With Super Mario Maker 2 coming out soon, I wanted to revisit some old Mario games for level design inspiration. And what better place to start than with one of the best. Super Mario Bros 3 was first released in October of 1988 in Japan, about 2 weeks after the US release of Super Mario Bros 2. We had to wait over a year for SMB3 to come to the US, and Europeans had to wait nearly 2 years. Super Mario Bros 3 came out in NA in February of 1990, following Nintendo's biggest marketing campaign up to that point, which included a very bad movie starring Fred Savage from "The Wonder Years" called "The Wizard". I had seen screenshots of SMB3 in Nintendo Power, but we didn't have videogame trailers back then, so this movie was the first time I actually saw the game in motion. I remember the big new thing about SMB3 was the ability to fly. Mario is even flying on the game's cover. SMB3 also introduced a bunch of new enemies, new types of levels, the overworld maps, the Koopa Kids, and a few other power ups besides the Super Leaf. We still see the influence Super Mario Bros 3 had on the series in today's Mario games.
In Super Mario Bros 3, Mario and Luigi step out of the Mushroom Kingdom and into the Mushroom World. It turns out that there’s a whole world out there and Princess Peach (still Toadstool here) is not its ruler. There’s 8 new lands in this game, including Dark Land, Bowser’s domain, and they each have a ruler of their own. All is not well outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, though. Bowser is at it again, and has sent the Koopalings (who aren’t actually his kids) out to cause trouble. They steal the 7 king’s magic wands and turn them into animals. Then, of course, he kidnaps Princess Peach again. Now, it’s up to Mario and Luigi to turn the kings back to normal and rescue Princess Peach. It turns out that Super Mario Bros 3 is actually a performance, though. That’s why things are bolted down, held up by ropes, or cast shadows on the background. So are Mario and the gang some kind of sketch comedy group, like The State or The Kids in the Hall?
If you played SMB3 after playing SMB2 (USA) for a year, the first thing you'd notice is how much more like SMB1 the controls feel like in SMB3. SMB2 was too fast, too responsive, and your movements lacked the weight, momentum, and impact of SMB1's. It didn't feel like Super Mario Bros. SMB3 feels like the proper evolution of SMB1's controls. Mario accelerates a little bit faster, doesn't take as long to come to a complete stop, turns around a little quicker, has more air control, and a few new moves, but he doesn't control radically different from SMB1.
The 3 new non-power up moves that really change how Mario plays and how the levels are designed are the slope slide, the super jump, and the ability to carry and throw some enemies and items. You could pick things up in SMB2 (USA), but it didn't work quite like it does here. In SMB3, Mario can pick up a Koopa shell, carry it around, and throw it at other enemies, or use it to break blocks. This allowed the developers to make sections in levels where you needed a Koopa or Buzzy Beetle shell to break blocks to progress. Mario could also slide down slopes on his butt, like on a slide, by holding down on the d-pad while going downhill. He could even take out most enemies in the way of his slide. The slope slide wasn't necessarily responsible for levels having hills in SMB3, but it gave Mario something new and fun to do besides simply running on them. The super jump allows Mario to bounce off enemies by holding down the jump button as he lands on them and jump about 50% higher than with his normal jump. This was probably the biggest game changer. Since, you could bounce so high off enemies now, the developers could design levels that required you to super jump off an enemy, or put things in places you couldn't reach with normal jumps. This super jump, combined with Racoon Mario's flutter jump, also allowed you to do SMB3's 99 lives trick.
Super Mario Bros' Super Mushroom and Fire Flower made you feel powerful, but they weren't very flashy or cute. SMB3 brings back the Mushroom and Fire Flower and builds upon the concept with new power ups that give Mario new abilities and cute costumes. The most popular and most common new power up in the game is the Super Leaf, which gives Mario racoon ears, a racoon tail, and the ability to fly. When Racoon Mario runs at top speed for few seconds and fills the "P" meter (P is for Power), he stretches his arms out, like a plane, and is able to fly for a short period of time when you mash the jump button. The Racoon suit also gives you the ability to flutter in the air and slowly float down from jumps by mashing the jump button, and a tail swipe you can use to attack enemies and break blocks with by pressing B. The Super Leaf is almost as common as the Fire Flower is in SMB1.
