One Giant Leap, 1988: Super Mario Bros. 3

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: Mario closes out his NES era with Super Mario Bros. 3

The original Super Mario Bros. was the game that defined the platformer genre. It’s the reason why seemingly half of all NES games were also platformers. Every game we’ve talked about since can cite SMB as an influence, and that’s going to be true for probably every game going forward. So, what does it look like when you attempt to follow up such a singular work?

It looks like Super Mario Bros. 2, a disappointing level pack rushed out one year later. Turns out Nintendo were one-trick ponies. Oh well.

Were they even trying?

Stray Observations:

  • Okay okay come back. Obviously that’s not the final word here. Nintendo would actually make a serious attempt at a follow-up a few years later, with Super Mario Bros. 3. SMB3 is a stunningly ambitious game, spread across 8 distinct worlds, each with 10+ levels1, a far cry from SMB1’s 32 total. Each of these worlds is its own biome; Grass Land, Water Land, Sky Land, etc. This breadth of setting would eventually become cliché in the genre (and especially for Mario games) but in 1988 it’s simply impressive. It also introduces an overworld, with hidden bonuses and branching paths, and is full of new powerups and mechanics. This isn’t a game content to rest on its laurels; this is a game that wants to build a dynasty.

At times, SMB3’s ambition gets a bit ahead of it. It may have 90+ levels, but it still has to fit onto the same platform as SMB1. Some of that’s made up by advances in understanding of the hardware, but it’s also made up by making each level incredibly short. It’s not like Super Mario Bros. was filled with epics or anything, but some SMB3 levels are vanishingly small, clearable in less than a minute even by casual players. It also has more gimmicks than it really knows what to do with. Future Mario games would turn this into a strength, building memorable encounters out of mechanics that you only see that one time (Super Mario 3D World is an excellent example of this), but in SMB3 the individual levels are too short to make one-hit-wonders really shine. So you get elements like the Frog Suit, which ostensibly exists to make swimming easier, but never has a level built around it and so mostly exists to languish in your inventory as you forget you have it. Or Kuribo’s Shoe, a really neat giant shoe thing that exists in exactly one level that I would have loved to see more from.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is often brought up in “best Mario game” discussions, and it’s easy to see why. This game was such a seismic shift away from the first, and it has so much going on for an NES game. But, I have to admit that it didn’t really grab me. And honestly, I think it was partially my fault. I played SMB3 on the Switch, and made ample use of the built-in rewind function to come back from mistakes. I wound up beating the game with ~50 lives in reserve, because why would I ever let a death stick when I could simply not instead? So on the surface, this seems like a pretty clear case of a player optimizing the fun out of a game. Honestly, you might even argue that I shouldn’t have used this feature, that it was downright unfair for me to cheat myself in this way.

But, that would be ignoring some important context. This was not my first time attempting to play Super Mario Bros. 3. Every time I had tried before, however, I eventually gave up out of frustration. On a game over, SMB3 will respawn you at either the start of the world or at the last castle you beat, which means you can get into a loop where you have 3 levels between you and the next checkpoint, you game over somewhere in the 3rd one, and have to replay them all, constantly redoing levels you’ve already beaten, not even getting all that many cracks at the part you’re truly stuck on because of the lives you spend just getting back. I wanted to actually see the whole game this time, and so I decided it was better to abuse save states and beat it than get bogged down halfway through for the Nth time and have the whole article be about how a 30-year-old game is too harsh by modern standards.

Although, there actually is something more at work than simply games being harder back in the 80s. You see, Super Mario Bros. 3 is somewhat unique amongst its peers in that it actually has tons of anti-frustration features. The maps frequently feature branching paths, meaning if one level’s kicking your ass you can skip it and get to the next checkpoint another way. If you’re Racoon Mario (or Tanooki Mario) you can fly right over many levels with a running start. Hell, you could use the P-Wing item to make this even easier. Or maybe you want to use a Lakitu’s Cloud to skip a problematic level entirely. And most famous of all, SMB3 has 3 Warp Whistles, two of which can be found in World 1 and very quickly transfer the player from World 1 to World 8.

