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Probably the greatest NES game ever made, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, right? Super Mario Bros. 3 represents Nintendo at the peak of their creativity and technical prowess, with no competition in sight but still blowing the fuck out of everyone around them regardless. A peak so tall that not even Nintendo themselves have been able to make the climb since, at least for this sub-genre of Mario games.
I’d rather not get hung up on what was “impressive for the time” since I wasn’t even a cell at its release and only played it years later from the early 2010’s and beyond, but this thing is just an absolute monster on every front. More mechanics, more abilities, more physics tricks, more tech crammed in the cartridge itself, all in 10 times the file size of the original Super Mario Bros. despite only launching a mere 3 years after that game. A save feature is the most obvious omission given its release window and massive campaign relative to other Mario games, but I have to believe they would have included it if they found it practical to cram into the cartridge. It’s an absolute marvel for the hardware, that much is clear, but I wouldn’t be singing its praises if it amounted to little more than a tech demo.
After a groundbreaking first entry and a successor that amounted to little more than an extra-challenging level pack, Mario 3 sets to evolve the series in every facet, from ancillary elements like the world map and progression, to the actual structure and pacing of the platforming itself. Where modern 2D Mario is most often concerned with the “introduce in safe space -> expand in challenging ways -> throw away idea and start fresh” cycle of design, it was really refreshing to go back to this one and see just how different R&D4’s philosophy was back then. Individual Worlds are still often differentiated by tone and trends in terrain like the repeated encounters with Big Bertha in World 3 or the labyrinth of pipes that make up World 7, but the actual meat of the platforming found in each stage is often ambivalent to the thought of gimmicks or setpieces.
If you asked me, I’d say the defining trait of Mario 3 is its density. Rarely in all of its 90 levels does the game ever give you a moment to breathe, frequently subjecting you to brief dopamine hits of platforming gauntlets to blast through before moving onto the next level. While in a lesser game this could lead to ideas passing right through the player’s subconscious, effectively getting tossed away and lost to the sands of time before you hit the credits, Mario 3 sidesteps this in some pretty clever ways.
Firstly, the game is pretty tough, at least by Mario standards. This is something I never considered as a kid growing up with Super Mario USA as my still-pretty-shitty version of Mario 2, but you have to understand that this is the developer’s follow up to The Lost Levels, not Doki Doki Panic. Mario 3 never gets anywhere close to the cruelty of that game, but this connection reassured me that no, I’m not just bad at the game, but Mario 3 was actually getting kinda tough. Since dead air is all but eliminated and fine control over Mario requires more skill than ever before thanks to the addition of P-Speed and the lack of extended tracks to easily get there, most moments take more mental input on average from the player to lock in on and get through, so even after getting through the game spread out over the course of a few days in-between impassioned sessions with Ninja Gaiden Black (a game that has occupied all available brain space this past month), I doubt any moment will stand out as alien to me when I revisit the game in the future.
Beyond the surface level difficulty, I think the biggest triumph of these levels is the brisk pace in which you get through them. Levels are frequently over and done with in under 30 seconds, and since no moment is wasted, it feels like less of a commitment to munch through them in quick succession after either a full reset or even just a game over within a world. I can absolutely see this becoming the type of game where I just boot it up for a few minutes to mess around in a few levels, only to get caught in its orbit and run through the whole thing in an afternoon, that magnetic sense of flow and pacing is something I find difficult to maintain in a ~3 hour game, but Mario 3 nails it with absolute grace. It’s revealing to me that this is the only(?) 2D Mario that features absolute no checkpoints within any of its levels, further lending to how sticky the full layouts of stages tend to be in the game. Turns out it’s way harder to remember small slices of geometry within a stage if it lands in the half you won’t have to play through nearly as often to succeed completely.
As you progress through each of the 8 Worlds and new arrangements of locales spring to life on the route to the castle, it always feels like a completely fresh journey awaits as soon as you land. The idea of bringing in a world map was probably born of the desire to bring more flavor to progression as well as to house your item inventory, two things that surely smoothed out the flow of play for a wider demographic of people, but surprisingly, laying out a route in disarray has a cool side effect on potential failure. The most obvious benefits to world layouts are the ability to hold secrets and skip levels, but it’s the wipe of progress that comes from a game over that really perked my ears up on this recent playthrough.
Rather than simply wiping all your progress, Mario 3 slowly peels back the world with shortcuts and new routes that open after passing certain milestones or using specific items, with the distinction that main number levels will still be reset when all lives are depleted. If you had to start fresh each time in a challenging section of the game, it could potentially lead to repeated runs becoming more exhausting to play through. While I personally enjoy gauntlet challenges in games as I find them to be interesting tests of endurance when done well, it can get tiring pretty fast (unless, again, you’re as suffocating as say, NGB).
