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Marios early levels wear out their welcome in Super Mario Bros. 35

EnlargeAurich Lawson / Nintendo
Back in 2018, at the dawn of the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds..



EnlargeAurich Lawson / Nintendo

Back in 2018, at the dawn of the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds phenomenon, designer Brendan Greene told Ars Technica that he thought every genre—not just shooters—could potentially benefit from sampling the last-man-standing concept of the battle royale genre. Since then, games like Tetris 99 and Fall Guys have proven how flexible and robust that idea can be across the industry.

Super Mario Bros. 35 (available for free today through March 2021 as part of a Nintendo Switch Online subscription) should be a welcome addition to that collection, mixing the time-tested gameplay of the Mario series with the endless competition of the battle royale genre. Unfortunately, some odd design decisions have made my first day with the game a repetitive, overly simplistic mess, and it doesn't feel like the game will have much staying power.

All hail the Fire Flower

Here are the basics: Super Mario Bros. 35 looks a lot more like Tetris 99 than it does PUBG or Fortnite. (No, 99 Marios aren't dropping from a Koopa airship to find a single Princess Peach.) You and 34 online competitors get your own self-contained instance of levels from the original Super Mario Bros., and everyone plays the classic game simultaneously in isolation, as opposed to 35 Marios jumping around the same playfield. (You can see everyone else's progress in tiny preview windows around the screen, and you'll recognize when they're underground or in a dungeon while you're elsewhere).

The name of the game is surviving as long as possible, and that survival is made more difficult here by a strict timer that starts at just 45 seconds. The primary way to earn more time is to kill enemies, which can add anywhere from one to five seconds to your personal timer for each kill. Killing an enemy also sends a copy of that same enemy a few screens down on an opponent's current board, a competitive move somewhat akin to the "garbage blocks" you can send opponents in Tetris 99.

On paper, this seems like it would be a great system for the sort of risk-versus-reward, push-and-pull needed for a good battle royale competition system. In practice, though, those extra enemies (shown in gray on your screen) are not quite the existential threat the game wants them to be.

  • The "Special Battle" takes you through a set run of levels with a new starting item/timer. Nintendo
  • Just sitting here, dreaming of Level 1-1 Nintendo
  • Those extra Goombas trapped in their own alleys are… not very threatening Nintendo
  • Bowser is not much of a threat trapped up there. Nintendo
  • The enemies trawling the sea floor here are not very threatening—are you sensing a pattern here? Nintendo
  • Don't mind me, just mowing down a bunch of enemies with a Fire Flower… Nintendo

Part of this is because the placement of those enemies is altogether random; Goombas will often appear in a location where they harmlessly walk off a cliff seconds after appearing, Koopa Troopas will harmlessly trawl the ocean floor in a water level, etc. Mostly, though, I found it way too easy to mow down entire lines of "garbage" enemies with a Fire Flower.

Squishy controls

When compared directly to the official, Nintendo-emulated Super Mario Bros. on the same system, your character in Super Mario Bros. 35 feel just a tad slower to respond to inputs. This may require some adjustment of your long-honed Mario muscle memory—Ars' Sam Machkovech found it nearly impossible to make simple jumps at first.

There are a few other small gameplay differences here: Mario can bounce much higher off of enemies than in the original Super Mario Bros., for instance.

The Fire Flower simply feels overpowered in Super Mario Bros. 35, letting you dispatch dozens of extra enemies just by standing still for a few seconds and tapping the Y button repeatedly. Everything from Goombas and Koopa Troopas to Hammer Bros. and even Bowser himself can almost always be defeated with ease and from afar through a flurry of fireballs. Floating Bloopers and Cheep Cheeps can be a little tougher to avoid thanks to more complex movement through the air, but they have shown up more rarely so far (and fireproof Buzzy Beetles haven't shown up at all).

Being able to clear extra enemies so easily means that it's harder for those enemies to take away your Fire Flower in the first place. If you do get hit, though, additional power ups aren't too hard to find in the game's endlessly repeated early levels (more on that in a bit).

