Monday, June 9, 2014

Super Mario Bros. 3 - Delivering Big-Time
The iconic plumber's long-awaited adventure exceeds the hype to become gaming royalty.

One of the problems I've had with putting together these chronicles is dealing with the contradictions that spawn from measuring the actual elapsing of time as compared to how I remember it. At work has been that previously mentioned issue of a kid's protracted perception of time conflicting with that of an adult to whom the world is fully formed. That this phenomenon is identifiable and definable doesn't make it any easier for me to digest. In fact, one of the most painful exercises in my recent past has been putting together the words to describe my agonizingly long wait for Super Mario Bros. 3, which I recall having taken years to arrive. In reality, the true stretch of time was only a bit more than fourteen months, but to me it still felt like a small eternity.

It began not too long after I got my NES in Christmas of '88. One cold winter day, I was with my father at the Optimo store on 86th Street (across the way from the local Nathan's and next to the corner pizzeria) when I briefly separated from him to browse down the magazine aisle. That's when I saw its name printed across the cover of virtually every popular gaming magazine on display. The headlines were along the lines of "Mario's hottest new adventure comes to light!" It was the strangest thing, I thought: "Didn't Super Mario Bros. 2 just come out?" I didn't ask my father to buy me any of the magazines because I couldn't believe this was happening so soon. And, well, I wasn't yet much of a reader.

But they weren't fantasizing, it turned out; Super Mario Bros. 3 was real! Everyone at school was already talking about it, with me as usual being the last to know. Luckily, a few of those classmates happened to be my friends, and they took the time to properly educate me. Their excitement and anticipation was infectious, and I was quickly being consumed by their every word. Thereafter, I'm not sure where or how I read my actual my first preview of it, but I know that I'd been completely swept up in Mario Mania. I already loved Super Mario Bros., with which I had recently become more-intimately familiar, and I absolutely adored Super Mario Bros. 2, which I had been playing at Dominick's house at every visit; hearing and reading about how this sequel was apparently going to dwarf them both set my hype-meter to unreasonable levels. 

I began intently looking forward to the day when I'd get my hands on it. I couldn't wait to experiment with Mario's new racoon and frog suits, nor could I wait to experience playing through what I'd read were wondrously realized themed worlds. I filled the back pages of my school notebooks with drawings of what I imagined were potential suits, characters and worlds. It was always a topic of conversation any time I'd converse with a friend or cousin. Outside of my lustful, long-lasting anticipation for Mega Man 3, there was never a time when I was this hyped for a game.

The wait's first milestone came in the form of Nintendo Power Vol. 9--my first issue and the one that happened to be fully dedicated to Super Mario Bros. 3. You think I'd be thrilled, but I didn't even want to look at the thing, since I had already read tons about it and was sure that any further exposure would begin diminishing its allure (and the teaser absolutely revealed the intent to spoil all of the game's content). Also, as a new subscriber, I wasn't happy with the idea of "dedicated" issues, since I'd be out of luck if I wasn't a fan of the game being covered; I was already sold on Super Mario Bros. 3, after all--I needed to see more of Mega Man 3, dammit! In order to resist temptation, I lent the magazine to one of my brother's friends, who never returned it (that varmint). Nevertheless, the idea that I'd seen the game's artwork on the cover of the company's official magazine served as a reminder of how tantalizingly close its release was!

The second marker was the recently released movie The Wizard, which was advertised to have Super Mario Bros. 3 content that included actual video of the game in motion! I had to see it. Since my parents were both working at the time, I begged my aunt to take me to Alpine Cinemas in Bay Ridge to catch a weekday viewing. And, well, when I left the theater that day, I had no idea what it was that I just saw; I thought I was going to see a movie about video games, but I witnessed, instead, some bizarre form of social commentary about the folly of running away from your troubles plus other issues whose meaning escaped me (autism and child molestation, mainly). I'm really not sure. 

While I was happy with just the mere glimpse of Super Mario Bros. 3, the film's larger message was lost on me; rather, the only lasting memories I have of it are the Power Glove, Christian Slater's dad playing Punch-Out!! (or some other game) in his garage, and a thick, emotionless kid who was obsessed with "Cal-ee-forn-ya!" Still, somehow, I think I took from the movie what Nintendo's marketing wanted me to.

The months fell off slowly. It was getting so close we could taste it. In preparation, Dominick and I spent the week before its release recruiting our mothers into the carefully planned effort to obtain two copies as soon as possible. On February 12th, 1990, the day it arrived in stores, we sent the ill-equipped pair out all over Brooklyn looking for it. By some stroke of luck, they managed to track down two copies from one of the borough's less-popular chain stores (I can't remember which one, since I was probably too excited to care) after an exhaustive effort and brought them back to my house.

We spent the rest of the day in my room joyously tearing into Super Mario Bros. 3, which even before we'd finished unwrapping it already had a near-mystical hold on us. The game, itself, bled quality from the start. Every pixel of every screen screamed ambition. We were frankly hypnotized by what was playing out on my small television. Being a Nintendo product, this was what we expected, but Super Mario Bros. 3, even in the most limited doses, went far beyond what its predecessors had imagined. When a game is disappointing, you sense it immediately, but Super Mario Bros. 3, somehow, was living up to its massive hype without hint of a shortcoming.

