a review of super mario bros. 3
a videogame developed by nintendo
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo famicom / entertainment system, the nintendo gameboy advance, the nintendo playchoice-10, the nintendo super famicom / entertainment system and the nintendo wii virtual console
text by tim rogers
So much psychology pulls strings behind the scenes of Super Mario Bros. 3, and some of it doesn’t even belong to me.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was born of a multi-tiered adolescence: it was our first, it was games’ only, it was Shigeru Miyamoto’s second. Videogames, born to be the entertainment industry’s stepchild, had nearly drowned under a flood of Atari 2600 E.T.: The Game cartridges; rescued by a kind-hearted and inexplicably Japanese farmer just around the river bend, they overcame the amnesia that comes when the brain is deprived of oxygen in the best possible way: by never remembering the past. Urban legend tells us that Shigeru Miyamoto was introduced to Nintendo because his father knew the then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Urban legend continues to tell us that Miyamoto walked into the interview with some tentative sketches of a toy-like phone. He was told, yeah, that’s nice, though we want you to make a videogame. Shigeru Miyamoto went on to prove himself the most boring kind of genius: the kind who can walk face-first into anything and excel at it. There can be no higher compliment for a creator of world-class entertainment, really.
Before it was a videogame, Donkey Kong was an experiment conducted and carried out in Shigeru Miyamoto’s brain within the space of probably about fourteen seconds (coincidentally, also the length of a Super Mario Bros. 3 world map loop). The question was “How to fit a cinematic narrative into Pac-Man“, which didn’t even end in a question mark (this is crucial). The game wasn’t a masterpiece so much as it was so chaotically different from the one-screen affairs of the day as to illuminate various masterpiece-like possibilities. In Donkey Kong, the lonely fact that the hero can jump took center stage in game centers worldwide. The chief brilliance of the game design is something that has remarkably not been equalled since: the antagonist and the protagonist are visible on the game screen at all times. “Visual language” is one of the big words game designers throw around, though usually it’s applied to questions like “How can we get the player to know that this switch opens this door without resorting to a text box?” In Donkey Kong, the visual language consists of all of the on-screen graphics churning together like a Rube Goldberg machine: hero at the bottom of the screen, large monkey with captive girl at the top, barrels rolling down steel inclines. In some games, so much jumping feels superfluous; what common-sense-minded human being could see Donkey Kong and imagine an equivalent real-life situation where jumping was not the way to avoid those barrels?
Donkey Kong had been Shigeru Miyamoto’s feet-wetting exercise. In later years, when asked if he thought games were art, he would reply “absolutely not”. It’s clear that something changed Miyamoto’s mind — Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior (in which, in a duality worthy of a game of a Pac-Man power-pill rampage, you play as the gorilla’s son, attempting to rescue your dad from Mario) had exhibited strong cinematic aspirations, though by Mario Bros., that all seemed out of Miyamoto and friends’ systems. Now, the simple act of pressing a button and seeing the on-screen character jump was both the most fun one could have with the game and the focal point for all the game design. Miyamoto went from selling experiences to packing comprehensively joyous physicality into single button presses. Whereas before the point had been to rescue the girl and see the story to its conclusion, now the point was to press the buttons and enjoy doing it. This paradigm shift no doubt came about because the developers themselves realized the potential (financial or otherwise) for games that were “About” Having Fun.
Hindsight allows us to identify this as both the Big Bang that birthed literally every good videogame that has ever been made and the start of a two-decade six-hundred-mile-per-hour shrieking death spiral that crash-landed us face-first into Super Mario Galaxy in 2007. Before we can get to that, however, we have to talk about Super Mario Bros.
Eventually, Donkey Kong‘s cinematic flair and Mario Bros.‘s love of button-pushing met each other halfway in Super Mario Bros., (****) which may or may not be The Most Important Game Ever Made. Miyamoto’s artistry had certainly been moving toward the abstract with Mario Bros. — why these two plumbers are killing all these turtles in this sewer is a question that can be answered simply with “so the turtles don’t kill them”, which is an answer that makes more or less sense when you’re high (depending on the drug) — Super Mario Bros. struck a miraculous note by allowing our imaginations to fill in the context of the abstract. The game begins with our hero, Mario, facing the right. He must now run to the right. The “visual language” communicates the character’s goal in a dreamlike fashion to the player: our hero is standing just to the left of the screen, facing right. Finish three stages, and Mario enters a castle. The castle feels different — more dangerous — than the other levels. Ropes of fire swing slowly in our path; eventually, fireballs begin soaring at us from the right side of the screen, and for the first time, we feel truly threatened: something seeks to stop our quest from left to right, by moving right to left. This is not something that hasn’t happened before, though it’s especially alarming this time because it’s not an enemy character — it’s very clearly discernible as a projectile, fired from an unseen weapon. We meet the weapon, on a bridge: it’s a turtle-dragon. We reach for the gleaming axe. The bridge breaks, the dragon falls. Our hero moves on; a humanoid thing (humanoid = “obviously friendly”) with a mushroom on top of his head thanks us for the rescue, and then regrets to inform us that the princess is in another castle.
Even if we’ve never seen the instruction manual, even if we’ve never earned the skills to get as far as the first dragon, we probably know there’s a princess that needs rescuing. We know this because, back in 1985, people talked about videogames differently than they talked about videogames now. Whether it was on the playground or around the water cooler in an office where people tended to wear pocket-protectors, pretty much the only way you were going to learn something about a videogame without playing it thoroughly yourself was by sharing information with other real live people. There was no GameFAQs in 1985 — there wasn’t even an internet. When Super Mario Bros. debuted, it was a new and exciting kind of challenge. It was an epic quest. It was huge. Mind-sharing sessions re: Super Mario Bros. were probably incredible by today’s videogame standards. These days, you might hear two (Japanese) people talking about the best weapons / team formation to take into a particular Monster Hunter quest, or two (American) people talking about how to win that massive gunfight by the Ferris wheel in Call of Duty 4, though the suggested solutions always involve such concrete means: “Put the C4 on top of the cars and detonate it when the helicopters show up”; “Be sure to have one guy with a long bow and another guy with a sword”. Super Mario Bros., a game where 90% of the soul is level design, and 90% of the level design lives and breathes in incidental encounters between the hero and an enemy, must have required some amazing conversational flexing for the adults of the era. Thirty years earlier, the same people might have felt like “part of” something in the Beat literature movement; there they were, in 1985, making wild flapping hand gestures and raising the pitches of their voices in the name of articulating just how Mario must tweak his jump around that block before that one Hammer Brother, or just what speed he must be running before jumping onto that one trampoline in World 8-3.
