Super Mario Bros. 3
Article by Rene Decoste | November 22, 2009
"The things you own end up owning you."
The Dalai Lama said that. Or maybe it was Tyler Durden. In any event, I think we can all see the truth of the statement even as we read and write about videogames, a hobby of ultimate leisure and commodity fetishism. Suffering is caused by desire. We must learn to eliminate desire for worldly pleasures. The desire for and even the possession of material goods or corporeal advancement and indulgence can impede what should be your ultimate goal, spiritual enlightenment. Only by ending this desire can you follow the path.
I am sure that this is a gross oversimplification of these philosophies, but they're still relevant today. Why, just the other day I was replaying Super Mario Bros. 3 after a hiatus of several years, and Eastern philosophy was right at the forefront of my thoughts. And not just because of the mostly useless ability of the Tanooki suit to transform into a Mario-Buddha, or the white treasure ship, Takara-Bune. No, you see, in Super Mario Bros. 3, one must give up any illusions of temporal advancement (coins, free lives, power-ups) if he is to reach his goal (rescuing Peach from Bowser.)
Having not played Mario 3 for at least ten years, my memory was hazy. I could remember each stage, sort of. Like, I knew the gist of each stage. I could complete even the most difficult ones after a few tries, except for maybe 8-1 or 8-2. Plus I had millions of (gamer) years of evolution: Perfect reptilian Mario muscle memory. Yet I had lost track of the bonuses. When Mario 3 was new -- and especially if you were a kid whose games were procured only during special occasions -- you needed to bleed every game dry, leaving only an empty husk. That means knowing the location of every hidden coin box, every one-up, every valuable weird-ass suit.
Playing now, however, I find the pursuit of these to be quite dangerous. It's OK, though; finding them isn't strictly necessary. In the olden days Mario's mission wasn't to putz around looking for stars and red coins and crap but rather to run the obstacle course within the given time limit, and not end up dead in the process. Mario games have always had secrets as hidden thrill. Who can forget stumbling on to their first warp pipe, beanstalk, or Minus World? These were just bonuses for the skillful or lucky, not the entire purpose of the game. Beyond Mario 3, however, these bonuses became more central to the experience. Super Mario World started to bring secrets and exploration to the forefront with 96 exits to be discovered; in the event you missed them, it was also the first game in the series in which you could backtrack to completed stages. Further into the SNES era we had the derivative Donkey Kong Country series, with its myriad hidden collectibles, and Yoshi's Island, where finding all the hidden red coins contributed to a perfect score of 100%, but were otherwise superfluous.
Then Super Mario 64 redefined the genre. There are now x number of items to collect in fairly open-ended stages, items necessary if you hope to progress. Mario is no longer concerned with going balls-out to complete his obstacle course; he now wants to use his repertoire of jumps, spins and floats to explore his environment. Climb ledges, scramble up vines, pick up coins, gather stars, and so forth. Despite its flaws, there is a reason why New Super Mario Bros. was such a hit: It renewed the series, taking it back to its roots with relentless forward momentum. The best moments in Mario have always been of a "Don't think! GO!" nature, and the haphazard derring-do of madly dashing into, then somehow surviving, a perfect phalanx of Koopas, Buzzy Beetles, Spinies and Hammer Bros., capping it off by getting mad air from a jump off of a Bullet Bill over the pit and wall and onto the flagpole. Or whatever. Mario 3 wasn't as pure in this respect as the original -- it still had a world map and tons of secrets -- but it was the last game to straddle these two approaches perfectly.
It still has the secrets and sense of discovery that the later games revolve around, but here they're a distraction. You don't really need any magic music boxes to complete the game. And in a more immediate sense, many of the secrets are harmful to your health. Running through the game, you have a vague sense about the locations of coin boxes and 1UPs, either from to experience or your innate Mario-sense. These items don't want you to capture them. Mushrooms have a tendency to move in direction opposite the one you want, causing needless suffering. Raccoon leafs float languorously down to earth. While waiting for them, you will die. In World 1-4 you will try to exhaust a coin box, only to be undone by your avarice as the screen moves on without you. "No!" you exclaim, pathetically. "Just one more... hit..." Or you will run blindly through a stage trying to collect a 1UP or mushroom that threatens to get away from you, all the while being sniped by a fire-breathing Piranha Plant. Or you will try to jump and collect a leaf and overshoot it, plummeting to your doom.
And yet, you'll come back for more, because you think you can trigger the Treasure Ship by collecting sufficient coins, you think you can collect that power-up... and you'll keep making the same mistakes, ironically losing several lives in the process and losing any advantage you might have gained through success. If you had just stayed focused on the destination, you would have succeeded. Hilariously, this quest for 1UPs is mostly pointless. There are easy, non-lethal coins strewn everywhere across the game's eight worlds. Collecting them allows you to slowly but surely gain lives. Furthermore, you collect a card at the end of each numbered world. Match three and get one, three, or five lives. And getting five lives is not overly challenging. Free yourself!
Even as you wage this battle against your own impulses, you must also face your worst enemy of all: Luigi. If you are playing this game in two player co-operative mode, be prepared for some major league duplicitous behavior. When given a split path, your so-called brother will always pick the easier stage, leaving you high and dry. He will always scoop up any Toad houses, freebie Hammer Bros. encounters, matching games, and laboriously gained Treasure Ships. Worse still, the man in green will attack you in the Mario Bros. versus stage in an attempt to steal your valuable cards, even though the game most generously throws them at you almost every stage. Perfidy! Oh sure, you could work together and use the Mario stage to cunningly trade these cards to mutual benefit, but Luigi is a total dirtbag. Look at his limp mustache and skeevy green hat. The one thing you learn from years of dealing with Luigi: You can turn your back on a Mushroom Retainer, but never turn your back on a Luigi. Especially when he's waving a pendulous raccoon tail in your face.
It's all these weird, gratuitous elements that make the game so fun. Dying copiously to unlock the Treasure Ship. Screwing over your friends for negligible gain. Crazy ass suits! Save that Frog Suit for World Three, because swimming with it is totally boss. Or meet the challenge of beating an airship with the Hammer Suit to see the various Mushroom Rulers thank you for betraying Koopa. Getting a huge block that rumbles to give you the much coveted full Tanooki Suit, because it is so damn cool though honestly no better than the basic Raccoon Tail. A boss based upon Wendy O. Williams! In a children's game! Or World 4, where everything is huge! Or reminisce about Fred Savage! Or Lucas. But Lucas! What infra-red light through yonder Power Glove breaks!