The gold standard.
PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating
RELEASE DATE: February 1990
If there is such a thing as “the perfect NES game,” Super Mario Bros. 3 is it. From the moment the curtain rises to show the title screen, to Bowser smashing through the last layer of brick to his doom. There’s not a level wasted, not a secret too many or too few. Every element of Super Mario Bros. 3 is in its right place.
Nintendo spent over two years in development for SMB3 (a lifetime in the 8-bit days), so one would be forgiven for thinking the game might feel a little too perfect in its execution; perhaps sterile and unwelcoming to the player. Nothing could be further from the truth. SMB3 is a treasure chest of delights where the player is invited – indeed encouraged – to explore its rich bounty. When you find a 1-Up hidden in an invisible block or a secret pipe that leads you to a gigantic question-mark block filled with 1-Ups, there’s genuine accomplishment that comes with its discovery; as if it’s your secret that Nintendo worked into the game just for you to find. And it’s not just secrets. Notice how Nintendo structures each of the game’s eight worlds. There’s at least one point in each world where you can skip a stage or two, but if you choose to battle your way through all of them, your reward will be to enter an additional Toad houses or play another chance mini-game. Despite the game’s seeming linearity, there’s actually three ways one could progress through the game. You can find all the warp whistles and blow straight through to the Dark World; as mentioned previously, you can choose to skip certain stages; or you can beat all the stages for bragging rights. The choice is yours: find the secrets or don’t, explore every stage or don’t. It’s these choices that allow the gamer to craft Super Mario Bros. 3 into their own unique experience.
On the surface, Super Mario Bros. 3 appears like just another platforming Mario game, albeit larger and more refined. In one sense, that’s true. Super Mario Bros. 3 feels like an expanded and natural amalgamation of elements from the first two games. But there’s so many new goodies stuffed into Mario’s standard platforming gameplay that it makes the previous two games look minuscule by comparison. Indulge me as I delve into said goodies, world by world.
WORLD 1 – GRASS LAND
- first Mario game to have a World Map. Probably one of the biggest changes.
- Mario can fly for a limited time, thanks to the Racoon Tail. Once you beat World 1, the Princess encloses a gift: a P-Wing, which enables you to fly constantly throughout one level.
- Second Mario mini-game (the first was the gambling game after each level in SMB2), but first mini-game to get its own space, outside of a level.
- Castles are now relegated to mid-level stages in each world, as opposed to the end. Once you beat a castle, it will unlock a separate path, usually leading back to the beginning of the world.
- Enemies can now be grabbed by Mario, as long as they have a shell (Koopas, Beetles, etc.)
- Boom-Boom is introduced (and repeated ad nauseam).
- Toad houses! Instead of acquiring them out in the wild of every level, Mario can now amass plentiful power-ups on the bottom-screen menu.
- Hammer Brothers are their own mini-stage, complete with worthless power-ups (save for the Hammer, which is awesome).
- World 1-4 is the first ever forced scrolling Mario stage. Sadly, it will not be the last.
- Not the first Mario game to have warps, certainly, but two of the game’s three warp whistles are found in stages 1-3 and the mid-castle, respectively. How do you find them? If you don’t know now, you should probably look it up. It’s been twenty-three years, bro…
- The final battle of World 1 takes place on an airship! And if you die anytime during the stage, the airship will travel from the castle to a different place on the World map.
- The Koopa Kids first appearance, beginning with Larry Koopa.
WORLD 2 – DESERT LAND*
- Actually, the second Mario game to have a Desert World (SMB2 came first!)
- Remember how scary it was when the Microgoombas (the Goomba Block things) first jumped at you in World 2-1?
- Most people get their first matching card or “N-Card” mini-game here. It appears every 80,000 points you get.
- Introducing Thwomps and Boos! Two long-time Mario enemy staples made their debut in the first mini-castle in World 2
- That moment when the map screen scrolls over to reveal the second half of World 2… holy crap, SMB3 is HUGE.
