Over the last decade we’ve seen huge advances in technology across a wide spectrum of fields. From VCRs and camcorders to portable music players and CDs, the ‘80s ended with more sophisticated gadgets and toys than ever before. Most of that is thanks to the power of the chip – the little microprocessors that power everything from calculators to computers. These have rapidly transformed the video and computer gaming markets as well, giving us more detailed graphics, addicting soundtracks, complex gameplay, and adventures we only dreamed about just a few short years ago. Even the motion picture industry has been blessed with jaw dropping special effects like those seen in Star Wars and The Abyss.
Perhaps what has lacked in the video game industry is a singular piece of software that combines all of the technical know-how and imagination to create a truly stunning experience that players of all ages will enjoy. Sure, we’ve had run-ins with hit games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders – both helped propel the arcade scene to stardom ten years ago. And we’ve had some truly outrageously entertaining home games as well; more recent entries such as The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. spring to mind. But what is the home video game equivalent of E.T. – a cultural zeitgeist moment that saw millions of people line up at the box office? We almost had that with 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II, but I’d argue it wasn’t that the games were so amazing (although they’re both great), but rather that the chip shortage craze just fed upon itself making both of them highly desirable gifts for that holiday season. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had several NES games earn perfect 10 overall scores and each one deserved it. However, it wasn’t until I played (and played and then played some more) Super Mario Bros. 3 that I came to the realization that this is the one. This is the video game that will go down in history as THE must-have experience on the NES – heck – anywhere! People will buy the Nintendo just to play this single title. It’s seriously that good.
Most sequels have a sort of “been there done that” feeling to them. That’s mostly because the developers already have a template of which to draw from. The outline, so to speak, is already in place and all they have to do is improve upon the formula. One could argue that’s exactly what Nintendo has done with Super Mario Bros. 3. The thing is, it’s not easy to improve upon perfection, no matter the medium. After all, how many movie sequels are better than the originals? Some surely exist (I’m looking at you Empire Strikes Back), but it’s somewhat of a rarity. For the third game in the series, Mr. Miyamoto and team went back to the first Super Mario Bros. game and took everything that made that game legendary (controls, graphics, music, sense of progression, and tons of secrets to discover – among other things), and shot for the moon. Not only did they succeed, but they’ve managed to create the most entertaining game I’ve ever played (and I’ve played a lot).
At first glance you’ll notice tons of improvements to the graphics. The first game came out back in 1985 and the sequel in 1988, so they’ve had time to use new technology to really show off what the NES is capable of. Indeed, inside the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Pak is a new chip that gives the game a bit more kick. Things like diagonal scrolling of the playfield and splitting the screen into two parts are now standard. The colors are more vibrant, the characters are bigger and more detailed, and the worlds are more varied. More might be the apt adjective to describe the entire game. There are more levels than ever before, more enemy variety, more power-ups, more secrets, more challenge, more bonus games, and more fun to be had. There’s so much innovation packed in that it will be near impossible to include everything in this review. But, that’s not going to stop me from trying.
Making its triumphant return is a two-player mode, which was missing in Super Mario Bros. 2. Now, those of you who have played the original Super Mario Bros. (and I’m sure all of you have) will recall that player one controlled Mario and player two was Luigi. The same is true here, but with one notable change (and it’s an extraordinarily good one). The first game allowed a single player to keep playing courses until he or she died. Only then did the other player get a chance to play. This resulted in very lopsided play sessions where an expert player might get to play for tens of minutes at a time and the other would get to play for a minute or two before dying. Thus boredom would often set in for the less experienced. The designers solved this glaring issue by alternating turns after every level beaten or every life lost. So, even if you’re the best gamer ever to live you only get to conquer one course and then it’s the other player’s chance to shine. This is a small but genius move and makes taking turns a fun experience. The only thing better would be to allow for simultaneous play, but alas we’re not quite there yet. One other minor detail is that this is truly a cooperative experience – so each player contributes to the progression throughout the game by completing levels. You feel a sense of accomplishment together instead of being walled off in your own play session.
Another really cool aspect of Super Mario Bros. 3 is that it manages to feel so much grander in every way. For starters, the game is broken up into 8 different worlds and each one has a theme. You begin on an overworld map that allows you to move along a path and even select some courses out of order. There are branching paths and different ways to explore. Once a level is beaten the tile flips over to show an M or an L (Mario or Luigi) so you can keep track of who is pulling their weight. Interestingly enough if one of you loses all of your lives all of the courses that person has beat will flip back over and need to be beaten again to proceed! In addition to the numbered courses there are plenty of other things to find on the map screen. You’ll see Toad Houses scattered about that will allow you go in and pick a treasure, adding a power-up to your inventory screen. Other special spots include mini-games that can be played to try to win extra lives or more items. You’ll see a mini-castle and a main castle in each world that contain bosses that must be defeated to proceed. Oh, I should probably mention that your end goal is to once again rescue the Princess as well as the Kings of each realm, who have been turned into various animals. Story means very little in games like this, but it’s nice that it has some sort of narrative throughout.
