Upon its 1990 NES release, Super Mario Bros. 3 flew in on the P-wings of critical raves, intense popular demand, and the most sophisticated marketing campaign Nintendo of America had ever attempted. Shigeru Miyamoto's ultimate 8-bit platformer lived up to all the hype and elevated Mario from mascot to icon. But what exactly made this game the phenomenon it was?
With the help of her friends and family, critics inside and outside the realm of gaming, and former Nintendo of America employees, Alyse Knorr traverses the Mushroom World looking for answers. Along the way, Knorr unearths SMB3's connections to theater and Japanese folklore, investigates her own princess-rescuing impulses, and examines how the game's animal costumes, themed worlds, tight controls, goofy enemies, and memorable music cohere in a game that solidified Mario's conquest of the NES era.
A joy to read, and one that I often direct to people who are new to the press because it does everything. Alyse examines one of the best-loved video games of all time from as many angles as possible to determine whether her own love for the game is based in the game's quality or her own nostalgia. I love the level of ambition, research, heart, and balance on display here. And, fun fact: The final product was distilled from a draft over twice as long as the book in its final form. – Gabe Durham
"Super Mario Bros. 3 is worth a look, especially if that mustachioed plumber holds a place of reverence in your own nostalgic heart."– ZAM
"Excellent analysis about one of the most popular games ever. I thought I knew everything there is to know about Mario 3, but I was wrong. This book is filled with thoughts and commentary from insiders who were involved with making the game. A fun, interesting read for anyone interested in Mario history, or just video game history in general."– Chris Neumann (Goodreads)
"I could feel just how hard Alyse was working to overcome the big, intimidating topic of "what did Super Mario 3 mean?" To anyone who isn't a video game enthusiast, that sounds ... ridiculous. To anyone else, it's a huge mountain to climb."– Kevin (Goodreads)
From the chapter "Masters of Play"
Of Super Mario Bros. 3 by Alyse Knorr
SMB3's entire development team consisted of just eleven people: Miyamoto and Tezuka as directors and designers, four additional designers, four programmers, and Koji Kondo as composer. During SMB3's two years of development, Miyamoto's days at the office had no definite start or end time, and he often stayed up working late into the night. Miyamoto acted as more than just a designer on SMB3—he was mentoring his entire team, guiding them, and bringing out their best ideas, just as his mentor Gunpei Yokoi had famously done for him during the design of Donkey Kong nearly ten years before.
Miyamoto was leading his team on a quest for fun. He has said many times that he's always been more interested in designing toys than designing games, and the word he uses most often to describe his design philosophy is "fun." Although he's pioneered innovations with character, narrative, and hardware, Miyamoto's design philosophy privileges gameplay over everything else.
Achieving this vision for SMB3 meant personally drawing levels with his small group of four young designers (Katsuya Eguchi, Hideki Konno, Hiroyuki Kimura, and Kensuke Tanabe—the director of SMB2 USA), and straightforwardly pointing out tiny details about how he'd like the levels to look, down to how many blocks should appear between enemies. In a recent edition of the "Iwata Asks" Nintendo interview series, Eguchi said that while working with Miyamoto, he learned how to introduce game elements in a strategic order. "He's very particular about first impressions," he said. "And if you change it just like he says, then it feels much better to play. I've seen that over and over again."
Konno, who wrote many of the enemy specs for SMB3, said that rather than talking about the "essence of Mario" during SMB3's development, Miyamoto focused on asking, "Is that fun?" and "Does that feel right?" For example, Konno struggled with the mechanics of the Micro-Goomba enemy, tiny Goombas who swarm around Mario and stunt the height of his jumps. At first, Konno tried to make Mario heavier and slower when the Micro-Goombas clung to him, but the result didn't feel right.
Miyamoto rejected two of Konno's demos, saying, "Despite all this effort, it's probably just not going to be fun like this." It was Miyamoto who came up with the solution—instead of making Mario heavier or slower, he inserted an invisible block over Mario's head so that when he jumped, he bumped against something. "It was a really simple solution, and when I made it just like he said, it was great," Konno said. "Lots of times after that when I've run up against a wall, he's come up with a completely different approach."
SMB3 co-director Takashi Tezuka often gets overshadowed by Miyamoto in discussions of Mario's history, but he provided important guidance for the team and came up with many of SMB3's most important ideas—as well as a lot of the cute art. "You know, he wanted to draw eyes on just about everything," Eguchi said of Tezuka.
But cute elements like the world map screen's dancing hills with eyes had to be kept in check, Eguchi said, in order to make SMB3 appealing to as broad an audience as possible and resist the common opinion that Mario was solely for younger players. "Looking at the drawings, [Mario] does have sort of a 'cute' appearance, but I feel we've always tried to maintain the heroic, admirable image that everyone's looking for," Eguchi said. "Then again, looking at Mario 3 […] the game has sort of a cutesy aspect to it, I suppose. When I look back, I wonder if we could have done some things differently here and there."
