“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
― Italo Calvino,
In terms of the art of video games, a classic is a game that has never finished saying what it has to say. Its influence has never gone away.
This week, we got our first look at Nintendo Switch, coinciding with the Nintendo Entertainment System turning thirty-one. The NES is now the same age as me again (lucky NES), released in North America on October 18th 1985. The impact of Nintendo Switch remains to be seen, but if it ends up anything like the NES it will change the world.
The NES was a revolutionary system. One which took itself seriously. One which had direction and vision. One which controlled a hoard of quality games. One that rebuilt a decimated industry, breathed new life into the corpse that gaming had become, and became the gold standard and platform for decades of gaming to come. It also gave us a wealth, and I mean wealth, of iconic classics: games that have never and will never cease to be beloved.
This is perhaps nowhere truer than with one of its purest champions, considered widely (and by this author) to be the greatest video game ever: Super Mario Bros. 3. In my view, it is the perfect video game and certainly the best in the entire Nintendo library. Being the third best-selling NES game ever further proves that point.
SMB3 is the ideal sequel. It combined previous platforming precision with new elements of gameplay. These revolutionized the way these games were played. Adding a world map between stages, introducing bigger, complex stages filled with multiple exits and secrets, implementing a new item acquisition system, giving the protagonist the ability to fly… All of these additions add up and the sum is a game that defined the youth of my generation. When we were youths, that is.
I’m sure nearly every one my age has somewhat similar memories of those golden afternoons spent in front of a tube tv, exploring what seemed then like an endless 8-bit world of simple magic. Even people who weren’t gamers and never became gamers were influenced in some way by Super Mario Bros. 3. It remains a family memory.
Super Mario Bros. 3 presented an entire world for the Mushroom Kingdom. Mario and Luigi must rescue Princess Toadstool and save the sovereigns of the Kingdom from the evil wiles of Bowser.
They begin in a grass world, World-1, and advance through multiple stages, dungeons, bonus levels until they reach the castle at the end of each world. Each castle contains a king who has been transformed by some diabolical means, with Toad pleading with you to be the hero. The brothers must then face one of the Koopalings, who are not Bowser’s children by the way, and capture the magic wand to change each king back to normal. Then they advance to the next world, until reaching World-8, where the King of Koopas himself awaits in a tortured land of hell-fire.
Along the way, Mario and Luigi have the chance to grab special items and power-ups in stages, or by entering Mushroom Houses or playing card games. These new, transformative power-ups would prove to be an essential addition to the Mario franchise, indeed to the world of games as a whole. And there seemed to be tons of them.
The familiar Fire Flower for Fire Mario returns from Super Mario Bros., which of course allows Mario to throw fireballs. The Super Star also makes a comeback for invincibility, but making their debut here are new suit-like items. The Frog Suit that transforms Mario into an amphibious swimmer that sucks on land but excels in water stages. The Super Leaf grants Mario that iconic appearance with the raccoon ears and tail, as well as the gift of flight.
Flight pushed level design into a whole new dimension. Raccoon Mario had to have room to get a running start, build up speed and then leap into the big, blue yonder. Even then, he couldn’t fly for forever. Not without the P-Wing, a unique item that allowed Mario to fly indefinitely. By the way, little trivia: the P in P-Wing stands for Paratroopa, the species of winged Koopas which can fly.
For further power-ups, there’s also the rare Hammer Suit. As Hammer Mario, our hero could chuck out an endless stream of hammers, just like his hammer-lobbing enemies, and use his new shell as a shield.
And not to be confused with Raccoon Mario was Tanooki Mario, which saw him lose the overalls for a full-body suit that made him look like a teddy bear with a raccoon’s tail. Tanooki Mario had all the abilities of Raccoon Mario, only now he could turn into a statue as well. As a statue he could transform mid-air and fall on enemies to defeat them, or simply let them pass right by him.
Here’s another little trivia for you. The Tanooki Suit is named for creatures of Japanese folklore, the tanukis. These “raccoon dogs” are real animals that Japan once believed were capable of magical powers. They were mischievous creatures considered to be masters of disguise, supernatural shapeshifters, which explains why Tanooki Mario can transform into a statue to bewilder his enemies. Also, tanukis used leaves almost like a kind of talisman (in the European sense) in their transformations. Spot on with the Super Leaf.
However, Nintendo wisely decided to leave out another aspect of tanuki mythology from the Mario-verse. Tanukis were often depicted in Japanese art as having massive testicles, and they can be seen stretching out their balls to be used as nets, drums, clubs or whatever, or just throwing them over their shoulder. Uhh yeah.
Thanks for that image, folklore. Anyways, Super Mario Bros. 3 shows its true colors right from the first moment that you switched it on. You’re presented with a red curtain, which raises, revealing what appears to be a theatre stage. Correlating design in SMB3 includes the black areas at the end of each stage (“exit stage left” denotes a character leaving the stage normally, exiting to the right would be an exception, a touch of drama). Or there’s the platforms screwed into the sky in the background, and later the platforms suspended from wires above the screen. And the various “suits” themselves are like costumes in a play.
Nintendo told everyone through these elements that what you’re playing is not just a game. It’s a show, a stage play. Super Mario Bros. 3, confirmed by Miyamoto himself, is a performance. It’s a masterpiece, a magnum opus, a work of art to be unveiled moment by moment, with much fun had by its developers and by the audience that gets to enjoy it.
And what a joy it was and remains.
Mark Twain once said a classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.”