As you progress through the game you’ll come across various worlds that contain levels that match its theme. The first world is the standard grass world, filled with green rolling hills and slopes (that you can even slide down on your butt to take out enemies). The second land is a desert world that will have you battling all sorts of new enemies and this is where the difficulty starts to pick up. You’ll even have to fight some Hammer Brothers that trot about the map. It’s here that I came across my first big “aha!” secret that I won’t reveal in this review, but let’s just say you should explore the world’s map thoroughly! I also won’t ruin the rest of the worlds for you, but most magazines probably will. So be careful! I do want to point out that there is one land where the enemies have grown in size and dwarf even Super Mario and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a video game.
As mentioned this game is filled to the brim with secrets – more than any other game I’ve ever played. There are seemingly random events where things will pop up on the map screen for you to explore. In each stage you’ll find all sorts of secret areas, pipes that take you to different spots, and plenty of invisible blocks and 1-Ups to collect. To uncover them all you’ll have to master Mario’s new moves and powers. Nintendo really nailed the controls and never have you ever played a Mario game that feels this responsive and fun. You have your requisite run and jump buttons, but now he can turn in mid-air and land pretty much anywhere you want him to. He can also jump on Koopa Troopas and then pick up their shells to kick them at other enemies or blocks, which can cause a chain reaction revealing more secrets.
But perhaps the biggest and most fun addition comes when you take to the sky. That’s right, Mario can fly in this game and it’s so amazingly cool! In order to fully explore the levels you’ll need to have the raccoon tail equipped, which you get by finding a leaf power-up. Once you have this you need a small section of land to gain speed and lift off the ground. In the air you can discover hidden platforms, coins, pipes, and more. You only have a few seconds of airtime before Mario has to begin his descent, so you’ll want to be quick about it. By adding this sort of verticality to each course there are more ways to explore than ever before. Mario’s raccoon tail also comes in handy as a weapon – simply hit the B button to spin around and flick annoying enemies away with a swipe of his tail. You can also break bricks and glide down from a jump with this handy new appendage. Obviously if you get hit from an enemy you’ll lose this awesome power, so be careful!
Raccoon Mario is just one of the many new suits at your disposal. There’s Frog Mario that gives him greater control when swimming. You can also jump higher on the main land, but his small hops make it difficult to get around normal levels. Fire Mario makes a return so you can zap away enemies by throwing fireballs across the screen. The Tanooki suit has the same functions as the raccoon one, except Mario can also briefly transform into a stone statue, making him invincible from hazards for a moment. But my favorite of the bunch is Hammer Bros. Mario, which allows you to throw hammers at enemies! You can finally take on the role of those annoying enemies and use their weapons against them. Oh, and when you duck down you basically turn into a beetle, with a hard shell that can protect against things like fireballs.
Variety is king in Super Mario Bros. 3 and that’s true of the level design and environments you’ll encounter. Each two courses are never quite the same. Some will give you total control of moving around, whereas others will auto-scroll, forcing you to make tricky jumps and keep up with the action. Some move left to right, others right to left, and some even scroll diagonally or up and down. Each world harbors select levels that are truly unique to that zone that will stick with you long after the game has been shut off. These one-offs are impressive because it shows that Nintendo was fine with taking a new gameplay mechanic and letting it shine for a brief moment – making those levels all the more remarkable in the process. In one instance you’ll have to avoid an angry sun to survive. In another you can hop inside a wind-up toy shoe to access areas of the level you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Tons of small details come together to form a massively cohesive game that is itching to have players experience every nook and cranny. Yes, there are Warp Zones in this game. No, you shouldn’t use them. At least not until you’ve played each level at least once!
Just like with every other aspect of the game, the soundtrack received some special attention. Each piece is fantastic, and that’s even more impressive because of the sheer number of musical numbers packed into the game. If you recall, the original game only had like four tracks. The sequel didn’t have much more and most of them repeated after several seconds. For the third outing the composer really hit it out of the park by including eight different world map songs, two overworld tracks, an underground remix track (a homage to the first game), underwater music, a castle score, airship music (oh yeah, there are now airships!), and more. All of it sounds lovely and while it’s not my absolute favorite soundtrack thus far on the NES (Mega Man 2 says hello), it’s better than any other Mario game.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is simply the best video game I’ve ever played on any video game system or arcade machine. The amount of surprises and wonder never ceases to amaze me and the sense of discovery is absolutely unrivaled. Just like the original game convinced millions of customers to buy a Nintendo, this tremendous sequel will no doubt convince millions more. Although competition has never been stiffer with more powerful16-bit machines vying for gamers’ attention, Nintendo has shown that it’s the quality of the software that matters most and this single game should stave off the looming threat of the Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 for a long time to come.
Super Mario Bros. 3 Review
- Graphics - 10/1010/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 10/1010/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: OUTSTANDING
With extraordinary level design, hundreds of secrets to discover, beautiful worlds to explore, and a huge variety of gameplay mechanics, Super Mario Bros. 3 delivers an outstanding experience that is the crown jewel in the NES library of games. Nintendo has truly outdone themselves and it’s the players that are richly rewarded.