25 Years of NES Part 24: Super Mario Bros. 3
While numerous games could be called the NES’s best, there is one that would likely be the consensus pick: Super Mario Bros. 3. SMB3 is the absolute pinnacle of NES game design. It is not only the best platformer on the NES; it has a legitimate claim to the title of best 2-D platformer ever. SMB3 returns to a gameplay style more reminiscent of the original Super Mario Bros. than Super Mario Bros. 2, which as you know was not exactly a Mario game, but SMB3 refines, improves and expands upon everything SMB did. By any measure, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a great game.
Graphically, SMB3 is as impressive an NES game as you are likely to find. The character sprites are actually a little less complex than SMB2, but the levels and backgrounds are improved. The enemies are numerous, detailed and expressive. It is hard to get worked up over the graphics of a 20-year-old game, but Mario 3 just looks right. It also sounds great. The Mario theme from the first game may be the one everyone has as their ring tone, but Mario 3’s music is just as good if not better. On the audio and visual sides, there is nothing to complain about in Mario 3.
Mario 3 takes Mario 1 and just expands it in every direction. Both games have 9 worlds, but instead of just 3 levels apiece like SMB1, Mario 3’s worlds have about 10. The levels, though, are generally a little smaller. Each Mario 3 level takes a central gimmick or theme and crafts a level just long enough to suit that conceit, with all of the excess and fat trimmed away. These brief, bite-sized chunks are a large part of Mario 3’s appeal. Another is that each world has map.
Most of the worlds have multiple paths through the various levels, so that is one is too hard there is always another to do instead. Some levels do not even have to be completed at all, as long as you can get to the castle (or one of the cleverly hidden warp whistles). For example, on the first world I always avoid the auto-scrolling stage because auto-scrolling stages are terrible. With the small, perfect levels and the freedom to choose many of them in an agreeable order, Mario 3 is a game that is always given you something new and interesting to do.
Aside from more levels, there is also more of everything else. There are more bosses. Instead of King Koopa at the end of every castle, Mario 3 introduces the Koopalings (who besides me can name them all?). All the smart people rejoiced at their return in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, because the Koopalings are awesome. While not wholly unique, they provide much more variety than just one repeated boss does. Mario 3 also has a wider variety of level locations. A simple thing, but one that is much expanded. Mario 1 had day and night stages, castles and caves, mushroom platforms and underwater stages. A good variety of locales, but Mario 3 has most of those in the first world. Then it adds desert, cloud, airship and giant levels. Plus more. In Mario 3, there is not just variety in what you do, but in where you do it.
Then there are the power-ups, possibly the best thing about Super Mario Bros. 3. The fire-flower, star and mushroom of Mario 1 are fine, but Mario 3 piles on more and more. There is the only-usable-in-water frog suit, the Tanooki (raccoon) suit, the Hammer Bros one and even a shoe. Most importantly there is the raccoon tail. You can swing it for damage, but it main use is for flight. This is the big improvement in Mario 3: the screen scrolls in all directions. With the tail, the player can fly to the top of the stage and Nintendo inevitable his some sort of bonus of challenge up there. Each level is designed with the idea that the player could possibly fly and is set up accordingly. Also, key is the method of flight. It is not instantaneous or very easy. The player must get a suitable sunning start and have an idea where they are going because the flight will soon run out. While each level is beatable without the tail, having it can change a level entirely. (It is also worth noting that Mario 3, despite being derided as slow by rival Sonic, actually makes better use of speed and momentum.)
There is just no place in which Super Mario Bros. 3 falters. Even with Nintendo’s stellar track record with Mario games, Mario 3 is a particular success. Save one, there is no better game in the NES than Super Mario Bros. 3