Original version: Super Mario Bros. 3, released on 1988/10/23 for Nintendo Famicom
Recommended version: The WiiU Virtual Console re-release of Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, released on 2003/07/11 for Game Boy Advance
After the immense success of Super Mario Bros., it was inevitable that a sequel would be made. Nintendo actually went about this in two different ways. The first sequel was called Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels and featured the same gameplay and art assets of the original, but was cruelly difficult. It was meant to be a satisfying challenge for those who mastered SMB and hungered for more. The other sequel was a reskin of the game Doki-Doki Panic with Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad being substituted for the original characters. Its gameplay was different from SMB in every way except that it was also a platformer. Both games are technically “Super Mario Bros. 2,” but neither was a genuine successor to the first one. But on one fateful day in 1988 gamers in Japan were treated to a game that was not just a sequel, but a veritable tour de force.
Super Mario Bros. 3, like its predecessors, is a platformer starring Mario (and Luigi, if you had a younger sibling). Not content to rest on their laurels, Miyamoto and his team at Nintendo’s R&D 4 crafted a work of art which not only rose to meet its predecessor, but improved upon it in every conceivable way. A world map, a more robust HUD, an inventory system, mini-games, overworld encounters, and even the ability of flight were added. but I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was a completely fresh start. Every single thing was redrawn from scratch–no visual asset was reused. This lent the game a distinct visual style, almost a re-imagining of the Mario concept. And if nothing else, it showed how much the artists and programmers had learned about the Famicom hardware. Re-creating everything from scratch also meant that the developers didn’t feel even slightly tied down to what came before. They could be completely free artistically. Miyamoto said that he wished for this to be the greatest Mario game, and he put in the effort to back up that sentiment. SMB3 was the largest game published by Nintendo up to that point, both in terms of scope and size. Whereas SMB was 40 KB, SMB3 was 384 KB (3 Mb). It was also among the most expensive games ever made at that time, topping the equivalent of $100,000. Its development team was made up of about 20 persons (although only 11 were credited), a huge team size at the time. SMB3 was an epic, and the public knew it.
SMB3 received glowing reviews from critics and sold so well that there was a supply shortage. It was the #1 best selling game in Japan for five months straight. SMB3 was released in Japan in October 1988, but didn’t make it to America until February 1990. A chip shortage in 1988 led Nintendo of America to the difficult decision to delay the game until early 1990. That would give them all of 1989 to recover from the chip shortage, get caught up on orders, and prepare for SMB3’s release. Throughout late 1988 and all of 1989 they teased the game, and their tactic worked. In the sixteen months that Americans had to wait, a steady trickle of information slowly drove everyone mad with anticipation.
By the time the game released, merely mentioning it was enough to get everyone frothing at the mouth. (Well, not everyone. The NES was in only 22% of American households.) Just compare the Japanese and American TV commercials, and you’ll see the difference straightaway.
The American commercial didn’t need to show the game or anything about it. Americans already knew. They had already soaked up every detail, burned every screenshot into their mind’s eye, memorized every magazine preview. Things reached a fever pitch in December of 1989; a full three months before SMB3 released in America, the movie The Wizard gave viewers a taste of gameplay. The Wizard was not a good movie at all, but it served its purpose. SMB3 set the record for the most-anticipated game ever. The box art alone can cause aneurysms because of how loudly it screams “fun.”
But why? What was so great about this game that it sold 250,000 units in the first two days, and achieved lifetime sales of 18 million copies? Well, let’s take a look from the beginning.
Super Mario Bros. 3 opens with a cutscene in which stage curtains receding to show Mario and Luigi playing around. Two power-ups fall from above, one being the familiar red mushroom and the other being the new feather power-up. Mario grabs the feather and becomes racoon Mario. We see Mario using it to slow his descent to the ground. Astute players may notice that the number 3’s shadow has the same tail and ears that Mario does when he’s in his racoon state. The developers correctly predicted that the feather power-up would steal the show. Mario also takes damage in the opening scene, subtly showing the player that it works just like the mushroom and fire flower did (although in the American version, taking a hit reverts you to big Mario and a second hit takes you back to small Mario).
The stage curtains immediately betray that SMB 3 is meant to be a theatrical play for an unseen audience. Mario has never been strict on canon, always being willing to play with the established rules, even going so far as to retcon who Bowser’s children are.
