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Retro Museum obtains rare demo of id Software’s Super Mario Bros. 3 PC port, 1990 demo was rejected by Nintendo but led to id's own Commander Keen

May 9, 2019
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The Strong National Museum of Play has obtained a rare demo of Super Mario Bros. 3 that a pre-Doom id Software coded for MS-DOS PCs back in 1990. The acquisition will ensure that the historical curiosity will be preserved and accessible to researchers well into the future.

Students of video game history have long been aware of the existence of the demo, which was described in detail in David Kushner's excellent 2003 book Masters of Doom. id Software—then known as Ideas from the Deep (IFD)—coded the game in under a week and sent a copy to Nintendo in the hopes of getting a contract to develop an official PC port of the NES classic, which had launched in the US earlier in 1990.

Part of what made the demo special was a John Carmack-coded scrolling algorithm that went way beyond the stuttering background movements and full-screen wipes you'd usually see in late '80s DOS games. "When looking at PC games of the era, there really weren't titles with the smooth scrolling seen in Nintendo’s hits," Museum of Play Digital Games Curator Andrew Borman told Ars via email. And though Nintendo would never entertain the idea of a PC port for SMB3, id Software was "not deterred by the rejection, [and] the technology was reused for Commander Keen, which is still one of my favorite series of that era," Borman said.

A surprise find

Though the demo's existence has been well-known for a while, the closest the general public has gotten to it was a 2015 video released by John Romero showing many of the demo's levels and functionality. Fast forward to today, when Borman said he was surprised to find the demo sitting inconspicuously in a larger collection of donated software.

"The individual who donated it was a game developer," Borman told Ars. "But they did not work on this pitch, instead receiving [it] during their work. It wasn't something I expected to see in this donation, but it was extremely exciting, having seen the video Romero shared back in 2015. One of my favorite things at the museum is helping to process incoming donations, especially when we can help share stories from important developers like id Software."

Before testing the game for himself, Borman said he imaged the original floppy (to help preserve the physical artifact) and verified the contents by comparing a run on the DOSBox emulator to Romero's 2015 video. He was then able to explore the little-seen demo for himself, including Level 1-4, which had never been seen by the public, and a cheeky "IFD" logo spelled out in stars and mushrooms in the upper-left corner of Level 1-1. He described 1-4 as "a fairly flat level, though it has a nice pyramid at the end."

"It is an early demo, though, and lacks many features and polish that would have been seen had the developers been able to work with Nintendo in creating a full retail release," Borman said. "For being such an early demo, it is a lot of fun to play, especially 1-1, which recreates that iconic first level from Super Mario Bros 3."

It belongs in a museum

Borman said the demo will be available upon request to researchers and other parties with a relevant interest. There are no current plans to exhibit the game to the public in the Strong's soon-to-be-expanded Rochester museum space or elsewhere. But Borman said that "there are plenty of opportunities to come in the future" for that kind of display.

The Museum of Play will also ensure that this piece of history will be accessible to future generations of gaming historians. "Our preservation work focuses not only on the research needs of today but also how researchers decades from now, some who may not even be born yet, will access material," Borman said. "Proper climate-controlled storage helps to preserve those physical artifacts, especially when materials like plastic degrades over time. We are also building out our digital preservation capabilities, allowing us to preserve the many forms of media that we find, including the various cartridge and optical mediums."

Research interest aside, the newly preserved demo provides a window into an alternate universe where two of the most important companies in gaming teamed up to revolutionize '90s PC gaming. "While the demo here really represents a week or less of work, knowing now how important id Software would become, it is an interesting 'what-if?' of game history," Borman said. "It’s fun to think about how the company could have changed had it formed a relationship with Nintendo."



 

ZoukGalaxy

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Well, the sound effects are really bad and unfortunately that's not the only bad thing of this port. But it exists, that's interesting as a curiosity.
 
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bender

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We have Mario at home.

I can see why Nintendo and other companies closely guard their IP. Technically this probably solid but none of the love or fun is there.

It was a demo to prove that they could do scrolling levels like Mario offered. It's a technical show piece so the "love and fun" (art, sound fx, music) are all place holders.
 

Ozzy Onya A2Z

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It was a demo to prove that they could do scrolling levels like Mario offered. It's a technical show piece so the "love and fun" (art, sound fx, music) are all place holders.