Years and legends later, Shigeru Miyamoto would claim to have drawn the inspiration for his inverted real-time strategy game Pikmin from his newly matured love of tending a real-world vegetable garden. In Pikmin, the player controls a marooned spaceman who takes advantage of friendly aliens to solve various situations that stand between him and repairing his spaceship. The most important point of this paragraph is that Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong and Super Mario, “grew up” to be the kind of adult who loves growing his own vegetables.
Years before this — one year before Super Mario Bros., even — there was a game called The Tower of Druaga. This game was essentially Pac-Man with a human protagonist. And not just any human protagonist — a knight named Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh had a quest: to rescue a princess who had been kidnapped by a demon named Druaga, who lived at the top of a sixty-floor tower. Gil’s duty was to wander the tower, slaying slime monsters with his sword, blocking fireballs with his shield, and finding semi-randomly placed keys with which to open the semi-randomly placed door on each floor. The hilarious catch of Druaga was that a player could climb all the way to the sixtieth floor, only to learn that he cannot win the game because he does not possess the necessary “hidden treasures”.
The “hidden treasures” in Druaga are the alpha and the omega if you’re talking about kleptomania as videogame design. On each floor, the location of the “treasure” is different, as are the criteria for unlocking it. The player starts each floor in a different location, and the layout of the maze floors are semi-random (one of many recognizable templates selected at random) though the treasure will always be in the same place of its respective floor on each playthrough. Some of the criteria for unlocking a treasure are alarmingly complex: stand in a particular square, face north, press the attack button fourteen times, step one square to the left, face south, press the attack button three times, step two squares right, face west, press the attack button eight times (I’m exagerrating slightly), and a treasure appears in a remote square visible to the player.
Watching a play-through of Druaga on YouTube will yield only questions in the mind of the uninitiated viewer; chief among those questions might be “why would someone want to play this?” In this day and age where Druaga is remade with polygons, paid tribute in dungeons in larger RPGs, the subject of many online strategy guides, and stuffed into portable classics compilations which are kind enough to include a list of the treasure locations and requirements in the instruction manual, it may be a tough question to answer. The solution to the mystery is that the overflowing crypticism was the whole point of Druaga.
No, the means for obtaining treasures were not originally published in “videogame magazines”: this was 1984.
And no, there was no million-dollar reward for the first person to complete the game.
Hypothetically, someone somewhere at Namco imagined a future of videogames that weren’t all about numbers — they would be about seeing a quest through to its end. Only Druaga‘s execution was a little underhanded. Not a single text window within the game informed the player that he would have to do idiotic things to find the treasures on each floor. Instead, there were some treasures that the player would get accidentally, slowly conditioning a kind of Pavlovian response that eventually wallowed in ticking despair. The player would mash the attack button furiously on one square of the dungeon, maybe pressing it three hundred times before the timer ran out and the game was over. Then he would make a tick mark in his notebook: “It’s definitely not that one square.” At least, this is how it would work in theory. Druaga failed to set the world on fire, probably because it came off as a little bit too moody and perhaps even mean-spirited. The idea was that people would find the locations of treasures and then communicate them to their friends, and surely enough, the people of the world surprised even the software engineers. Eventually, as more of the game’s iceberg came into view, people became able to “appreciate” the game; Druaga-loving communities would sprout up in arcades; men would become walking Druaga encyclopedias.
Shigeru Miyamoto had studied Pac-Man prior to making Donkey Kong; Druaga had no doubt been influenced by Donkey Kong‘s narrative aspirations, among other things. Miyamoto has admitted, in the past, to having been strongly influenced by the “community” aspect of Druaga.
Think about it — Miyamoto would later fall in love with gardening, and design a game “based” on it. It was his idea to make Pokemon traded between players of Pokemon on the Gameboy level up faster than Pokemon obtained in the wild. Back in the Gamecube era, when Miyamoto’s name had become the flag flapped furiously by many men devoting their lives to writing about videogames, it was Miyamoto’s growing influence that saw Nintendo focusing its entire business strategy upon seemingly trifling concepts, like the ability to plug your Gameboy Advance into the Gamecube and use it as a second screen; this birthed Pac-Man Vs., which was too brilliant for its own good (still waiting for a DS version) and Zelda: Four Swords, which was too brilliant for anyone‘s good (still waiting for a DS version). Nintendo floundered in despair, back then, until finally, by digging in the same frightening direction, they struck a vein of liquid money.
Nintendo didn’t get rich by changing their game or eyeing the market: they got rich by being selfish and stubborn and not changing anything. The world has almost always had trouble catching up with Shigeru Miyamoto, see; the somewhat ironic reason that the DS and the Wii found success in the first place is because at this point in time, there exist more than enough man-boys like us who remember a near-religious first encounter with Super Mario Bros. and proclaim the man’s name from the mountaintops. When Nintendo’s resident leatherfaced old codger stepped down from presidential duties and a man who had actually played a videogame before was voted up, Miyamoto was elevated, by his own suggestion, to a role of overseeing producer. At present, he “only” does things like think of raw concepts such as Wii Fit — a game based on his newly found appreciation for the daily activity of weighing one’s self, and idle musing about how one might make a videogame controller out of a scale — and though many gamers whine and moan about Miyamoto’s “decreased involvement” in games, we here at Action Button Dot Net are all for it: we are capable of looking at his 1986 work The Legend of Zelda (****) and declaring that this is a man whose only interest in videogames lies in using them as a tool with which to conduct infinitely amusing experiments on the public. He’s casting stones into a pond and watching the ripples. (He’ll probably make a game about casting stones into a pond, someday.)
