A review of Super Mario Bros. 3

I’ve recently gotten back into videogaming. My platform of choice has always been Nintendo (I realise that some self-styled ‘hardcore gamers’ just rolled their eyes and stopped reading) and I like nothing more than the Mario and Zelda series of titles.

As I’ve been out of the loop for so long, I was interested to see what new videogame blogs and sites are out there. I haven’t found many that I like, but I’m forever grateful to whoever pointed me in the direction of this article on Super Mario Bros. 3 by Tim Rogers on Action Button Dot Net.

A 10,000 word essay about a 25-year-old game, it’s one for your Instapaper or lunch break. It’s written in the mildly offhandish way of someone who knows all there is to know about their chosen subject: in this case, every mushroom, every warp whistle, every Kuribo’s Shoe (clue: there’s only one, and it’s in world 5-3).

It might be my favourite article I’ve ever read about video games.

There’s so many passages I could quote, and they are all quite long, so I’ll try and exercise restraint. This is how it starts:

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.

Rogers gives a potted history of Nintendo and Miyamoto, from Donkey Kong through the Mario and Zelda series, taking in game physics, level design, music and–repeatedly–world maps, a clear bugbear. Rogers is unerringly precise when it comes to SMB3’s influence:

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 fucking diamonds are, and they will never be able to answer, because they don’t know.

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 […] 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.

As you’ll have gathered, the article is as much a love letter as it is a retrospective review, and so it ends:

Super Mario Bros. 3 will remain my treasure, my precious hobby, my stay-at-home vacation, my one-man conversation, my lifelong birthday party.

Brilliant. I could hear the soundtrack in my head as I read it.

See also:

  • Master of Play, Nick Paumgarten’s 2010 profile of Shigeru Miyamoto from The New Yorker.
  • The World in a Chain Chomp, Kyle Orland’s shorter piece on SMB3.
  • Saving Zelda, Tevis Thompson’s plea for the Zelda series to return to what he sees as its heyday.
  • Game Over), David Sheff’s excellent 1993 book on the history and fortunes of Nintendo.

Author: Matthew Culnane

Sometime social and UX person working in education. Interested in food, books, music, others. Working out how it all works.