Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES) review
"They say nothing in this world's perfect, and I suppose that's true. But there are some things out there that seem to be so flawless, so impressive, so ingenious down to the tiniest detail, that we can't help but declare them, if not perfect, then perfect enough. Take Super Mario Bros 3 for example. Not only was it light years ahead of anything that came before it, but it was light years ahead of everything that came afterwards as well. It seems like Nintendo took every detail that I think i..."
They say nothing in this world's perfect, and I suppose that's true. But there are some things out there that seem to be so flawless, so impressive, so ingenious down to the tiniest detail, that we can't help but declare them, if not perfect, then perfect enough. Take Super Mario Bros 3 for example. Not only was it light years ahead of anything that came before it, but it was light years ahead of everything that came afterwards as well. It seems like Nintendo took every detail that I think is important in a platformer, refined it to the highest possible degree, and built upon that a masterpiece. I'm still in awe every time I play the game how it all comes together, how a game of this magnitude could have even been made in the first place. Sure, it sounds corny, but I seriously believe this is as close to perfect as videogames will ever get.
It all begins with the fundamentals of course, and fortunately Mario 3 is based off the best. The original Super Mario had near perfect controls, allowing you to run and jump to your heart's delight. And it's the combination of these two, virtually to the exclusion of all else, that really made this series what it was. It's not just that the controls were so responsive and tight (which they are), but also the way they're used.. For instance, Mario won't stop immediately when you stop running, which you'll have to account for. But it also means you can run and then duck, sliding under blocks or enemies while still moving forward. And you can gauge the heights of your jumps as well. The important thing is that as you become more familiar with this game, the controls will become a part of you. You'll be able to leap into abandon and land directly on a tiny platform far away with ease. Or you'll run on some ice, slide under a ledge, immediately get up and jump on an enemy, using him to get a power jump up onto another small ledge, which you'll hit running and leap off a split second later. It's not just that the controls are so tight. It's that you'll be able to perform a complex series of runs and jumps automatically, without thinking about it. Your control over Mario is so complete that every action you take is almost instinct, allowing you to get through even the most harrowing of obstacles without ever slowing down. There will never be a point where you can blame the controls for your problems, something that can't be said for most games. The oft imitated run&jump of Mario has never been beaten, and has never been this good.
Mario 3 expands upon this, offering a host of new moves from flying to carrying shells. But whereas in most games these serve to replace or to weaken the traditional elements, here it only enhances them. You can slide down hills, killing the enemies on there, and then blast off as soon as you hit the bottom. You have to build up some speed before you can fly, requiring you to run and jump around all the obstacles. The speed that you're running and jumping affects the trajectory of your hammers with the hammer bros suit. See how it all comes together? And of course, the level design was created around all these things. Some tricky areas can be bypassed by flying; others by the hammer bros suit. Tough swimming becomes easier with the frog suit. You can aim at blocks that are tough to hit by picking up shells. Secrets can be found with all sorts of new tricks. It's not just a hodge-podge of new ideas like some games, however, they were all fully integrated into the levels. Every skill and powerup was useful, yet you didn't need every skill and powerup. Obstacles could be passed through multiple techniques, all while not overshadowing the rest of the level. Platform jumping and running was still important at all places, and the game was still built around interacting with the level design rather than a focus on your own actions. The extras here do not fundamentally change the classic Mario formula, they only serve to bring it to an all new level.
So what does this all mean? In many inferior platform games, the emphasis is on meeting one challenge at a time. You have to fight one tough enemy, or you have a series of complex jumps up a waterfall, or you have to perform some complex move to reach the higher platform. But here, none of the jumps are difficult, none of the enemies are difficult, and none of the moves are difficult. Instead, you face all of these at once, allowing emergent gameplay to remain supreme. See, the minor challenge from the enemies and the platforms and the correct jumping all work together, forcing you to worry about them all at once. And when you factor running into the equation, the challenge reaches a whole new plane. You have smooth transitions from one challenge to another, making the entire level feel like a complete experience. You have more room for creativity, as your challenges aren't tied down to just one issue. And it also means Nintendo has room for creativity as well, as they can mix and match their enemies and platforms and moves at a whim. Instead of the actions involved defining the gameplay, it's the levels. And when that happens, you get a very sleek experience. Everything just comes together, emerging into brand new challenges and brand new experiences. It's a lot more difficult to pull it off and make it seem natural, but Nintendo did an amazing job here.
Of course, there's always the secrets. Tons of them. It seems that every other level has some cool little bonus in it, whether it be a well hidden hammer brothers suit or just a ton of coins in the sky. But they're everywhere. Which, of course, is an integral part of what makes this game so great. You will never discover everything on your own, but there's so much there that it's impossible not to find something. It makes you want to keep playing again, to explore every nook, to try everything. Sure, you don't need the extra lives, but just getting to them is its own reward. Finding the shortcuts, knowing when to use the leaves and P-wings to get to better items, and finding a hidden coin or 20 makes the level more memorable, makes the experience more concrete. And there's also plenty of secrets that you can stumble upon by accident. Imagine going through a level with the intent of getting every coin possible, and then suddenly being rewarded with a P-Wing for your impressive skill. Imagine beating a level and suddenly finding the hammer bros. turned into a magical airship filled to the brim with coins. You may not know how you triggered them, but it's possible to get these by accident (and easier once you know the secrets). But you get to reap the rewards all the same, all while trying to contain your excitement over seeing something you couldn't possibly expect. It's these sort of things that make this game stand out. Each individual prize and secret is rare enough that they won't become commonplace and routine, yet there's still enough of them that you're bound to run into them. It makes the game more unpredictable, more momentous, more exciting.
