Super Mario Bros. is a true classic, the prototypical game of the entire platforming genre. Even today, it still feels great to play, which is a testament to just how well it was made.
The core of Super Mario Bros. lies in its play control. Mario is extremely agile, able to make precision jumps that openly defy real-world physics. You can bend a jump around blocks above you, change momentum in mid-air, and more. You can even use jumps to affect your running momentum. It’s somewhat hard to comment on play control that feels so good, until you play other platformers of the time (or even today!) and notice that they aren’t quite right.
In many ways, this game seems to be a contradicton. The 32 levels don’t really have that much variety: the only level type that plays much differently from the others is underwater, and there are only two stages of that type. Still, it makes good use of its limited palette of level types (day, night, underground, castle) to keep things from getting too repetitive, and even adds in a few very unique stages such as the puzzle-based castles. At the same time, some of the later stages are the same as earlier stages but with smaller platforms and maybe off-screen Bullet Bills firing.
Perhaps the most famous feature of Super Mario Bros. are the warp zones. In a way they are also the most problematic part of the game. Most are so easy to access that it almost feels silly not to use them, leaving worlds 5-7 woefully underplayed. Completing all 32 stages in order, especially without using the continue cheat, is quite the challenge, though. Even by NES standards your lives/continues situation is pretty unforgiving, though unlike in many of SMB’s contemporaries, 1UPs are not that hard to come by.
Indeed, the game balance of Super Mario Bros. is almost as finely-tuned as the play control. Aside from the old Koopa Troopa-on-a-staircase trick, if you’re in it for the long haul you’re going to want to search out every hidden area and every coin you can just for the extra lives. There are enough to get you by without building up to ridiculous amounts, but some tricky jumps and Hammer Bros. in the later levels can go through your stock if you’re not careful.
Super Mario Bros. isn’t the greatest game ever, but especially for its time, it is a masterpiece. There’s a reason this was the pack-in game for the NES. The game can be a bit repetitive, but it’s not overly long, and it lacks any significant flaws. It holds up as a solid platformer, even by today’s standards.