Miyamoto had vocally appreciated Tower of Druaga for its ability to reach outside the game and inspire players to write things down and share conversations with fellow players. He wanted to do something similar with Zelda — where certain unassuming bushes can be burned down or certain unassuming wall tiles can be bombed, revealing staircases leading to underground caves where players can earn money or buy items. The “second quest” of the game, opened after completing the first quest, goes so far as to hide the majority of its dungeon entrances in completely obscure and arbitrary places. The game was structured this way, no doubt, to provoke conversation among friends.
“Viral marketing” isn’t a new concept — it’s just one that got named recently.
It’s highly probable that Zelda is as good as it is precisely because Miyamoto had tried to play Druaga himself, and found it not at all immediately interesting. Druaga was the kind of game, back in its day, that players most likely got involved in by way of peer pressure. It was the Mount Everest of games: people were climbing it because it was “There”. For Miyamoto, one-upping Druaga meant taking its core — the spirit of arcane information-gathering and lore-sharing — and transplanting it into something that was immediately interesting to himself. For Miyamoto, one-upping Druaga with Zelda was not game design: it was basic arithmetic.
Then and there, we can surmise, is where Miyamoto officially stopped playing videogames for good.
Zelda‘s pop-culture miracle was two-fold. It was a miracle because it established what would go on to become a whole new format of entertainment, and it was a miracle because it saw a group of people who had previously performed a pop-culture miracle (Super Mario Bros.) turning around and performing another one, as if on demand, with something just about completely unrelated. Everything about the two games — Mario and Zelda — was as different as night and day. Yet they were both so mathematically well-crafted, with their own delicate atmospheres, play nuances, and amazingly well-composed music. It’s a damn shame that we might never see a developer be brave enough to try this same stunt again.
The second Super Mario Bros. game (****) saw Miyamoto and crew getting playful with level design, incorporating a wind environment effect and giving Mario and Luigi different jump physics. The second Zelda outing (****) was highly misunderstood, and violently awesome. The tip of the disease came into view, as kids on the playground said that Zelda II wasn’t as good as Zelda, because it wasn’t exactly the same. What Zelda II managed to do was stuff the original concept with even deeper — and better telegraphed — Druaga-isms, until it became quiveringly close to a videogame genre in and of itself. 1987’s Zelda II was the first and last game of its precise kind; 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 3 was the beginning of the next era.
That era has not yet ended.
It’s funny — this kind of game design doesn’t work, anymore, because of YouTube playthrough videos, GameFAQ walkthroughs, and institutionalized strategy-guide-writing. Back when game-playing circles were groups of real-life friends sharing crib notes, it worked; now, the whole world is connected. No one gets stuck anymore because of level design alone, so games find it absolutely necessary to clutter themselves up with numbers and heads-up-display interfaces.When videogame magazines such as Japan’s Weekly Famitsu began to rise to prominence in the late 1980s, unimaginative game developers had nowhere to run: if their riddles and puzzles weren’t clever enough, the semi-conscientous minds at Famitsu would figure them out and print the solutions. There were a couple of lawsuits about that, actually. This was around when the big hullaballoo got raised about game rentals in Japan: mainly, Nintendo was against letting people rent the games, though the fact that the games could be completed over the course of a rental was not the renter’s fault. It was the game designers’. Eventually, the development community’s reaction to the rental situation was to make games with severely padded lengths. The genre of “Japanese role-playing game” seems to have been cultivated exclusively for the purpose of convincing players to buy instead of rent. Much as we like Dragon Quest over here, it’s easy to admit that the first few installments in the series severely punish players for not spending a lot of empty hours walking in circles before entering a dungeon or other dangerous place.
There would still be games in the old mold — games that relish the thought of exquisitely carved environments and labyrinthine secrets, icebergs underneath icebergs underneath icebergs, all the way down (until you hit the solid rock wall called “THE END”) — though once the idea of a guidebook existed, it made the whole experience feel emptier than nothing. To this day, players exists who will purchase the latest Zelda adventure and salivate from start to finish, shunning any and all guidebooks, and though we here find recent Zelda adventures to be kind of stuff, we can salute those people: you are hardcore, Button-Actioning Warriors. The psychology behind all these old-mold games, though, prevents most Normal Human Beings from playing them: take Metroid II: The Return of Samus, on the Nintendo Gameboy, for example. Consider this a Professor Layton puzzle: In all games in the Metroid series, you can find myriads of hidden passageways by bombing the floor or walls. You have an infinite supply of bombs. Later Metroid games usually hide only pathways to optional things (maximum missile stock upgrades, et cetera). Metroid II, the second game in the series, very often hides pathways that are needed to progress in the main thrust of the game.
The final clue in this puzzle: Metroid II also gifts the player, early on, with the “Spider Ball” ability — which now lets us roll up walls and onto ceilings, so we can bomb any tile on the screen (note: it is not necessary to bomb every tile on the screen. however, this does not stop the vast majority of players who play Metroid IIfrom bombing every tile on the screen for every screen.)
(Solution to the puzzle: Metroid II isn’t a masterpiece.)
Metroid II is the black hole that Shigeru Miyamoto and friends envisioned as they were crafting Zelda II. Metroid II is a love-it-or-hate-it game, to be sure, and it’s worth noting because the people who love it will without fail always be a certain kind of person: thorough, meticulous. If you genuinely like spider-balling and ceiling-bombing, if you consider it the highest glory when you say that you originally cleared Metroid II without help from anyone — don’t despair! The Catholic Church accepts anyone, so long as they agree to one or two points about Jesus.
We hereby firmly acknowledge that there exists a fine line between games which are made to provoke friendly, organic discussion and games that are crafted with hopes of getting major kickbacks on strategy guide sales. And then there’s a bubble, floating off in space, with Metroid II and Phantasy Star II in it.
Protip: all strategy guides published in book form or within the pages of Weekly Famitsu have been, since 1989, written with close cooperation from the developers, if not actually written by the developers themselves.
So. Super Mario Bros. 3.
ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE GAME NOW
So, so many things can go wrong in platform-action game design. You either end up with a good game, a great game, nothing, or fired. Good games can become pop-culture events; bad games can be pseudo pop-culture events. Great games can be boring.
