RETRO REVIEW: Super Mario Bros. 3

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Super Mario Bros. 3 | oprainfall
Title Super Mario Bros. 3
Developer Nintendo
Publisher Nintendo
Release Date JP: October 23, 1988
NA: February 9, 1990
EU/AUS: August 29, 1991
Genre Platformer
Platform NES, Wii, 3DS, Wii U
Age Rating ESRB: E

Super Mario Bros. 3 is widely considered to be one of the best games of all time, not only in the Mario series, but across all of gaming. So, while I’m supposed to come at this from a point where I can explain the game to newcomers, it’s hard to ignore the game’s legacy and even harder to find people who aren’t aware of it. What is it that makes this game such a classic? Why do people put it at the top of the gaming pinnacle and are they right to do so?

On the surface, it’s your basic 2D Mario platformer. You hold B to run, press A to jump and do both to jump farther. There are blocks to break, enemies to stomp, coins to collect, powerups and hidden areas to find. However, there are some slight changes to the formula that make Super Mario Bros. 3 stand out. When playing it for the first time, either now or back when it was released, the first thing you probably notice is that mushrooms can go backwards! This seems like such a trivial change, but being able to control whether a magic mushroom or 1-up heads to the left or right out of the box adds a layer of strategy not normally found in a Mario game. And, while I admit I haven’t played all the Mario platformers, to the best of my knowledge, this mechanic has never returned.

Super Mario Bros. 3 | Mushroom

The first mushroom in World 1-1

Another feature that is unique is the item inventory. You can collect items on the world map, either at a Toad House or playing a card-matching mini-game for a couple examples, and you can carry them with you, leaving you free to use them before beginning a stage.

Next, we have the plot. I know, it’s a Mario game; the plot is that Bowser kidnapped Princess Peach (or Princess Toadstool, as she was known back then) and you have to save her, right? Well, here’s the thing; while that’s technically true, the Princess doesn’t actually get kidnapped until really late in the game. Mario’s mission for most of the game is to track down the seven Koopalings, each of whom has terrorized a particular region by stealing its king’s magic wand and transforming him into some form of creature. Defeating them and recovering the wand will allow you to restore the king to his true form and bring peace to the kingdom. Along your journey, the Princess actually supports you. After beating each world, she sends you a letter with a hint about something you can do in the game. She also encloses an item with each letter, and the ones she gives you are some of the more powerful items in the game.

There are eight worlds in the game, each of which has its own theme. There are grassy plains, a desert, a water world, a land where everything is giant-sized, a sky area, an ice-covered world, a pipe maze and a land in darkness. Each of these worlds has a variety of stages. You have your regular numbered stages that can be either land-based, aerial-based, underwater or underground. There are also fortresses; dungeon-like areas often featuring lava and undead enemies with a mini-boss at the end. Then, there are the wandering Hammer Bros. — a mini-stage where you face off against enemies from the Hammer Bros. family and get an item as a reward for victory — who move around the world map. A number of stages also have unique icons and themes, as opposed to just a number, such as a pyramid, quicksand, a tower, tanks and airships.

Super Mario Bros. 3 | World 1

Of course, just having different features from both its predecessors and successors is a great way to separate itself in the Mario franchise, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a classic. The one aspect that makes Super Mario Bros. 3 really shine is its level design. The brilliance of the level design is so subtle and so insidious that you are initially only aware of it on a subconscious level. When talking about good level design, one game that is brought up a lot is Portal, and how that game slowly introduces the player to the various concepts and mechanics in the game. The same thing is at work here. But everyone notices it in Portal because that game was new and had unfamiliar gameplay. In contrast, this is a Mario game that everyone knows how to play, even if they’ve never played one before. However, the slow introduction is still there.

Take World 1-1 for example. There are blocks in the background that you can walk in front of and if you jump up you can stand on top of them. Immediately, you need to use these to reach the “?” blocks to get the first powerup of the game — as seen in the first image above. A little later you reach a koopa wandering nearby a “?” at ground level, inviting you to stomp on it, and kick its shell to hit the block and get what’s inside. This sounds really simple, and is second-nature to most experienced players, but approaching it from an “I’ve never played this game before” perspective, it’s a mind-blowing revelation. The game is constantly giving you subtle signs of things that can be done, and it pays off when the levels get harder and more complex later on.

This leads into another aspect of the design, and that is how the game handles secret areas. Many levels in the game have hidden spots with coins, powerups, extra lives and other goodies that can be accessed by exploring. However, the game doesn’t just expect you to go find them. There are again subtle hints leading you to these areas. Continuing in the World 1-1 example above, you have a long runway followed by a few coins in the air. Most people will try to jump to get the coins, but the game is giving you a sign that maybe you should follow the coins by flying diagonally upward. Players who do that are rewarded with a 1-up and some more coins. There’s another platform and coins suspended in the air indicating you should fly off the edge to collect them. Continuing to fly in that direction leads you to a pipe extended high in the air, which leads to another secret area.