At various places in the game you can see bushes casting shadows on the sky and platforms bolted to the sky, suggesting that it is in fact a wall at the back of the stage. And at the end of every stage the world “runs out” and reveals a black backdrop. This is because Mario is exiting stage right. Being framed within a play makes everything lighthearted because it’s not real. In World 8 we see Bowser deploying a battalion of tanks–such a thing is unspeakably dark for a Mario game, but because this is only a play, the story can turn as dark as it pleases and it’s all just fun and games.
When the player starts the game we immediately see another new feature: an overworld map. Every time you transition back to the overworld from a level, the interface subtly shows you where Mario is on the map. Look closely at how the massive panel transforms into a circle of stars that moves over to a specific spot and then Mario appears. The player’s eyes are being guided to where Mario is without even knowing that they’re being guided. The game is full of small touches like this.
Mario is free to move about this map, although at first he can only move to Level 1-1. The map opens up more as you progress. A player can choose to revisit a level as many times as they wish, and can often play levels out of order or even skip some. Aside from normal levels there are also bonus minigames, enemy encounters, special events, and castles. The player can also use rare items on the overworld to interact with it. For example, the hammer can be used to smash boulders, making certain out-of-reach places accessible. A cloud allows a player to skip levels. A warp whistle can be used to whisk Mario away to a secret place. One of these secret places is a group of four islands with a distinct resemblance.
Toad’s hut and hammer brothers encounters award the player a random power-up. The regular stream of incoming power-ups ensures that there is always an endless number of ways to play. The added ability to pick up koopa shells adds a whole new way to interact with the environment (and is eventually required in order to progress, long after the player has mastered it). Water levels, castles, minigames, and encounters are clearly distinguished on the overworld so that the player can prepare accordingly. A bank of reserve items can be accessed on the overworld; a player could equip a frog suit before entering a water level, for example.
The racoon power-up not only gives Mario the power of flight, it also enables him to do a spin attack and to slow his fall. Falling slowly makes many platforming sections easier. The feather item is introduced near the beginning of stage 1-1, along with the ability to pick up and throw koopa shells. And right after the player picks up the feather item, there is a long runway upon which the player can build up their P-meter (another new feature). Once the meter is full, leaping will produce flight. All of these things are taught to the player by just allowing them to explore, play around, try new things, and figure it out on their own. But the developers laid out the stage in such a way that was conducive to said exploration. Such brilliant game design is understated and–frankly–underappreciated.
Several other power-ups make their debut. The tanuki suit allows Mario to briefly become an invincible statue. (Miyamoto said of it, “I knew the tanuki suit wouldn’t make sense to non-Japanese players, but I was so excited that I left it in.”) The frog suit allows him to jump high in the air and to swim underwater with unsurpassed ease and velocity. This is a welcome addition, as swimming is sluggish. The P-wing, possibly the most highly-prized item, allows Mario to fly without needing to charge up the P-meter beforehand. The sky features plenty of secrets for the player who is both equipped and willing to fly skyward. With the hammer suit, Mario becomes a hammer brother, dispensing painful justice to his foes. The fire flower and invincibility star make a return, as do the green 1-up mushrooms. If Mario runs while invincible, he’ll flip while jumping. You can almost feel the raw power of the star by seeing how it affects Mario’s ability.
Blocks can also be turned into coins, and vice versa, by using the new P-switch. Players who pay close attention may find a hidden set of platforms in coin form. Activating the P-switch makes it possible to ascend to a secret area. In other areas, turning a row of coins into blocks allows one to bypass a challenging section. Hidden rouge-colored music blocks will vault Mario up to the clouds to collect coins in an auto-scrolling bonus level. One of the key reasons for SMB‘s success was its inclusion of secrets. And SMB3 takes it to a new level–nearly every stage is littered with secrets for players to discover, or be notified of by their friends. There’s a secret so rare that almost no one knows about it. A flying treasure ship, based on Japanese mythology, will appear if certain rare circumstances are met. Mario can then board the ship and collect coins, unimpeded by enemies.
The high amount of gameplay variety doesn’t stop at power-ups and items (and new moves such as sliding down slopes). The levels themselves are highly varied, and there are plenty of them. There are 88 levels in SMB3, compared to 32 in SMB. The entirety of World 4 is a giant world. Blocks and enemies dwarf Mario. In a couple of stages Mario must traverse a desert while the Sun periodically swoops down from the sky trying to kill him. That thing scared me as a toddler. I always asked my sister to beat those stages for me because I was too creeped out to focus on the task at hand.