I get that but the top priority things I'd put in a demo to Ninty about Mario would be the art, personality and fun. Miss that and miss the mark regardless of how good your tech is. Honestly even the colour choices are off by a huge margin.
 

bender

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I get that but the top priority things I'd put in a demo to Ninty about Mario would be the art, personality and fun. Miss that and miss the mark regardless of how good your tech is. Honestly even the colour choices are off by a huge margin.

I'm not sure you really get the technical limitations at play and why this was such an accomplishment.
 

Ozzy Onya A2Z

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I'm not sure you really get the technical limitations at play and why this was such an accomplishment.
Sure I do, there were a number of PC games doing scrolling games before this tech demo though. Years before even.





(went on to be Rush N Attack)


You could even classify games from C64 days with a number of side scrollers of that late 80s early 90s era. PC had other ports going too e.g. Moon Patrol.
 
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KuraiShidosha

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Man, having never seen it I always kind of assumed it was essentially the old equivalent to reverse engineered projects of today, where they had 1:1 assets and code just ported to run on PC. Never occurred to me that Nintendo probably would have really hated that (if it was even possible at the time) and that they made this entirely from scratch. It's still impressive, just not this mystical "in your face Nintendo" work that I always revered it as lol
 
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LazyParrot

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Sure I do, there were a number of PC games doing scrolling games before this tech demo though. Years before even.
That depends on what you count as a PC and the kind of scrolling you're talking about.

IBM PCs could always do scrolling, but it had to be done the hard and costly way, i.e. by having the software redraw the entire screen whenever you move, which severely limited what you could do in terms of graphics and performance.

This didn't change until the switch from CGA to EGA in the mid 80s, which brought new features that made a hardware solution possible, and as far as I'm aware Carmack really was the first one to come up with a successful implementation.
 

MrA

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They said, "Sorry we don't want Mario to look like an undead Groucho Marx doing Hitler salutes"

What caused the limitation with scrolling on PCs?
until 2d accelerators began appearing, pcs were designed for spreadsheets and cad, scrolling was jerky in 1 direction, this demo has smooth scrolling in 2 directions

Sure I do, there were a number of PC games doing scrolling games before this tech demo though. Years before even.





(went on to be Rush N Attack)


You could even classify games from C64 days with a number of side scrollers of that late 80s early 90s era. PC had other ports going too e.g. Moon Patrol.
none of those games have smooth scrolling, they scroll with jerky, multi-pixel jumps, well except rolling thunder, which never saw a dos port
also the c64, zx spectrum, atari computers, amigas, etc, aren't pcs in this context, the IBM PC and its lineage are what we are talking about here
 

CamHostage

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until 2d accelerators began appearing, pcs were designed for spreadsheets and cad, scrolling was jerky in 1 direction, this demo has smooth scrolling in 2 directions


none of those games have smooth scrolling, they scroll with jerky, multi-pixel jumps, well except rolling thunder, which never saw a dos port
also the c64, zx spectrum, atari computers, amigas, etc, aren't pcs in this context, the IBM PC and its lineage are what we are talking about here

Yep.

You can even see the Thexder release having to scroll by a full tile with every horizontal move, it can't smoothly divide the elements.

Technically this was probably solid at the time but none of the love or fun that is trademark Nintendo is present.

Well, for one thing, it was just a pitch demo, not a full port obviously.

But also, back then, part of the "love or fun" that game buyers were looking for (especially in the PC market) really was the technical accomplishments. Mario games have stood the test of time because they're polished and have everlasting mechanical excellence, but in '80s/90s, good technology was just as exciting and compelling as good gameplay, and people loved games that did cool new stuff but that are nigh-unplayable these days. I felt love for game developers with good title screen FXs; I felt fun sitting and listening to music of games that had no actual music in gameplay, just the menu and home screens. Tech love is only of its time (and going by this thread, it can be hard to put your mind back in that time,) while gameplay fun is forever. Yes, maybe Id should have known that and held off pitching it until the project really captured that "love and fun", given the company they were pitching to, but then again, Nintendo wasn't always concerned about "love or fun" when contracting out its franchises...

