One of the largest draws of the Super Mario Bros. series in its early years was its ability to offer choice. You may not realize it anymore, but the ability to choose which way you want to take your game was one of the defining features of the series in the ’80s and early ’90s. While most other games followed a linear route of traveling from the left to the right of the screen and advancing on a set course, Super Mario Bros. offered worlds to explore and choices of where to take your adventure. The combination of choice and exploration is what makes Super Mario Bros. 3 one of the best games ever.
When Super Mario Bros. 3 was released, it was the epitome of the nonlinear style of the series combined with superb level design, creative abilities and unique worlds to explore. Exploring my favorite world, Giant Land, where all the enemies are massive versions of themselves was like an adventure and a quest separate from the actual goal of the game. Every world offered you the ability to choose exploration over simply beating the game and since there was no option to save your progress, finding unique items and abilities like the tanooki suit, frog suit, hammer bros. suit and goomba’s shoe were even more valuable.
Let’s take the opening level as an example. Within the first few minutes of gameplay you discover that the leaf gives Mario a raccoon tail and the ability to fly. There is an odd bit of Japanese folklore about raccoons having the ability to fly for short distances. For everyone outside of Japan this only added to the quirkiness of the Mushroom Kingdom. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense since Mario was only able to fly for short periods of time — unless you were using the rare p-wing, which gave unlimited flight. Anyway, shortly after gaining the ability to fly, you discover that the level has a certain amount of verticality to explore and take to the sky. After collecting the coins floating on a cloud platform you can choose to retrace your steps without flight or simply complete the level. This gave the player a choice in how to complete his objective and I know everyone else spent most of their time in Mushroom Kingdom looking for additions to the levels hidden up in the clouds. The idea that there could possibly be more parts of the level waiting just out of reach made flight that much more enjoyable.
The world map gave the player an even greater sense of exploration. You could choose, to a certain degree, which levels to tackle in which order and pursue different objectives than simply completing the game. In addition, the scenery, design and feel of the individual worlds in the world map added to the atmosphere by filling the player in on what kind of a world he was exploring. After completing the first two levels of the first world, Grass Land, you are given the choice of completing either level 3 or 4 to gain access to a toadhouse. You could even choose to skip either one and tackle a fortress on your way to the castle. This is a choice that the player must make and weigh his options. Going for the toadhouse does hold a certain amount of exploration with the reward of the power-up in the house, but you could lose a few lives in the process and be no closer to the goal of reaching the castle.
If you arrive at the toadhouse, you choose between three boxes, hoping that your choice gets you a good power-up, which is stored for later use and is available on the world map. The ability to store your power-ups and decide when to use them is another choice the player makes while exploring the game. When confronted with a particularly daunting fortress, you could use a fire flower and go in shooting fire from your fingertips, but once that item is used, it’s gone.
The ability to collect items and use them on the world map opens up the use of the warp whistle, which gives the player the ability to jump ahead to a different world. If you’re experienced and know where the whistles are located, then you can jump all the way to the last world of the game from the first world by getting both whistles in the first world. Once again, the player finds himself with a choice to make. He could jump ahead now when he only has a handful of lives and items, wait until later when he has more resources or simply jump to a level he might want to explore like Sky Land, one of my other favorite levels simply because you can get both the tanooki suit and the giant goomba shoe to jump around in. With these items only existing in a few areas of the game, going to Sky Land for me was all about getting these two abilities. The shoe only exists in one level and disappears once you complete it. I remember actually getting to the end of the level and then finding ways to die, so I could play it again and relive a few glorious moments of watching Mario bounce around on screen in a shoe.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Super Mario Bros. 3, but I think I’ve only beaten the game three or four times. For me, it was always about exploration, never about victory. Everything about the game is burned into my mind as part of my childhood; the noise Mario makes when he’s built up speed, the sound of a block breaking, the sound of Mario flying, the feeling of losing control of Mario for a split second after jumping on one of Bowser’s kids and using the statue ability of the tanooki suit to avoid damage. Everything about this game is what every Mario game has been trying to replicate for twenty years.
I wanted to end this article by sharing a small secret. In my desk I have an old Game Boy Advance and two games. I keep the Game Boy simply to play these two games, like a toaster is a machine that makes toast. In the drawer I have Super Mario Bros. 3 and Tetris, one of the other best games ever and while I may not play them frequently it’s really a switch to go from playing some modern graphically superior shooter to playing Super Mario Bros. 3 and remember why I love gaming so much.
Dan Hoyt has been an avid gamer his entire life. When he’s not playing games, he’s working out by walking his dog, hiking and doing martial arts. He likes to try new kinds of alcohol and discuss politics. He’s a graduate of The University of Kansas and has spent years as a journalist.