High on life, Nintendo’s Miyamoto Bunch had slapped together a wacky wall of ideas called “Dream Factory: Doki Doki Panic”. What Super Mario Bros. had done for green sewage pipes and big green venus flytraps, Doki Doki Panic tried to do for red-and-white vases and bullet-spitting pythons. Thematically, it came out of the same psychological place as Super Mario Bros. — that being the at-wall stuff-flinging part of the brain — and, though quite successful, it failed to earn immediate recognition as a masterpiece. It was quite obvious, from the start, that the game really was just a reinterpretation of the Mario concept, with Middle-Eastern stereotypes in place of the Italian ones, with vases instead of pipes, pythons instead of venus flytraps. You could stand on a vase and press down to go inside, just as you could go inside a pipe in Super Mario Bros.
The gimmick of the game was that you could pick things up, carry them, and throw them. Stages often featured central puzzles, sometimes involving digging holes (a riff on Dig-Dug, the genesis of Mister Driller) or stacking blocks, building staircases. The main thrust of the game design was to make the player feel like they were kind of always accomplishing something, a la a dungeon in Zelda, though with the brisk clip of a Super Mario adventure. As game design, Doki Doki Panic was actually deeply admirable; however, the public was already infected with sequelitis: they were wondering where Mario was. I wonder how Miyamoto felt, when Doki Doki Panic was re-branded as “Super Mario Bros. 2” in America, and went on to sell more than it sold in Japan? It’s common knowledge, these days, that Miyamoto wasn’t getting any royalties, so the money must not have meant anything to him; and he said in an interview around the release of Super Mario World in 1990 that every time the Mario team makes a new game, they “swear to never do another one”.
What Doki Doki Panic‘s re-branding in the West had done was both confirm the Kyoto-Yakuza-pachinko-parlor-owning parent company’s suspicion that people liked Mario more than they could possibly like anything new and prove, kind of sideways-like, that Doki Doki Panic had perhaps been too “complicated”.
So it was in that great centrifuge Super Mario Bros. 3 was born. The “adventure” was pried away from the “action”, and the “world map” came into being. No platform-action-adventure game that mattered would ever be without one again. (Seriously, Bubsy doesn’t matter, and Sonic doesn’t count, because he was something else.)
Super Mario Bros. 3 is Miyamoto and friends adapting on the spot to a subtly warped world. At the time of its release — and even today, if you ask the right person — it was the biggest and most generous videogame that had ever existed, impenetrable to strategy guides, as short or as long as you wanted it to be, imaginative, bright, bold, flowing, absolutely effortlessly natural at all times. The following years would see dozens of money-sign-irised game developers attempt to slap together something reminiscient of Super Mario Bros. 3; they’d write their design documents like they were filling out a checklist, expecting lightning to strike as many times as they wanted. These people were burglars walking right into a house where the alarm was already ringing, and getting their faces smashed into the pavement; they will spend the rest of their lives being asked where the hecking diamonds are, and they will never be able to answer, because they don’t know.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is absolutely effortless. It possesses the same slapdashery of previous Shigeru Miyamoto concoctions, though it also has a home-team advantage. Super Mario’s birth had been a painful, slow process. The first game and the first sequel saw the hero graduated, loved, and now publicly permitted to take risks. Miyamoto and company only had to flesh out the Mario mythos with the broadest strokes possible. Instead of walking into a castle and rescuing a mushroom man at the end of every world, Mario now boards an airship. Why? Because airships are cool, and because it gives the level designers reasons to play around with fixed-scrolling stages, like one of the many popular fixed-scrolling shooters at the time. Mario must retrieve a magic wand in order to transform a mushroom king from an animal back into a human. Why are the mushroom kings humans? For the same reason the princess is a human, of course. What’s weirder, then, that they’re humans to begin with, or that they’re transformed into domesticated animals like dogs? The magic wands are under the control of King Koopa’s kids. Where the hell did he get kids? Who cares? About halfway through each world, there’s a “Mini Fortress”, with a dim-witted boss. The very first Mini Fortress is home of the very first magic wand, which can take you immediately to the first warp zone.
Structurally, the game is a mess. Yet it perseveres through its own messiness with the weirdest grace. One need only play the first two stages before one faces a choice of which stage to play next — three or four — and if one dies in either stage, one might try the other stage. It’s around this point, way back in 1988, that the game has already triumphed, and emerged as the reason developers still hesitate to make an action game without an ice world, a sky world, a desert world, a jungle world, a sea world, and a grass world.
Miyamoto and friends were free of the responsibility to think of “original” concepts, and this is what allowed them to be so “creative” with Super Mario Bros. 3. Though their game would ultimately end up the source for many game designers’ checklists, it can only be seen as the result of a checklist that popped up within its own development: if we’re going to have stages that scroll to the right, why not have stages that scroll to the left? If we’re going to have horizontal fixed scroll stages, we have to have vertical as well. And diagonal. If we’re going to have pipes that the player can enter and then exit without the screen fading, why not build a maze out of those? If Mario can walk over these little indestructible evil plants only when he’s invincible, let’s make a stage wherein Mario has to chain-grab invincibility stars to keep running over these guys.
So much can go wrong with a platform action game, as . . . many platform-action games have proven over the years. Hell, here in the 21st century, we’re seeing plenty of things going drastically wrong with copycat brain-training games: ugly pencil sound effects, too-bright background colors, not enough questions. It’s enough to make one heave a ten-pound sigh: the developers of these games will fail to sell their target, and the world will ultimately conclude that focus-testing is the answer. No, common sense is the answer. Nintendo is lucky to have someone like Shigeru Miyamoto: whether he’s an artist or a genius or not, he certainly possesses enough common sense to make sure that Super Mario Bros. 3 feels fun.
I take it Miyamoto probably never actually played Super Mario Bros. 3 as a “game” — and this is probably the highest compliment we can award it. Rather, all that interested Miyamoto was the simple friction of moving Mario around on the screen. Later platform games (like, say, Donkey Kong Country) would overcompensate in other areas (graphical, “story”) while neglecting to make the game feel competently, immediately interesting to someone just picking up a controller and pressing the control pad in a random direction. There’s more loving friction in Mario’s one-timer-click crawl-to-walk acceleration than in most other games’ actual level design.