Even if a power-up isn't handy, you can tap X to spend 20 earned coins and get a random item. A quarter of the time this will get you back to your overpowered, Fire Flowered state. The rest of the time you'll get a Mushroom, Starman, or screen-clearing POW block, all useful enough in their own right (getting a Mushroom or Fire Flower when you don't need that upgrade grants you extra time as well).

I hope you like Level 1-1

To be fair, there are still a few threats a Fire Flower can't help with. Bottomless pits are still a risk, and one missed jump can end a run instantly. Firebars and Podoboos in the odd castle stage also need to be managed with good timing.

But even these threats have been few and far between in my first few hours with Super Mario Bros. 35. That's because those threats aren't especially present in the game's first two levels (aka 1-1 and 1-2), which I have played over and over and over again this morning.

Progression from level to level in a Super Mario Bros. 35 match doesn't go in the same sequence as in the original game. Instead, as far as I can tell, everyone chooses a level at the start of the match and then the game shuffles through those chosen levels randomly in the same order for each player.

  • After hours of play, I only had these levels unlocked. Nintendo
  • Wow, what an amazing selection of level options in the Warp Zone… Nintendo
  • I hope you like Level 1-1, because you'll be seeing it a LOT. Nintendo
  • Oh boy, the start of Level 1-2… again… Nintendo

The main problem with this, at the outset, is that every new Super Mario Bros. 35 player only starts with a single selectable level unlocked: Level 1-1. Players can unlock additional level selections as they play, but it's not exactly clear how. After nearly three hours of high-level play this morning, advancing my account to "level 34," I've only unlocked the first 10 of the game's 32 levels for selection.

For now, in practice, this means the level selection is overwhelmingly weighted towards the game's first two levels. In my play this morning, I completed Level 1-1 41 times and Level 1-2 23 times, according to the in-game count. I've completed all other levels (from a selection of eight distinct levels) a combined total of 46 times, meaning over 58 percent of my gameplay has been made up of those first two levels.

To give you some idea how ridiculous this can get, here's my level sequence from a recent match:: 1-1, 1-2, 1-1, 1-2, 1-1, 1-4, 1-1, 2-2, 1-2 (finish).

Don't get me wrong, these first two levels are classics of game design, a testament to the Mario series. But unless you're a pro-level speedrunner, they're not compelling enough to play dozens of times over a matter of hours. Theoretically, the addition of new enemies sent by opponents would mix things up, but as long as you have a Fire Flower, it's still way too easy to blaze through the levels just as you have every previous time.

Maybe the level selection will expand more as the days and weeks go on and as either Nintendo or other players unlock more levels. For now, though, this constant level repetition makes a horribly dull first impression.

Im just too good

I guess this is the point where I brag about how good I am at Super Mario Bros. 35. Over 15 total matches I played this morning, I have finished in first place five times and in the "top five" 14 times. Considering that I got my start in this industry running a Mario fansite over 20 years ago, maybe this doesn't make me a representative judge of the game's appeal for more casual players.

But it does make me well-equipped to evaluate the "late game" experience of fighting with one or two other players for that coveted top spot (which earns plenty of bonus coins and experience points to unlock new multiplayer icons). And I can tell you that these late-game matches quickly begin to feel interminable.

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Google suspends ‘free speech’ app Parler




Google has suspended “free speech” social network Parler from its Play Store over its failure to remove “egregious content”.

Parler styles itself as “unbiased” social media and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter.

But Google said the app had failed to remove posts inciting violence.

Apple has also warned Parler it will remove the app from its App Store if it does not comply with its content-moderation requirements.

On Parler, the app’s chief executive John Matze said: “We won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech!”

Launched in 2018, Parler has proved particularly popular among supporters of US President Donald Trump and right-wing conservatives. Such groups have frequently accused Twitter and Facebook of unfairly censoring their views.

While Mr Trump himself is not a user, the platform already features several high-profile contributors following earlier bursts of growth in 2020.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz boasts 4.9 million followers on the platform, while Fox News host Sean Hannity has about seven million.

It briefly became the most-downloaded app in the United States after the US election, following a clampdown on the spread of election misinformation by Twitter and Facebook.