If I were Carmack & Co bringing this into a pitch meeting with Nintendo in 1990, I would think they would have been ecstatic about the accomplishment and blissed out about how much "fun" they were able to capture in just a technical demo (and all the little touches retained like the hat flapping when he runs and kind a a twitch of the ears in the Raccoon walkcycle,) and I would have been worried more about the hardball of deal terms killing the project rather than Nintendo corporate suits saying, "But where is the trademark Nintendo fun or love?"
 
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CamHostage

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Btw, there was an actual release before the Id project of Super Mario for "PC" in the past (not DOS, and not SMB3, this was SMB1 for Japanese PC systems.) Check out the interesting but ill-begotten Super Mario Bros Special.

 
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LazyParrot

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How could 1983 tech outmatch a 1990 PC?
The NES was made for gaming. IBM PCs weren't, so their graphics adapters simply lacked the features needed to make smooth scrolling happen. There were plenty of people in the 80s and even the early 90s who thought they didn't have much of a future as a gaming platform
 

nkarafo

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Scrolling a level wasn't always a thing on PC. How far we've come.
Τhis was always crazy to me.

I remember my friend's computer around 1994, every platform game on my Mega Drive/SNES would look better and move smoother than anything similar on his 486 but he could play DOOM... which was a generation beyond anything i could play. Even the next gen consoles had to have a simplified version of that game.
 

fart town usa

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Btw there is Super Mario World looking PC tech demo also.

I'm like 99% sure I downloaded this way back in the day. By the time I got into PC gaming in the mid 90s, abandonware was already a huge thing and I was just binging the shit out of everything. Tons of Lucas Arts adventure games and gamefaqs. Damn good times.

Thanks for the nostalgia.
 

Holammer

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Laugh it up, just two years later Digital Illusions (Dice today) released Pinball Fantasies on PC. It had VGA graphics, smooth scrolling and awesome audio. Even the speaker audio knocked your socks off.
PCs finally had enough CPU horse power to brute force stuff consoles & microcomputers did previously with dedicated hardware.

 

MrA

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How could 1983 tech outmatch a 1990 PC?
pcs were designed for a resolution and later color as they were intended for business and professional use, not games (even though they did exist), video game-like features weren't in the equation, no sprites, no background layers, if you wanted any of that stuff it had to be written in software manipulating what pcs did have
remember pcs had nothing but pc speaker sound until '87 (the pc jr and the tandy 1000 did, but they had gaming tech set on top of normal pc components)
just different resolution bitmap and character modes, the atari 2600 from 1977 actually had better horizontal scrolling and sprite capabilities in hardware than the pc did in 1990 because it didn't have any , the 2600 even had better sound.
pcs were a very different thing back then they EXPENSIVE, like super expensive, they were meant to run productivity software and cad fast, and not much else
edit: like HOlammer said, pcs used faster and better cpus to do in software what consoles and micros did with hardware.
 
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RoadHazard

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Looks pretty janky. Good attempt at a time when PCs were not really suited for this kind of scrolling gameplay though. But why does Commander Keen, which I understand came after this, look so much worse?
 
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MrA

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The megaman port was done by 1 person.
that's neither here nor there, duke nukem was developed by a team (including support from John Carmack) and It played in a window with 8-pixel chunk scrolling
This mario demo led to commander keen, which was a step above all other 2d games on the pc when it came out scrolling both horizontally and vertically simultaneously and smoothly
 

Ozzy Onya A2Z

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Yep.

You can even see the Thexder release having to scroll by a full tile with every horizontal move, it can't smoothly divide the elements.

Well, for one thing, it was just a pitch demo, not a full port obviously.

But also, back then, part of the "love or fun" that game buyers were looking for (especially in the PC market) really was the technical accomplishments. Mario games have stood the test of time because they're polished and have everlasting mechanical excellence, but in '80s/90s, good technology was just as exciting and compelling as good gameplay, and people loved games that did cool new stuff but that are nigh-unplayable these days. I felt love for game developers with good title screen FXs; I felt fun sitting and listening to music of games that had no actual music in gameplay, just the menu and home screens. Tech love is only of its time (and going by this thread, it can be hard to put your mind back in that time,) while gameplay fun is forever. Yes, maybe Id should have known that and held off pitching it until the project really captured that "love and fun", given the company they were pitching to, but then again, Nintendo wasn't always concerned about "love or fun" when contracting out its franchises...

