Thirty Years On, Super Mario Bros. 3 Remains 2D Mario’s Pinnacle

The release of Super Mario Odyssey in October last year proved that there was still so much untapped potential left in 3D Mario games. Although it was acclaimed in just about the same measure as this or any other Mario game often is, 3D World by contrast, was an odd entrant. Not just because it focused on following up 3D Land (on the 3DS) with a similar installment to fill out the Wii U release schedule, but overall — as entertaining as some of its later stages may have been — it felt like a step back from what has been a steady incline of quality 3D titles with Super Mario Galaxy 2 previous not just being a worthy follow-up to the amalgamated delights that Galaxy brought, but like so many Mario releases, invoked a grand sense of accomplishment with what the series had achieved and could achieve if it followed along the same daring routes.

2D Marios on the other-hand, minus one critical dimension they may be, can still do a lot with the history at one’s disposal. And yet, does anyone really remark upon the “New” Super Mario Bros games as anything but simply being “more Mario” in a gameplay sense and nothing relatively else? If anything — should you be willing to trawl online forums and debate alike — you’re more likely to find fans mocking New’s regurgitating approach and seemingly effortless (in the context of other mainline Mario games) iterations of the exact same formula. That and its music; let’s not gloss over that bizarre inclusion. In an age where Odyssey genuinely feels like the next, critical step-up in the 3D corner of Mario’s platforming efforts, we often have to look back (far back in fact) to find a 2D entrant that still manages to invoke an unrequited joy and marvel that can match 3D’s own variety and natural evolution too. Super Mario Bros. 3 is that very joy and marvel; nearly thirty years on from its original release on the NES in Japan, it remains the series’ 2D pinnacle.

Super Mario Bros 3 Screenshot
There’s of course an argument to be made that Super Mario World — its 1991 successor and one of the major first-party launch titles for the [then] new fourth-gen SNES — is the true heir to this particular series throne. In much the same way people will bicker between Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask being Zelda’s true champion. Sure, Super Mario World is another fantastic release in the series — to this day its level design, soundtrack and aesthetic, all stand up — but if we’re discussing the source of this innovative step-up in design, Super Mario Bros 3 is where the series saw a massive upturn in quality. Super Mario Bros 2 certainly experimented in that regard; the item-grabbing/throwing mechanic was new and somewhat strategic and the inclusion of interior/back-tracking progress through a level liberated the series from simply being a straight-and-narrow A-to-B affair.

But it was the series’ third outing where the 2D plane, let alone the hardware powering it, was pushed to its physical and creative edge. Environments were no longer simple repeated patterns with occasional objects mapping the backdrop. Instead, 3 sported a wider variety of environments and artistic flavors that hearkened to the themes of the original Super Mario Bros but showed a far greater visual flair and sense of confidence that Nintendo could finally flaunt, even if the NES was unknowingly approaching its final years. While it might be joked upon when contemporary releases often stick to the same thematic formula, the notion of jumping from a desert theme to a tropical theme…to an icy locale and finally the climactic fiery zone, kept things looking intriguing and exciting. These changes in visuals were met equally so by the structural changes in the over worlds whereupon one’s emotions could even play a part the further you progressed.

Super Mario Bros 3 Screenshot 2
Figuring which route would be more advisable in World 3, wrapping one’s head-around the many warp pipes of World 7, finding surprise at the notion that the main bulk of World 8 was blacked out save for your very position…and then there was telling the cloud-based, second-half of World 5 that (to keep this family-friendly) it and its levels’ difficulty can go fornicate with thy self. All of this taking place before you ever tapped into the levels themselves. Said levels housing a more elaborate progression than even previous entrant Super Mario Bros 2 offered, yet still found a way to push the series’ overarching notion that experimentation and daring feats could very well grant you the reward of completion. And this notion of experimentation was built somewhat around the game’s inclusion of items, only this time you could now collect and even store them in your inventory to use in later levels or in some cases across the eight over-worlds.

The music box that put patrolling Koopas to sleep, the hammer that could destroy boulders blocking off otherwise inaccessible routes, even the cloud that allowed you to skip levels. The latter of which, creating a unique risk:reward factor in that doing so, but subsequently dying on a chosen level thereafter, could send you back to the level you had hoped to skip — meaning the decision to use said item was an utter waste. It tripped me up on a couple of occasions — looking at you second half of World 3. For a series heralded for its creativity in its stand-alone levels, the overworld alone proved that the series could inject some otherwise strategic and tactical prowess in simply getting to your end goal. Oh and make sure you beat the end boss of every world on first try, otherwise it’s back to trawling the overworld just to reach the fleeing air-ship and have another go.

Super Mario Bros 3 Screenshot 3
Super Mario Bros 3 was the first example of a Mario game looking past the short-term value of its levels to craft an experience that demanded more from its players — fans whom might have gotten used to the notion of beating one level after another and thus were pitched a different task to consider at almost every turn. That loop of continual strategy inevitably completing when it came to making one’s way through the levels…and deciding whether a level that was perhaps side-scrolling, vertically-aligned, treacherously ice-based, water-based or just a pain to deal with, could maybe benefit from the use of a mushroom or a star, or the new Racoon Suit — a charming meta-game being trying to have one’s self flying over the level for as long as feasibly possible.

Though 3D entrants are usually tagged as sandbox-styled outings wherein the main pull — and would-be joy — in playing as Mario is pure-and-simply in his abilities and simply moving the plucky plumber around a given world/kingdom, that doesn’t mean that 2D affairs should be considered as anything but this same concept. The DS and 3DS games, though still sported an array of items, were often identified by their fleeting notion of experimentation and variety — quickly devolving into a simple run-of-the-mill conveyor belt of recognizable themes and predicted set-pieces.

No doubt Nintendo will come up with and announce another side-scrolling, level-for-level affair for their trustee mascot to trudge through (let’s face it: who doesn’t want free money?). But while things are still at the pre-production phase, they’d be wise to look to the past when planning for the future. In much the same vain that Odyssey reflected on 64’s (even Sunshine’s, to an extent) playful freedom, games like Super Mario Bros. 3 are fine examples of how even a successful and established formula like Mario can still be built on in amazing ways — hence the reason why so many herald it as one of the greatest video games out there. So many interesting but well-executed ideas came about from Mario’s third and arguably greatest mainline outing even as the industry was ready to transition from 8-bit to 16-bit; Odyssey did just as much, raising the staple bar of 3D titles ever higher. It would only be fair and rather well-timed if the 2D equivalents received just as courteous a service too.