I’d like to start off by being completely honest. Super Mario Bros. 3 was one of my first video games. It’s what made me fall in love with video games to begin with. I have too many memories of playing through the first few worlds before eventually having to turn off the NES and go outside, only to have to start again later since I was unaware of Warp Whistles at the time. I loved the game so much. The magic and discovery combined with the almost random level layouts and enemies. That sense of discovery and accomplishment followed me through every level. Nintendo may have had a limited set of options available in terms of both graphics and sounds but they knew how to get every last drop of magic and immersion out of the tools they had available. And I couldn’t be more thankful.
I think platformers are one of the easier games to develop. Hold on, I’m going somewhere with this! Designing a platformer isn’t particularly difficult. You just need to have a character, some enemies, some obstacles, navigate across a 2D or 3D environment, and collect things. In the 90’s and 00’s whenever there was a tie-in video game for a movie it was almost always a platformer. However it’s when you get into the details and dissect a game that you’re able to really judge the quality of it. You could describe Super Mario Bros. 3 in just a few sentences and it might not sound very different from other 2D platformers from its time or even today. You move to the right. You jump on or attack enemies. You collect stuff. You go to the end of the level. You do it again and again. You sometimes fight bosses. Rinse and repeat. That’s it. However it’s how Nintendo designed everything that made it so fun, addiciting and extremely tight. It’s easy to make a platformer. It’s not easy to make a platformer that’s filled with fun, variety, and controls well. But that’s exactly what Nintendo did and it’s that tradition that’s been continued within Nintendo even decades later. Nintendo does not get enough credit from the corners of the gaming community for the things they do well or right and Super Mario Bros. 3 is a firm example of just that.
Super Mario Bros. 3 begins simple enough, just like the original Super Mario Bros. Levels help open your mind up and show you how the world of Mario behaves and how you should respond to the different enemies and obstacles. Nintendo is getting back to showing instead of telling with releases like Breath of the Wild but it used to be their jam. From Metroid to Super Mario Bros. they would present you with obstacles and either force you to have to respond correctly, like obtaining the morph ball ability in the original Metroid (one of my favorite examples of damn good game design) or just allowing you to see what works and what doesn’t, which is what the Super Mario Bros. series is known for. I love this kind of design. It allows for another form of discovery. There’s already the sense of discovery you feel as you start each new level and see the different enemies and obstacles but with this extra layer you feel even more engaged and immersed within Mario’s world. Having to see how you should respond to different enemies, obstacles, and combinations of the two just helps involve you so much in the process.
There are over 50 standard style levels where you control Mario and navigate across the stage to the end of the level but there are also airship stages, boss stages, and little mini-stages that help throw some variety into the flow of the game. The standard levels are designed so well. I love looking at the design artwork that shows the entire level flow. These stages really do flow well, if you’ve got the skills required to keep up with that level’s natural flow that is. As Mario, you’ll run, jump, and utilize power-ups to destroy enemies, navigate through/past obstacles, and reach hidden areas. Discovery is the one word I’d use to describe this game. I honestly can’t think of a better word. This game is built off two main concepts: discovering what the levels have to offer and reacting appropriately to said discoveries. There are many ways to defeat enemies and navigate through the levels with my favorites being the standard mushroom that helps Mario grow in size, fire flowers that allow Mario to make it rain fireballs from the palms of his hands, the tanooki suit that makes Mario look like a chubby raccoon and gives him the ability to fly briefly after getting a running start, and of course the frog suit which can make water levels play much differently and easier.
There are even more abilities that help mix up not only the gameplay but the possibilities. There are some levels where you might be able to bypass entire obstacles or sections if you have the right abilities. This is before we even get to secrets, warp whistles that allow you to bypass worlds (Super Mario Bros. 3 didn’t have a save function so this kind of served as that function), and other hidden areas. This universe may seem small or ordinary now but just like The Beatles did in their day, Super Mario Bros. 3 only seems normal years later because it created the style and design that ended up loved and admired by many, some of which went on to make video games of their own. The danger of being the best is that many will try to copy your style later, which doesn’t really hurt anything. It just gives us more great games but it’s important to remember which games help kickstart certain styles, options, and design choices so we can pay homage to them on occasion, or in my case with Super Mario Bros. 3 at least once a year.