If I were Carmack & Co bringing this into a pitch meeting with Nintendo in 1990, I would think they would have been ecstatic about the accomplishment and blissed out about how much "fun" they were able to capture in just a technical demo (and all the little touches retained like the hat flapping when he runs and kind a a twitch of the ears in the Raccoon walkcycle,) and I would have been worried more about the hardball of deal terms killing the project rather than Nintendo corporate suits saying, "But where is the trademark Nintendo fun or love?"

I didn't mean to understate the technical achievement considering the smoothness of Cormack's side scroller demo, it's up there as the best for that very specific time e.g. refresh, continuous scroll as you say and cohesive animation/frames, etc.

However some of those games I mentioned were 2-3 years before Cormack's demo [EDIT: how could I forget Bitmap Brothers] e.g. Speedball in 1988 (likely the one major contender studio for smooth scrolling to rival Cormack's demo and years earlier, albeit perhaps less level size/scrolling than Mario hence the quality jump).


EDIT 2 - More Bitmap Brothers in 1988 with Xenon (larger scrolling levels and complex animation interactions -


Others around that time were Bad Dudes running on Apple IIs or Amigas or California Games, both games back in 1988 -


There were even earlier ones on Amstrad PC for example, Commando in 1985 -


We shouldn't forget classics like Gauntlet back in 85 as well -


Sure they're behind the tech from Cormack but in terms of the love and fun they trounce that demo to no end. My point being such a demo to Cormack is all about tech. The demo to Ninty is "does this up hold the Mario/Nintendo brand". It's a resounding no and they likely did the right thing not porting to PC at that time e.g. more hardware sales/cartridges/licensing etc while keeping their brand and quality firmly Nintendo.

Crazy to go the other way by just two years and run into Wolfenstein from Cormack/ID in 1992. Insane jump from that tech demo to FPS in just 2 years. Now that's a technical achievement with love and fun built right in.

Also agreed on the fierceness of Nintendo deal making back then.
 
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MrA

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I didn't mean to understate the technical achievement considering the smoothness of Cormack's side scroller demo, it's up there as the best for that very specific time e.g. refresh, continuous scroll as you say and cohesive animation/frames, etc.

However some of those games I mentioned were 2-3 years before Cormack's demo e.g. Bad Dudes running on Apple IIs or Amigas or California Games, both games back in 1988 -


There were even earlier ones on Amstrad PC for example, Commando in 1985 -


Sure they're behind the tech from Cormack but in terms of the love and fun they trounce that demo to no end. My point being such a demo to Cormack is all about tech. The demo to Ninty is "does this up hold the Mario/Nintendo brand". It's a resounding no and they likely did the right thing not porting to PC at that time e.g. more hardware sales/cartridges/licensing etc while keeping their brand and quality firming Nintendo.

Crazy to go the other way by just two years and run into Wolfenstein from Cormack/ID. Insane jump from that tech demo to FPS. Now that's a technical achievement with love and fun built right in.

Also agreed on the fierceness of Nintendo deal making back then.
those machines have dedicated scrolling hardware, not on the ibm pc line which had no hardware to handle scrolling,
 

Ozzy Onya A2Z

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those machines have dedicated scrolling hardware, not on the ibm pc line which had no hardware to handle scrolling,
I edited to include Bitmap Brothers e.g. Xenon and Speedball. They released on the PC, believe the YT links are the PC versions but probably running on more recent hardware.

Also I really don't separate PC or Amiga or C64, they were all equally important in the games industry. To a lesser extent Apple IIs in the classroom/home as well.
 
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Fafalada

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This didn't change until the switch from CGA to EGA in the mid 80s, which brought new features that made a hardware solution possible
So this isn't quite true.
Hercules cards could do this type of hw-scrolling before it, and CGA could definitely do vertical, I just can't remember if horizontal was possible to hack together.
But also can't forget the array of other graphic chipsets on the market (like Tandy etc.) - each which required its own code-path in DOS (no drivers, you had to do all your own hardware coding) if you were trying to do things like this. Basically hardware (at least a significant portion of) could do this since beginning of the 80ies when graphics first came to PC, but there was a non-trivial amount of fragmentation in the market to target games at, even without relying on special features that each graphics chip handled a bit differently.

