Many gamers consider this the best game in the NES library, and while I won't say that since I don't think I've played a wide enough array of games for that console to come up with such a conclusion, I'll say that this is my favorite game with the Mario title on it. This is my favorite of all the Mario games since I think among Mario's "classic" games, this one is the toughest while still being fun and unlike the two previous Mario games, starts to include features that would be essential to future Mario games.
Bowser is back to unleash terror, but this time, he's brought his seven children, known as the Koopalings, to wreak havoc in seven kingdoms, and to steal the magic wands from those kingdoms for Bowser's nefarious plans. Mario and Luigi have to go stop the Koopalings' invasion through their airships, retrieve the stolen magic wands and turn the transformed kings back to normal, and eventually, fight Bowser himself...again.
What I find most interesting with this storyline is that unlike most other Mario games, Princess Peach isn't immediately the "damsel in distress," but rather in the beginning of most worlds you enter in the game, she supplies you with a power-up. It's not until near the end of the game that she gets kidnapped by Bowser.
SMB3's gameplay is a vast improvement over the previous two games. If you're familiar with the gameplay mechanics of the first Super Mario Bros. (the American Super Mario Bros. 2 is pretty different, considering that it's merely Doki Doki Panic with Mario characters, and therefore has some pretty different gameplay mechanics, and I don't consider it a true sequel to SMB), then you know around 90% of Super Mario Bros. 3's mechanics. The right and left buttons on the d-pad make you walk right and left (respectively), Start pauses the game, B launches an attack (if you have a power-up that dishes out attacks), A makes you jump, and the Select button is restricted to the title screen to toggle between 1 and 2-player modes.
Throughout the game, you navigate through eight different worlds and have to complete a number of levels until you reach the end of the overworld map (usually you have to beat each level in order to get to the end of the map, but you can sometimes skip a level if there's an alternate, unblocked route), which features a castle with a transformed king and a Toad in distress, asking you to retrieve the magic wand from the Koopaling you have to fight.
The eight lands in the order of progression in the game are Grass Land, Desert Land, Water Land, Giant Land, Sky Land, Ice Land, Pipe Land, and Dark Land. The respective Koopalings you have to fight in these kingdoms are Larry Koopa, Morton Koopa Jr. Wendy O. Koopa, Iggy Koopa, Roy Koopa, Lemmy Koopa, and Ludwig von Koopa (you fight Bowser in Dark Land). With the exception of Bowser, you fight each of them on giant airships, that are often bristling with cannons and flamethrowers.
In the individual levels within the eight worlds you travel, they're quite varied. There's "regular" levels where you travel through a level on the world's surface while jumping over obstacles and defeating enemies. There's "sky" levels where you have to traverse through platforms above a giant bottomless pit, and these are often "auto-scrolling," so make sure you're staying ahead of the screen's movement towards the right. There's levels where you have to go down a pipe and swim through water, and there's levels where you have to go down a pipe and traverse through an underground level. Aside from that, there' also smaller castles within each world that you have to beat. These castles often have lava pools and jumping fireballs much like the castles in the first Mario game, and in the end of each, you have to fight a reptilian creature known as a Boom Boom, though these guys are often easy to defeat.
There's also optional places in each world you can visit. These include "mushroom houses" that when you visit them, you choose from one of three chests to pick up a power-up and a location where you try to align three images to win a power-up (the power-ups you can win are a mushroom, leaf, or fireflower). Sometimes, a moving card will appear on the map and you can play cards to win things like coins, extra lives, and power-ups by flipping cards and matching two of a kind to win something. Once in a blue moon, a ship will appear on the map and when you get on it, you just collect a ton of coins and you go down a pipe in the end to fight two Hammer Bros..
In each map, you'll bump into the Hammer Bros., and when you beat the two of them, you'll get a power-up.