The airship levels and boss battles can really stir up some difficulty but that’s honestly something you’ll be experiencing in standard levels by at least the fourth or fifth world. The progression of everything really works well because if you want to continue your journey into the game you’re naturally going to want more challenges that build off of previous sections and that’s exactly how this game’s level design works. The airship levels and boss battles will introduce an early challenge for some players early on though but there’s less of them than standard levels of course so they serve as quick exercises in your abilities and dedication to the Super Mario Bros. 3 experience. Airship levels will have you battling your way across a scrolling level with hazards everywhere. Enemies, missiles, and projectiles are everywhere and when you factor in that the level scrolls (it moves slowly whether you move or not and can push you into hazards and enemies–or off the airship if you don’t jump across gaps in time) and that there are some spots where you need to maneuver within windows of time, it can get incredibly difficult. The challenge is fun but it will test your patience at times. I know as a kid I hated these levels because they would wipe out some of my stash of lives at times. They’re designed well though. They’re just hard sometimes. When you get to the end you get to battle an enemy that serves as the boss for the level. Once you defeat them you’re able to retrieve the magic wand from them and restore the kind of the realm to their normal self, instead of being trapped in whatever form Bowser and his minions turned him into.
The boss levels with Bowser can be tricky too but I honestly find them easier than the airships even though I’m sure for many it may be the other way around. The level not scrolling by itself certainly gives me plenty of time to react to the environment and enemies within it. These levels don’t usually take too long and present just enough challenge before you’re onto Bowser himself. All it takes is a couple of hits before he’s gone though and then you’re able to claim victory and move onto the next level. There are little mini-levels that take place in between levels too and it really helps with the world building of Super Mario Bros. 3. Levels can include matching flash cards or matching three rotating sections to create a solid picture of a power-up to earn lives but beyond meta distractions there are also some levels that fit within the context of the conflict between Mario and the struggle against evil. Toad Houses have Mario meeting up with a fellow good guy and receiving an item that will aide him on his quest. There’s also something similar from Bower’s side. Occasionally there will be stages with Hammer Bros. where you’ll end up having to destroy a few hammer throwing turtles that work for Bowser and seek to stop you from defeating Bowser and his forces of evil. I always liked these little touches and decades later I think they’re a great touch for two major reasons. They mix up levels with some variety but also add to the world and the player’s immersion within it while also providing a meta reward like some extra lives. It’s a great system that has many benefits for the player’s experience.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was meant to be an incredible sequel, especially after Super Mario Bros. 2 was so polarizing as a sequel. Sure it was a good game and I even play it from time to time (mostly to jam out to the music, which is out of control in the best of ways) but it wasn’t a natural or improved progression from the first Super Mario Bros. game. The main menu of Super Mario Bros. 3 was immediate proof that this was something different. It was immediate proof that this was something special. The curtains pulling back together with the camaraderie between brothers Mario and Luigi. The bright text that was the title just popping off the screen and even the ‘Press Start’ on the main menu was almost a challenge. It was almost like Nintendo was saying “Hey, we dare you to check this game out.” They were goading us on because they knew how truly great this game was. From the very beginning it’s so very clear that Nintendo gave this game their very best and it feels that way to the very end. From the tight game design to the perfect variety in level styles to the challenge factor that continues to grow as players move on to new worlds, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a benchmark in 2D platforming game design and a true work of art not only in its genre but for video games in general. If you haven’t experienced it yet please do yourself a huge favor and drop five bucks on the Wii, Wii U, or 3DS eShop and get lost in a game that you’ll never forget.
Super Mario Bros. 3
- Expertly crafted game design that decades later reflects why Nintendo champions the platformer genre
- Bright and surprisingly detailed graphics help build convincing and beautiful levels
- A soundtrack that I challenge you to forget
- Tight controls and well designed enemy and obstacle placement makes this game challenging and fun
- Perfect learning curve rewards those that stay dedicated to reaching the end of the game