The wait had been worth every second, and to experience it for the first time with a friend by my side only solidified what was a perfect video-game moment. In the years following, sadly, there weren't many instances where our childlike sociability enhanced the experience enough to create specific memories, since I mostly played it alone, but I'll never forget my more-personal interactions with Super Mario Bros. 3: I remember how it evoked a sense of awe, as if I was overwhelmed by its breadth of content. I was in love with each world's distinct theme, whether it had me battling giant-sized versions of the classic enemies I knew so well or fumbling about pipe mazes and sky towers. That each world's considerably large collection of stages constantly promoted new themes and ideas made it seem like the work of gods to whom time-constraints weren't even a concept.

The game felt alive to me, its glorious, vibrant worlds seemingly functioning without my input as projected by the flowery creatures that swayed to the map-screen's cheery, whimsical, and sometimes-mysterious ditties.

That was the thing about Super Mario Bros. 3's music: It was in many ways understated, but it did well to draw me into the game's colorful, fantasical world and always seemed to set the appropriate mood. The jazzed-up underground theme, for instance, successfully played upon my affinity for Super Mario Bros. while embellishing stages that were far more advanced with their slopes and caverns that seemed to branch in all directions. The cheery underwater theme grew increasingly melancholic as it elapsed, capturing the essence of the game's obliviously content sea life while making swimming stages more tolerable. The fear-inducing airship theme created a tense, serious backdrop and demanded that I wisely consider my movements. And I loved how its subdued, mysterious fortress theme provided a cautious, uneasy feel to that maze-like Sky World stage that was otherwise devoid of enemies and had a hidden escape route; only music so quietly powerful could provide such atmosphere to an abandoned stronghold.

My favorite power-up was the Hammer Bros. suit, which was a very rare catch; it was empowering, its stream of arcing hammers allowing me take down enemies and obstacles that were otherwise invincible. Whenever I'd acquire or activate one, I'd slowly, nervously traipse my way along each stage in fear of losing it, as if balancing expensive porcelain. It was difficult to hold onto any power-up for too long, really, but there was nothing more disappointing to me than losing a Hammer Bros. suit, which I treated as a prized treasure. As it was in the case of the temporary Kuribo's Shoe power-up, it was the scarcity of its appearance that made it feel special; coming into possession of one was like having a fleeting grasp on a highly desired artifact whose enchantment was too desirable to relinquish, which was a microcosm for every aspect of the game's design.

Nintendo had created what I viewed as the rare "perfect" video game that if scored would nail A+ grades in every conceivable category. It had unmatched graphics and art direction, super-tight controls, a wonderfully evocative soundtrack (including a number of defining stage themes), an iconic assortment of power-ups, dozens of unforgettable stages, and a whole new of assortment of fun, creative enemies to go along with those classic. And yet it seemed beyond ranking systems, as if it were a work so transcendent that it defied all manner of metrics, letter grades, and system specs. For a time, it simply was the state of the medium, and everyone who was lucky enough to play it knew that it was something truly special.

True to old-style Nintendo games, it was also grew quite challenging, its later worlds sometimes requiring me to apply a high level of platforming skill in increasingly dire scenarios. This was a time when the big companies weren't afraid to design games in a way that encouraged players to hone their skill, when even the provision of dozens of 1up opportunities, racoon/tanooki suits, and P-Wings were a source of balance and not a ticket to easy victory. Sure--I had a tough time of things in the final world, where darkness and fire reigned, but the sense of impending doom only worked to create a air of anxious excitement that fueled my final push toward an end goal that was so within my reach.

Considering the game's great length, it would have been nice had Nintendo included a save feature, but the omission of such wasn't unforgivable. Besides--I found the experience so thoroughly satisfying that I didn't mind having to play through its early worlds again and again just to get back to that one troublesome desert stage with the pools of quicksand and the angry sun.

I remember the first time I finished Super Mario Bros. 3, the memory of which is a source of both pride and embarrassment. I woke up from my sleep and wandered down into the kitchen, where my brother was making himself a late-night snack; he was currently taking a break from playing Super Mario Bros. 3, since his progress had stalled. During our chat, he successfully conned me into joining him in the basement for his nighttime session, figuring I'd have better luck; so, as he'd probably planned, I followed him downstairs and took control of the action. He then watched on intently as I played through the game's difficult final stages--doing so well past my bedtime--and finally arrived at Bowser's castle. Though I'd never made it as far, I was able to control my excitement as I navigated the unsteady castle innards, and I concluded the long journey by luring the dive-bombing Bowser to his death.

As we watched the credits roll, my brother suggested that I stand in front of the TV for a photo--visual evidence that I was among those who were able to finish it. He snapped this awful picture of me in my flannel button-down pajamas as I goofily posed in front of the big-screen television that displayed the game's static "The End" screen. It for years remained buried in the cabinet beneath the kitchen's coffee-maker, and I made sure it remained there.