- The quicksand level. The angry sun attacking you. Better bust out a P-Wing for this one.
- The Pyramid level, which is essentially an underground maze with lots of Beetles.
- Using the Hammer on the upper-right hand corner of the map reveals a hidden Hammer Bros, a Toad House, and a not-so-subtle Roman Numeral “III” with water running through each of the columns.
WORLD 3 – WATER LAND*
- The Frog Suit is introduced here (or back in World 2, if you went into the secret Toad House). Mario looks beyond ridiculous in it, and it’s only real purpose is for water Levels. Thank goodness this is a Water Land.
- Boss Basses are another terrifying enemy. An enlarged Cheep-Cheep who can swallow you whole.
- After the paltry six stages of the last two worlds (not counting the special quicksand and pyramid levels in World 2), there’s a healthy nine levels here.
- If Mario uses a hammer acquired from a Hammer Bros. brawl, he can hop into a canoe and row out to two isolated islands. Three Toad Houses and two mini-games are his reward.
- In keeping with the nautical theme, there are shortcut bridges that open or close after the beating of a level. If one’s open, you’ll have to take the long way and play stage 7. If they’re closed, you can bypass stage 7 altogether.
- Wendy Koopa is the first (and only?) female boss Mario’s ever had to face in a mainline Mario game.
WORLD 4 – GIANT LAND*
- This was my favorite world as a kid. Almost every feature of every stage, from the enemies to the blocks, were enlarged to four times their original size.
- Ice Blocks – blocks that can be grabbed by Mario to throw at enemies – make their first appearance in World 4-2.
- The Missile Bills only appear in world 4-5, thank God. They’re flashing Bullet Bills that will chase Mario until they are squashed properly.
WORLD 5 – SKY LAND*
- first appearance of the Tanooki Suit. The Tanooki Suit enables Mario to fly, but it also allows him to turn into a statue for a limited time and avoid enemies.
- World 5-3 marks the first and last appearance of Kuribo’s Shoe. Once you wear the shoe, you can step on literally anything including Spinies and Munchies.
- At first, Sky Land looks relatively small, but a trip up the Tower brings you to a larger part of the world. Sky Land is the biggest world thus far: nine levels, three Hammer Bros., two mini-castles, the aforementioned Tower, and the main castle.
- It is in my humble opinion that SMB3 truly begins to get difficult towards the end of Sky Land. World 5-6: Parabeetles – beetles that you need to jump on in order to progress. 5-7: Microgoombas and Lakitu. 5-8: Lakitu again, this time throughout the whole stage. 5-9: vertically auto-scrolling stage with floating Fire Chomps spewing fire at you.
WORLD 6 – ICE LAND
- Slippery platforms and walking Piranha plants spitting spiky balls (Ptooies) are some of your first experiences in Ice Land.
- The Hammer Bros. suit. Not only does it impress the ladies, but you can spit hammers out just like the Bros. themselves. Also, you can use the shell on the back to ward off fire balls.
- Ice Land is the largest world in the game: ten levels, three mini-castles, three Hammer Bros., and a main castle.
WORLD 7 – PIPE LAND*
- Perhaps the hardest world in the game. Below are reasons why.
- 7-2, 7-5, and 7-9 all use networks of pipes to confuse the player. Doable, certainly, but frustrating.
- 7-3 brings back Lakitu. He’s such a jerk in this game. Sometimes he throws out green spiny balls that ricochet all over the level, other times he throws out Spinies. Killing him is always a pleasure.
- 7-4 is a water world, and has an abnormal amount of the electric jellyfish (the kind you can’t kill).
- The two Piranha Plant mini-stages are from Satan himself. So many pipes. So many Piranha Plants and Munchers. And the rewards at the end of the stages are a P-Wing and a Mushroom respectively. Not worth it.