The team couldn't update level data without the help of one of their four programmers, which meant they could only experiment with level designs twice per day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Konno said that the team felt exhausted toward the end of the development period, but Eguchi adds that Miyamoto's "pickiness" kept them focused on perfection. "He doesn't think at all about the work involved in fixing something," Eguchi said of Miyamoto. "If it'll make the game even a little bit better, Miyamoto-san's always been unhesitant about making changes."
"There is an allegedly—I hope apocryphal—saying that I've heard about development at Nintendo," said James Clarendon, senior software development engineer at Amazon Games Studios. "'The scariest sound you can hear is that of Miyamoto's footsteps coming down the hall.' The implication here is that if he's coming to you, it means he's got an idea and there's a lot of existing work that's going to get thrown out."
Indeed, ROM hacks delving into the SMB3 NES game cartridge reveal a wealth of unused content that shows some of the design team's rejected development decisions, including:
●two versions of Mario with pink overalls instead of blue;
●a number of alternate enemy designs, including gold Cheep-Cheeps and green, fast-flying Para-Beetles;
●a spike-and-wheels graphic, a propeller graphic, a skull graphic for the map screen, and an alternate version of the Magic Ball won in fortresses;
●a sliding Hammer Mario graphic (Hammer Mario can't slide in the actual game, probably because the team wanted to allow players to crouch on hills and hide from enemy fireballs);
●alternate minigames involving dice and cards, hosted by a Hammer Brother and a Koopa Troopa instead of Toad;
●and a cool little adobe-style fort graphic for the map screen.
The cartridge data also includes a number of unused levels, some of which appear to be either first drafts or more challenging versions of existing levels, perhaps revealing an initial desire to make the game even harder than the finished product.
Many of these alternate levels seem to exist solely for the game designers, so that they could test out mechanics in-game. These are some of the most bizarre of all. One unused level, for instance, features a series of waterfalls Mario must swim straight up, while another seems to enter outer space. Several levels are impossible to beat since they don't include an exit. The cartridge contains gray levels, green fortresses, and levels with a pink sky or stacked cloud platforms. There's a level full of Tanooki Suit bonus rooms, a World 7 Hammer Brother (the final version of this world contained none), an early version of the famous World 5 wind-up shoe level, and a water/sky hybrid level with a secret exit.
Though SMB3 made many impressive aesthetic and technical leaps from its predecessors, the game is much more than the sum of its parts. Something intangible happens when they're all put together. SMB3's designers, James Clarendon said, created a "coherent and cohesive gameplay experience—a 'core loop' in which all the game's aspects tie together and build off each other."
For example, SMB3's inventory system was nothing unique for this time, but the difference between SMB3 and other games that featured inventories is that the items available in SMB3 felt more cohesively tied to the game's narrative and aesthetic. "Alex Kidd in Miracle World let you purchase a power bracelet that let you shoot lasers out of your fist for one level, or a gyrocopter that allowed you to fly instead of walk, but these had little connection to the world of Alex Kidd itself," Clarendon said by way of example. SMB3, however, gave players items like World 5's green wind-up shoe, the Hammer suit, or Lakitu's Cloud, all of which felt delightfully like stealing the enemy's weapons and powers—a feature that anticipates Kirby's power-stealing abilities, which would debut in Kirby's Dream Land in 1992.
SMB3's minigames like the roulette Spade Panel, the "memory match" N-Mark Spade Panel, Toad houses, and the two-player battle mode that Erin and I loved so much were all tied cohesively to the rest of the content, the franchise history, and even Nintendo's playing card roots. Plenty of other games at the time already had bonus rounds, Clarendon mentioned, "but contrast visiting Toad's house or matching clear and common Mario iconography with the disconnected experience of Psycho Fox's 'ghost leg' minigame. Tapper's mysterious masked soda can shaker is only present for the bonus rounds and you never interact with him again."
For designer Mike Roth, SMB3's feeling of cohesion is ineffable: "There are plenty of explanations as to why SMB3 has been able to stand the test of time," he said. "However, the true answer may be a bit uncomfortable for us designers out there: 'It's just magic.' There is no one mechanic or experience in SMB3 that you or I can claim as the core feature that kept bringing us back. Picking up coins? Not really. Shooting fireballs? Maybe. Yet you cannot deny with all the aspects of play woven together, there is something undeniably, incredibly pure and fun about the experience. This 'fun' transcends the technological limitations of the hardware and stands the test of time as new games and consoles come and go."
Playing SMB3, Howard Phillips said, "you felt like you were just the master of play. And that's something that not all games are good at—in order to present difficulty, they present novelty and they basically punish you during the novelty phase. SMB3 didn't punish you during the novelty phase—it said, 'Yes, you're a very skilled Mario player, so have at it. All of the surprises are going to be wonderful and good. And we're also going to give you some additional control with the tail and the ability to fly and things like that.' Those things that stood out were great additions and not ones that took away your mastery. It only enhanced your mastery."