There’s a new enemy called the chain chomp, which was based on a dog from Miyamoto Shigeru’s childhood. There was a dog in a neighbor’s yard that lunged at Miyamoto while barking every time he walked by. The dog was held back by a chain, but it was scary nonetheless. In more recent Mario games the chain chomps actually bark like dogs. In SMB3 there’s an interesting secret concerning the chain chomps. If you allow one to lunge at you 49 times, then it will break free from its chain. The boo was based on the director Tezuka Takashi’s wife. She was ordinarily a very shy and soft-spoken woman, but one night she yelled at him for spending too much time at work. He was stunned. The boos, likewise, are very shy and hide their faces behind their hands while you’re looking at them, but when you turn your back they chase after you with a ferocious face.
Some levels are entirely auto-scrolling. You need to be quick enough to keep up with the moving camera. It’s possible to get crushed between the left side of the screen and a wall, or to be pushed off the edge of a cliff to your death. The camera doesn’t scroll terribly quickly, of course, and oftentimes the player is killed only because they were being greedy. Water levels usually require you to avoid enemies, as Mario can’t jump on their heads to kill them underwater, although he can still shoot them with fireballs. The airships combine platforming mastery, auto-scrolling, hazard avoidance, and boss battles. Sadly, the boss battles in SMB3 are nothing special, and an experienced player can finish them in 5 or 10 seconds.
Fortunately the developers learned from these lackluster battles and greatly improved the formula in Super Mario World. The weak boss battles can be forgiven considering how strong the rest of the gameplay is. And the final fight against Bowser is unique, if nothing else. Speaking of bosses, if you defeat a fortress boss while invincible, the question orb it drops will appear upside-down.
Also, if you defeat a koopaling while wearing a suit, the king will be fooled by your appearance and react accordingly.
The game didn’t need to have this much extra content packed into it, but they went for it just the same. If there were a “labor of love” award, I know that SMB3 would have won it.
One very subtle but much-appreciated feature is the ability for the camera to scroll left. In SMB it could only scroll right–once you made the camera pan right there was no going back. But thanks to the inclusion of a micro chip called the MMC3, in SMB3 you could run left from the ending of the stage to the beginning if you so desired. The camera could also scroll up, down, and diagonally–a requisite for flying high in the sky. The scrolling is smooth and consistent, too.
Some worlds play with your expectations. In the giant world everything except items is huge. Blocks and enemies alike dwarf Mario. The graphics are always stylish and distinctive, with each biome having its own flavor. The Super Mario All-Stars remake for the Super Famicom updated the graphics but, sadly, removed much of what made the game’s appearance unique. It also made the backgrounds appear 3D, with the castle backgrounds stretching deep into the Z axis with parallax scrolling. Such a visual effect, although technically impressive, contravenes the 2D backgrounds that a stage play necessitates (how far back does a stage go?). And even more unfortunately, the Game Boy Advance remake, which is the overall best version, was based on Super Mario All-Stars so it retains the “updated” graphical style. This isn’t enough to undermine the game’s quality, of course, and many players may even prefer the more advanced graphics. Speaking of graphics, the developers had honed their skills enough by 1988 that they could produce exquisite artwork. Art assets are colorful, detailed, well-animated by Famicom standards, varied, and charming.You can instantly see a massive improvement from SMB1 to 3.
The sound, too, is even better than ever. Kondo Koji returned as composer, turning out an astounding 30 musical tracks, as opposed to SMB‘s nine. Of these 30 tracks, only three are returning music from SMB, and the warp whistle jingle is from The Legend of Zelda, also written by Kondo Koji. For SMB, Koji wrote music that fit the gameplay, but with SMB3 he focused more on different genres, considering that there were eight differently-themed worlds.
The music in SMB3 is greater not only in quantity, but also in quality, being more varied and technically impressive. Before the integration of MIDI into consoles, composers had to program their music into the game. You can really tell that Kondo had gotten more proficient with the Famicom by 1988. The music of SMB3 is usually joyful and peppy, but doesn’t shy away from being somber, sinister, or reverent as the situation calls for. A reworked version of the soundtrack was released on tape and CD in Japan.