It wasn't until VGA that it was made 'easy' since VRam finally got large enough to allow more things without jumping through hoops, and market kind of unified behind a single standard at that point. Which makes for an interesting question - Keen came out after VGA was on the market for a few years already - so it had a broader market to target. But the game was technically doable much sooner - would it have found a target market in the 80ies, I don't know.
 
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MrA

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I edited to include Bitmap Brothers e.g. Xenon and Speedball. They released on the PC, believe the YT links are the PC versions but probably running on more recent hardware.

Also I really don't separate PC or Amiga or C64, they were all equally important in the games industry. To a lesser extent Apple IIs in the classroom/home as well.
I'm not going to argue against the importance of any of them since I agree with that point, but they weren't the same hardware and filled different niches, seems odd not to separate them. Making something work on the c64 was a different achievement than something working on the amiga family than something working on the pc,
 
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Ozzy Onya A2Z

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I'm not going to argue against the importance of any of them since I agree with that point, but they weren't the same hardware and filled different niches, seems odd not to separate them. Making something work on the c64 was a different achievement than something working on the amiga family than something working on the pc,
Sure I'd agree but you don't make that distinction with consoles these days e.g. PS or Xbox, they're just consoles even though technically vastly different to code for.
 

Fafalada

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Also I really don't separate PC or Amiga or C64, they were all equally important in the games industry. To a lesser extent Apple IIs in the classroom/home as well.
That'd be like lumping all consoles into one 'console' category - sure when reviewing market historical progression that works as a data point - but discussion here was about hardware specific capabilities (or lack of thereof), you can't have that conversation if you pool ALL machines together.

Sure I'd agree but you don't make that distinction with consoles these days e.g. PS or Xbox, they're just consoles even though technically vastly different to code for.
The functional capabilities are largely equivalent in modern consoles - very different from 80ies computer landscape where each box had fundamentally different capabilities.

Making something work on the c64 was a different achievement than something working on the amiga family than something working on the pc,
Yea the fragmentation of the market was pretty drastic back then. Though PC capabilities were left underutilized even back then, as it just wasn't positioned as multimedia machine (lack of internet didn't help - it was 'hard' to find information on those chipsets back in the day). But a CGA equipped x86 was quite capable of beating 8bit home PCs like C64. The raw compute advantage was substantial, and as I mention above, CGA had some hw tricks of its own.
Eg, vertical scroll and 'sprites':
 
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Ozzy Onya A2Z

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That'd be like lumping all consoles into one 'console' category - sure when reviewing market historical progression that works as a data point - but discussion here was about hardware specific capabilities (or lack of thereof), you can't have that conversation if you pool ALL machines together.


The functional capabilities are largely equivalent in modern consoles - very different from 80ies computer landscape where each box had fundamentally different capabilities.


Yea the fragmentation of the market was pretty drastic back then. Though PC capabilities were left underutilized even back then, as it just wasn't positioned as multimedia machine (lack of internet didn't help - it was 'hard' to find information on those chipsets back in the day). But a CGA equipped x86 was quite capable of beating 8bit home PCs like C64. The raw compute advantage was substantial, and as I mention above, CGA had some hw tricks of its own.
Eg, vertical scroll and 'sprites':

Solid post, I concede.
 

MrA

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Yea the fragmentation of the market was pretty drastic back then. Though PC capabilities were left underutilized even back then, as it just wasn't positioned as multimedia machine (lack of internet didn't help - it was 'hard' to find information on those chipsets back in the day). But a CGA equipped x86 was quite capable of beating 8bit home PCs like C64. The raw compute advantage was substantial, and as I mention above, CGA had some hw tricks of its own.
Eg, vertical scroll and 'sprites':
well, a $1500 5150 better be more capable than a $300 vic 20,
though my favorite bit of fragmentation has to be all of the computer that had the same texas instruments graphics and sound(or the similar General instruments sound) +a z80 that were all incompatible, sord m5, casio pv 2000, coleco adam, msx, spectravision 618/628, sega sc 3000,memotek mtx, pretty sure there are more, and each and everyone incompatible
 
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