For years in the 1980s, there were rumors of a Super Mario Bros Commodore 64 port. Those rumors have persisted to the present day. Not one but two versions of the Nintendo franchise title do indeed exist on the C-64, but both are bootleg in every possible sense of the word.
Rumors of an official port
There are rumors that a team of programmers started work on a Super Mario Bros Commodore 64 version and approached Nintendo for licensing. Nintendo licensed several titles for other computers in the past, notably Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros. But after 1985, Nintendo had little reason to license its most popular title for any other device.
Arguably, licensing the title would have meant sales to people who never would have bought a Nintendo console. But that was a small market. It made more sense to keep the title exclusive so they could sell the console and the game. It was a pretty safe bet that once they tired of Mario, they’d buy other titles. Zelda, for instance.
Licensing Super Mario Bros for computers risked leaving a lot of money on the table. Nintendo didn’t do it, sold tens of millions of consoles, and cried all the way to the bank. It’s still making money off the Mario and Zelda franchises three decades later.
The Nintendo NES code for Super Mario Bros did end up on the C-64, eventually. But not in the 80s.
What about people who remember playing it in the 1980s?
The November 1988 issue of Compute!’s Gazette included a letter from a confessed software pirate to columnist Rhett Anderson. In the middle of his letter, he said he had copies of Out Run and Super Mario Bros for the 64, noted he’d had both for about 18 months, and said, “If we don’t pirate, how are we supposed to get them?”
While Anderson had counterpoints for most of the points in the letter, he didn’t have much for that.
And occasionally, someone crops up on a Commodore forum saying they remember playing Super Mario Bros on a 64 sometime in the late 80s.
I think I know what the anonymous pirate in Gazette was talking about, and I think I know what game people remember playing in the late 1980s. Because I saw it and played it myself.
The game played a lot like the Nintendo version, but the levels weren’t exact copies. They were obviously inspired by the original but nowhere near identical. There were some differences in the graphics too. The C-64 and the NES didn’t have identical graphics capabilities, so some things were definitely changed to make it easier for the 64 to render. The theme music was completely different too. It was a fun game, but whatever tricks you knew from the NES might not necessarily help on this version.
The copy that made it to St. Louis originated from a pirate group called Abyss. The intro to the game had some scrolling text with a bit of a backstory. Two members of the group decided to make a game called Giana Sisters, which I’d never heard of at the time, look like Super Mario Bros. And for years, that was all I knew.
What was Giana Sisters?
In May 1987, European software publisher Rainbow Arts released a side-scrolling platform game called The Great Giana Sisters. It looked and played like Mario, except the heroes of the game were female instead of male. Nintendo warned the publisher and developer that the game was too similar and constituted copyright infringement. Nintendo never sued, but the publisher withdrew the game from the market fairly quickly. Legitimate original copies of The Great Giana Sisters are collector’s items today.
The Great Giana Sisters never was released for sale in the United States. Some copies made it over here via piracy. Keeping people from pirating the game was rather difficult. And it’s not like the developer or publisher had much incentive to try to stop it, since they couldn’t sell the game anyway. BBS raids were a thing, but getting busted for phone phreaking was more common than for piracy, especially a game like this.
I never saw an unaltered copy of Giana Sisters in the 1980s. The version that pirates modified to make the sisters look just like Mario and Luigi was the version I saw and played. In St. Louis at least, the hacked version saw wider distribution.
Super Mario Bros. for sale in magazine back pages
In the waning days of the Commodore 64, a software house started advertising what it called a “public domain” version of Super Mario Bros., offering it on disk with a bunch of other games for $12. The game wasn’t public domain at all. It was the same bootleg copy of the withdrawn Giana Sisters with hacked graphics.
Probably anyone who owned a modem could get a copy if they wanted it, without paying $12. But there probably were people who didn’t have modems and weren’t aware this title existed.
I don’t know if Nintendo ever took action against the people selling the game in the back pages of computer magazines. It was a risk I certainly wouldn’t have been willing to take.
Zeropaige’s 2019 port of Super Mario Bros to the C-64
In April 2019, a programmer working under the pseudonym of Zeropaige announced he’d been working since 2012 to port Super Mario Bros from the NES to the C-64. This was no small feat. The two systems have similar CPUs but the graphics and sound chips work differently. So the adaptation took a lot of work.
He released the code over Easter weekend in 2019, and the gameplay was very similar indeed to the NES version. The bricks and tiles are skewed a bit because the C-64 has a slightly different aspect ratio and some of the colors are a bit different. The gameplay can get a little sluggish at points because the 64’s CPU runs slightly slower than the NES. But the result was a rather faithful port that changed as little as possible. It even included Nintendo’s copyright message. If you had experience with both a 64 and an NES in the 1980s, playing this version feels a little surreal.
Of course, it was a pretty blatant copyright violation, and Nintendo quickly issued DMCA takedown notices.
But the port proved that the 64 would have been capable of NES-like games, including the vaunted Mario. It also takes advantage of the faster CPU in the C-128, or various accelerators available for the 64, unlike commercial software of its day. It was an ambitious piece of work and shows what an expanded 64 is capable of. Nintendo’s takedown notice drove the port underground, but converting old software to different old platforms isn’t going away. As cross-development tools improve, if anything, we’ll see more conversions like this one in the future.