It rises so far above its predecessors, which were great games in their own right, that it is hard to even imagine they came out for the same console
Context is everything. It is the frame that allows us to put facts and occurrences into perspective, helping us give the proper weight and understand the reasons to whatever it is we are seeing. Given context is ever-shifting, like the window of a high-speed train rolling through time, it is easy to lose sight of how utterly shocking some events of our past were to their contemporary audiences: the landing on the moon, the first television broadcast, the invention of the airplane, the initial batch of bits that were sent through the internet, or that time in 1988 when Super Mario Bros. 3 became available to a Japanese market that was eager to play a new adventure by the world’s most famous fat plumber.
It seems ridiculous to put Super Mario Bros 3. alongside such historic events that have defined human beings as well as their capacity to break new ground, but exaggeration is often the only way to try to make one understand what it must have been like to witness major happenings. And to a bunch of young gamers living in the twilight hours of the 80s, turning on an NES and watching as the colorful and unimaginably huge world of Super Mario Bros. 3 came to life must have certainly hit with a high enough magnitude to make them never forget about it.
In Japan, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a humble evolution of its prequel; a borderline expansion pack with minor graphical tweaks. In the United States, meanwhile, that game came in the form of an adventure that, due to the fact it was a re-skinning of another title, stripped the still young franchise off all its defining features. Then, depending on the way one looks at it, Super Mario Bros 3. was either the arrival of a real meaningful sequel or the rescuing of a gameplay style that seemed to be lost. Regardless of the perspective, though, Super Mario Bros. 3 was magnanimous.
The justification, and proof, for such high praise is none other than how every single Mario platformer that has followed it has been nothing but a reshuffling of its ideas. The game shuns the dull transition screens between levels that appeared in the interludes of its predecessors’ stages for overworlds through which Mario can navigate, giving him – occasionally – the chance to choose which obstacle course to tackle, and tightly placing all levels under a thematic umbrella in the shape of a scenario that must be traversed from its first level to the castle in which a cursed king needs to be saved.
The thematic variations, differently from all of those in Super Mario Bros. and from most of the ones that appeared in its sequel, work because Super Mario Bros. 3 taps into the very limits of the NES’ hardware. The catalog of catchy songs the humble cartridge carries is greatly augmented, and so are the visual assets and colors the game has at its disposal. Therefore, as Mario travels between the game’s eight kingdoms (Grass Land, Desert Land, Water Land, Giant Land, Sky Land, Ice Land, Pipe Land, and Dark Land) the transitions are more than noticeable: they are vivid and obvious.
The eight maps are not mere eye-candy. They go beyond superfluous decoration by progressively growing in size and complexity as the game moves forward; by holding a good number of secrets, including hidden paths towards a warp zone that lets players skip a portion of the quest and travel as straight towards Bowser’s Castle, and Peach’s rescuing, as possible; and by having a horde of bonus activities, such as memory games and skirmishes against Hammer Bros., that give Mario power-ups that aid him in his journey, adding a strategic component to the game, as players can manage an inventory of power-ups so they can start the hardest levels with some advantage.
The constantly changing themes meet incredible level design creativity to transform Super Mario Bros. 3 into a game that is always surprising its players. New clever ideas pop up from every corner, and whether gamers are facing the mid-world fortresses, the daunting airships that serve as the home for the Koopalings that have cursed each world’s king, or standard levels filled with tricky platforms and devilish enemy placement, Super Mario Bros. 3 is invariably engaging.
Consequently, Super Mario Bros. 3 is not brilliant merely because it throws an uncountable amount of new concepts that survive until nowadays (including a mind-boggling amount of power-ups) into the screen. Surely, giving Mario the ability to fly or to turn into a frog produces huge amounts of joy, especially the former, which is not only quite amusing but that also reveals many secret areas scattered around the levels. However, the game’s greatest victory is how it balances creativity, challenge, and accessibility.
The levels, which are numerous and will demand at least ten hours of gameplay in order to be cleared, are smart and delightfully short. That last quality is especially important because Super Mario Bros. 3, like its two prequels, is not ashamed to rise to brutal heights in terms of difficulty; yet, given stages are brief, failing over and over again never gets too frustrating even if Mario is always sent to the beginning of the level, as checkpoints would only come to exist in Super Mario World. That way, although the game does carry a considerable punch, it is a title that opens itself up to a much wider audience, which – along with its charm – may be the ultimate explanation behind why it went on to become so popular and widely loved.
To a whole lot of people, then, Super Mario Bros. 3 had the sound of a door being blasted open right inside their brains and revealing the vast, colorful, and enchanting universe that lied within the realm of gaming. It rises so far above its predecessors, which were great games in their own right, and surpasses pretty much everything else that called the NES its home, that it is hard to even imagine they came out for the same console. It is one of those rare instances when a game can be called both an evolution and a revolution; Super Mario Bros. 3 has served as the basis upon which all Mario sidescrollers have been built, and the fact they remain undeniably successful and astonishingly fun should give anyone that was neither alive nor playing games back in 1988 an idea of how gigantic it was, and it still is.