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Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) artwork

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) review

"As you play through this title, you're likely to pause at least once and wonder why games aren't this good anymore. The level design is bliss, the graphics beyond good and appropriate, the music engaging, the challenge level perfect."

The third title in the Super Mario Bros. franchise, and the one some would say sealed Mario as an industry icon for somewhere around a decade, Super Mario Bros. 3 is arguably the ultimate example of why many of today's adults started playing games and continue to play them to this very day. A polished, enormous platforming adventure, Super Mario Bros. 3 manages to be an excellent play for gamers of all ages, a testament to what developers once could (and still theoretically can do) with the 'limitation' of only two dimensions.

The story is the best place to start. As was the case with Super Mario Bros. before it, there's not a whole lot to it. An enormous turtle-like creature with spikes and poofy orange hair has kidnapped Princess Toadstool of the Mushroom Kingdom. Along with his Koopa children, Bowser is wreaking havoc throughout the otherwise peaceful realm. Mario and Luigi, two heroic plumbers, immediately undertake a quest to restore peace, save the princess, and prove to the turtles that plumbers really know what they're doing.

Clearly, the story is what some might consider 'weak'. It's fairly generic and not only that, it's been done before (within the franchise, no less). Still, there's a certain fairytale appeal to the whole thing. That appeal spreads to the graphics, which are a definite improvement over anything the series saw before. There are the shifting sands, the copper pipes, the bricks, the sky palaces, the eerie fortress designs, the themes from world to world, and in a game-altering switch, the world maps.

That's right; each world has a special theme, punctuated perfectly by an appropriate map. The first world has grassy fields, and the levels match well. The second world is a desert and you'll notice the difference in the level geography. Sand pits, pyramids, and a burning sun are only a few examples. So it goes through the whole game. The map is about more than just visuals, though. Its effect on the gameplay is the stuff of legends, an innovation that affected gaming for all time.

Players are placed on the map, where they can follow paths to access levels. Reaching the level icon will allow you to enter it and complete it. To progress to the end of a world, you must complete several (but generally not all) of the stages and clear the way to the final castle waiting at the end. Along the way are bonus areas where you can stock up on items and lives. If you get to the castle without dying all your lives, you can access the Koopa airship, where you must defeat one of Bowser's offspring. Should you die all your lives there, you'll go back to the start of the map. The airship will still be present, but the numbered levels you completed are now in the way again, meaning that if you have to continue, it's very bad news but not the end of the world.

Complicating matters is the two-player mode. If you're playing with a friend--and why wouldn't you be?--you'll likely find yourself competing for items. Sometimes it's no big deal, but the really cool stuff is a matter of life and death, it sometimes seems. It's common for one player to clear the path to the mushroom house, then for the other to skip over the first player and grab the goods he really didn't earn. The good news is that there's a fair way to resolve this: simply enter the game's included battle mode.

If you ever played the original Mario Bros. then you have an approximate idea of what to expect. Two players run and jump around a small area, knocking enemies from beneath, then clearing them for a coin. The player to receive the most of the five coins wins, unless he dies while attempting to do so. Whoever wins the match gets to continue along the map. That's a summary, of course. There's more depth to this one mode than you might imagine.

As nice as this little diversion is, though, the real depth comes from the changes Miyamoto and crew made throughout the game as a whole. It seems like the wonders never cease, particularly in levels. Mario can now fly, a skill new to the franchise. He can turn into a statue. He can throw hammers. He can swim in a frog suit. All of this is weird, but cool. All of it requires finding the appropriate suit. Each level is built to utilize various skills. Having the right suit helps, but it's not required. For example, a water level might be a breeze with a frog suit, and the fire flower can help melt new passages to goodies in the ice world. Speaking of passages, there are plenty of them hidden throughout the game. Secrets of all kinds seem to abound, whether it be the coin-laden ghost ship or the secret white mushroom house.

For an example of the type of ingenuity you can witness in nearly every level in the game, imagine that you’re playing through a stage in world two. Pyramids shimmer in the background, while in the foreground there are large stones. Chain chomps are fixed to posts in the area, and they’ll fly out to bite you if you get within range. Meanwhile, Koopa Troopa turtles patrol other places. You notice that below one such ledge, there’s a narrow little pit, with bricks at the bottom. Thinking fast, you stomp on the Koopa, which causes it to hide in its shell, much like it would have in the original Super Mario Bros. game. However, you touch its side and grab it, rather than kicking it. Quickly, you run over to the edge of the pit, then throw the shell down the opening. It bounces back and forth, hits some bricks at the bottom, then causes a vine to sprout from one of them. The plant rises toward the sky and you climb up it, to an island of blocks that hangs high above the level.

Here, there’s a copper pipe. You jump up to it and warp into a bonus room. There’s a ‘P’ block here, some bricks hanging in the air, and a row of coins below. Rather than grabbing the cash immediately, you stomp on the block to turn them briefly to bricks. Meanwhile, the bricks that were hanging above have now turned to coins. You collect them all, just before the ledge you’re standing on is cash once more. And so you’ve collected all the bounty from that chamber. You exit the pipe, dash to the end of the stage, and hit the magical card roulette. Now, it just so happens that this is the third roulette you’ve struck, and all three symbols match. The view rises to fireworks above, where you receive five extra lives for the perfect play. Then it’s back to the world map. Suddenly, a hammer brother patrolling just to your right turns into a flying ghost ship. It seems you played just right, and now there’s a new bonus level unlocked.

The above example is just one of hundreds like it in the game. In another stage, you might find yourself swapping between doors as your enemies change size. In others, you’ll ride the backs of flying beetles over bottomless pits, wander through a fortress hallway filled with dead-end doors, or sink through a pool of quicksand to find the hidden rooms far below the ground’s surface. Some are cooler that others. As you can imagine, there's so much to see and do that you can easily play through this game a hundred times and still not find everything.

Well, perhaps not so easily. If you're playing in the morning, going through all the stages to the end might keep you occupied into the late afternoon. There are close to 100 stages. While most of them are quite short, you still have to really hurry if you want to make the adventure a short one. That, or you need to find the warps. In this game, items are the key to warping. You really only have to complete around 15 stages to finish the game through its shortest route, but then you'd be missing so many things it would be a true shame. Fortunately, the warping system means that you can quite easily get to your favorite world in the game in a matter of minutes, especially if you're good. It's nice the developers thought of such things.

In fact, it's nice they thought of a lot of things. As you play through this title, you're likely to pause at least once and wonder why games aren't this good anymore. The level design is bliss, the graphics beyond good and appropriate, the music engaging, the challenge level perfect and the number of secrets astronomical. Everything fits together seamlessly, which means that the best games out there might hope to equal Super Mario Bros. 3, but they can never surpass it.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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