Not every extra feature is tremendous, of course. We can only expect that a game with a thousand ideas in it will have a few duds. Hammer Brother encounters are sometimes undesired and unavoidable. A music box can be used to tranquilize them, but doing so isn’t fun, nor is it a good use of an item slot. World 7 is filled with pipes that confuse and annoy the player. It takes trial and error to figure out which pipe connects with which, and Mario has to cut to an underground scene in between each pipe, which is a pointless waste of time. Fortunately this only happens in World 7. The first castle in World 3 is also a pain in the butt. It’s filled with doors that lead to dead-ends, and the timer continues to run down as you frantically search for the correct door. The fortress in World 8 is even worse, but at least they give you 400 seconds instead of 300.
A rather weird complaint one might have is about the feather power-up. In many levels a player can fly over huge swaths of a level, if not the entire thing. This can break the game, in a way, because the player can simply skip over it all. I don’t think that this is a broken game mechanic because in almost every level where this could be done, the platforming is so much fun that most players wouldn’t do it. And in the very few annoying levels, you can’t. So it balances out. Another weird complaint is about Kuribo’s shoe, not because it’s bad, but because it’s really good and it only appears in one stage. What a missed opportunity! Everyone loves Kuribo’s shoe. It remains an iconic item to this very day despite only having made the one appearance.
(By the way, kuribo is the Japanese name for the goomba. It literally means “chestnut.” I have no idea why Nintendo of America didn’t localize it as “goomba’s shoe.”)
One really cool thing to do is activate your tanuki suit in midair over a kuribo’s boot. If you do, you’ll be able to move but you’ll have the invulnerability of the suit. Effectively, you’ll be completely invincible until the end of the stage or until time runs out. The only drawback is that you can’t use pipes.
In addition to a generous allotment of coins compared to SMB1, there are also plenty of 1-ups littered throughout stages. Additionally, the slot machine mini-game can provide you with up to five lives after every three stages. These lives are very welcome considering the difficulty. There are no mid-level checkpoints in SMB3. These levels are pretty short so it doesn’t matter at first, but the difficulty ramps up later in the game. World 8 especially is tough; perhaps too tough. Fortunately the GBA remake has a slightly lower difficulty setting. There is still a good challenge, but it’s tweaked just enough to be more reasonable. There’s also an added save feature. Without it the game could only be beaten in one sitting by the most seasoned players.
Aside from the ability to save, the GBA remake also includes extra content. There is a reworked version of Mario Bros. (originally released for arcade in 1983), an opening cutscene, voice acting, and more. As mentioned before, the graphics are overhauled. The music is too, and I personally prefer the original 8-bit version, but you may like the newer version better. The wider screen of the GBA allows you to see upcoming enemies and obstacles sooner, giving you a better chance to react to them. There are also extra stages that require the ill-fated e-reader peripheral to access. Fortunately, when the GBA game was released for the Virtual Console on the WiiU all 30 levels were included.
Here’s a video of me playing through World 1 (quite poorly).
Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that everything we’ve looked at so far is what made it into the final game. There was plenty of cut content. Several mini-games didn’t make it, including a dice-roll game.
Ever since 1985 Miyamoto wished for Mario to be able to ride a dinosaur, but the team just couldn’t find a good way to implement it. But they were able to include it in the following game, Super Mario World. You may recognize this creature as Yoshi. The team wished for Mario to face different directions as he walked across the overworld map. This, too, made it into Super Mario World. Another cut feature was simultaneous multiplayer. There is only alternating gameplay, with players switching after each level or death. It wasn’t until New Super Mario Bros. Wii that multiple players could play at once. Considering just how much this game has to offer, I don’t think anyone feels disappointed. On the contrary, it’s stunning that they were able to make such an amazingly jam-packed game.
I am really glad that I wrote this article. There were many aspects of SMB3–actually, most aspects–that I took for granted. I played SMB3 before I could even speak full sentences or tie my shoes, and I simply accepted that it was jam-packed with interesting content. But there’s much more to the story than that. Writing this article forced me to see just how much work Miyamoto and company put into this labor of love, and how much it paid off. I didn’t intend to rave over this game as much as I have; it simply happened once I examined it from a fresh perspective. SMB3 is without a doubt one of the finest video games ever made. If you haven’t played it yet, please do so.
You can buy an electronic copy for the WiiU which includes all 30 extra e-reader levels, or you can buy a physical copy of the game for the GBA here. If you legally own a copy then you can download a GBA backup here or a Wii U backup here. The original Famicom version is available for sale on the 3DS, or it can be played on a Nintendo Switch if you pay for a club membership.