Retrospection: Super Mario Bros. 3
There is often quite a contention among early Mario fans over what the greatest of the classic titles is. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World tend to be held in somewhat equal esteem among players, and carelessly asking a group of people to choose one can lead to a lot of broken jaws and smashed beer bottles. For the purposes of Retrospection, though, I’m going to be taking a look at the elder Mario title; what makes it unique, what makes it influential, and its legacy in the series to this day.
On that last point, it’s clear that I’m not the only one who’s spent a lot of time looking back at Super Mario Bros. 3 in recent times. Interestingly enough, I’m of the opinion that Nintendo has been following Mario 3’s cues in its recent side-scrolling Mario titles more so than any other previous game. Think about it: the world maps nowadays are extremely similar, with usable items on the map, fortresses, airship levels, minigame huts that produce items, and various branching paths that enable shortcuts around the worlds. All of these things are straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3, not World, and it’s interesting to see the ways in which Nintendo is taking cues from itself in some ways and not others.
So what is it about Super Mario Bros. 3 that sticks with both players and developers? For starters, it represents the perfection of the NES Mario formula in every way. It’s a pure level based progression like earlier titles in the series, but there’s an element of non-linearity and randomness thrown into the mix, with branching paths available in a new world map format not seen previously in the series. The game hadn’t quite treaded into the far end of that territory seen in World’s multiple exits, bizarre ghost houses, and hidden switch palaces, but it started moving that way in 3.
On top of that, it’s the first game in the series to really embrace the idea of multiple insane powerups being key to success in the various worlds. So many classic powerups came from this game; the Tanooki suit, the raccoon ears, the frog suit, the Kuribo’s shoe, the Hammer bros suit, etc. All of them are pretty rare and extremely potent, and it really pioneered the concept of wanting some powerups more than others in a series that, up to that point, had only featured a linear progression from tiny Mario to fire Mario.
But what really stood out to me as something that echoed into the current run of Mario games is the angle of the presentation of the experience in Super Mario Bros. 3. The entire thing is put on as some sort of stage show, essentially; the game opens with a curtain rising, the elements of the stages are often depicted as being bolted down or hung from strings, and when he finishes a level, Mario literally exits stage left. There’s an element of performance here that makes the whole experience feel fun and magical, like a play being put on for the player. There isn’t a shred of hostility in the Super Mario Bros 3 experience, despite the difficulty of some of the later levels; this is a game about having fun, and the characters on screen are having just as much fun as you are in the experience.
This really carried over into the New Super Mario Bros series, where each level ends with what may as well be a curtain call and a bow from Mario and his friends. The whole dressing of the game experience of Super Mario Bros 3 makes it feel like an amazing show and not a hostile challenge, and it really contributes to the pure, simple fun that the Mario series has always represented to me. Mario is like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny: timeless, happy, and simple.
The level design here is far from simple, however. The amount of sheer variety from level to level is staggering; Nintendo managed to create a platformer where every world feels extremely different from the previous one, and every level within those worlds internally feels thematically unified while being incredibly mechanically diverse. In World 3 I go from underwater levels to underground levels to levels where the floor is gone and replaced with a current of carnivorous fish, but it all feels tropical and aquatic. The experiences never feel the same, from the basic platforming to the rushed, moving levels, and to the tricky, deceptive fortresses and hectic flying airships. Mario is a series forever dedicated to combining the old and the new, both externally and internally.
I think Nintendo is justified in taking cues from Mario 3 in the presentation of its sidescrollers and the freedom of Mario World in the nonlitearity of its more open ended 3D games, then. It’s extremely difficult to consider Mario 3 as anything but a master class in how to design a 2D platforming game, and I advise anyone who’s thinking about it to take the plunge again and hop up onstage. Put on your jumping shoes, get your raccoon ears fitted, and ignore the temptation of the warp whistles, because there are a ton of game design lessons here, and understanding Nintendo’s past is rapidly proving to be the key to appreciating Nintendo’s future.
Super Mario Bros. 3 can be found on any of Nintendo’s Virtual Console storefronts, be it Wii, 3DS, or Wii U.