The other new power ups in SMB3 are; the P Wing, Hammer Bro suit, Tanooki suit, and the Frog suit. These are much rarer than the Fire Flower and Super Leaf, and have more situational uses. These power ups are usually found inside Toad house treasure chests and in treasure chests that drop after beating roaming Hammer Bros. The P Wing gives you Racoon Mario with infinite P meter until you get hit. It comes in handy for when you just want fly over the whole level and not deal with it. The Tanooki suit is like the Racoon suit, but cuter, and it has an extra ability. It gives you the same tail swipe, flutter jumps, and flying ability, and if you press down and B, you'll turn into a Jizo statue. You can do this in the air and slam down to the ground, killing pretty much any enemy caught under you, or on the ground and become immune to damage for a few seconds. It's basically a proto-butt stomp. The Hammer Bro suit lets Mario throw hammers in an upward arc, just like real Hammer Bros. This suit is great for taking out flying enemies, like Lakitus and the Angry Sun. Mario can also duck and use the shell to block enemy fireballs. The Frog suit gives Mario the ability to swim faster and without bobbing up and down. It also allows him to swim against the current and go into warp pipes that he can't go into otherwise. This suit is good for finding secrets in the handful of underwater levels in the game, but it's not great for ground levels because it makes Mario hop around clumsily instead of running.
I’m a big fan of Racoon Mario, but I think it’s the level design that makes this game so great. Classic level themes from SMB1 such as the Bowser castle, sky, and underwater themes return, along with new ones like ghost castles and airships. Every world also has unique backgrounds, like deserts and waterfalls, and the game keeps mixing things up with vertical levels, auto-scrolling levels, and levels with multiple floors, so you rarely feel like you're just playing the continuation of an idea used in another level. I say rarely because I felt like a few sky theme auto-scrolling levels felt pretty similar. There's a bunch of new enemies and obstacle types that keep spicing things up throughout the game, too. SMB3 introduced Boos, Chain Chomps, Thwomps, donut platforms, note blocks, P-switch blocks, giant enemies, the Angry Sun, and many other things that kept the levels feeling fresh. I also think SMB3 does great job of presenting an idea or challenge for a level and moving on after doing what it set out to do. It's not afraid to have short levels, and it doesn't make levels longer just for the sake of having big levels. If the idea for the level calls for a longer level, then the level is longer, if not, then it's shorter, and that's okay.
Another thing that SMB3 introduced which stuck around in 2D Mario games is the overworld map. Instead of progressing through the game from level to level, like in SMB1, you can move around a map screen and choose where you want to go. There are still mandatory levels, and times when you only have 1 level you can play, but sometimes you can take another route and skip a level or two, visit a Toad house and get a free item, play one of the card matching minigames that pops up, or even play a Mario Bros arcade inspired minigame if you're playing multiplayer. There's also a Lakitu cloud item that lets you skip a level and a flute that plays a familiar tune and lets you warp to another world. I like playing every level in every world, but it's cool how the map system gives you choices.
Super Mario Bros 3 was EAD's last NES game before starting work on Super Mario World, and it shows. This is one of the best looking Nintendo developed NES games. It's no Kirby's Adventure, though. It has a nice looking cartoon style, but the graphics aren't super detailed. I prefer the All-Stars version on SNES. I feel like All-Stars really missed the mark with the graphics in SMB1 and Lost Levels, but SMB3 looks amazing. The foreground graphics are on par with Super Mario World, and the backgrounds are even more detailed. The All-Stars version also doesn't slow down when there's more than 4 Goombas on screen. I love seeing these levels remade in 16-bit like I love seeing Super Mario Kart tracks remade in 3D.
Koji Kondo must have been going through a Rude Boy phase while working on this game. SMB3's soundtrack sounds like Mario music played by a Mushroom Kingdom Ska band. There is a distinct Ska/Reggae flavor to a lot of the songs. It's all NES/SNES quality MIDI, of course, but you can hear the horns, harmonicas, keyboards, and steel drums. This is why the SMB3 style ground level editor in Super Mario Maker also has a Reggae theme. I love this soundtrack. I wish I could hear The Mighty Mighty Bosstones cover it.
Super Mario Bros 3 is a masterpiece. It's one of the best games ever made. It's a joy to play, it looks great, and the soundtrack is jammin. The NES version is on all Virtual Consoles, the NES Classic, and on the Nintendo Switch Online NES, and All-Stars was released on a disc for Wii, and the GBA port of the All-Stars version of SMB3, Super Mario Advance 4, was released on the Wii U VC with all the e-Reader levels, so it's not hard to find. I do wish Nintendo would re-release Super Mario All-Stars again, though. Hopefully it shows up on the yet to be announced NSO SNES.