October 18, 2015

NES30 #1: Super Mario Bros 3

In 2015, Nintendo's hugely successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) turns 30 years old. The NES, an adaptation of Nintendo's already successful Famicom console, re-invigorated console gaming internationally after the collapse of Atari and went on to sell 43 million units worldwide. NES30 celebrates this anniversary by counting down my favourite 30 games for the system.

I wrote a few times during this countdown about the iterative improvements that can come in videogame sequels. A bit of gameplay might get tweaked. The graphics and sound will likely be improved. Programmers will find more innovative ways of drawing the most out of the console's hardware. In all honesty there are very few cases where the first game in a series is the best. It's certainly the case with Super Mario Bros. While it's a legendary game, and rightfully so, in terms of gameplay, graphics and sound it is eclipsed by its first proper successor: Super Mario Bros 3.

I say 'proper': in Japan Super Mario Bros 2 was basically a new set of 32 levels, using the same graphics and sound as the original game but designed to be a more challenging experience. When it was felt that American gamers wouldn't enjoy a more challenging version of the same game, the unrelated Famicom platformer Doki Doki Panic was hurriedly re-skinned and released as another Super Mario Bros 2.

While both games were massive hits in their respective markets, it did leave Super Mario Bros without a properly authentic sequel: one that provided new gameplay, better graphics and sound, and which had benefitted from the oversight and participation of Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Super Mario Bros 3 is that game, and it's the absolute best videogame ever released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So what got improved? For one thing the game has become non-linear. There's now a map screen for each world, allowing the player to choose the order in which she or he completes the various levels. It's even possible to skip some levels altogether. The map also includes random puzzle levels that pop up from time to time, special enemies to defeat, and even a player versus player mode for when two people want to play at the same time.

In the levels themselves, a range of new abilities are available. Mario can climb vines and slide down slopes. He can collect all-new power-ups, including a frog suit that allows him to swim better and jump higher, and a tanuki suit that enables him to fly. The monsters he fights are more varied. The level layouts are more innovative. There are secret areas and bonus stages all over the place, encouraging the player to take his or her time and explore, rather than simply run from one side of the level to the other.

The graphics have received an extraordinary upgrade, giving all of the characters a clean, cartoon-like look that pretty much defines Mario's physical appearance all the way up to Super Mario 64 in 1996. The sound and music are also much improved. It is, in effect, a near-impossible achievement: taking a game that had seemed absolutely perfect, and yet improving on it in pretty much every respect.

While SMB3 was released in Japan in 1988, a shortage of ROM chips in the USA led to the game being delayed internationally until 1990. The situation was even worse in Europe and Australia, where the game didn't debut until August 1991. Given the delay in releasing the game overseas, Nintendo took the opportunity to partner with Universal Pictures and produce a full-length feature film, The Wizard, that would promote Super Mario Bros 3 to a movie-going audience. The film is literally one of the longest pieces of product placement in Hollywood history.

I adore Super Mario Bros 3. I think it is the finest platform game ever made. It's one of the games that, even today, makes the Nintendo Entertainment System such a wonderfully enjoyable console to play. Today is the 30th anniversary of the NES. It's a wonderful console. Its best games helped to define what Nintendo was as a company, and the effects of those games continue to be felt today. It was released at a time when console gaming was presumed dead in America, after the collapse of Atari and its competitors had all but burned out any prospect of retailers stocking a game console again. That it not only got accepted by stores, but sold as well as it did (close to 43 million consoles worldwide), remains a remarkable achievement. All console gaming - even today - owes it a tremendous debt.

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