Nintendo’s most iconic character turns 35 this year, and among the celebratory gestures is a tiny nod to some of Mario’s earliest history. The Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. takes the form factor of a Game & Watch, the classic LCD systems from the early 1980s, but instead squeezes in two classic Mario games: the original Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels (aka Super Mario Bros. 2 Japan) alongside the Game & Watch title Ball. And though it’s a nifty novelty, it also feels like a proof-of-concept for what could have been much more–not unlike a certain other Mario 35th celebration.
When we made our 2020 predictions, I called my shot: Nintendo would (or at least should) make a Game Boy Classic in the style of the NES and SNES retro systems. A small, preloaded Game Boy with a couple dozen standout classics would be the perfect next step for Nintendo’s retro line, and would do more to pay homage to Nintendo’s legacy than the other common prediction, a miniaturized N64. Nintendo has arguably become known more for its handheld successes than its consoles, culminating in the current hybrid Nintendo Switch. It all began with the Game Boy, and this seemed like the perfect year to honor it with a retro system.
My only lingering question was whether Nintendo could outfit it with a decent screen without driving up the price. Nintendo’s other retro systems are essentially just flash storage running emulators in a custom shell. A screen adds complexity and cost. Would Nintendo take a reduced profit margin to make such a retro revival possible?
That question is now answered. The screen on the Game & Watch is bright and beautiful, and just big enough to accommodate the simple graphics of an 8-bit game. The Mario games look vibrant without losing too much detail. The settings UI, while ultra-simplistic with sliders for brightness and volume, is perfectly functional. The Game & Watch game, Ball, is simple and monochromatic. You know, like a Game Boy, albeit without a green hue that could easily be added with a filter.
All of this makes the device frustratingly close to, but not quite a match for, my vision of a mini handheld that honors the Game Boy. A doodad with a Game Boy shape, preloaded with iconic games like Tetris and Super Mario Land 2, would be essentially identical in form and function, but immensely more gratifying as both a gaming device and a piece of history.
Outside of a vision of what could have been, though, it’s hard to see the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. as much more than a charming tchotchke. It’s smaller and lighter than a typical smartphone, so it’s easy enough to carry around if you just want ready access to a few games. The clock function is cute, displaying the current time with Mario blocks and characters running around the screen. It includes at least one brief Easter egg, showing you step-by-step instructions for how to draw Mario. And the game functionality is actually smart enough to automatically create suspended states for both Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels if you want to swap back and forth between them.
But in the year 2020, who really needs another time-telling device? The Game & Watch functionality was always a little silly, as the on-board clock was half the name but much less than half of the appeal. Now, when everyone routinely checks their phones or smartwatches, it feels even less useful. The appeal should be the games, but chances are you already have Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels through your Nintendo Switch Online subscription–along with dozens of others. Nintendo hasn’t exactly been hesitant to offer these older games elsewhere. The addition of Ball is a kitschy retro throwback, and more rarified, but if this was meant to pay homage to the Game & Watch brand it probably should have included more than one of its titles.
All the same, though, the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. edition shows what fertile ground there is in creating small, dedicated retro portables. It’s a little underwhelming, but I can’t help but imagine the concept taken to its next logical step. This homage to Mario and Game & Watch isn’t terribly appealing in either direction in and of itself. But if it sparks a desire to make another tiny bespoke retro game player, it will be worth the half-step to get there.