There are more people alive today who haven’t played Super Mario Bros. 3 than there were when I was a kid. For some, this may just be a game they wouldn’t play because it’s old. Calling it a “classic” doesn’t do much to convince them because that can sound like a cob-webbed word to throw around pretentiously. Yet I’m convinced it’s more than nostalgia that makes Super Mario Bros. 3 great.
If you have never played this game, my dear friend, you must. You simply must. “Delight” is something a lot of games today lack. You’ll find it in droves here.
“Remember this: classics never make a comeback. They wait for that perfect moment to take the spotlight from overdone, tired trends.”
The 8-bit Review
How close was Super Mario Bros. 3 to being graphically advanced enough to appear on the Super Nintendo? By the looks of it, pretty close. This is easily one of the best looking games of the 8-bit era. It is far more defined than the original Super Mario Bros., and it is more visually detailed than Super Mario Bros. 2.
Its character and personality is evident from Mario’s own increased versatility of movement, from the dancing bushes and trees of the world maps, from the glistening brick-blocks, and from the horde of unique enemies in the armies of Koopa.
This will sound silly, but when I was younger I almost believed this game was alive, that it was a real world. Of course I knew better eventually. But not even the 16-bit update in Super Mario All-Star, or the later visual facelifts, could even do much in my opinion to improve upon timeless 8-bit charm.
One of my favorite things about NES-era music is the distinctive sound. There’s always that electronic high-hat percussion, that gravelly bass, that 80’s rock influence. In the case of SMB3, some of those ingredients were preserved, but the game sticks to its guns and ends up sounding completely unique.
Instantly recognizable are its steel drums and reggae beats, its frantic piano for the aerial stages, its echoes for the water stages, the eerie noises of the dungeons.
In fact, this is a surprisingly varied soundtrack. And that’s from a time when most comparable games had only a few songs, like The Legend of Zelda which had less than a handful. Each of the eight worlds had their own overworld track, further infusing detail (musically) into a game full of little details.
At this point, how could Mario games get any better than the solid platformers that sold in the millions? By each of the aforementioned additions to the gameplay and the scores of secrets that left you with the feeling that you could never tell what was next, what was lurking around the corner, or what was down that pipe.
But truly the zenith of secrets is the item that is now the blueprint for video game secrets: the Warp Whistle. There are several of them hidden throughout the game. Maybe you can think right now of a few places Mario could find them. Using a Warp Whistle let you skip ahead to new worlds, or even to the very last world, Dark Land, allowing you to tackle Bowser at nearly any point in the game. Super Mario Bros. 3 could be shorter or longer depending on your mastery of its many secrets, knowing where the Whistles were.
All these items and power-ups meant that the complicated stages could be played differently in each run. You could access your items from the overworld map and begin a stage with, say, invincibility or an automatic Super Leaf. The difficulty of a stage could change dramatically for better or worse given the right item choice.
The paragon of two-player games. Mario and Luigi were the poster children for multiplayer. You were Mario and kid brother or sister was stuck with his color-swapped twin. You learned patience. You learned sportsmanship when competing for items. You learned to take turns. You waited while one player finished their run through a stage, or died, before you could have your turn. That’s very unlike these trashin-frashin’ newfangled doohickeys they’re coming out with these days with simultaneous, online multiplayer connectivity. Nothing quite like the good ol’ couch co-op turn-taking of a bygone age.
Stages were large enough and well-designed enough to allow a player to practice with a brand new item or to observe a new enemy, before the difficulty ramped up and put your handling of the newly introduced element to the test.
I think of that first time you pick up a Super Leaf. Flight was foreign, utterly foreign, to the Mario franchise up to this point. Peach’s floating in SMB2 does not count. But when you get that Super Leaf, you’ve got a nice big stretch of space to practice running and getting the lift you needed, mastering a skill that would be crucial to passing the later levels to come.
For all of SMB3’s secrets and fancy items, you had plenty of time to learn how they worked.
With so many different ways to play stages and so many different avenues to use in beating this game, it’s no wonder that it’s one of those games that has been replayed and replayed over and over again. That’s not just because its physics are so genuine or its platforming so fine-tuned or its secrets so profound. It’s because it is factually fun to play through more than once. Millions have done so from dozens of different angles.
How could a sequel in a developing franchise be so utterly unique? Ask Nintendo, the kings of innovation, which they proved yet again with the Switch. SMB3 avoided the pitfalls that drag sequels into the mud. It didn’t bludgeon the dead horse of everything that came before, regurgitating tired mechanics into absurdity. No, it built upon what came before and pioneered a new path into new territory. It took the Mario platforming concept and magnified it a thousand times over.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
Super Mario is the same age as I am, and he’s had such a successful career. Whenever I compare my resumé with his it’s embarrassing. I need to get on with life and be like Super Mario: an inspiration to generations!
Super Mario Bros. 3 is the first game I’ve ever given a perfect score to. I don’t feel the least bit guilty for that. Games we’ve reviewed in detail which have come close to a perfect score are Super Mario World, Mega Man X, Super Metroid, Super Mario 64, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy IX, Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Arkham Knight, Grim Fandango Remastered, and Uncharted 4. As impressive as all of those games are in their own ways, none of them ultimately reach the tier that Super Mario Bros. 3 occupies in the eyes of this writer, and indeed in the eyes of a vast majority of game critics. None of those games have become as iconic, have had as much influence, are as technically perfect, and are as magical as the game which showed us how to fly.
And is there anyone on Earth who has never dreamt of flying?
Aggregated Score: 10