But whether you get the secrets or not, you'll notice that you're moving through the levels rather quickly. After all, they're rather short, which, as you continue to play, fits the game perfectly. It's not like the short levels are decreasing the size of the game - there are over 80 levels to explore, after all - so it's really just a decision on where to put the breaks in the game. And by making numerous short levels rather than fewer long ones, it breaks the game up into easy, manageable chunks. Rather than be a jumble of random obstacles, each stage can focus on a few ideas, be based around certain skills or a unique scenario. Thus, the stages feel more complete; more like a single organism rather than, well, a level in a game. You're able to visualize each stage more easily, a must in a game meant to be replayed as often as this one.
Yes, replayed, which is the other great aspect of these short levels. Not only are they not a chore to play once, but they usually contain multiple routes and multiple styles of gameplay (hence making them not a chore to play multiple times). You can fly up to a secret or blaze through with fire. You can take high road or the low one. You can take the ride or swim. Because each stage is just brimming with blocks, enemies, and platforms, you can find yourself playing it differently each time you come to it. Sure, there are some which focus you in one direction, but they're few and far between. Combine this variability within each level with the sheer number of secrets, the numerous actions available, the short levels, and a focus on novel and unique stages, and you get a game in which virtually every single level becomes a standout, where you play just to see what each new stage might bring.
Take a look at world 5, for example. You start out at a level with a secret right at the very beginning. It's difficult to reach though, so you may need to waste a P-wing to get it. In any case, the level is built like a giant hill, one you must ascend and descend. Level 2 has multiple exits, and you can easily skip most of the level if you manage to take the high road without falling off. Level 3 has the famous Kuribo's Shoe, a favorite of everyone who plays the game. A mini-castle has a difficult secret in it, as well as some harrowing jumps through thwomps and lava. Now scale a giant tower into the heavens, with multiple floors (some outside) to give the illusion of travelling up a great height. Level 4 takes place across a series of clouds and pinwheels, but there's a safe route above for those with a tail. In level 5 you find the ground composed of the dreaded donut blocks, but you can also find your first tanooki suit here if you're lucky. You then have a choice to visit level 6, where you must traverse a pack of parabeetles to get to the goal (as there's not much in the way of a ground), or level 7, where you must run across the clouds and bricks, but can also sneak back onto gound level to try to get a series of stars to get past that pesky Lakitu. We're on the home stretch now as you face another mini-castle, this one with lava and podoboos jumping around, both from the ground and the ceiling. Then race across the clouds with Lakitu chasing after you, with virtually no coins or other enemies to distract you. The final level is a vertical scrolling one, forcing you to jump ever higher while dodging projectiles from a fire chomp. Do you not see? Every single level offers something new to make it memorable, to make it different, to make it fun. Every level. On every world.
OK, so I do have one minor nitpick. In some of the levels, the screen scrolls automatically, and you can't go any faster or slower than the game allows you to. This can be used for great effect, particularly in the air fleet level of world 8. Jumping from ship to ship while avoiding projectiles and keeping up with the blazing speed makes this one of the most nerve-racking and intensive levels in the game. Likewise, world 6 has a scrolling level littered with donut drops and coins, forcing you to keep moving without letting the ground fall out beneath you and testing your ability to grab all the loot. And the airship levels are generally so loaded with cannons and traps that you'll have too much on your mind to worry about going slow. But sometimes these automatic scrollers simply slow the game down too much, as you stand by the right side of the screen wishing things would go faster. This is still relatively rare, and doesn't hurt the rest of the game one bit, but it does mean that some of the levels aren't as much fun as they could be.
Now, some would argue, quite vocally, that the lack of saving is also an issue. I heard Miyamato took it out on purpose, and if so I completely agree with him. This game is not meant to be saved. It is not meant to be merely passed or completed, it is meant to be experienced. You are supposed to play these levels over and over again, so that the game becomes a part of you. Remember what I said earlier about the level design and the controls complementing each other, so that the entire game becomes intuitive? You need to replay the levels over and over to get that. When you do, the emergent properties of the game shine: the multiple options through every level, the string of minor obstacles becoming more difficult with speed being added to the mix, the unique aspects of each level complementing each other. If you simply saved your progress every time, completing the game only once, you'll miss all the magic this game gives you. Levels will become disjointed, challenge will disappear, brilliant level design will be missed. That's why the levels are so short: so they don't feel like a chore to complete. That's why the warp whistles are found so early in the game: so you are given the freedom to go wherever you want. That's why there's so many opportunities for extra lives: so you can always get past a level if you die a lot while still keeping a strong challenge if you don't want to waste the time to grab 1000 coins. That's why level designs are so unique: so that you'll look forward to seeing them again rather than considering them a chore. I think it's important to see the lack of saving as it truly is, the key to making this game so great rather than a flaw. Sure, you could play it on the SNES or GBA and save your progress. But when you're playing one of the few games that are fun to play over and over again until you master it, why would you want to limit yourself to a mere shadow of the experience this awesome cartridge gives? The lack of saving makes the game better!
There's a reason I come back to play this game so often, why I'm constantly disappointed when trying something new. Super Mario Bros 3 is by far the best platformer ever made. Sonic, Kirby, Donkey Kong, Rayman, and even Mario World can't hold a candle to the platforming bliss this game provides. The amount of moves is so vast while still not overshadowing the classic run and jump formula. The short levels and sheer variety make each individual stage stand out, allowing an unprecedented level of variety and flair while still being a cohesive game. Meanwhile, the lack of saving encourages replay, while the sheer number of secrets and focus on emergent gameplay as opposed to shallow challenges insures that replaying it is always fun. Each of these elements on their own is important in and of themselves, but they all complement and reinforce each other, coming together to form a game greater than the mere sum of its parts. And when that happens, there's really only one thing you can call it. Perfect.
Community review by mariner (September 04, 2005)
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