Not even Nintendo knows what Super Mario Bros. should look like anymore

Nintendo is celebrating Super Mario Bros.’ 35th anniversary in style, with plans to release a compilation of popular games in the franchise as well as a Game & Watch handheld for the festivities. Coming Nov. 13 as a throwback to the 1980 device, the Game & Watch will let fans play the original game, as well as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels. Pretty neat! But if you look closely, something about the device’s graphics might seem a little off.

As pointed out by game historian Frank Cifaldi on Twitter, the color palette for the NES-style game isn’t quite right, to the degree that Nintendo itself uses two different color schemes for Mario. It’s most notable when you compare the reds; one is more orange-tinted than the other.

Speaking to Polygon over Twitter, Cifaldi also noted that some of the assets in the Game & Watch version appear to have shadow lines that aren’t present in the original Super Mario Bros. He guesses that this Game & Watch version might be scaling the game differently to simulate CRTs.

The original Super Mario Bros. on the left, compared to the Game and Watch version with a “ghost line” on the right.
Image: Nintendo via Frank Cifaldi, Mario wiki

These might seem like minor nitpicks, but they speak to a curious conundrum facing not only Nintendo, but retro-gaming enthusiasts who want to experience old games in their proper, full glory. When you play a version of a game that isn’t running on original hardware, it can play or look differently than the original title — sometimes intentionally, if the developer made tweaks to modernize or streamline an experience.

What is it about NES graphics that makes them so hard to accurately capture in 2020, though? Part of it comes down to the displays themselves. NES games output a signal that has to be decoded by the television set, and said decoder varies from TV to TV. Even back in the day, NES games tended to appear slightly differently depending on what TV or monitor you were using. And those TVs don’t display visuals in the same way modern televisions do.

In a way, an “accurate” NES color palette almost seems like a philosophical, impossible question. What looks right to you might look completely wrong to me, which might stray wildly from what the next person remembers and played. Not that this has stopped people from trying to capture the nostalgia. Some folks have tried to reverse engineer the NES palette via self-described “obsessive” projects, while others have resorted to taking the colors directly from screen captures. These efforts can come close, but they’re still approximations of something that varied depending on how you were playing the first iteration of any specific game.

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Granted, we can suppose that Nintendo had a specific vision for what the game should look like, given that it made the thing. We can only guess as to what the original artists were looking at when they first made it. Nintendo itself has, over the years, released versions of Super Mario Bros. with slightly different palettes. It’s a little funny that it’s not even consistent for the promotional materials of the same release, though.

Given that the game industry is pretty lousy about preserving its own history, perhaps these inaccuracies are inevitable. On top of that, Nintendo has had multiple generations of developers working on Super Mario Bros. in different forms, resulting in varying interpretations and technical implementations.

Minor as they might seem, the underlying danger is that, over time, said tweaks between can become cumulative, ultimately placing us farther and farther away from the original artifact.

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