In 1990, id Software, then known as Ideas from the Deep (IFD), created a MS-DOS demo of Super Mario Bros. 3 in a week, pitching it to Nintendo as a PC port of their NES game, only Nintendo rejected it. Not resting on a failed opportunity, the demo was then turned into a technologically better PC platformer called Commander Keen. Now this demo has been found on a floppy disk and is safe at the Strong National Museum of Play in New York. Indiana Jones would be proud.
Before the birth of id Software in 1991, co-founder John Romero had worked as a developer since 1980. Working on a range of projects for himself and with different studios, John and co-founders Adrian Carmack, John Carmack, and Tom Hall had been working together after hours creating games under the name “Ideas from the Deep” (IFD). Dos game enthusiasts have long been aware of the Super Mario Bros. 3 PC demo but it has not been publicly available, only shown by John Romero when he celebrated 25 years of id Software.
Romero states in the video description: “This is a demo of IFD’s (soon to be id Software) Super Mario 3 demo created for Nintendo on the PC. The demo was completed on September 28, 1990. We worked on this demo for a week, after work, and on the weekend all two days. It was all from scratch, except we used the scrolling code from the Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement demo made a couple days before we started on this.”
“We sent this demo to Nintendo of America, they in turn sent it to Kyoto to the mothership office, and the execs there saw the demo and were really impressed. However, they didn’t want their intellectual property on anything but their own hardware, so they told us Good Job and You Can’t Do This.”
“So, we immediately started work on the first Commander Keen trilogy, Invasion of the Vorticons at the end of September. Two and a half months later and we shipped it on December 14, 1990.”
In an interview with Ars Technica, Strong National Museum of Play Digital Games Curator Andrew Borman shared the important stepping stone the Super Mario Bros. 3 PC port provided for the team working on it. “When looking at PC games of the era, there really weren’t titles with the smooth scrolling seen in Nintendo’s hits.” The development of the SMB3 PC port taught the future id Software team members how to create smooth screen scrolling on PC which was an issue for previous platformer games like Dangerous Dave that stuttered and loaded the whole next screen as opposed to the smooth directional transitions we know today. This skill was used to full effect, and can be seen in the id software hit PC game series Commander Keen.
“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.”
There are no current plans to exhibit the game to the public in the museum, however Borman said that “there are plenty of opportunities to come in the future.” The Strong National Museum of Play will also ensure that this piece of history will be accessible to future generations of gaming historians and the demo will be available upon request to researchers and other parties with a relevant interest.
It’s one thing to look back at my DOS gaming nostalgia, but it’s even cooler when we learn how the game developers learned new techniques on the fly. Dangerous Dave and Commander Keen were the first platformers I ever played on PC, though my young mind at the time wouldn’t have noticed how they functioned and performed differently. Now at almost 40-years old, I gain more admiration for developers in that 80’s/90’s era of PC gaming as I look back at the history of these games and the innovations that were creating. It’s fascinating and I’m glad more of this gaming history like this Super Mario Bros 3 PC demo is being preserved so I can not only tell my kids about them but show them too.
Written by: @ChrisJInglis