The Anatomy of Super Mario: XIII. The path not taken

The funny thing about Super Mario Bros.: After conquering World 1-1 — which really only takes a few minutes of your time — Mario marches past the flag pole to the fortress stationed at the end of the World. And then, once World 1-2 begins… he keeps right on marching.


Instead of fighting through the fortress as you might expect, he heads to the big green pipe a few meters beyond. Unlike the pipes in Mario Bros., which only only existed to disgorge enemies into the sewers, the larger pipes here are of sufficient size to accept Mario as well. This particular pipe deposits him in the underground.

OK, that’s all well and good, but when you see Mario duck into the pipe under computer control, it’s natural to begin to wonder: Can Mario duck into all pipes? And the answer, it turns out, is… not quite. Many pipes do nothing. But some of them hide secret paths. Including a certain pipe in World 1-1.

Like the 1UP mushroom near the start of the game, you’re not really meant to know about this pipe the first time you play, or maybe even the fifth time. But as you experiment more and more with the game in subsequent replays, becoming more confident in your skills and curious about what you can accomplish beyond making a straight dash for the finale, you’ll eventually begin uncovering various hidden secrets. And, as with so many elements of Super Mario Bros., the first is hidden very near the beginning of the game — directly before that 1UP mushroom, in fact.


Beyond the rebounding Goombas you’ll find a pipe that Mario can duck into if you stand on top of it and press down.


This leads to a secret chamber crammed with coins. Nothing here can hurt you, and the pipe at the lower right whisks you away to the very end of the stage, placing you directly in front of the final staircase before the flagpole. It’s both a bonus and a shortcut.

At the same time, this coin room bypasses many of the benefits of World 1-1 as well. If you jigger the screen just so, you can snag the 1UP mushroom and backtrack to the secret pipe before it scrolls irretrievably off-screen. But you’ll miss out on the Fire Flowers, the Starman, and all the points for freeform bad guy slaughter. On the other hand, the coin room contains 19 coins, and optimal play along the normal path will net you 18 coins at best (and that’s only if you manage to squeeze every last coin out of the multi-coin block). And the time you save with the shortcut is converted into points once you tag the flagpole.

So it’s another tradeoff: Enjoy more play time and power-ups along the standard path, or save time and move one step closer to a 1UP (which is of course the point of gathering coins) by using the pipe? Both choices are equally valid; the question comes down to what you want from Super Mario Bros.

And all of that just in the first stage. Of 32!

7 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Super Mario: XIII. The path not taken

  1. I think ignoring the pipe and continuing through the stage has the better payoff. The pipe saves time, but the coin difference isn’t that significant, the points don’t matter, and on the top path you get the opportunity to acquire two more power-ups, not counting the Starman.

    • On “points don’t matter”:
      Sure, these days most of us ignore points as an extraneous factor good only for measuring one-credit challenge scores. But remember when SMB first came out a lot of people were still coming to it from a very arcade-centric mindset, where in most cases points were ultimately the *only* thing that mattered. “Beating” a game was often extraneous or not even possible, the whole reason to play the same short games over and over was to improve on your high score. Long before trophies or recorded speed-runs, points were the way to show your prowess at a game. It took a while before home console games started moving decisively away from that concept.

      • Yeah, points used to be a big deal. But at least games with points would usually give you extra lives for meeting certain quota. In Super Mario Bros. it’s just a number to make bigger.

        Speaking of lives, there’s a mechanic that’s grown more and more vestigial over the years but refuses to go away. Lives mattered a lot more before save data became standard. A few games like Super Mario World and the NSMB titles tried putting restrictions on saving to make them matter more (the former doesn’t even save lives totals on SNES), but since Super Mario Bros. 3* the Mario series has thrown so many easy lives opportunities at you that the lives don’t really matter.

        * I know SMB3 doesn’t have save data on NES, but still…

  2. Actually, by going through the entire level you can net a maximum of about 25 coins. I only know this because my 3 year old always wants to play the “swimming level” but she doesn’t want to play any of the preceeding stages. As a result I’ve been through worlds 1-1 through 2-1 umpteen times. Another fun fact, if you collect all the coins in all those stages you’ll have six lives for your daughter to throw away in the “swimming level.”

    • The 18-coin max I was referring to isn’t the whole level but rather the segment between the down and up pipes.

    • I don’t think the power ups matter that much when you can get one immediately at the beginning of the next level.

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