Mario’s 35th anniversary has been a little strange. Though not entirely clear, it seems a decent theory that the observance of our favorite plumber‘s Coral Anniversary (yes, I looked that up) could have been unusual due to COVID-19; but thanks to Japanese business practices we will probably never know the full extent to which the global pandemic affected production in the industry. Whatever the reason, Nintendo chose to celebrate this 35th with some needlessly restricted timed exclusives like the fangame-killing Super Mario 35, the half-effort 3D All Stars bundle, and the strange curiosity known as the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch.
This thing is kind of an affront to all that is natural, and for that reason, I love it. No Game & Watch should have a color screen. No Game & Watch should have these features and settings. No Game & Watch should be powerful enough to run a full game like Super Mario Bros., let alone its sequel. Yet, here we are.
There are plenty of people out there who don’t recognize the term “Game & Watch” outside of its context in Smash Bros., so if you need a primer: the Game & Watch was the brainchild of historic gaming wunderkind Gunpei Yokoi, and Nintendo’s first handheld system—though that’s a bit misleading, because really it is a family of systems. Each G&W unit generally had only one game, forever fixated into its primitive LCD screen. Think less “Game Boy” and more “Tiger Electronics.” Oh, and if the name didn’t give it away, each Game & Watch also sported a clock feature.
I only have one classic Game & Watch, and even that is cheating a little because it’s the re-released Ball system that Nintendo has as a Club Nintendo reward a while back. (Hey, remember Club Nintendo? That was cool, man. I miss it.) The systems are small and simple, but I find them surprisingly sturdy for what they are. Functionally the Game & Watch might compare to a Tiger Electronics toy, but in form you can tell the massive difference in quality, to the point that the comparison is almost insulting to the former. G&W systems are primitive and simple, but so obviously bursting with potential. The vision would soon be realized more fully, of course, in the Game Boy, continuing through all future Nintendo handheld juggernauts, right up to the massively successful hybrid console-handheld Nintendo Switch. The influence of these machines is hard to overstate--even the innovation of the D-Pad was first found on a Game & Watch.
The Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch is the definition of an anachronism. While there was a truncated version of Super Mario Bros. released as a Game & Watch in 1986, the systems never achieved anything close to what you would see produced by the NES...or the Game Boy, for that matter. The SMB G&W is hearkening back to an era that never existed. It's as if we're stepping into a strange, alternate timeline where Nintendo never stopped making Game & Watches. It's a relic of an imaginary history, and that's what makes it so fascinating.
The $50 price point caused me to resist for a while, but I always knew I'd get this dumb thing. But I'm happy I did. (Or at least I'm going to tell myself I am, over and over again, until I believe it.) It is a cute little piece of hardware, as any Game & Watch is. It feels nice to hold, the buttons have a good feel to them. Most Nintendo handhelds and controllers share a similar feel to them--even the Wii Remote could be held sideways to feel more traditional--so there is a bit of a foreign feel to holding this machine with no Start/Select button equivalents; but that's easily overlooked after just a few minutes of play.
The machine has Super Mario Brothers, The Lost Levels (SMB2 in Japan), and the Game & Watch classic, Ball. The "& Watch" is also present, of course, with a few different backgrounds for the clock feature. There are also a few Easter Eggs on the system, some time-based (like Mario "finishing the level" at noon and midnight), some menu-based (like holding the A button for 5 seconds to get to the "Mario Drawing Song" from the Flipnote Studios days of yore).
Probably the thing that impressed me the most with this machine is the friendly suspend-and-resume for the gameplay. You can pause the games at any time, switch back to the clock, and then pick up where you left off in the game days later. The battery life is also insane; it comes with a charger—another totally anachronistic concept to the Game & Watch—but I haven't even come close to needing it yet. There's even the added benefit of being able to select the ephemeral Hard Mode from the menu in perpetuity after your first SMB clear. (In the past, Hard Mode SMB was only available after you cleared the game on that particular session. Turn the system off, and the mode would be inaccessible until you beat the game again.)
All told, this is a great way to experience Super Mario Bros., but probably only for people who are inculcated into the world of retro Nintendo already. I think this is a worthwhile purchase for oldhead Nintendo fans, but I'm not sure why anyone but us would be interested in it. It's a fun little collector's novelty for someone who already has access to SMB five other ways and just can't live without a sixth.
And darn it, if that ain't me.