I didn't get an NES when it first came out, for various reasons, so by the time I actually bought one, Super Mario Bros. 3 had already been released.
I had saved up enough money for my NES and one game. I really wanted SMB2 because I had previously played it at a cousin's house, but the store where I purchased my NES did not have it. However, they did have SMB3, so I got that, instead. For awhile, I went back and forth between playing SMB1 (which came with the system) and SMB3, before I decided I'd stick with one until I finished it. SMB3 was so captivating, that I naturally chose it to be the first NES frontier that I would explore and conquer. Looking back on it now, I probably could not have picked a better game.
Graphics: 8.5 (out of 10)
The world of Super Mario Bros. 3 once again takes on that charming yet simplistic look that has trademarked the series for years. At first glance, the graphics may not appear to be that much of a step up from SMB2, but there are little appreciative details and surprises around every corner.
The backgrounds are decorated in a way that matches each world's theme. The Grass Land is full of gently rolling hills, green with flora and fauna. The Koopahari Desert has parched sands abundant with cacti, palm trees, and orange skies. Seaside is filled with clear blue flowing waterfalls and deep oceans. The infamous Giant Land, as its name suggests, has enemies, blocks, and other objects that are four times their normal sizes! Ice Land features snow-covered platforms and enemies and coins silently frozen in shimmering blocks of ice. One of my favorite moments in SMB3 is reaching the cloud in Sky Land, and being able to see the spiraling Sky Tower way on the ground below. Sometimes, even the foreground objects are utilized in a way that complements the theme, such as how the blocks in many desert levels form pyramids.
The animations in SMB3 are superb! Mario's walk now has more frames than it ever did before. He has more poses for more situations than ever before (such as flying), and his old poses have been enhanced. Just look at the way he holds his cap down over his head when he ducks! The animation of the enemies is as equally impressive. Watch for Spike, a turtle who opens his mouth so wide that his entire head bends backwards as a giant spiked ball pops out of it. Firesnakes, which are composed of a living fireball followed by a chain of smaller fireballs, bounce and shimmy their way across the desert sands. Pirahna Plants that shoot fireballs actually pivot their heads up and down to follow Mario's movements. Other subtle animations, such as the Fire Chomp's mouth as he spits a flame, the Lava Lotus releasing its polyps, and the turning key on the back of Kuribo's Shoe, help bring to life SMB3's imaginative world.
Sound: 7.5 (out of 10)
The first thing that may come to mind when thinking about SMB3's sound is the special chip that was used in the game to create more realistic drum sounds - and what a difference it made! No more do the drums sound like the muffled "thump" of other NES games, but actual kettle drums, which harmoniously complement the calypso beat of SMB3's cheerful tunes. The sound quality is good and the songs fit the theme of the game well, but the actual compositions are not really among the very best I've heard.
The lazy first main theme is catchy, but not quite on par with the main themes of SMB1 and 2. The second main theme, which is faster and used mostly in areas with automatic scrolling or "flying" areas, is somewhat annoying. Other notable tunes are the ominous fortress music, the rap-beat remix of the SMB1 Underworld Theme, the Music Box remix of the original Super Mario Bros. Theme, and the Airship music, which sounds like a war march with its powerful notes and pounding drums. Most of the sound effects have been taken directly from the previous Mario games, such as the "boing" of Mario's jump, and the "plurp" noise of warping through pipes.
Control: 8.5 (out of 10)
Mario's controls don't handle quite the same as they have in his previous adventures. It seems like he has more jumping power than ever before! It took me a little while to get used to it, but part of that may have been adjusting to the NES control pad after years of working with Atari 2600 joysticks (SMB3 was one of my first NES games.) Now, the control feels quite natural to me.