The friction and the physics had always been a huge part of who Super Mario is. It’s hardly conspiracry-theoryism to conjecture that Miyamoto’s biggest interest in the design of the games lay in the acceleration of Mario’s run, the tweakable arc of his jump, and the momentous screech of his halts and turnarounds — which probably would have not happened were it not for stalwart programmer / co-director Takashi Tezuka. We have Super Mario Bros., where Mario runs and jumps, and his only projectile weapon is thrown at a very calculated downward 45-degree angle, and bounces peculiarly when it hits the ground. We have Super Mario Bros. 2 (Japanese version), where the only “advancement” over the previous game is that Mario and Luigi have different physics sets — Luigi can jump higher, though more slowly, and takes longer to slow from a run. When the Nintendo 64 and the 3D platform-action-adventure debuted with Super Mario 64, many critics were quick to claim that the game was a revelation and/or amazing fun even if all you did was run Mario around outside the castle. The big innovation of the Nintendo 64, come to think of it, was the analog stick, which allowed 81 degrees of articulation to Mario’s walking speed.
It’s impossible to ignore: the physics are the most important part of Mario. It’s highly likely that Miyamoto only asked to play test the game three seconds at a time: “not enough momentum”, “too much momentum”, “less glide on the jump landing”. The level designs that emerged from there on out were blessed with the knowledge of how it feels to control The Perfect Mario. I imagine a ream of scribbly graph paper on a plastic folding table. Add in the various power-up suits — Mario the frog (fast in water, little slow defenseless hops on land), Mario the raccoon (that meticulous flight path, that nuanced runway approach) — and the extra acceleration on slopes (complete with rocket-like jumps off little ramps), and Super Mario Bros. 3 has easily ten times the friction of the original Super Mario Bros.. As is the case with most every great game, the designers don’t stop until they’ve used every minute core mechanic — in this game, it’s infinitely more nuanced than the palm-sized ability set of Lost Vikings: here, the player character’s “abilities” range from the abstractly wonderful (fireballs bouncing at peculiar angles, hammers flying straight up, moving an inch forward, and falling straight down: a kind of a meta-stomp, allowing Mario to kill an enemy as though he’d jumped on it, only without jumping) to the precise and microscopic (the ability to curl Mario’s jump in mid-air to just barely dodge a projectile and still land on a block). There will be situations in Super Mario Bros. 3 where you can swim while holding a shell: this makes Mario go exponentially faster. However, there’s always a risk: the koopa might awaken, pop out of its shell, and hurt you. In Super Mario Galaxy, there are parts where you must swim with a shell in your hands, and at these times, the shells are provided for free, from a dispenser-like meta-location, and there will never be a koopa inside to hurt you. Where did the game design go?
Super Mario Bros. 3‘s greater game design is about throwing caution to everything; other developers failed to sell more copies than Super Mario Bros. 3 because they tried to make it “better” or “cleaner”. Take the world map, for example: in the future, in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Nintendo themselves would try to “clean up” the world map by making it a straight line. Literally: all of the levels are oriented on a straight line, with a pastel, sketch-like background. Each stage starts roughly where the last one left off — there’s some kind of sketchy internal continuity. Yoshi’s Island was recognizing that the world map scenes in Super Mario Bros. 3 were kind of superfluous, though it was simultaneously dead scared to excise them completely. This is the kind of Nintendo we 21st Century Man-Boys grew up alongside: when it came time to make a baseball game starring Mario characters, Nintendo would include a Goomba as a playable character, because Goomba was their property, and when it came time for Goomba to step up to the plate, well, the bat was just going to have to hover outside Goomba’s head, because it doesn’t matter if Goomba didn’t have hands — he was Nintendo’s property, and they were going to use him.
That said, Super Mario Bros. 3 succeeds flying-colorfully because of — somewhat ironically — all the waste. When one is pure of heart and intention, when one has Millionaire Dysentery and is diarrheaing Texas Tea — as Miyamoto and company were — waste doesn’t make the game clunky: it breeds lore. So many little caution-to-everything hiccup-baubles litter Super Mario Bros. 3‘s landscapes — like the little blue road-stop in the middle of the ocean in the first half of World 3; the “hand trap” mini-level obstacle courses, lined up three in a row on screen two of World 8, where you have a fifty-fifty chance of being dragged in and forced to play: lose, and you fall back to the beginning of the section (the annoying thing is that they stand between you and the Hardest Airship In The Game, and you’re going to be needing to make the trip from the start of the area to that airship plenty of times, because every time you die, it sends you back).
The game sometimes awards you with precious items like the P-Wing (what the “P” stands for, we can only guess: “Power”?), which literally lets you fly over a stage without having to touch the ground once, or the Lakitu cloud, which lets you fly over a stage in a completely different, more sheepish way — from the world map. These items completely undermine the tens of man-hours that went into designing the levels that the player is going to guffaw and fly over or shrug and miss completely, and they only serve to strengthen the game’s potential to become something we can play, never something we have played. Like Metal Gear Solid, like a Treasure-crafted game of nuance, like any truly great piece of interactive electronic entertainment, our enjoyment of Super Mario Bros. 3 is dependent almost entirely on who we are when we play it. Take Kuribo’s shoe, for example: the “rarest power-up item of all-time”, according to many videogame magazines with literally nothing better to do. Mario can obtain Kuribo’s shoe in World 5-3 — and only in World 5-3. In order to obtain it, he has to hit the shoe-riding goomba (“Kuribo” in Japanese — they didn’t localize his name re: the shoe for some reason in the English version, which merely adds to the lore factor) from underneath. This will pop the goomba out of the shoe. Mario can now ride in the shoe, which hops at a distinctly sharper, lower, and faster angle than the frog suit.