I believe it was thrown away when we cleaned out the house before moving, but for all I know, it might still be out there somewhere. My only hope is that it's since been burned.

It was the power of Super Mario Bros. 3 that also led to the realization of how lucky and privileged I was to be able to have such things. I remember the time my father suggested that I bring it over to our rarely seen extended-family's house on Vanderbilt Street, which was a more modest setting compared to where we lived. It was home to a younger pair of cousins, who didn't have much growing up; they owned an NES, yes, but their parents couldn't afford to buy them new games, and they were stuck with the same two or three titles. When the older cousin saw the game in my hands, his eyes lit up as he shouted "Super Mario Bros. 3!" 

He grabbed it from me and rushed into his small playroom, where he and his brother spent the whole afternoon engulfed by it. It was one of the happiest days of their lives and for me a real reality check; it brought into question the idea that what I had was normal. "Doesn't everyone have this stuff?" I naively thought. It helped teach me the joy of sharing what I had, even if was only trivial, and making other people's lives better.

The majority of my Super Mario Bros. 3 play-throughs are front-loaded into those first few years, and I sadly haven't returned to it as often as I do for other cherished classics. Still, those many early experiences were enough to leave permanent imprints on me, and there are in fact so many images and scenes that come to mind whenever I think of its name. Among them: Learning the methods for attaining the secret warp whistles. Map-based activity that entailed hammering rocks to uncover hidden routes and riding a canoe to a secluded portion of Water Land. Being attacked by the sun of all things. Nervously hopping about any water stage as patrolled by the man-eating Boss Bass, which made us very nervous. The way those giant blocks in Giant Land shattered into what were otherwise normal-sized blocks. Not knowing why the coin ships were appearing and treating them as some great mystery. And being left aghast when I discovered that it was true--that you could drop behind the bolted white platforms and enter the backdrop.

There was that stage where you could enter doors to travel to an identical plane where the giant enemies were replaced by those default-sized, even though the choice of path didn't seem to make a difference. That lonely room in Sky Land's tower as populated by only two chandeliers. Sky Land's thoughtfully created, easily missed extra stage that allowed you to return to the surface below. Pipe Land's metal-maze stage, with its fractured entry points and coin-rich branches. Failing many times in that stage where you had to procure a string of stars in order to safely dash over a field of Munchers. Pipe Land's abandoned fortress, with its flame-less candles, Stretch-less white platforms, and quietly eerie setting. Dark Land's fearsome high-speed airship that the P-Wing seemed made for. And of course Bowser's labyrinthine castle, whose laser-shooting statues, stage-swallowing lava pits, and foreshadowing fire-spew made for an epic prelude to the final battle.

I could list a dozen more, but I think you get the gist. Above all, there was a feeling that Super Mario Bros. 3 was an endless treasure trove, with secrets hiding behind every wall, lurking down every pipe, hanging overhead in every sky, and existing beyond boundaries I hadn't yet discovered. 

Super Mario Bros. 3, I felt, was the pinnacle of 8-bit gaming and the perfect bridge to the next generation. People forget that it arrived in North America at a time when consoles like the Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 were already in people's homes, playing host to games whose graphics were far beyond what the NES could achieve. That the "merely 8-bit" Super Mario Bros. 3 was able to thrive in such an environment and favorably compete with their best games is a testament to its greatness. It also stands, for me, as the most direct competition to Super Mario World, which was the SNES' showpiece; for the longest time, I considered Super Mario World to be the better game--almost underselling Super Mario Bros. 3 thanks to an extended period where I'd neglected it--until really taking the time to examine the latter on a micro level. From that angle, it's difficult to view Super Mario Bros. 3 as something that can ever be termed "inferior" to any game. It's just too damn good.

There's no greater measure of its longevity and superior quality than the fact that it's still one of the most loved games a quarter of a century after its release. More than two decades of technological advancement and five generations of hardware haven't yet produced a platformer that a mass of people would definitively say is better. Even today, Nintendo treats Virtual Console releases of Super Mario Bros. 3 as big events, of which it's deserving; living up to its legend, it's still always a chart-topper no matter the format.

That I went so long without replaying it doesn't change that it holds a high-ranking position in my gaming pantheon. It made a great impact on my early life and remains the source of many great memories. Truly, for me, there will never again be a game like Super Mario Bros. 3. There can't be. It was a game for which everything lined up perfectly--that specific point in my childhood, the experiences that built up to it, the friends I had, the distraction-free atmosphere, and my less-cynical view on games--and the circumstances will never be duplicated.

What a magical game.


  1. Found your blog by accident and am happy I did. I am thoroughly enjoying it. You're a talented writer.

    1. I appreciate for the kind words. Honestly, when I saw that there was a reply to this entry, I went back and read it. All could think was, "Yeesh--this is fairly terrible." So I fixed it up and fleshed things out a bit.

      Though, I'm sure I'll do the same thing next time I read it. Such is the pain of writing.

      Anyway: Thanks for stopping by!