Rumor has it that Nintendo had grand plans to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. throughout 2020. Then the pandemic happened, and the spectacle shrunk to a couple of Nintendo Direct streams, an “available for a limited-time” collection of 3D Mario games, and a messy pre-order of Mario pins. Rounding out the year, Nintendo will release the Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros, a stand-alone gaming device. Like the rest of the other Mario novelties of 2020, it’s a well-intentioned distraction, recalling fond memories of childhood but not much more.
This is a toy, not a console. It’s roughly the shape of a pack of cards, and about half as thick. It plays the original Super Mario Bros., the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (released in the West as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels), and a Mario-skinned update of the 1980 Nintendo game Ball. (Those were the days, back when a game could be called Ball and actually summarize the entirety of the experience.) It also tells time. See: Game and Watch.
The gizmo is well built, surprisingly so. The D-pad is firm and responsive, the buttons are soft but not mushy, the screen’s vivid brightness surprised me, and I certainly didn’t expect this throwback to have a USB-C port — something my iPhone doesn’t even have yet. Of course, that fancy port assumes I will need to recharge the device. I’m not so sure that will happen.
Reaching the end of Mario’s first level left my hands achey, and after a few stages, thumbs cramped. The Game & Watch wasn’t designed for quick, reflexive gameplay, or for a player having to hold down the run button while smashing jump. No, Nintendo designed it in 1980 for games like the aforementioned Ball, in which you tap left and right to adjust your character’s hands between three different stances. That’s the entirety of the game.
I tried the notoriously difficult Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels on the device. In the first stage, I slid off a cliff. I missed a jump and ran into a Goomba. Then I fell off the same cliff again. I have not returned to The Lost Levels.
If you’re considering this diminutive electronic to finally play the original Super Mario Bros. or to have a copy with you on the go, I cannot recommend the purchase. There are too many better options available, whether that means playing the game on Nintendo Switch or buying an old Game Boy Color.
But I suspect most people interested in this little artifact don’t care an ounce about how it plays. It’s a collector’s item. And Nintendo presents it as such. Like I said, the gadget has been lovingly crafted, recreating the Game & Watch format that helped to establish Nintendo early in the video gaming space. (For gamers of a certain age, Game & Watch is comparable to the Tiger Electronics toys of the 1980s and ’90s.)
I hesitate to talk about a disposable box, but in this case, I’ll give myself some leeway: The container looks just like the sort of toy I’d obsess over in the aisles of Walmart and Toys R Us in the late ’80s. A clear plastic casing wraps rusty gold cardboard. It has one of those plastic tabs for hanging the toy from retail shelving. It looks and feels like an object from a time before online retailers and digital downloads. It’s an itty-bitty treasure.
With this conclusion to the undercut Year of Mario, Nintendo isn’t releasing hardware that competes with its competitors or even trying to recapture the popularity of the NES and Super NES Classic Edition mini consoles. The Game & Watch is a throwback to a 40-year-old toy and a 35-year-old game, made for a specific but crucial audience: the fans who have been foundational to Mario and Nintendo’s decades of success.
This is a thank you.
Game & Watch: Super Mario Bros. was released on Nov. 13. The product was reviewed using a portable provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.