What’s the point of Kuribo’s shoe? Tens of programming man-hours went into implementing it, and it’s only available for one tiny stretch of the game. The thing is, when one picks up Super Mario Bros. 3, he might, on a whim, decide to not skip World 5 on his way to the end, just so he can have a little romp in the shoe. In today’s PowerBar-crunching game-design-by-spreadsheet capitalized “Videogame Industry”, this kind of design suggestion would get you slapped in the face, sent to the clinic for a drug test, and then fired twelve code-blasting minutes before the results came back. Back during Nintendo’s post-industry resurrection renaissance, it was just the kind of thing Shigeru Miyamoto and company did because they could. Again: throwing caution to nothing.
When juvenile magazines interviewed Miyamoto regarding his favorite enemy monsters in the game, he provided insightful answers regarding the chain chomp, a violently snapping black iron ball with teeth, tethered to an immovable block. He said he thought of the chain chomp one day when he saw a fierce dog chained to a fence, pitied it for a second, and then realized it was probably for the best. The chain chomps appear very few times in the game (I could tell you exactly how many times, though that would start to get kind of creepy), as do the invincible, ridable flying red beetles (with a deliciously small and pointy player-damage hitbox in their mouth area). There’s precisely one stage where the Angry Sun swoops out of the sky to attack Mario, and it’s in that stage where Mario can carry a turtle shell when he jumps at maximum velocity to physics-snap through a twirling tornado; if you’re lucky, you can turn in mid air and let go of the B button at just the right time to smash the sun out of the sky. You might need a friend to demonstrate this to you. There are levels that are neither numbered nor mini-fortresses nor end-of-world airships — like the “quicksand desert”, the “pyramid”, and the “tower” that connects the ground portion and the sky portion of World 5 — and the only level that can be played over and over again, forward or backward (it’s the penalty for falling back to the ground).
What a generous game, overflowing with little nooks and crannies, whole areas of world maps that the player might never know about until a friend showed them how to get a hammer from a wandering hammer brother and smash a rock. And then there’s a big lake shaped like a Roman numeral “III”. Why is it shaped like a “III”? Because this is Super Mario Bros. 3? Because this is the third warp whistle? Little touches like the white blocks — which Mario can use to travel into the background of a stage if he stands in the middle of the block and holds down on the control pad for five seconds (perhaps a direct Druaga reference). Only in one instance does traveling into the background actually award Mario with anything tangible (that being in World 1-3, when Mario finds a Mushroom house behind the end-of-level curtain, with only one treasure box, containing a warp whistle). Though once your friend tells you about that warp whistle, you begin to ache to tell someone else, and you might not realize for several days that there’s a white block right at the start of the game. This is how Super Mario Bros. 3 evolved over Super Mario Bros.: the first game began with a perfectly laid-out action sequence in a teacup, teaching you everything about the game in a sink-or-swim fashion. Move right, hit block you can’t break, stomp or jump over enemy, hit “?” block (satisfying curiosity), become big, break block, jump over pipe, eventually see pit, jump over pit, grab fire flower, graduate from Super Mario University, and now see about getting a job. Super Mario Bros. 3 nonchalantly shows you a venus flytrap in a green pipe, which may be a familiar sight: even if it’s not a familiar sight, something feels different about it, because it’s spitting fireballs. The idea of a venus flytrap popping out of a green sewage pipe is weird enough — fireballs, though? And then there’s that white block, which you don’t notice until perhaps months later. I can imagine the someday-gardener Miyamoto, brimming with enthusiasm about the White Blocks: they kept them secret until after the game had been released. They didn’t let the cat out of the bag via any game magazines, either: they just let it spread naturally. Maybe one of the programmers told his son, and saw what happened. I can imagine Shigeru Miyamoto as enjoying that sort of thing more than developing games in and of itself.
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the game was released a year later, and the method for obtaining the first warp whistle was revealed, months prior to the game’s release, in a feature film starring Fred Savage, about an autistic kid traveling to Reno, Nevada (The Biggest Little City in the World) to win a videogame tournament. That kind of speaks volumes by itself.
Looking at this game nearly two decades later is nearly an exercise in beating one’s self up. We, the players, beat ourselves up; we’re almost as bad as moldy-oldie pop-music nerds obsessing over Beach Boys trivia — songs about surfing, for god’s sake — breaking down and shivering at the shattering thought that we might never enjoy a pretender as much as we love the first. We examine every tiny change in the evolution of the series, and spot the spiritual pitfalls, and scratch our chins and wonder why we know Super Mario World‘s warp zone — the Star World, with its numerous entrances scattered throughout the main map and its own conceptual interior stages — is worse than Super Mario Bros. 3‘s warp whistle system. We can identify all the little places where Nintendo started to go wrong, and stumble into the abyss, and it crushes our souls that though we say we welcome change and evolution, we acknowledge that Super Mario Galaxy fails very hard at the task of being a “pop-culture event” because of the points where Nintendo’s designers actually did take risks and try to change things up.
Mario 3 had a superfluous world map, and an ever-present, eyesore-sized heads up display, which told us our score (like anyone played the game for score), the speed we were running (like anyone who had ever taken flight as Raccoon Mario more than once (and from that runway right at the beginning of the first stage) didn’t know in their soul exactly how long Mario had to run before being able to take off), the number of coins we possessed (this is somewhat useful), and what “cards” we currently had in our possession. There’s some hideous wastefulness here, actually, especially when you consider that the cards are cashed in immediately when Mario obtains a third card — so why are there three blanks at the bottom of the screen? The answer is painfully obvious, and scary: to impress upon us that this game, right here, is more complicated than its predecessors, both of which had an identical heads-up-display (and one which the player could walk over, in certain areas). Change for the more cluttered, back then, in that age on the verge of naivete, was the only immediately accessible way for game designers to prove that they were growing more sophisticated (this was, of course, years prior to Sega CD, Night Trap, and other stunning full-motion-video adventures). This was a naive and forgivable mistake, and we didn’t mind it because, again, it contributed to lore-passing sessions in the cafeteria or by the coffee maker. Like, did you know that you can almost always get a star card (get three for five extra lives) at the end of a level by jumping at full speed and hitting the lower-left corner of the block? There were gambling games in the main map — just two of them — one where you stopped spinning reels in an attempt to get extra lives, and one where you flipped over cards in order to get power-ups. These games were really simple, though — again — they contributed to the lore factor: tales abounded of how the timing on the spinning reels was slightly staggered if you were trying to get a star (there’s a trick to it), and the discovery that there are actually only two patterns for the memory match card game (you can most easily tell which one you’re dealing with by flipping over the second card from the right of the middle row) struck the schoolyard crowd like a rumor that Hitler had stubbed his toe might have delighted a barracks-full of allied soldiers in 1943. Looking back, though, these things are silly and superfluous, and because Super Mario Bros. 3 sold a near-disgusting 18 million copies worldwide (the record for a game that was never packaged with a console), even its faults have become items on game-design checklists: Must Have Mini-Games.
