Games | NES | Super Mario Bros. 3

Article by Jeremy Parish? | October 17, 2010

Super Mario Bros. 3

Developer: Nintendo
U.S. Release: Feb. 1990
Format: NES

No one would argue that Super Mario Bros. 3 isn't one of the most popular and beloved videogames of all time, and few would deny that it deserves its legacy. Marioís third super outing was huge, brimming with content and creativity, and it arrived at a perfect time to cement itself in the hearts and minds of young nerds the world over. Nintendoís marketing was almost as memorable as the game itself, making Mario the it game for summer 1990 even as the Sega Genesis crept into our collective conscious with a bold claim of 16-BIT power emblazoned right there on its case. For many gamers, Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the greatest games ever made, if not the greatest.

Gamers and historians are perfectly content to dwell on all the game did right, yet few take the time to touch on what made Mario 3 so important. It represents a pivotal moment in the respective histories of both Nintendo and the NES: a definitive turning point that shaped the companyís future, and a rallying point for subsequent NES software. Without Mario 3, Nintendo would very likely be a very different company with a very different reputation than it enjoys now... and the NESís twilight years likely would have been less On Golden Pond and more Jack Kevorkian.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was a first for Nintendo in many ways, but none more important than this: It was Nintendoís first truly iterative work. The company was certainly no stranger to sequels, as the fact that this was the third chapter in the Super Mario series should attest. Before Mario 3, however, Nintendoís sequels bore little if any resemblance to one another. The Donkey Kong trilogy consists of three games that look, feel, and play completely unlike one another. All that Super Mario Bros. has in common with its predecessor, plain olí Mario Bros., is the presence of the jumping heroes and a preponderance of pipe imagery. Zelda II couldnít be more different than The Legend of Zelda without a radical genre shift into sports or racing or something. And even Mario 3ís predecessor was less a sequel than an expansion on Super Mario Bros., hacked together from existing assets by Nintendoís B team. Itís telling that the one Nintendo game that felt most like a sequel -- enough to make it to the U.S. as Super Mario Bros. 2 -- was originally a completely unrelated game. Itís almost as though Nintendoís fear of creative stagnation was so immense that their designers only felt comfortable exploring pre-existing game mechanics by spinning them into a completely new form.

With Super Mario Bros. 3, however, Nintendo finally crafted a true sequel in the purest sense. And it was brilliant. Though intrinsically Mario-esque in theme, aesthetics, and feel, Mario 3ís design was miles beyond that of its predecessors. Freed of the need to invent a completely new kind of gameplay, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka and crew were instead given free rein to find new applications for the basic mechanics of the Mario series. In true Miyamoto form, these were woven into the fabric of the game in a subtle, seamless manner from the very outset.

Super Mario Bros. 3 begins by giving Mario familiar touchstonesóbricks, a Goomba, a mushroom, a Piranha Plantóbefore throwing new things into the scenario. The Piranha Plant spits a fireball. Thereís a Question Block on the ground, forcing Mario to kick a turtle into it... and out of that block comes a new power-up icon, a leaf. The leaf confers upon Mario a tail, which can be used to smack enemies from the side. And no sooner do you get a feel for the the raccoon tail than you realize that thereís a trail of coins leading into the sky. You take a running jump to see how many you can grab, and suddenly youíre flying. And all at once you realize just how very new this Mario game is going to be.

Well, no, thatís not entirely true. Super Mario Bros. 3 actually begins by placing the player on a board game-like map; initially you can only enter World 1-1, but this brief flash of the levels ahead gives an even better sense of Mario 3ís design sensibilities than the ability to fly. Mario 3 is the first time producer Miyamoto brought his love of play to the Mario series; for all that sandbox design is an industry buzzword these days, Miyamoto has always aspired to create worlds in which players are free to play at their own leisure. The Legend of Zelda was probably the first game which properly explored this idea, but Mario 3 introduced it into a classic action milieu. Mario 3 offers a much less linear approach to victory than its predecessors, as players are no longer obligated to follow the traditional level sequence. Complete a stage and youíre free to move about the level map, advancing to a new stage, indulging in multiplayer battles, seeking treasures, or even revisiting previously conquered levels for extra spoils... or just to spend a little more time with a fleetingly unique idea.

Here, too, does Mario 3 demonstrate a fundamental component of modern Nintendo design: The canonization of the unique. Nintendo has always been distinct from other developers in its tendency to take a simple core mechanic and explore countless different permutations of that idea: outward-looking game design. Other developers tend to grab a scattershot array of ideas and force them into a cohesive whole, working from the outside in. Such games usually feature a handful of brilliantly original ideas used to the point that they become utterly rote.

Mario 3 took a different tack, tossing out countless improvisations on its core mechanics, but presenting each one sparingly, so that its embellishments became memorable rarities. Kuriboís Shoe -- a massive wind-up boot piloted by a Goomba and wholly capable of being hijacked by Mario -- remains a fan-favorite feature. It appears twice in a single level of Mario 3, and its popularity is no doubt a function of its scarcity. Were it to appear in dozens of stages, it would simply be another part of the game. By using it only once, the designers granted it legendary status, all the more precious for the fact that it appears in a stage that many gamers likely warped past. Likewise, the giant enemies of World 4 appear less frequently than your memory probably suggests, and this economy of scarcity applies even to Marioís own abilities. The Hammer Bros. Suit was a powerful and extremely cool-looking power-up, but you can count its appearances in the game on a single hand. Again, its rarity made it all the more precious and memorable, and furthermore left space for the dev team to explore other visionary ideas, like the pipe mazes of World 7.

Of course, sparing use of brilliant game mechanics only works when there are equally interesting ideas to flesh out the rest of the game, and itís in the proliferation of great ideas in general that Mario 3 found its true success. Miyamoto and Tezuka were gifted with some of the most talented underlings in the industry, and every aspect of Mario 3 exudes quality. A review of the game in an early issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly gushed about how the gameís visuals rivaled those of the 16-bit systems that were hot on the NESís heels -- an exaggeration to be sure, but nevertheless a sign of the powerful impression that Mario 3 left on players. The gameís design was lean and purposeful, with thoughtfully drawn graphics that played the NESís limitations to their advantage. The stage designs were short, each one easily completed in just a few minutes, inspiring players with a constant sense of progress and offering alternatives when a particular challenge seemed insurmountable.

Most impressively of all, the game achieved all this without any fancy add-on hardware. Running on a standard MMC3 chip without even battery back-up -- though lord knows it certainly could have used it -- Mario 3 was an incisive demonstration of what the NES hardware could accomplish in capable hands. It defied the 16-bit sales pitch that more power automatically equalled better games, ushering in a new era of deeper, more compelling NES games that kept the system viable well into the 16-bit era. In fact, one could argue that Mario 3 did too good a job, as the great software that followed in its wake kept fans glued to their 8-bit system and may have retarded the early adoption of the Super NES among the Nintendo faithful.

But hey, so be it. That just means Super Mario Bros. 3 was a killer app on multiple levels. While fans are likely to debate whether or not it was a better game than Super Mario World until the Earth explodes, in the end that doesnít really matter. In Mario 3 we have the culmination of a decade of Nintendo game design, a forward-thinking work that opened a new avenue of game design for the worldís most successful developer. Whether or not itís the greatest game the companyís ever made, itís quite possibly the most important.

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