Three years on from PUBG’s emergence, the battle royale genre is still the golden goose that game company after game company is chasing after. Where most jump in with some kind of first or third person shooter, Nintendo went a very different direction with Tetris 99 and now Super Mario Bros. 35 – a free time-limited game for Nintendo Switch Online subscribers. Can lightning strike twice for these retro battle royales?
Similar to Tetris 99, Nintendo have taken one of their most iconic games and spun it out into a form of battle royale, but where Tetris 99 already had some form of multiplayer to draw and expand, Super Mario Bros. does not. So Nintendo have taken liberal inspiration from Tetris 99 in order to make this work. It’s to the extent that if Tetris 99 is best described as “Tetris but a battle royale,” then Super Mario Bros. 35 is “Super Mario Bros. but like Tetris 99.”
You have a nigh on identical set up, with your game in the centre of the screen, flanked by mini-screens showing what all the other players in the game are doing, which are blanked out as player after player is eliminated. The simple aim of the game is to survive the longest, but when Super Mario Bros. has been so completely mastered by millions, there needs to be a little spice to keep things interesting.
That’s where the Tetris multiplayer element comes in. As you stomp on the heads of Goombas, fireball Koopas and Super Star through everything else, the ghosts of your victims are sent to other players, littering their world with more and more enemies to deal with.
The thing is, the game really tells you absolutely none of this. Sure, it’s not the deepest of deep ends to dive into – No diving, please – but some of the fundamentals simply aren’t explained and it’s only through community efforts that I truly started to understand what’s going on.
For example, you unlock more and more of the levels from Super Mario Bros. as you visit them in game, and this then gives you a choice to make when joining the matchmaking queue. You’d think that’s the level you’re going to start from wouldn’t you? But no. You will 99.9% of the time start from 1-1. All players’ choices are thrown into a randomised queue of 35 levels, and with a lobby full of newcomers, this means you’ll see 1-1 and 1-2 on loop – the warp pipes at the end of 1-2? They give you the choice of the next three queued levels. It’s only now, after a weekend of playing, that the lobbies are starting to fill out with more experienced players, so that levels from the second and third world are becoming more common.
It also takes a little while to really understand if and how you can directly battle other players. As you run through levels, you have a countdown in the top right corner that’s constantly topped up by offing enemies – two seconds for a regular enemy, but just one for ghost enemies – picking up unnecessary power ups and completing levels. While you might think that sending enemies to other players would help you defeat them, all you might be doing is providing them with fodder to top up their timer.
That helps to neuter much of the pressure that the timer can give in the final stages of a match. Battle royale shooters are distinctive for how they force players into smaller and smaller areas of play, and that was mapped to the increasing speed of Tetris for its adaptation. Super Mario Bros. 35 tries to do something similar, with the music speeding up and the timer counting a bit faster once you reach five players remaining, but if you’ve got 300+ seconds on the clock, there’s no pressure to be felt. Instead you end up in seemingly endless marathons of endurance as you and one or two others just send ghosts back and forth. Chances are, you’ll still have regular appearances of 1-1 and 1-2 through this as well, and anyone with Fire Mario can survive for days.
That said, there’s still something to SMB35. Where you might go in expecting speed runners who can rely on muscle memory to win, you can actually succeed by taking your time, grabbing a Fire Flower and keeping your countdown topped up. It makes the game feel more relaxed and not as high pressure as other battle royale games, which potentially makes it more welcoming to newcomers, but also means it lacks some of the heart-pounding tension of the best examples of the genre.
Hopefully the game and the playerbase will grow and evolve over the coming weeks and months, because it’s really this that will determine whether SMB35 will be sorely missed once Nintendo switch off the servers in March, or if it will be a footnote in the franchise’s history. As players gain more experience, as more levels are unlocked, those early levels will fall by the wayside, you’ll start to encounter more Hammer Bros, Spinys, Cheep Cheeps and more that are awkward to deal with when encountered in unusual levels.