And yes, Nintendo’s daring attempts to stray from Super Mario Bros. 3‘s formula only frustratingly led the games further away from common sense, from pop-culture-event status. For example: world-skipping. Super Mario Bros. 3 let the players choose their path from the start of a world to the castle with some degree of freedom. It was never necessary to complete every stage in order to finish the game, which has been something of a Miyamoto hallmark since the dawn of Super Mario. Super Mario World made a conscious effort to diversify this path-switching by incorporating various exits within stages themselves. This was a pretty smart concept, though bumblingly executed: popping out of a non-conventional exit plops Mario back out on the world map, where an unseen hand draws a new road right over the existing map, stopping in the middle of nowhere and planting a new stage entrance. This sort of reveal has become a game-design archetype, though only because no one ever stops to examine it. Obviously “multiple stage exits” is a brilliant idea, though wouldn’t that make the “world map”, as executed in Super Mario Bros. 3, kind of even more superfluous? In Super Mario Bros. 3, when you complete World 1-2, you first choose either 1-3 or 1-4 based entirely on your complexes regarding numbers: do you hunger for Bigger Numbers, or must you do everything in order? Ideally, you’d be slotted into 1-3 or 1-4 based on your performance in 1-3. Why couldn’t Super Mario World be a straightforward game, just one big (streaming?) stage that changes depending on your performance at certain demanding moments? The answer is sad, and two-fold: because Super Mario Bros. 3 had a world map, it would be a sign of horrible weakness for its sequel to not have a world map; also, because the game has a battery back-up, because all games were having battery back-ups in those days, and if you didn’t have a world map, why would you need a battery back-up? A decade and change later, we had a handless walking mushroom holding a baseball bat. Super Mario 64 finally figured out the hub world concept, by making Peach’s Castle kind of an interesting pseudo-stage in and of itself, and then promptly decided to fill the “screaming character-things” deficit by adding an abundance of screaming character-things in Super Mario Sunshine; by the time Super Mario Galaxy rolled around, the planners had presumably determined that interesting hub stages were too complicated, so they pared it down to nothing, keeping only the screaming character-things and further increasing the pornography-like quality of the escalating numerals at the conclusion of each stage. New Super Mario Bros. exhibits a different kind of Mario 3 Complex, in that the psychology behind the stage order is bizarrely fractured: certain worlds, numbered in line with the standard flow of the game, are accessed only by completely previous worlds in a slightly different way. Why number the worlds in line with the rest of the game? Why not call them “special world A”, and so forth? It’s so the player realizes that they are not “optional” — they’re just “not essential”. It’s giving the player without the resources to warp the sensation of having skipped worlds.
This is what we’ve come to: listen to me: Nintendo has determined that people stopped playing videogames because they got too complicated; somewhere, they’ve also blanket-assumed that everyone, even obese / cancerous grandpa, deserves to see the end of a game story, even if the story is just schlock nonsense about a man with a mustache and lungs full of helium rescuing a pink-dressed princess (evidence: they bother to put a story in in the first place), so they deduce that requiring statutory kleptomania of any person wishing to complete a game is The Way to draw The People back in. On the one hand, yes, we have a handless walking mushroom, by all accounts a &^#$#, telepathically levitating (and forcefully swinging) a baseball bat; on the other hand, we have Super Mario Galaxy, showing players a rabbit who says he’s looking for star chips, panning the camera up to show a star chip in the sky, way out of reach, focusing on three stomp pegs on the ground, and then rewarding the player with a jump-boosting stargate thing that materializes out of nowhere should the player remember that these three unassuming pegs can be stomped down with Mario’s hip-drop move. Remember earlier, when we established that there is a fine line between games that require cryptic, illogical actions to proceed “correctly” because they seek to foster community between players and games that do the same because they want to sell strategy guides? Super Mario Galaxy, and other modern monsterpieces, are neither of these things; the Zelda equivalent of the abovementioned Super Mario Galaxy example would be a one-room dungeon with a single block in the middle. Try pushing it up, try pushing it left, try pushing it right. Hmm. Try pushing it down — staircase! Triforce piece inside! Good work, Einstein, either you have a better memory than a hecking goldfish, or you haven’t lost the instruction manual (and you definitely haven’t lost the game itself)!
Yes, we are going to keep beating this dead horse until it is a fossil, and then we will nuke that horse fossil. Snappy one-liner I couldn’t think of a better opportunity to use: “Super Mario Galaxy is a party game for people who are literally legally prohibited from having actual friends.”
Simply put, the morbid success of Super Mario Bros. 3 changed videogames for the bizarre, the way any and all success by Nintendo has ever changed videogames. There was so much love, attention to detail, generosity, and artistic conscience (there’s actually one word in Japanese that means “love, attention to detail, generosity, and artistic conscience” — it is pronounced kodawari; you’d figure with such a convenient word-package there, they’d be a little more excited about exhibiting it in their pop-culture, movies, et cetera) evident in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s all so ruthlessly accessible and playable and joyful, thanks to those amazing physics, that it’s near-unbearably heavy to think about how great it is, much less try to write about. You can’t sum it up; all you can do is lament that no one tries to pair amazing mechanics with true pop-artistry and love these days: all we get is developers second-guessing the audience, men who might in reality hate Disney crafting a game out of crust — Kingdom Hearts — “serving” existing fans without trying to make any new ones. Shigeru Miyamoto is to Tetsuya Nomura as Martina Navratilova is to Charles Manson, man, I’ll give him that. Super Mario Bros. 3 is a Grand Slam tennis championship; Kingdom Hearts is a bunch of kids calling a TV shyster and handing over their parents’ credit card numbers. And then there’s Metal Gear Solid 4, the latest game to score a glowing all-ten review from Weekly Famitsu: its take on kodawari is to feature a cut-scene wherein the camera lingers on a monkey drinking a can of soda for sixty straight seconds as two adult humans converse about Saving the World. Some man who may or may not have a girlfriend had to put his life on hold so he could work overtime for weeks to get the soda-sipping nuances perfect. Then there are viscerally thrilling games like Ninja Gaiden 2 for the Xbox 360, with a combo-hit-counter ticking up on the screen constantly as my ninja flips, slashes, dismembers, and kills; why show the number constantly? Why not just show it when my combo ends? Game designers, probably weaned on the “P-meter” in Super Mario Bros. 3, call it “instant visual feedback”; really, though — we have a game with a minutely detailed ninja swinging a shiny sword, spinning and freaking out, blades clashing against blades, sparks flying, blood spurting, arms flying, heads popping, legs splatting on the ground: can’t that be the “instant visual feedback”? Is this videogame design? No, is this life? What are we doing to ourselves, really?