- The first mini-castle involves finding the right secret door, finding the secret Tanooki Suit (if you don’t have it or a Raccoon tail equipped already), and figuring out that you need to fly upwards in a particular room to enter a pipe. All within 200 seconds. Easy if you know. Difficult if you don’t.
- 7-7 is essentially all Munchers. In order to run through the level unscathed, you’ll have to stay invincible the entire time. There’s a string of Starmans in a row, but it’s still tough, even if you’re used to it.
WORLD 8 – DARK LAND*
- My wife remarked that, upon first seeing this world as a kid, she wondered if Bowser lived in hell. I still wonder if that’s what Nintendo was going for. The design for the Dark World is about as gruesome as Nintendo’s ever gotten. Piles of skulls, constantly burning fire, pits of lava, hands that drag you down into stages that resemble black holes. Nintendo successfully conjured a real sense of dread in this world.
- The first time you enter a tank stage and the environment is completely dark, save for the tanks rolling along. Think about this: each one of these tanks sole purpose is to kill Mario. Bowser is brutal!
- Swimming underwater for the entire battleship stage. We all did it.
- Once you get to the numbered levels, the only light comes from a circle around Mario. You can’t see how many stages lie ahead or where you need to go in order to advance. One step at a time here. Again, dread.
- The last mini-castle is potentially spirit-crushing if you don’t know what to do. There are doors everywhere and they lead in all different sorts of directions. The trick is to get to the very end, find the hidden P-block, smash it, and go into the red door that appears beside the wall. The final Boom Boom is your reward.
- The Bowser battle. You can hit him with fireballs (a whole heap of them), a few hammers, or let him bust through the layers of brick, one at a time. Once he falls through, he’s dead and the Princess is yours.
The choices offered in Super Mario Bros. 3 allow the gamer to craft their own unique experience. At least, that’s what I purported earlier in this same review. Let’s find out.
- On this particular play-through, I collected all the Warp Whistles, but I didn’t use them.
- I played through every stage in every world until the fourth world where I skipped stage 4-5 (not sure why, just didn’t feel like playing it). From there on, I skipped one stage in worlds 5 and 6. I skipped the optional Piranha Plant stage in World 7 (forget that noise). I played through every stage in World 8.
- Did you know that if you get your P-Bar up and hit the block at the end of each level at a forty-five degree angle, you’ll get a Star every time? I figured that out a couple playthroughs ago, and as a result, I don’t like going to World 8 without at least seventy lives under my belt. I only use a few, but the padding is there, should I get into a rut.
- Usually, I go out of my way to collect one of every kind of suit, but I didn’t get one Hammer Bros. suit this play-through (I could have used a couple too).
- I didn’t get one Treasure Ship or a White Toad House, though I’ve gotten them in the past.
- Any Stars or Music Boxes acquired from Hammer Bros. battles I tried to use right away. I couldn’t stand them cluttering up my inventory.
If I had to guess my style of play for this playthrough, it would be “Enthusiast.” I was dedicated to beating as many levels as I could, but I wasn’t bothered if I skipped a few. I liked having multiple power-ups in my inventory at all times, but I wasn’t afraid to use them if need be. I liked discovering new secrets (I found at least a couple different areas in this playthrough that I’ve never found before – can’t remember them now, but I was excited by it), but I didn’t go out of my way to search for them.
I’ll be honest: I’m sick of writing about the Mario series. These reviews have taken far too much time, both in the amount it takes to write them and the amount I dedicate to play the games. But despite feeling burnt out, the Mario games are totally worth the effort. Very few game series set the bar for gaming for years to come. The Mario series has done that at least three or four times now. Super Mario Bros. 3 in particular honored the past (basic platforming) while pointing to the future (several unique worlds, non-linear stage progression) of platforming games. Not only is it a fitting coda for the series on the NES, it was, and remains, an epic masterwork that deserves to be played for generations to come.
*Many thanks to Mariowiki.com for their impressive world maps.