Video games don’t come more beloved than Super Mario Bros. 3. Its pre-release hype – which included an entire motion picture, The Wizard, to help advertise it – was unprecedented in its day. It became a pop culture phenomenon that matched even the original Super Mario Bros., and established most of the identity of the Super Mario series that we still see over two and a half decades later. And to this day, it is still widely regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time, and regularly declared as the most timeless game on the NES (with only Mega Man 2 putting up an argument against it). Super Mario Bros. 3’s importance to Nintendo is hard to exaggerate. It remains a highlight in the big N’s history.
While the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 retained the look and feel of the original but cranked up to an infuriating difficulty, and the western Super Mario Bros. 2 felt like a strange detour in the series, Super Mario Bros. 3 felt like the first real evolution of the Super Mario Bros. formula. Mario once again jumped through the Mushroom Kingdom, kicked Koopa shells, and ventured to save the Princess from the villainous Bowser. But Super Mario Bros. 3 was a massive leap forward in its execution. Not only did the visuals receive an overhaul – with the Mushroom World being more colorful and vibrant than ever before – but Super Mario Bros. 3 expanded on gameplay in several meaningful ways.
Perhaps most notable are the power-ups. While the Super Mushroom, Starman and Fire Flower all returned, Super Mario Bros. 3 added a wealth of new oddities to give Mario super powers. The first and most prominently featured was the Super Leaf, which gave Mario raccoon ears and a tail that allowed him to fly. A new run meter at the bottom of the screen displayed Mario’s speed. Run fast enough and leap to the air to send Raccoon Mario skyward! He could even take out enemies and slow the descent of his falls with a spin of his tail.
Then there’s the Tanooki Suit, which put Mario in a fluffy costume. The Tanooki Suit serves as a greater (and rarer) version of the Raccoon Suit, granting the same powers while also allowing Mario to transform into an invincible statue. The Frog Suit gave Mario and Luigi better swimming and jumping abilities, while the elusive Hammer Suit let the plumbing duo turn the tables on the Hammer Bros., as they could throw hammers that easily defeated even the most difficult enemies. In arguably the game’s most famous level, Mario could hop into a giant shoe and hop across otherwise dangerous surfaces.
Super Mario Bros. 3’s power-ups delighted players (as well as baffling westerners with their roots in Japanese culture), and added a new sense of variety and depth to the mix. The game included so many power-ups that it boasted Mario’s largest arsenal until Super Mario Galaxy was released on the Wii some seventeen years later.
Then there were the levels. Super Mario Bros. 3 showcases some of the very best level design in all of gaming. The courses are straightforward, with Mario simply needing to reach the goal at the end of each stage. But every level presents a fun idea or challenge – with many of them being built around a single mechanic or power-up – that are used to their fullest. The eight included worlds also saw a greater variety, with worlds taking on themes like deserts, oceans, the sky and even a world where everything is super-sized.
The world map, a revelatory concept, was introduced here. Mario could now travel across a map in between levels, giving players a greater sense of freedom. They can tackle every level they wanted, or just skip to the ones that are necessary for progression. Enemies even appeared on the world map, giving Mario the chance to earn a power-up. Toad Houses and mini-games gave Mario a chance to earn even more goodies and extra lives. You still couldn’t replay levels after beating them in the same playthrough (that would be an innovation of Super Mario World) but the world map was a drastic leap forward for the series.
The game still remains fun to look at, with the graphics being some of the most timeless on the NES, and the music just as catchy and even more varied than that of Super Mario Bros. But more notable is how many of Mario’s established elements all got their start here: Boos, Thwomps, the Koopalings, airships, flying, the aforementioned world map and Toad Houses… So much of what we know about Super Mario today was first realized in Super Mario Bros. 3. The game was such a landmark in game design, and so widely beloved, that it has largely remained at the heart of the series ever since.
When it comes to discussing the best of Mario’s 2D adventures, the argument is almost unanimously between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Between the two, I’ve always been more of a Super Mario World man, as the replayable levels and secret exits added so much depth to what Mario 3 started, but that’s only a testament to that game’s sheer greatness. Super Mario Bros. 3, in its own right, remains one of the greatest platformers ever made, one of the crown jewels of 8-bit gaming, and one of the finest games to don the Mario name. It even makes re-watching The Wizard worthwhile just to see the game featured in the finale. It’s that good.