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Game & Watch Super Mario Bros. review – older than old school

If this had existed in 1980 it would’ve blown everyone’s mind (pic: Nintendo)

Nintendo has released a brand new console in time for Christmas, that celebrates both Super Mario and the first ever Game & Watch.

We’re happy to be corrected on the fact, but we suspect that, ignoring arcade games, the original Game & Watch must’ve been the first consumer product Nintendo ever released in Europe. We’ve never owned one before, but we remember finding the compilation on the Game Boy Advance strangely entrancing. It must be almost impossible for younger gamers to understand how high-tech the ancient handhelds would’ve seemed at the time, but Nintendo is always keen to keep their memory alive and no less so than with this new anniversary edition.

The first Game & Watch was released in 1980, so it actually has a more significant anniversary this year than the 35-year-old Super Mario Bros., that Nintendo has been promoting with Super Mario 3D All-Stars and a wave of other merchandise. Luckily though this new hardware manages to celebrate both birthdays equally, with a Game & Watch that also plays Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2.

If you’re currently wondering what on earth a Game & Watch is, it’s essentially a handheld console, although one that only plays a single game. It doesn’t use traditional pixels but instead an LCD display where the pre-printed visuals can be lit up in black so that they appear to animate. The tech was based on digital calculators of the time and although arcade games were already a thing (Donkey Kong was released a year later) LCD games were commonplace as a, relatively, low cost alternative to programmable consoles and computers.

Despite the extremely simplistic technology the Game & Watch was an important milestone in the history of video games. Not least because it was Nintendo’s first big success with consumer electronics (as opposed to just coin-ops) and popularised the concept of the D-pad, which was invented for a separate Donkey Kong handheld in 1982.

That means the very first Game & Watch only came with two action buttons, controlling the left and right arms of a juggler. Called simply ‘Ball’ the game is replicated here with exactly the same gameplay but Mario’s head as the juggler. It’s a lovely bit of nostalgia, and still sticks to purely monochrome graphics, where the only option is whether to juggle with two balls or three. And it’s still fun. Absolutely mindless but when you inevitably mess up your first few goes it’s hard to resist trying to get some kind of half-decent high score as revenge.

There were several Game & Watch games released featuring Mario, including an attempt to replicate the Mario Bros. arcade game, but the LCD technology made it impossible to do anything too complex. This version though features a proper colour screen and pixel perfect recreations of both Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2 (aka The Lost Levels).

Even the box is fill with Easter eggs (pic: Nintendo)

At this point in time it’s hard to find anything new to say about Super Mario Bros., except to marvel that despite it being so old it’s still as replayable as ever. As modern games become passé after just a few months you can guarantee that only the next ice age will stop Super Mario Bros. being re-released again and again for as long people still enjoy jumping on the heads of evil walking mushrooms.

Playing it on a tiny 2.5” screen brings no new insight to the game, and even with the simplistic graphics of the NES you still end up squinting a bit too uncomfortably to make everything out, but it’s a neat little tribute and a perfect Christmas present for anyone that remembers things from the first time round.

We especially like that one of the four listed features, apart from the three games, is a digital clock – which would’ve been a braggable feature in the 80s. Except here it’s not LCD and the background to Super Mario Bros. changes colour depending on the time of day. There’s also lots of funny little Easter eggs, like Yoshis appearing in the background and Mario running around.

Our favourite detail though is the packaging itself, which at first glance seems to be a fairly straightforward representation of the box’s contents. But once you remove the inner cardboard box from the plastic sleeve, you find that all the Super Mario artwork, including the screenshot of the game, is printed only on the plastic and the box itself is advertising Ball alone. Although the absolute best bit is the box lid, which has a little thank you message printed on the flap.

At £44.99 the new Game & Watch is not cheap (although taking inflation into account it is less costly than it would’ve been back in the day) but as a retro novelty you know you’re doing well when even the box makes you grin with nostalgia.

Game & Watch Super Mario Bros. was released worldwide on November 13 and comes with a USB charger but not an AC adapter.

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