breathe a genuine sigh of relief when you’d finally clocked that horrible level, knowing you could save your progress and not endure it all over again. Granted, this meant that achievements that were admittedly flukes could be swept under the carpet, but I don’t recall anyone complaining.
The addition of save points to the earlier Mario games may very well have rubbed purists up the wrong way – I mean, where’s the challenge, where’s the tension? However, for a sub-par gamer like me whose butterfingers usually resulted in mistimed platform jumps or inexplicable leaps directly into the path of Bowser’s battle-axes, it was rather welcome, and in the case of The Lost Levels, utterly essential. I never played the original NES incarnation of that game, but there’s no doubt I wouldn’t have got past the first world had I done so.
With the new save features, you were able to save your progress world-by-world, which did wonders for my sanity. In fact, The Lost Levels went one better and let you save level-by-level. It still took me over 20 years to complete the game, and I photographed the moment too, safe in the knowledge that I would never try and complete that game ever again. I suppose that’s what makes The Lost Levels the relative weak link in this package – it’s just too damn tricky to be fun, but then again it might seem like a walk in the park compared to some of those intentionally lethal, customised Mario levels I’ve seen online.
Like more than a few children at the time, I hated the trials and tribulations of secondary school, and I loved coming home in the afternoon and playing video games for their comforts, their escapism and thrills. My new, tiny room made that experience even more cosy and crammed. Super Mario All-Stars was a novel experience in that it delivered all the things I loved from games, and yet also brought with it something else: nostalgia. That’s right, a 12-year-old falling prey to nostalgia! But in all seriousness, I was drawn to the reassuring familiarity of the games, coupled with the newness of their look and sound, not to mention The Lost Levels, which was simultaneously old and new to me. For that reason, it was well worth the room swap. I regretted nothing.
Weirdly, for a game that reissued earlier games, Super Mario All-Stars itself was reissued down the line – the most immediate example being the stupendously fine Super Mario All-Stars + Super Mario World that was available as part of a package with the SNES itself. I mean, if the original cart was like a wheelbarrow full of gold, then this was the same but with sugar on top. It turned out you could improve on perfection, and obviously this is the edition to get. I wonder what Total! would have marked that version!
In 2010 it was made available in disc format for the Wii, though for better or worse it was a direct port of the SNES version, albeit with a few neat bonuses like a soundtrack CD. The original incarnations of the games were also made available for the Virtual Console, as well as on the NES Classic a couple of years back (except for The Lost Levels). Sadly, the SNES Classic failed give us the All-Stars versions, but some may have called rip-off if those games had been included at the expense of others. I wouldn’t have done so myself.
Still, the original cart isn’t difficult to find online, so if you’ve still got a SNES, then do yourself a favour and dive into this magnificent experience. Just don’t eat the purple mushrooms.
- Terrific value for money back in the 90s
- Beautiful upgraded sound and graphics
- Two of the best platform games ever, plus two very fine sequels
- Purists may not approve of the changes, especially regarding difficulty
- The Lost Levels is still outrageously brutal, even with unlimited continues, extra lives and save points
- “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” is still one of the most annoying things ever. Damn that Toad
Compiled games come and go, but Super Mario All-Stars is arguably the only one that remains as famous as the games it brought together. I sacrificed a bigger bedroom to play it, but gained world upon world of digital space to explore, making it an absolute bargain.