Super Mario Bros. 3, The Best Mario Game, Turns 26 Today

On this day in 1990, one of the best video games to ever be released came to North America - Super Mario Bros 3. This 2D action platformer originally appeared on the NES, but its influence continues to span console generations, and is regularly ranked on top games-of-all-time lists. As of 2011, SMB3 remains the highest-grossing non-bundled home video game, selling 17 million copies worldwide and having grossed $1.7 billion (adjusted for inflation) to date. In music industry terms, Mario's third adventure on the NES went platinum 11 times. Maybe that's why it's one of only ten games preserved by the Library of Congress, and one of only a few games Nintendo re-releases more than two decades after it came out.

For a lot of gamers, the debate over the best Mario game ever rages on, and it's often Super Mario Bros. 3 or the SNES's Super Mario World. But both games undeniably ooze personality, so it's really a matter of style over substance. They're products of Nintendo's earliest experiments with nonlinear progression, meaning each world's levels can be played in almost any order. The two introduced imaginative mechanics divided by iconic power-ups like the Tanooki Suit, Cape Feather, Hammer Suit, and Kuribo's Shoe (which surprisingly appears only twice in just one SMB3 level).

Chances are you haven't forgetten the first time you got Mario (or Luigi) to fly in these games; the power alone feels like cheating in games all about jumping. Yet it's a powerful moment and for such a trailblazing Mario mechanic, it controls well. SMB3's P-Wing grants Mario the ability to soar through the air infinitely over entire levels in his Raccoon Suit, letting you skip several minutes of gameplay with ease. Never mind that this game also has Warp Whistles, which let you skip hours of playing through entire worlds.

Not that you will want to skip the creative worlds of SMB3 designed by series creator Shigeru Miyamoto and his team of ten developers. From World 1's Grass Land to World 4's Giant Land (my personal favorite), Miyamoto's team designed each world in unique ways, to evoke awesome themes and creative aesthetics in their individual levels. The overworld map was a new idea in games at the time and made navigating the Mushroom Kingdom's weird geography its own fun. Bonus levels, mushroom houses, card game minigames, airship levels, fortresses, and random Hammer Bros encounters added refreshing variety to the tired "run-to-the-right" stereotype of NES platformers.

SMB3 also features one of the best soundtracks ever put on a sound chip, composed by the legendary Koji Kondo, Nintendo's most prolific music composer. Just listen to the Underworld theme, the Koopa Kid Battle music, or the Victory Fanfare for clearing a fortress or airship. To this day, these songs and sound effects are constantly playing in my mind, a soundtrack that colors my day-to-day triumphs and tribulations.


SMB3 also features great gameplay design and balance, and it arguably perfected the original Super Mario Bros. formula. Earlier worlds are easier with more power-ups; the later worlds ramp up in difficulty and require more precise skillful timing. SMB3's enemies test the lessons you learn as you progress. World 2's Angry Sun challenges quick straightforward playthroughs, World 3's Big Bertha pursues relentlessly in water levels, and World 7's Muncher plants force you to think carefully about Mario's next jump.

The level design in SMB3, perhaps more than any other Mario game, inspired many children of that era (myself included) to design their own Mario levels on graph paper. This childhood fantasy can be relived in last year's Wii U hit, Super Mario Maker. It's no mistake that the SMB3 tileset is one of the game's most popular styles among level creators.

SMB3's influence on the video game industry extended beyond Nintendo's future Mario releases. Without SMB3, Id Software, makers of the classic first-person shooter Doom, might not have ever existed; the company got their start by making a SMB3 port for the PC, which was never released officially. Id's co-founder John Romero recently posted a video of their work, and after demoing it to Nintendo executives in 1990, claims Nintendo wasn't interested in releasing their games on any other platform than their own. So Nintendo declined the offer to license SMB3 to a third-party developer, and Id Software moved on to their successful future in Commander Keen, Castle Wolfenstein, and of course, Doom.

"We worked on this demo for a week, after work, and on the weekend all two days. It was all from scratch, except we used the scrolling code from the Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement demo made a couple days before we started on this. We sent this demo to Nintendo of America, they in turn sent it to Kyoto to the mothership office, and the execs there saw the demo and were really impressed. However, they didn't want their intellectual property on anything but their own hardware, so they told us 'Good job' and 'You can't do this.'"

-John Romero, Co-founder of Id Software

Unfortunately, during this era of gaming, saving your game was not a widespread trend, and you could not save your progress in SMB3 until the Super Mario All-Stars SNES release. The chips Nintendo used for the original SMB3 cartridge were in short supply and only built to handle the game's many sprites, the forced diagonal scrolling during some levels, and the simultaneous view of Mario's position on-screen and bottom status bar. So there wasn't enough memory left over to support save states, meaning the long quest to defeat Bowser and save Princess Toadstool (she was not renamed Peach until Super Mario 64) must be done in one sitting in its original release.

SMB3 is the standard-bearer and blueprint for what all games should be: colorful, rewarding, inventive, and most importantly, fun. It is a game that I return to once a year to remind myself why I got into gaming in the first place: its infinite charm and whimsical spirit recharge my enthusiasm for the medium.

Happy Birthday, Super Mario Bros 3: you are a love letter to everything I love about video games.