However, both Apple and Google have said the app fails to comply with content-moderation requirements.

Analysis: Necessary or draconian action?

By Shayan Sardarizadeh, BBC Monitoring

For months, Parler has been one of the most popular social media platforms for right-wing users.

As major platforms began taking action against viral conspiracy theories, disinformation and the harassment of election workers and officials in the aftermath of the US presidential vote, the app became more popular with elements of the fringe far-right.

This turned the network into a right-wing echo chamber, almost entirely populated by users fixated on revealing examples of election fraud and posting messages in support of attempts to overturn the election outcome.

In the days preceding the Capitol riots, the tone of discussion on the app became significantly more violent, with some users openly discussing ways to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by Congress.

Unsubstantiated allegations and defamatory claims against a number of senior US figures such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Vice-President Mike Pence were rife on the app.

Google and Apple say they are taking necessary action to ensure violent rhetoric is not promoted on their platforms.

However, to those increasingly concerned about freedom of speech and expression on online platforms, it represents another example of draconian action by major tech companies which threatens internet freedom.

This is a debate which is certain to continue beyond the Trump presidency.

In a statement, Google confirmed it had suspended Parler from its Play Store, saying: “Our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence.

“In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”

Apple has warned Parler it will be removed from the App Store on Saturday in a letter published by Buzzfeed News.

It said it had seen “accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate” the attacks on the US Capitol on 6 January.

Mr Matze said Parler had “no way to organise anything” and pointed out that Facebook groups and events had been used to organise action.

But Apple said: “Our investigation has found that Parler is not effectively moderating and removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users in direct violation of your own terms of service.”

“We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.”

In a related development, Google has kicked Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast off YouTube, saying it had repeatedly violated the platform’s rules.

The ex-White House aide’s channel had more than 300,000 subscribers.

“In accordance with our strikes system, we have terminated Steve Bannon’s channel ‘War room’ and one associated channel for repeatedly violating our Community Guidelines,” Google said in a statement.

“Any channel posting new videos with misleading content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election in violation of our policies will receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or live-streaming. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from YouTube.”

The action was taken shortly after the channel posted an interview with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in which he blamed the Democrats for the rioting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

One anti-misinformation group said the action was long overdue after “months of Steve Bannon calling for revolution and violence”.

“The truth is YouTube should have taken down Steve Bannon’s account a long time ago and they shouldn’t rely on the labour of extremism researchers to moderate the content on their platform,” said Madeline Peltz, Senior Researcher at Media Matters for America.

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20 years of tech with Jeff: From green iMacs and DVDs to the iPhone era




When I started covering technology here two decades ago, I didn’t own a cellphone, nor did my company deem it in their interests to buy me one.

My tenure at USA TODAY pre-dates text messages, soundbars, talking speakers, QR codes, video chat, Uber, DoorDash, Zoom calls, YouTube, Wi-Fi, affordable flat-screen TVs….you get the idea.

So many changes in such a short period of time! This is my last column for USA TODAY as your Talking Tech columnist. Let’s say goodbye by celebrating how far we’ve come through the years.

My stint started in 2000 – I began at USA TODAY earlier, covering entertainment – at a time when we spent a lot of time talking about the big three tech companies: AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. AOL had just shocked the world by buying Time Warner for $165 billion. (You know how well that turned out. But I digress.)

We did use computers, yes indeed, mostly desktops, and they were Windows machines with black-and-white monitors. We weren’t online; we went online, with a phone line attached to our computers. You know, the type we used on our landlines. Remember them?

Apple back then had less than 3% market share. It wouldn’t start its evolution into the world’s most valuable $2 trillion company until 2001, when it introduced the iPod MP3 music player and helped bring digital music to the masses. This is after the short-lived Napster popularized MP3s by showing how easy it was to copy licensed music. In 2003, the iPod shifted into a mainstream product when CEO Steve Jobs (who rejoined the company in 1997) opened it up to be used on Windows computers with the iTunes music store, the first easy to use, legitimate avenue for buying music, back then at 99 cents a song. Streaming and the celestial jukebox was a far off dream.