Super Mario Bros. 3 | Fortress

I wonder if there’s anything up there.

It’s not just in the first stage, though. This pattern is continued throughout the game. Another example is in the Fortress in World 1; there are two powerups close to each other near the beginning of the stage, almost ensuring you will reach the second one as at least Super Mario. This yields a Super Leaf, which gives Mario a raccoon tail and lets him fly. If you noticed the first powerup in the dungeon was a Fire Flower, it may seem odd to you to get something different. Above the “?” block that gives the leaf, is a gap, suggesting that area should be explored. Those who did discovered a Warp Whistle. These subtle nudges are the perfect balance between leaving the secrets out in random places rarely explored and holding the player’s hand through the game. Eventually, the player starts making these connections subconsciously, allowing the game to present more difficult challenges and even more out-of-the-way hidden spots without making the game impossible.

The are a few issues with the game, however, not the least of which is hardware-related. While not terrible, the NES isn’t exactly known for having the smoothest controls, especially when it comes to diagonal movement. Although, this is remedied by the game’s presence on various systems’ Virtual Consoles, as the 3DS and Wii U GamePad are both easier to use. Another hardware issue is the lack of a save feature, and that was troublesome even back then. The original cartridge didn’t have a battery backup, nor did the game implement a password feature. However, this is another problem solved by the digital releases as the Virtual Console gives you the ability to make restore points before quitting. Even the Super Mario All-Stars version for SNES was updated with a save feature.

Super Mario Bros. 3 does supply a wide array of powerups. However, some of my favorite ones show up way too infrequently. The Tanooki Suit doesn’t appear until World 4 and the earliest you can get a Hammer Bros. Suit is in World 6. While I suppose that it makes sense for these items to be rare considering hammers and Tanooki Mario’s statue ability can kill enemies that can’t otherwise be beaten, making them a little overpowered, I would still like the chance to go back and play the earlier levels with those powerups.

Super Mario Bros. 3 | Tanooki Suit Super Mario Bros. 3 | Hammer Bros. Suit

Actually, I’d like the chance to go back and play earlier levels, period. Once you finish a stage, it’s over and cannot be replayed until you either lose all your lives or start a new game. Neither of those should be a problem, though. Unless unfamiliarity with the game and its controls causes lots of death early on, running out of lives is difficult as there are plenty of 1-ups to be found. Replaying the game is well worth your time. While you may not have the exotic powerups to try out, there are other, more traditional items to use on the various levels, and many stages have multiple ways to beat them; stay on the ground, or fly up to secret areas and float across the top of the level, with some levels, such as World 5-2, diverging into two very distinct paths. Each world’s map has some stages that are not necessary to clear to get to the end. If you normally play through all of them, try skipping the unnecessary ones, and vice versa. For an added challenge, try to unlock the White Mushroom House in each world by collecting the required number of coins in the designated level, or try to meet the conditions that change the Wandering Hammer Bros. into a Treasure Ship. Playing through the entire game can take upwards of five to eight hours, but you can shorten that if you use Warp Whistles to skip ahead.

If you’re the type who likes multiplayer, there is a two-player mode in which players swap turns after either completing a level or losing a life, whichever comes first. In a two-player game, you can activate the other player’s current location to launch a mini-game based on the Mario Bros. arcade game. During this game, you have the opportunity to steal away your opponent’s end-stage cards, collecting three of which can give you an extra life, or multiple lives if they match.

Super Mario Bros. 3 | Battle

The graphics are fantastic. The late-NES era sprites are well designed and still look good today. There is some sprite flicker, but that’s to be expected in a game this old. The music is just absolutely amazing and gets held up of some of the best in the franchise, with many tracks considered iconic among fans.

Ultimately, what makes Super Mario Bros. 3 so special is that is so beloved by those who played it. Whether they really understand how great it is, or just associate it with a flood of nostalgia, the fact that it has withstood the test of time with hardly a blemish speaks volumes about the game’s quality. Being lauded as one of the best games in one of the largest and most well-known franchises is not a trivial accomplishment, and not only indicates how great the game was in the past, but has actively influenced the franchise going forward. Super Mario Bros. 3’s popularity, decades after its release, is what led Nintendo to make the New Super Mario Bros. series, turned the Koopalings into recurring characters in the franchise and gave us the return of the Tanooki Suit in Super Mario 3D Land. No matter what your familiarity with the series is, if Super Mario Bros. 3 somehow slipped by you, it is definitely worth playing. It’s considered one of the best games of all time for one simple reason: it is.

Review Score

Review was written using the 3DS Virtual Console version of the game.

Review copy provided by author.

About Eric Chetkauskas

Eric has been playing video games for longer than he can remember. His interests skew toward retro games with an emphasis on Japanese RPGs like Chrono Trigger and the Dragon Quest series.