Mario can perform a variety of tasks, such as jumping, swimming, running, stomping on enemies, shooting fireballs, climbing, and even flying! Once he has a raccoon tail, you can make Mario run left and right to build up power, as indicated by a flashing P-Meter, then jump to take off into the sky. Although flying had been used in videogames before (such as Monster Party), Mario 3 is one of the first games that I know of to utilize it in a truly innovative way. There are some stages that require you to master flight to complete them.
Others reward you with secrets and hidden areas. If I had any complaints about SMB3's control it would be with the Frog Suit. It’s supposed to improve swimming control underwater, but I find that Mario moves too fast with it, and I end up losing it only moments after acquiring it. It has no practical purpose above ground, either, and I’ve even discovered one place in the game (a maze in World 7) where you can become stuck if you’re wearing the Frog Suit with no way out, other than to let the timer expire.
Story / Atmosphere: 7 (out of 10)
After being defeated in SMB1, Bowser has returned to the Mushroom Kingdom with seven evil children called “Koopalings”. The Koopalings have each stolen the magic wand of a Mushroom World King and used it to transform him into a helpless animal. It is up to Mario (and Luigi) to travel to each Mushroom World, defeat the Koopalings, and restore the Kings to their natural forms.
The Princess and Toad are on hand to help you out by giving advice, hosting mini-games, and offering special items. There is one plot twist near the end, although it’s predictable. But SMB3 did introduce us to hordes of new enemies, especially the Koopalings - some of the coolest characters, ever! As if the Mario universe wasn’t already full of wacky elements that raise eyebrows, now we are presented with something that makes us ponder questions about Bowser that we probably would never have thought of, otherwise.
Such as, who is the mother... or do Koopas reproduce asexually? Okay, maybe it was only me who wondered those things. Pound-for-pound, SMB3 doesn't try so much to break new ground with the Mario mythos as it does to expand on it and fully realize it.
Challenge: 9 (out of 10)
Super Mario Bros. 3 was the first NES game I had ever completed, and it certainly seemed very hard at the time. Now that I have hundreds of beaten games under my belt, I can look at SMB3's challenges with more objectivity.
I'll admit that SMB3 is not the most difficult game I've ever beaten. First off, there are many of what I liked to call "cheating" items in the game which can negate some of the game's challenge. There are "P-Wings" which can give you unlimited flight through an entire level, or a special Cloud that lets you skip a level on the map, entirely. It's easy to gain extra lives, although, the game is challenging enough that it's easy to lose them, too.
So, when I first beat SMB3, I had cut a lot of corners via the “cheating” items. It took me many tries to get through the final area and beat Bowser, and I certainly surprised myself when I did. But it wasn't until I went back and played the game how I felt it should be played, level-by-level, using no "cheating" items, did the true ingenuity of some of its tougher obstacles become apparent.
There is a sky level that scrolls diagonally upwards, and you must jump from one moving platform to another floating directly above you by leaping out and "twisting" Mario's jump in mid-air. A chilling ice land level is completely suspended in the air by "donut lifts" that fall a few seconds after standing on them. Moving fast or constant jumping is necessary to survive, but it won't be easy, since enemies swarm around you and fly overhead. One of the first truly nerve-wracking areas I encountered was a floating ocean world that rises and sinks with the waves, constantly putting you within reach of a huge fish that can swallow you in one gulp.
An auto-scrolling sky world requires you to leap to the backs of flying beetles because, for the most part, there is nothing else to stand on. Some levels, usually fortresses, are like mazes that require you to hit switches to reveal hidden doors. The Airships are a gauntlet of automatic scroll, cannons that fire bullets all over the screen, and flame jets that block your way. One airship even requires you to make huge jumps across gaps that are almost the entire length of the screen!
The final world, the Dark Land, epitomizes SMB3's design, with a high-speed airship level like none other you've completed before, a nightmare fortress maze with a myriad of doors, and the mother of all tough stages - Level 8-1! This level is loaded with pits and obstacles such as Koopa Paratroopas (flying turtles) and bullet cannons at every turn.
