Hands-On: Super Mario Bros. 35 is a brilliant twist on the classic Mario formula

Nintendo is the undisputed king of creating brand new gameplay experiences by making only the slightest changes to old ones. Nothing shows this better than Super Mario Bros. 35, the new free-to-play Mario battle royale available only on Nintendo Online for a limited time, which adds only a couple new rules to the original Super Mario Bros. and creates something amazingly deep and addictive.

Here’s the deal, you play Super Mario Bros., yes, the original Super Mario Bros., while 34 other people are also playing alongside you. Your goal is to be the last one standing. Note, your goal is NOT to beat the game. Your goal is to survive.

There are only two major changes to the mechanics.

  1. Whenever you kill an enemy you send that enemy to another player, giving them another obstacle to overcome.
  2. You have less than a minute on the timer to start and to gain more time you have to kill enemies, complete stages, or gain redundant power-ups.

Overall, that’s it. There are a couple other minute mechanical changes, such as the ability to spend coins on a power-up roulette, or the fact that the game doesn’t necessarily progress linearly but shuffles you off to a random stage from a small pool of stages every time you complete one, but otherwise all you are doing is killing enemies to get time and attempt to kill your opponents.

Until you play Super Mario 35 you have no idea how this small mechanical shift changes the game in massive ways. At this point, I feel as if everyone has tried to speedrun Super Mario Bros. at least once in their life, and that’s what I tried to do as soon as I booted up Super Mario 35. For the most part, it felt the same, until I suddenly encountered Bowser in the middle of world 1-2.

This simple rule of killing an enemy sends the enemy to someone else is universal. If you kill Bowser, someone else has to now confront bowser no matter where they are in the game. If you kill a piranha plant then someone will have a piranha plant camping out on a platform that they now can’t jump to. If you kill a blooper, then a blooper will start chasing another player even if they aren’t in a water stage. Every threat you take out, even threats sent by other players, get copied and re-encountered in another player’s stage. The only way to do away with threats permanently is to just not interact with them, but why would you want to do that. You WANT to send threats to other people to increase your timer, increase your chances of survival, and to get that sweet coin and time bonus for a kill.

The mechanics behind sending threats to other players are essentially identical to Tetris 99. You can either manually target players with the left stick or allow the A.I. to do it for you by targeting random players, players close to death via time, players with the most coins, or the players that are attacking you. When you realize this, the whole way you approach the game changes.

For example, if you came up against Bowser and you were playing normal Super Mario Bros. you would just jump over him and hit the goal, no questions asked. But here, things are different. Here, if you have the time on your timer left, you might want to stop and watch other players’ screens for someone who is struggling. Then, hit the goal or pelt Bowser with fireballs just when they seem most desperate. BAM, bowser enters their screen, kills them, and you get a big coin and time bonus and are one player closer to winning.

The standard game mode has you start in any stage you have unlocked (you unlock a stage by beating it at least once). You can bring a power-up into the stage with coins you have earned after every battle, or just go in normally. You can play this mode forever as-is, but you also have daily challenges that grant you more coins for more power-ups and even new icons for your profile. These challenges range from using the item roulette once, to scoring a kill, to finding a warp zone, to simply finishing the last stage.

There are also special game modes to play around with. Every week has a new game mode with new rules. For example, you might start in an underwater level with a fire flower packed with bloopers and cheep cheeps. That might not seem like a big deal, except you’ll soon realize this means that every further level in the game, including land levels, will be swimming (pun intended) with water enemies that were populated from the very first level of the game.

Then, of course, there’s also a practice mode, which will allow you to just run through levels as normal, practicing them, memorizing positions of warps and power-ups, and perfecting your strategy.

I have sunk so many hours into Super Mario 35 if only because there are so many different ways to play. You can speedrun up to higher levels to face your enemies with harder threats, like Hammer Bros. You can take it slow and simply litter the screen with Goomba after Goomba. You can go coin hunting, allowing you to dump them into the roulette and pull power-ups out of nowhere. You can abuse warp zones to cycle through easy levels over and over again to minimize threats and difficult platforming segments. Each of these styles of play is a potential winning style. I’ve managed to hit the top three blazing my way through like someone at AGDQ and I’ve also managed to hit the top three without touching the run button once.

I’m not sure I would recommend getting Nintendo Online just to play Super Mario 35, but if you plan on getting it anyway (and with us all stuck inside, now’s the perfect time to do so) then there’s no real reason not to play it. If you are a fan of platformers at all you’ll easily be able melt away the hours as you unlock stages, icons, and hunt for the elusive #1 crown.

This may be wishful thinking but I hope they eventually attempt this with Super Mario Bros. 3. The slight expansion to enemies and items would make it a hilariously fun time.