Did all this psychological kleptomania really spew from Super Mario Bros. 3, a game we played so much that it became literally incorrect to not crouch before jumping to catch the falling magic wand at the end of the airship boss battles? (The only true way for Mario to be victorious is for him to split-second-snap out of flying crouch and into triumphant standing, wand upraised.)
You know what? Probably.
Most of my life later, Super Mario Bros. 3, once my gateway drug, continues to be the road itself. As I try to involve myself on a more integral level with the creation of actual videogames, as I fully realize and spell out the very discretely mathematical ways one can make a game better than my hero-game, I balk over and over again at actually taking authoritative control. I know that love and peace and freedom, not cold calculation, is what birthed this game. The reason Miyamoto can’t follow it up is because this is literally the kind of game only one group of people can ever make once. It’s brain-poison. It colors our expectations of fun from here to eternity; it’s not impossible to make a game, even a Mario game, that exudes pop-culture-miracle status as Super Mario Bros. 3 did, albeit in a refined, modern style; it’s just that all of the people who have proven they can work miracles are too busy tending gardens and playing with their children. Hell, if I were Shigeru Miyamoto, I’d probably be saying Wii Music was “better than a videogame”, too.
If I were to sweep away all the ashes of nostalgia and memory and dive into Super Mario Bros. 3 on a clean slate, post-Call of Duty 4, post-Gears of War, post-Pac-Man: Championship Edition, post-Street Fighter III, I’m afraid I’d still find it heartbreakingly amazing. Only I might — might — find it within myself to wish for a seamless experience, for an opportunity to enjoy these sublime physics, this gloryful sensation of running, jumping, climbing — free of the shackles of context, free of “water-world-fire-world-desert-world-ice-world-grass-world”; I want Mario, Tetris-ified, platforms falling into a well, a never-ending stage, randomized themes for falling objects, the goal being merely to survive. Oh, well: they’ve sold six million copies of New Super Mario Bros. in Japan alone, and that game had a super-compelling two-player VS mode (short stages that wrapped); there’s no way they can’t make a sequel, and there’s no way they won’t expand on that mode. Until that day (during which I will ultimately be vaguely disappointed), there’s always that Gears of War 2 online co-op mode where you and four friends are holed up in a fort being endlessly ambushed by bad guys. Perpetuity, that’s what I want: I want a game-rope; I want to jump platforms because I love jumping platforms, and, more importantly, because the platforms love being jumped, the ladders love being climbed, the walls love being triangled. I want beautiful friction, I want it to never end until I die, either in the game or in real life. I want to feel good when I’m in control. That’s basically all it comes down to. And at its best, Super Mario Bros. 3, steeped in lore, big and bulky and bubbling and never lumbering, offers pure kinetic motion of a more psychologically thrilling level than any game before or since. That’s enough to put it this high on this list.
Miyamoto claimed that Mario was born of a desire to make a game about a man like Indiana Jones — a working man who finds himself in bigger-than-life situations. Mario would go on to earn comparisons to Mickey Mouse (in that, apparently, more children in American elementary schools knew Mario than Mickey Mouse, at some point), though later years have made Mario out to be more of a Charlie Chaplin — a physical, silent comedian, with the worldview of one of those early (and creepy) talkie cartoons (Bimbo, Betty Boop) where things in the background are always moving.
The artistic inspirations for the original Super Mario Bros. could have come from anywhere; in 3, the designers were balls-to-walls. There’s not a doubt about it, looking at it in any of its incarnations even today: any given screen of it is a king of pop art; any two-second moving clip is a “statement” “about” “something”: Not three seconds after pressing the start button, and there’s the map for World 1, green hills with cute eyes bopping back and forth like backgrounds in ancient cartoons to the peppy tempo of an amazing, iconic, refined, pan-flash of 8-bit pop music courtesy of Koji Kondo: it might as well be a just-today-unearthed satirical Sumerian lithograph, parodying those almostpeople who use Microsoft Excel for everything.
Years of hindsight have opened my ears to the truth: though I had at first, at age ten, been admittedly disappointed that the music playing in World 1-1 was not the original Super Mario Bros. theme, I have grown, and changed; now that I’ve been laid more than a few times, I can see that the music in Super Mario Bros. 3 is, in fact, the champion; the main stage themes are deeper and bolder, and the fourteen-second pop-symphonies (my absolute favorite) that cycle over those superfluous world maps only grow more musically amazing with time. All those kids with access to 8-bit sound chips, trying their best to turn the sounds of their childhood into the money of their adulthood, and I reckon no one’s yet hit on anything this pure and beautiful. Here I am, then, sitting in my office, lights out, listening to this on headphones, on repeat, realizing that, more than just mathematically, I have probably “grown up” in some intangible way, and Super Mario Bros. 3 still stalks me like a ghost. For today, at least, all that nostalgia isn’t wrong, not yet: until some future day I can’t immediately forsee (probably around the time adopting a child starts to seem like better than a bad idea), Super Mario Bros. 3 will remain my treasure, my precious hobby, my stay-at-home vacation, my one-man conversation, my lifelong birthday party.
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