With the middle-ground approach found here, I think it more easily satisfies all types of players rather than catering to one side of the fence. After tearing down a fortress you can start skipping levels you may have already completed, but crucially, they still remain open if you want to go back in for power ups or extra lives. If game overs had truly no downside, walls of progression could potentially drain you of all your resources and become all the more frustrating to push through when you have nothing left to fall back on, but here, you always have time to rethink your approach and plan for your next attack. Alternatively, if your nuts are fat you can always smash your head against the wall more quickly by going straight to these tougher sections, ultimately leading to a faster pace and more rewarding level completions. While it admittedly comes into play mainly at lower skill levels (let’s not kid ourselves, Mario 3 isn’t that hard of a game all things considered), it’s still a consideration I greatly admire. And besides, high level players still get to enjoy the simple pleasures of the map, such as the increase of tension late in the game or the joy of cleaning out an entire screen of content without heavy failure.
While the advent of 3D titles as well as later 2D Mario games are clear canvases for expression from the big N, always keeping this series fresh some 40 years on, so much of their success is owed to this game in particular. You could say the existence of a level hub and level skipping are probably the traits Super Mario 64 are best known for on a wide scale, but they weren’t designed fresh for that game, they started here. It’s not just a case of a game introducing cute ideas for later games to perfect - though a compelling case can and has been made that Super Mario 64 is one of the best to ever do it - it’s a case of a game truly perfecting every pillar of design it tackled. I’m not sure I’ve played another 2D Mario (or maybe Mario in general) that feels so alive and well-realized as this. Beyond its influence for future games, beyond how impressive it stood for the time, beyond how important it is culturally, it nails perhaps the most important trait of a game like this. It’s just really god damn fun to play. For my money, it passes with flying colors and soars into the skies of perfection. It’s Super Mario Bros. 3, man.
After drudging through Sonic’s latest adventure through mediocrity, I felt thoroughly deflated. In all honesty, I was starting to think I was just completely tapped out for this series and it would never give me the same highs it used to. As it turns out, all I needed was a brief refresher with a personal favorite of mine. It’s been a while since this series provided me any pleasure, but boy lemme tell ya, when Sonic hits it really hits.
For many, the predictable choice here would be Mania or 3&K, but despite their obviously quality, it wasn’t the skew of Sonic I was looking for today. Not even Sonic 2, a game I’ve loved for longer than I’ve had cogent memories, would scratch the particular itch I was looking for. Instead I reached for Sonic CD, a game that continues to stand tall as a singular pillar of excellence in this ridiculously far reaching series of games.
If you’ve known me online for the past few years, you should already know how hard I’ve fought on the Sonic CD frontlines in the past, and as such I won’t reiterate everything I’ve previously said of the game in this log - instead I just wanted to gush incessantly for a little bit about one of my favorite games of all time.
In retrospect, bringing in the character designer of Sonic to direct the sequel to the first game was an inspired choice, and this is felt as early as the very first level. Visually and sonically this thing is unparalleled in it’s swag (but you didn’t need me to confirm that), levels and their layouts are as chaotic as the series would ever see in this format, and the pace at which you can breeze through each zone is comical even by Sonic standards. Later titles like 2 or 3&K arguably worked better as 2D platformers for normal people rather than absolute freaks, but no other Sonic game understands the appeal of the character quite as well as this, and it’s obvious in all areas of its design.
Even the time travel, something that continually gets mocked by detractors of the game, is so effortlessly cool and natural for the character that it’s kinda weird playing the other games without the mechanic now. The main sticking points for most have to do with the execution of time travel itself, and its actual mechanical use in the story. If you personally land in this critical group of goblins, I hear you, but I just don’t care. You’re so concerned with traveling through time just for it’s “intended” function as a vehicle for the true ending of the game, when honestly, the best way to enjoy it may be to focus on the purely shallow benefits to it. On my most recent playthrough I disregarded the robot generators entirely, breezed through all seven special stages, and continued to utilize the time travel nearly 40 times in the run just to change the scenery and layouts while leisurely bouncing through all 7 of the game’s magnificent zones. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that bring the most pleasure.
While on the note of the time travel, this most recent playthrough was done on the Sonic CD Restored version of the game along with it’s massive time travel overhaul, and while I’ll always be able to hang with even the nastiest ports of the game, this cleans up the experience to an honestly absurd degree. In fact, it was such a smooth experience I can’t help but wonder if people’s hatred of the game comes more from shitty ports than anything. While some of the changes here could be argued to be somewhat superfluous (from what I understand, time travel in the original CD version of the game is around 35% faster than the 2011 port, with CDR’s time travel being around 16% faster than even that), it’s clearly the closest representation of how the game not only was on release, but how it was always meant to be. Sure the time travel is absurdly fast here to the point where it’s maybe a bit too easy to pull off, but the core of the game shines so clearly with this port that I think it doesn’t take away from the experience at all.
In the bad timeline we landed in where this series is just inconceivably fucked up with no way to turn back, it’s nice to still have a title that shines bright in a sea of never-ending shadow. This game tickles my brain in a way not easily found elsewhere. The joy of flinging this blue bastard through pinball mazes from hell. The joy of effortlessly seeing all eras of time just for the sake of it. The joy of beating a level in 30 seconds or 5 minutes dictated only by how you feel like playing the game rather than by some slapdash gauntlet level design. The joy of true and uncompromising play.