There's a smorgasbord of enemies you fight in this game. As usual, you got the Goombas, Koopa Troopas, Piranha Plants, and Buzzy Beetles, but there's some more this time around. Some of the new enemies are the Chain Chomp (when I was a little kid, I thought these were spastic football helmets that hurt you), Boo, Dry Bones (the Koopa Troopa skeletons in the fortresses), baby Piranha Plants (these are capable of jumping), Thwomps (the blocks in the fortresses that try to crush you), and Buster Beetles (the beetles that can throw Ice Blocks at you).
There's a bunch of new power-ups as well. Along with the fireflower, there's the leaf, which allows you to fly after attaining a high-enough speed. There's also the Tanooki suit, which like the leaf, allows you to fly, but also allows you to turn into a statue for protection against enemies (and can defeat otherwise invincible adversaries like the rotating lights and fireballs in the fortresses). There's a frog suit that allows you to swim better in underwater levels. Among the "best" power-ups are the P-wing, which is similar to the leaf, but allows you to constantly fly without having to run and fill up the P-meter (and flight ability doesn't run out unless if you get hit by an enemy). My favorite power-up is the Hammer suit, since this makes you throw hammers that can defeat nearly all enemies (such as the Boos and smashing blocks, which are invincible to tailspin attacks and fireballs), and when you crouch, the shell on the back of your suit protects you from fireball attacks. Because of how potent the Hammer suit it, it's only natural for it to be the rarest power-up in the game.
SMB3 is a step up in graphics compared to its two predecessors. Because of the more diverse environments, each world has a distinct visual style. With the graphical improvements, Mario and Luigi look better than in the previous two games, and the same can be said for all of the creatures in the game. Also, there's a much wider array of colors used in this game, and this game helped set the stage for what is now Mario's signature polychromatic worlds and creatures (while the first two SMB games had color, the color range wasn't very large). I think some of the best-looking environments in this game are for Ice Land and Dark Land. The former for the fact that it really does look and invoke the feeling of a chilly world (and to be humorous, I bet this is what Mario and Luigi would imagine what countries like Russia and Finland are like) and the latter for its really ominous, bleak atmosphere. Thanks to the wider array of colors, it helps flesh out each world as very distinctive from the other, which is a great thing considering how varied each of the eight worlds are.
A lot of the sound effects from the first two Mario games have been carried over into SMB3, such as the coin sounds, enemy-smashing sounds, and the fireball sounds. These sounds are quite effective, given the NES's hardware limitations.
The soundtrack for SMB3 is some of Koji Kondo's best work yet. There's more Overworld themes instead of just one, and the well-known Underworld theme has been "spiced up" in this game (and it sounds better). Two of my favorite themes in this game are the Fortress and Air Ship themes. The former makes you feel like you're in a hideous dungeon where hundreds of innocents are met with horrible fates and the latter has a percussive, militaristic aesthetic. In one of the levels in Dark Land, you have to traverse through a squad of tanks, and with the ominous black background and Air Ship theme in the background, it feels like a squad of German heavy tanks is pouring into the Soviet Union circa 1941.
I only have a few complaints with Super Mario Bros. 3. My chief complaint with this game is that for how challenging and lengthy it is, there's no saving feature in the game. So this means you gotta devote a huge chunk of your day to beat this thing since you gotta do it all in one sitting.
The difficulty curve among the last three Koopalings is a little off. Fighting Roy Koopa is pretty difficult since he can shake up the ground, temporarily immobilizing you if you're on the ground. However, Lemmy is after him, and fighting him is almost as easy as fighting Larry and Morton, but with Ludwig coming after Lemmy, the difficulty spikes up drastically.
The other is more minor, but it does irk me a little. Why are the Boos invincible to fireballs but not so to hammers? Theoretically, ghosts are supposed to be gaseous entities, so wouldn't fire be a more logical element in defeating them rather than metal projectiles?
This is surely a classic in the NES library, and easily among the best of all Mario games. This game is available on the Wii's virtual console (and has been re-issued on various handhelds over the last decade or so), so you can play it on there. However, if you're more of an old-school gamer, you may find yourself dusting off your NES and SMB3 cartridge to play this one again. Regardless of what method you like to play this game on, give it another whirl.
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