Fly Away with a-Me
Super Mario Bros. 3
Although the Japanese Super Mario SeriesHe's the world's most famous plumber and the biggest face in Nintendo's stable, a character so ubiquitous you already knew we were talking about Mario even before we said his name. didn't evolve the same way the series did on the American side (their Super Mario Bros. 2 but substantially different from the version we got overseas), both sides of the ocean saw Mario take a big jump forward in his third official title: Super Mario Bros. 3. This was a game that had hype built for it for months (years even, considering it came out two years earlier in Japan than in the West), with a movie, The Wizard, even made as one long advertisement for the title. Children in the early 1990s had nothing short of Mario fever, and this game, whatever form it appeared in, was going to be a smash hit.
It helps, though, that SMB3 is a fantastic game, easily a masterwork for the console. As with Super Mario Bros. 2 USA, this third entry can be held up as one of Nintendo's finest works, a game against which all other platformers (and all future Mario titles) would be judged against. IN the same way that Super Metroid is the formative title for the Metroidvania genre, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the singular work that defines and informs all other platformers.
When the game first starts up things already seem different from the games that came before. Where the previous titles just dumped you right into the game, giving you the first level and immediately letting you walk around, SMB3 opens instead of a world map, the first time the series has done this (and basically the template for how all the 2D games would operate moving forward). Your options are limited as you can only go to one space the first level, but even in this first move Nintendo is showing you that this third title is something different. Change your expectations, Big N is saying, as this is something new and special.
Like with every Nintendo game, the first few levels of Super Mario Bros. 3 are training. Learn how to jump again, pick up a raccoon tail and find out (after just a bit of running) that you can fly. Coins point you into the sky for secrets, Mushroom House lurk on the world map to give you items to use (which immediately opens a menu to show you how that works), and fortresses sit imposingly, waiting for you to solve their dangers and unlock new areas of the map. There's no hand-holding in this game, but everything about the first world is designed to teach you how this new iteration will work, that way once you complete World 1 you already are set to navigate the rest of the game.
Not to say that all the secrets of the game have been revealed in World 1; the game still has plenty up its sleeve (hidden whistles, blocked sections of the maps you might not even notice, a world split between land and sky...) all to keep you guessing and exploring. The previous games had their secrets -- warp pipes in the first game, hidden health mushrooms in the second game -- but Super Mario Bros. 3 puts the emphasis on exploration and experimentation. You're supposed to be playful as you try out how to navigate the map, how to get through stages, and how to beat bosses, and not just travel from Point A on the left to Point B on the right.
One major way the game illustrates this is in the plethora of power-ups. While the super mushrooms and fire flowers return from the first game (and the second Japanese game -- the U.S. title didn't have any power-ups like that), they're joined by a whole new suite of items: the raccoon tail, the tanooki suit, the frog suit, and the hammer bros. shell. Mario can only have one power-up active at a time (grabbing a flower when you have the tail removes the tail and turns you into Fire Mario), you can easily swap between them as you find them, or store gained power-up cards in your inventory for use later. This aids you in finding your optimal path through each stage and maybe even find faster ways to kill the bosses (Bowser, for example, can be killed in just a couple of hammers instead of a flurry of fireballs).
The game packs in a ton of content to explore. With eight worlds and multiple stages in each (World 1 alone has six stages, plus a fortress and an airship, easily doubling the stages found in first world of the first game and nearly triple the stages of World 1 in the second game), this game is easily the largest of any Mario title to show up on the NES (although the SNES entry would then best that stage count again a few years later). If you went from the Japanese SMB2 into Super Mario Bros. 3, the differences are night and day.
Nintendo clearly learned lessons as they went from the first game to its Japanese sequel and then got push back from Nintendo of America in porting that game over to the U.S. Instead of just upping the difficulty again, making Super Mario Bros. 3 an even harder game than what came before, this third title is a rebalanced and (dare I say) fair experience. The first couple of worlds are easy enough to navigate such that even the seven- and eight-year-olds that got the game when it came out could get through those areas with relative ease. The game did have a solid learning curve, though, building up to some pretty hectic stages in the last couple of worlds, stages that required you to have mastery over Mario to clear all the levels and tease out all the rewards therein.
Not that you had to finish out every stage and find every secret to beat the game. Unlike later entries in the series, there's no bonus for 100% clearing the game, just the knowledge that you did it and had fun in the process. The multiples stages a setup with differing routes so that players can try out one stage and, if they find it too hard to get through it, try and different path that might prove more accessible. The game lets players take their adventure at their own pace and style, never punishing the players if they have to take things a different way. The lack of punishment alone shows just how much Nintendo learned from the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (as in: what not to do).
And, of course, the game is a treat for the eyes. If all you played were the Japanese titles, SMB3 looks like a completely different series, refined and lush, with a fantastic soundtrack to match the upgraded graphics. That said, the evolution doesn't feel as great if you came over from the U.S. sequel; the tweaks are subtler, the enhancements less revelatory than an illustration of Nintendo's growing house style. If anything, the parallel development of SMB2 USA and SMB3 refined Mario's look and feel, setting his design right through until the 3D changed everything again.
It's hard to understate the impact Super Mario Bros. 3 had on the series going forward. Flight mechanics and world maps became essential parts of the series, being further refined in the SNES Super Mario World. The bosses of this game, Bowser and his seven children, would become the recurring villains of the series as well (showing up in SMW and every New Super Mario and related title to come). And, yes, the house style would define the series for decades to come. In short, without Super Mario Bros. 3 it's hard to see the series being the games we know them as. This is the key stone, the one essential title that defines the series and informs every Mario game (and, really, every other platforming title) until the start of the N64 era.
There have been two major remakes of Super Mario Bros. 3. The first, naturally, was Super Mario All-Stars which saw mostly aesthetic changes to the game. Some glitches were fixed in the porting, of course, while there was a slight re-balancing of the game to have the NES version match the international releases in this SNES port. That, plus the upgraded graphics and SNES sound engine, and the inclusion of a save feature to store your progress, made this a superior way to play the game, even for fans of the original.
And then there was Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, which saw even more changes to this game. Some of this was due to the different screen size of the Game Boy Advance, so some challenges were altered, level designs shortened, and items rearranged. This port is generally considered easier than the previous versions (even before you count the ability to use the e-Reader with the game so you could scan cards and get bonuses), but it is a fantastic version in its own right. Really, it's hard to improve on perfection and, for an NES game, Super Mario Bros. 3 was basically perfect.