We started Talking Tech in 2006 as a weekly, ahead-of-its-time video series, produced bicoastally on two webcams. The first episode – with my former partner, Edward C. Baig – was a review of the Flip Video camera. Remember that one, kids?

By 2010, Flip was soon to be gone, as Apple introduced the iPhone 4, the first iPhone with a decent camera. Kodak became a memory, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and other mainstays of the camera business saw their sales tumble, as people preferred the camera that was in their pocket, their phone.

But I have to admit, I never foresaw just how great the smartphone cams would become. I always loved using them, but there was a stigma to “cellphone video.” Now we can shoot 4K video that looks nearly as good as what you get from a traditional camera, mostly due to computational photography tricks. But I’m not complaining. Have you seen my iPhone sunsets?

Then there’s Google and Facebook.

It was in 2000 that Yahoo handed over its search keys to a scrappy startup that said it had a method for more effective online searches. From there, we got Google stepping out onto its own in 2003 by sending people to its website and popularizing the verb, “Google It.” We got Google Maps (remember life without it?), Gmail (free e-mail without being tied to our internet provider), Google Translate, Google Photos and so many other features that I don’t think we could live without today.

That’s the good side.

There’s also Google tracking our every move, in order to put personalized ads in front of us everywhere we go, and saying goodbye to our privacy. Google will claim that much of the privacy invasion is “opt-in” and that we agreed to it when we signed up for services. But who remembers doing that?

Facebook took the snooping to an even greater level. But today’s column is about celebrating tech. So let’s bypass the misinformation and online rage that erupted from the social network and instead just give props to a site that reconnected some 2 billion people with old friends and family. I announced my pending exit on my newsletter, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know where I got the lion’s share of responses? Facebook, hands down.

Amazon. Who believed you could order anything you ever wanted with one click, and have it arrive the next day? By 2001 Amazon had announced its first profit, but it was more recently that we saw Amazon really showcase what was it was to become, by acquiring Whole Foods and launching Amazon Fresh, the supermarket with a radical cart that automatically tallied up your purchases, launching the smart speaker craze with Echo and Alexa and being a dominant force in streaming with Fire TV.

But Amazon missed out on phones. Google got in early, in 2008, with the Android operating system, which it grew by giving it away for free to companies like Samsung, LG and Huawei. That business model would enable Android to claim a whopping 85% market share, where it’s featured on so many low-cost phones.

If I had to pick the most influential tech device of my generation, there’s no hesitation. It’s the iPhone, hands down, even bigger than the VCR or the personal computer.

Because the iPhone (and other smartphone brands to follow) put the computer into our pockets, untethered and presented in a easy, intuitive way that appealed to the masses. Listen to music, answer the phone, watch TV, surf the net, all on one device. One in which we can also monitor our daily steps, show us how to get around and take amazing photos. (Again, those sunsets!)

I love my laptop, but it didn’t change my life.

So what of the future?

In 2016, I did a column quoting analysts saying that the smartphone as we know it, would cease and morph into some form of eyewear within the next few years. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now.

Having stuff flying in front of your eyes as you walk down the street is a distraction. (Take that, Google Glass.) We watched screens in the 1950s. We’re going to be looking at screens in the 2020s and 2030s.

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Are you willing to pay for email? How about podcasts? Here are our tech predictions for 2021




It’s that time of year when we make predictions about what to see from technology in 2021.

We already know we’re good for new iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, new smart speakers from Amazon and beautiful new smart TV sets that will have higher resolution than ever before – at a lower cost.

So let’s offer up some tech predictions about what else we’ll see, or just might.

Let’s start with a given:

You’ll be paying for email in 2021

The world’s most popular email program Gmail, is owned by Google, which has decided to follow in Apple’s footsteps by getting more people hooked on monthly subscriptions. (Apple’s Services – which includes Apple Music, News and iCloud – is now its second-highest revenue generator, above Macs, iPads and Apple Watches.)

