Nintendo will never stop mining its past for new nostalgia-based products, but at least it tends to do so with aplomb and occasionally even generosity. The former at least is on display with the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch, a standalone handheld that plays the first Mario game, its unbelievably hard “Lost Levels” sequel and acts as a totally impractical timepiece.
This tiny gaming system isn’t the most practical thing in the world, but it is a charming piece of hardware that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Turn on the Game & Watch with a button on the side and you can select between, naturally, the Game and Watch modes. In game mode, you can select between playing the original Super Mario Bros. for NES, the sequel we never got in the U.S., but was eventually released as “The Lost Levels,” and a recreation of an old-school LCD game where Mario juggles balls at ever-increasing speeds.
The screen, while certainly small, is bright and sharp, apparently displaying the exact pixel dimensions of the original Nintendo game. It plays well, too — the controls are responsive, though it feels strange to play the game on anything other than an original NES controller. The buttons of the Game & Watch are a bit softer than I’d like — but they were good enough that I cleared the first set of levels without any real frustration other than my own lack of skill.
While there is no support for saving or rewinding the game — pretty much essential for the 99% of us who can’t beat it honestly — at least you don’t have to try to beat it in one sitting. The game freezes its state when you turn it off or switch to any other game or mode, meaning you can play a couple levels between subway stops and not worry about losing progress.
You can hand it back and forth with a friend (after sanitizing it, of course) too, since player 2 uses the same controls.
The juggling game is a fun little diversion but, like most of those old LCD games, goes from really boring to nearly impossible in the course of about 60 seconds.
The “Watch” mode has a charming little landscape with the current time made out of bricks, and Mario running across the screen below stomping goombas and avoiding Bullet Bills. If you watch for a while he’ll moonwalk, mount a pipe and perform other hijinks. You can switch the background from normal to hills to mushroom platforms. I wouldn’t use it as a watch, but if you don’t want to pull your phone out while you’re playing, there you go.
For $50 it may seem a little steep, and perhaps it is. If this had Marios 1 through 3 on it I would consider it a bargain, especially considering the ability to come back to the game time after time — I’d work my way through the epic-length third game with pleasure.
As it is, however, it’s hard to justify the price — except, of course, as a gift to a Nintendo-loving friend or loved one. That’s why I suspect these will sell like hotcakes this holiday season. With no new Switch hardware, no N64 mini and no must-have games on Nintendo’s platforms, it’s looking a bit dry, but a Game & Watch is just silly enough — and decent enough — a device to sate the hunger of a retro-minded gamer for a few days.