A lot of Nintendo’s long-running series have a game where they realize their full potential, a turning point where the quality of the series dramatically increases. This is especially common with series that started in the NES era, a formula filled with potential would be fully realized in a later game. A lot of the time, that wouldn’t happen until it got a sequel on the Super NES, but not with Mario. Super Mario Bros. 3 was released on the same system as the original Super Mario Bros., but the improvement was just as dramatic as the SNES sequels Zelda and Metroid received. Super Mario Bros. 3 is a timeless masterpiece and a turning point for Mario and Nintendo as a whole in game quality.
The story to Super Mario Bros. 3 is the same basic story as all Mario platformers, but it has been expanded over the previous games in scope. Not content to simply conquer the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser has set his sights on the entire Mushroom World and enlisted his seven underaged employees (Miyamoto recently confirmed that they are, in fact, not his children) , the Koopalings, to conquer seven kingdoms by turning their rulers into monsters. Mario, and possibly Luigi, once again set off to singlehandedly defeat Bowser’s army. And the whole thing might be a play — there’s a pretty convincing fan theory arguing that.
After the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 playing exactly like the original and the western SMB2 sharing nothing but a basic genre with it, if you were one of the few people aware of both games back in 1990, you were probably wondering what route Super Mario Bros. 3 was going to take. The best way to describe it is that it plays like the original Super Mario Bros., but so much better that it feels like a new style.
SMB3 goes back to the short, linear levels of the original SMB, the variety has been greatly expanded with each world having a distinct theme that affects gameplay. You’ll jump your way out of quicksand in desert levels, face giant enemies and pipes in a giant-themed world, dodge an endless supply of cannonballs on airships, and more. Even within the same world theme, most levels have something unique that makes them stand apart from each other. Not every level will leave a distinct impression, but considering how many there are, it’s amazing that so many do.
There are also the power-ups. The Fire Flower from SMB returns as expected, but SMB3 adds so much more. The most notable is the Raccoon Suit, giving Mario the ability to fly (although, like all the flying power-ups in the series, the ability to float after normal jumps is actually more useful). There are also the rarer Frog, Tanooki, and Hammer Bros. suits. While the Frog Suit has the problem of being a hindrance unless you’re underwater, the statue ability the Tanooki Suit adds to the Raccoon functionality and complete brokenness (you can kill Thwomps and Boos!) of the Hammer Suit’s titular projectiles are incredible and will make you very happy you can save and hoard power-ups on the map screen.
The level design is complemented by perfect controls. There is no clunkiness or stiffness this time; Mario’s momentum is smooth and fully controllable. Precision platforming is no problem; if you’re skilled enough, you can easily handle tiny platforms above a bottomless pit or a screen filled with Bullet Bills and cannonballs. Even with so many power-ups, they’re intuitive and never make you annoyed that you only have two buttons to work with. The jumping physics are still among the best in 2D platformers today. It will never be the control’s fault if you die.
At 90 levels, Super Mario Bros. 3 still holds the record among 2D Mario platformers. However, it definitely isn’t the longest one. If there’s a flaw in the game worth noting, it’s that the levels can be extremely short. Despite this, the sheer amount of them gives the game plenty of length for an 8-bit platformer — in fact, it could be considered too long in its original NES cart form, since there was no saving.
This was also the first Mario game to have content outside of the levels, introducing world maps to the series. Each of the eight worlds has a map that will not only let you make choices between certain levels, but is filled with bonus games and even secrets that will let you earn 1ups and more items to use on the level of your choice. You can also use the map to not only battle enemies in brief encounters, but battle a second player. In a vs. mode inspired by the original Mario Bros. arcade game, Mario and Luigi can fight for items in the first instance of simultaneous multi-player in the Super Mario series.
Another factor that will make sure the game last a while is the challenge. It is one of the harder Mario games, especially since there is no optional world for the hardest levels to be confined to. The levels may be short, but enemies, projectiles, and instant death pits are packed into them more densely than most Marios and Mushrooms and other power-ups show up less frequently. The auto-scrolling levels can get especially brutal later in the game with more enemy projectiles than you can count filling the screen while you are forced to go at a pace the level decides. There is some mercy thanks to one-time use items, like the P-Wing and Cloud that will let you skip or very easily complete a limited amount of levels.
The presentation of Super Mario Bros. 3 has been improved as much as the gameplay. Instead of being blocky abstract representations, the characters in SMB3 look fully realized. Mario no longer has to rely on palette swaps for different suits, as his raccoon ears and tail demonstrate. Each world has a distinct theme now and the levels show enough details to make sure you can tell what that theme is without checking the world name. A lot of recurring Mario enemies made their debut here, — Thwomps, Boos, and Chain Chomps are all instantly recognizable. The music, like the world themes, has a lot more variety than the original Super Mario Bros. with unique music for each type of level that conveys the setting very well. The sound effects have the same cartoony energy to them present in every Mario game.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is a true classic and is one of the best aged 8-bit games in existence. While you might find a few cracks in it if you examine every inch with a microscope, they never interfere with the amazing amount of creativity that went into the game or the enjoyment and satisfaction you get from playing it. This game was a turning point for not only Mario, but Nintendo and arguably gaming as a whole. To this day, it is still one of the best games of all time. Even approaching 25 years since its release, SMB3 is every bit as mandatory for gamers as it was the day it came out.