As of June 1, Google will no longer allow users to upload their photos and videos to Google Photos for free. Google offers 15 GBs of free storage for photos, but that also includes Gmail and Google Drive backup. The ask is that you pay for storage, which starts at $1.99 a month – but for just 100 GB of storage.

I don’t know about you, but my Gmail is 41 GBs worth now, I have 15 GBs worth of photos in Google Photos and 1.7 TBs on Google Drive.

Sure, I can clear out Google Drive, but the thing is, my email is a living, growing thing that is just not going to get smaller, no matter how hard I try to clean it up. It grows every day. So if you like your Gmail, get used to it – you might be paying.

Microsoft and Yahoo still offer free email, but they’re littered with ads, and you’re encouraged to step up to the “premium” versions, which starts at $5 and $3.49 a month, respectively, to go ad-free. Yahoo is eliminating the ability to automatically forward emails from Yahoo Mail beginning next week, unless you spend $34.99 a year for the service.

Big tech won’t find the new administration any friendlier

Facebook and Google’s woes in Washington, D.C., won’t change with a new Biden administration, we believe. The companies will continue to be hauled into Washington to defend against being broken up. President-elect Joe Biden has complained to the social network many times about all the disinformation coming out about him on Facebook, and the company declined to act. That certainly isn’t likely to play well in the Biden years.

The streaming wars will lose a big player

Many new streaming networks launched in 2020, most notably HBO Max and Peacock, and many more are on the horizon for 2021, including Paramount Plus and Discovery +, but at least one of the new networks will go down. Or so says my USA TODAY colleague Brett Molina, who puts Paramount Plus as the most likely victim.

Paramount Plus is the soon-to-be new name for what was CBS All-Access, with the addition of movies from the Paramount Pictures library and TV shows from the Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon) vault. “There’s just too many of them,” Molina says. “I can’t see it lasting.” (You will see many more first-run films on streaming channels in 2021, as Warner Media has announced its entire slate for HBO Max and Disney + has first-run fare scheduled as well.)

5G won’t get any better until late 2021

The launch of new phones with access to the supposedly faster wireless speed of 5G, and the wireless carriers’ breathless hype about speed left many consumers scratching their heads. The promised speeds were no faster than 4G. One day 5G will live up to the hype, but not until late 2021, believes Gene Munster, an analyst and investor with Loup Ventures. For real progress, we’ll have to wait for 2022.

Local retailers will find a way to compete with Amazon

It’s an aspirational wish, but “someone will solve the need and find a way to fill it,” says Kieran Hannon, the chief marketing officer for OpenPath, a company that offers next generation office entry technology. He believes a service will be developed to help local retailers compete with the Amazons of the world by letting customers order from a direct website serving locals and have products delivered to them at home, thus keeping sales in the neighborhood.

Zoom and video meetings will only get bigger

Business travel may start to come back from the dead in the second half of 2021, but all the companies that saved money from the trips won’t likely be as eager to send staffers traipsing around the country when meetings can be done cheaper and more efficiently via video.

Students will one day return to the classrooms, but company meetings, seminars, webinars and the like will likely continue. No need to return those ring lights to improve your appearance yet.

Speaking of Zoom, a possible acquisition?

The video networks is one hot property that saw its usage numbers climb from 10 million to 300 million amid the pandemic, making it one prime acquisition target. Who better to buy Zoom than Amazon?

The companies already work together, with Amazon Web Services providing the server backbone for all those Zoom meetings. Unlike Google, Apple and Facebook, which have their own well-established video networks (Google Meet, FaceTime and Messenger), Amazon doesn’t have one.

So with Zoom in the company, and all those meeting minutes (about 2 trillion in April alone,) what an attractive target that would make for Amazon to remind us to use Alexa and buy more stuff, right?

Pay for podcasts?

Finally, Munster from Loup Ventures believes Apple will follow its smash success with the Services division by introducing a new way for podcasters to make money on their shows by charging admission. He sees a “Podcast +” that sees everyone’s favorite audio shows (like Talking Tech) added to the Apple One bundle with Apple Music. “Good news for podcasters, who may see Apple as another avenue to monetize their listener base.”

We love it.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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