As seen in smash hit The Wizard

But, you may have noticed that all these methods have one thing in common; they skip levels. Sometimes quite a large number of them. It’s the Warp Zone from SMB1 squared. All these secrets and powerups demonstrate a “it’s the destination, not the journey” philosophy. And honestly, for the era that makes a lot of sense. Even by 1988, getting to actually beat a video game was a rare treat, not something you expected as a matter of course. Players would have been super excited by anything that might have let them see the end of their games, an experience they otherwise might have never gotten. When talking about super hard games, I’ve heard the expression “you should play as fair as the game”. Normally that’s meant to assuage a player’s guilt over using a cheesy strategy to “cheat” the game and/or themselves, but SMB3 approaches this same idea from the other perspective. It’s flat-out telling you “we do not intend to play fair, and we don’t expect you to do so in return. Skip whatever you want. Any% is the way.”

This approach is pretty interesting, but ultimately it’s not for me. Thankfully, the industry at large will shift to my perspective very soon. But even if you share my affliction, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a pretty solid game. Despite my critiques earlier, there are still some gimmicks that shine; the giant world (where everything is much larger than usual, natch) is a real standout, and sliding down slopes is inherently fun, playing with some ideas we just might be revisiting come 1991. If you’re able to meet it halfway, you just might see why so many love it.

Stray Observations:

  • World 7-Fortress1 is the worst Mario level ever, and I say this as someone who’s 100%ed Sunshine. Unacceptably obtuse. I’d expect this from a 12-year-old on Mario Maker, not Nintendo themselves.
  • The final Bowser fight is shockingly clever for the era. Today, something like “trick the boss into ground-pounding a hole in the floor” is pretty basic, but most boss fights were still based solely on core mechanics at the time; every other boss in the game is just “jump on their head and/or shoot fire at them” so having something environmental that’s a bit of a twist is very refreshing.
  • The Super Leaf is such a fun power-up, but even more than the Fire Flower it illustrates the problem with power-ups doubling as a life bar. The game is so much easier when you have a Super Leaf; you’re basically playing on easy mode. But to maintain it you have to demonstrate mastery. The players who would benefit most get it the least.
  • This game also features waterfalls, which basically work like isolated paths of regular swimmable water in an otherwise non-water level. Impossible water is my favorite thing in all of Mario, and while they’re still justifying it as waterfalls here this is definitely the same vibe. Love it.

Other 1988 platformers of note:

Of course, the Super Mario Bros. 2 I mentioned at the start of the article isn’t the only SMB2 in existence. Nintendo recognized how disappointing (not to mention incredibly difficult) this sequel was, so outside of Japan they chose to reskin an unrelated game (Doki Doki Panic) and release it as Super Mario Bros. 2.

Owing to its origins, this new SMB2 has very little to do with the first game. It features non-linear levels, and is centered around picking up objects as a secondary mechanic. Despite this, it has been fully embraced by its new family, with many elements being adopted into the broader Mario canon. Many enemies (Shy-Guys, Birdo, Bob-ombs) would become series regulars, and the game’s depictions of its four playable characters (Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad) would eventually become standard; this is where we get the idea of Luigi as jumping higher but having worse traction than Mario, and Super Mario 3D World would lift this foursome wholesale. It doesn’t feel much like other Mario games, but it is by no means bad.

1988 would also see the first of many Mega Man sequels. Mega Man 2 greatly refines the original, expanding to 8 robot masters, adding more movement items, dropping the superfluous score system, and just generally being an all-around improvement. Also the soundtrack is a killer.

Next Time: We move away from the NES, and consoles altogether, to check out Jordan Mechner’s classic Prince of Persia.