Super Mario Bros. Special is, on the surface, a port of the original classic. However, while it may look similar, this is a completely redesigned game that plays very differently from its NES brother. The most significant difference is that it features none of the original levels; the eight worlds featured are all unique to this release, and have a high level of difficulty surpassing even Super Mario Bros. 2. Also unlike the original game, the screen does not scroll. Rather, when Mario reaches the end of the screen, he emerges on the left side of the next screen.
The game features a number of enemies and power-ups not found in the original game. Many of the enemies from Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. return, and powerups include the hammer from Donkey Kong, as well as a time bonus item and a wing that lets Mario swim through the air. The game, however, does not include Mario's twin brother Luigi nor any two-player option.