You're often forced to leap across pits by taking a daring dive onto a Koopa or bullet while evading danger posed by other Koopas and bullets that may be flying around. This is the only stage in the game where I am compelled to use a P-Wing on replays, anymore.
If SMB3 has any flaws in its challenge, I don’t believe that it is its level design. The challenge steadily increases throughout the game, as it should. SMB3 got the most out of this style of play as possible. As a comparison, Super Mario World would continue the SMB3 style of play, but never take it to new levels.
No, if there is any flaw I think it might be the boss fights. With Bowser being the only exception (who, by the way, isn’t really that tough, but the fight is creative), most of the bosses are beaten the exact same way, and there are very little variations in their attack patterns. Even what nuances there are, such as Boom-Booms that sprout wings to fly, Koopalings that shake the floor to stun Mario, and a Koopaling who shoots bouncing rings around the room, are easily overcome just by slightly altering the same pattern you’ve always used. But I feel there is more than enough good in SMB3 to make up for this.
Fun: 10 (out of 10)
As if all the new challenges, enemies, and items weren't enough, Super Mario Bros. 3 is just plain fun to play. SMB1 hit on a style of gameplay that is fun and exciting, and SMB3 took that style and reworked it into a world full of imaginative surprises. I could go on and on about the different mini-games that SMB3 has, such as the Memory Match Card Game or the two-player version of the original Mario Bros. arcade game, but it isn't really necessary, since these added features are mere frosting. The levels, themselves, are what make SMB3 superb.
While, some stages demand you to race through at top speed, others beg you to take your time to explore them and learn their secrets. I remember how I surprised myself when I first discovered the Warp Whistle in World 2 (gee, I knew I could hear another Hammer Brother moving around, somewhere!) Another time, I accidentally uncovered a hidden block that rocketed me up into a coin-filled sky. Using Mario's flying skills led to the unearthing of many oddities, such as coin formations in the shape of the number "3", 1-Up caches, shortcuts, and special suits, like Tanooki, a full-bodied raccoon suit that can temporarily turn into an invincible statue, and the Hammer Bros. Suit, which has a fireproof shell and lets you toss hammers that can destroy almost any enemy in the entire game! (For some real fun, try getting to Bowser with the Hammer Bros. Suit on.)
And, of course, there's that one item that everyone knows, loves, and talks about: Kuribo's Shoe! Yes, it's a giant shoe that you can steal from a Goomba in only one level of the game and use it to stomp on enemies that you normally couldn't touch, like Pirahna Plants and Spiny-shelled turtles. There's admittedly no real challenge to this level, but it's almost impossible to not have fun bouncing around in that damn shoe! Perhaps, one reason is that Kuribo's Shoe briefly brought to life the possibility of doing just about anything I wanted in SMB3.
But these aren't just gimmicks to filibuster dull stages. Not at all. Although items like Kuribo's Shoe and the Hammer Bros. Suit briefly allowed me to do some insane things that one could only have dreamed of before, what I really wanted to do more than anything else was conquer a challenging game world, and in that sense, SMB3 delivered! While I could spend much time goofing around, SMB3 always keeps that one foot in "reality", eventually telling me to stop playing around up there and come down and leap this pit, defeat this well-placed enemy, swim this gauntlet of jellyfish, run under that falling spiked ceiling, or find your way through that maze of pipes!
Perhaps, it's my amateur writing, but even with this revision, I feel that I haven't quite captured the essence of SMB3 and what it means to me. Maybe SMB3 is just too big a game to completely describe, or maybe, in order to understand my experience, you just had to live it the way I did. But I give SMB3 the highest rating possible - the highest because this game captivated and challenged me from start to end. I may have been new to the NES at the time, but I was not new to video games: I had grown up on Atari systems and the Commodore VIC 20. But it was Super Mario Bros. 3 that drew me back into the video game world that I had long since abandoned. To put it plain and simple, “Super Mario Bros. 3 kicks ass!"