The reason SMB3 feels so good to play is because it perfectly incorporates all the ingredients of excellent "game feel," an intuitive term that's easier to experience than to define. Essentially, game feel is the sensation of moving a character around a digital space; it's the feeling of control—the "tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object," writes designer Steve Swink in his book Game Feel. Swink says that game feel can be an "invisible art" or an "overlooked aspect of game creation," and yet it's arguably the most important element of a game. Great game feel makes a game fun because it puts players in control and immerses them in the experience, with predictable, responsive mechanics they can steadily improve on until they're experts.
In Miyamoto's games, Swink argues, enjoyable game feel comes from simplification. Miyamoto "regarded the feel of a game artistically, as a composite aesthetic experience," Swink writes. "At a time when the field was dominated by engineers who […] drew on complex, literalistic metaphors like the gravitational pull of black holes or landing a spacecraft on the moon, Miyamoto brought a refreshing, naïve perspective. He simply wanted to make fun, colorful games about whimsical characters that felt good to play." In addition, Swink argues that Miyamoto's holistic approach to game design—taking into account hardware and game controller specs along with software—creates excellent game feel, starting with SMB3's grandparent SMB1.
SMB1's looser, more responsive, and less exact game controls made Mario's movement feel more nuanced and less stiff than it had in Donkey Kong. In Donkey Kong, for instance, Mario's jump was a rigid and unchangeable arc. In SMB1, the jump became more nuanced: Holding down on the Jump button for longer made Mario jump higher and players could move Mario in the air mid-jump. SMB3, in turn, introduced another new jump mechanic—rebounding off an enemy added more height to a jump. SMB3's emphasis on exploration necessitated an even more fluid control feel, and anyone who (like me) has played SMB3 before encountering SMB1 might feel like as though SMB1's controls drag in comparison.
In SMB3, Mario's movement became so nuanced that he could run, skid, slide, fly, tail-whack, ground-pound, throw hammers, swim like a frog, and slow his descent by fluttering—an incredible variety of available movements considering the small number of buttons on the NES controller. At the same time, though, the controls didn't depart too radically from SMB1—instead, SMB3 refined them, built on them, and presented players with novel situations in which to use them. "The player is constantly challenged by the level design to improve and develop real, actual skill with the controls," Clarendon noted, like "learning how to run when the ceiling full of spikes is falling, mastering the analog-ness of jumps to learn how to time them juuuuust right, and giving the player a safe respite to experiment with the Tanooki suit."
SMB3's sound and visual effects, which Swink calls "polish," also make the game feel extremely satisfying to play. Small details in the art and animation, whether it's Star Mario's awesome somersault jumps, the map screen shuffle of the Hammer Brothers between levels, the dust Mario kicks up when he changes direction mid-run, or the tiny explosion sound and animation that accompanies brick-smashing—all of it contributes to the overall immersive effect of playing SMB3.
So, too, does the game's physics. SMB3's physics are so nuanced that a specific rule dictates how a mushroom will fall out of a bumped question block. When I was a kid, I thought this mechanic was totally random until I heard a schoolyard legend that the mushroom would fall toward whichever side it was bumped on. Believing this rumor lost me a lot of mushrooms. In fact, the physics follow the opposite rule—hitting a box from the right side will cause the mushroom to fall out of the left, and vice versa. It's a realistic scheme, albeit a hard one to expect young players to notice on their own. And there's nothing more disappointing than when your mushroom goes the wrong way out of the box and dives straight into the fiery lava.
Flying wouldn't feel nearly as satisfying without just the right gravity system, and SMB3 built off the exquisite in-game physics first developed in SMB1. Equations in SMB1's programming code created speed, positioning, gravity, acceleration, and deceleration in the virtual world. Holding the B button slightly altered these equations and allowed Mario to run and accelerate faster, which becomes even more intense in SMB3 with the addition of the P-Meter's feedback.
Equally as important as gravity to SMB1's and SMB3's physics is friction. SMB1 has much less friction between Mario and the ground he runs across than, say, Excitebike, where you can practically feel your wheels digging into the dirt. According to Swink, SMB1 and SMB3's particular type of friction makes controlling Mario feel delightfully "slippery," "loose," and "sloppy," like he's a "bar of soap sliding across wet tile." Of course, in World 6, Ice Land, an increased form of this slipperiness becomes a nuisance, but in the other worlds, the ability to zip around levels, crashing into blocks and never having to stop, is what makes Mario so fun to control.
At the time of its release, SMB3 received extensive praise from the gaming press. Mean Machines gaming magazine editor Julian Rignall praised SMB3's "addictiveness, depth, and challenge," and others touted its graphics and combination of cognitive and skill-based puzzles. In Computer and Video Games magazine, which scored the game 98 out of 100, editor Paul Rank called SMB3 "the Mona Lisa of gaming" and "astoundingly brilliant." Another writer claimed it was "absolutely impossible to put down for anything less than a fire alarm—and even then you find yourself weighing down the odds."
Early reviews of SMB3 tended to focus on the game's:
●creative, humorous aesthetic;
●detail-oriented, precise gameplay and responsive controls;
●map screen and inventory system, which offered new opportunities for players to strategize and personalize their gameplay;
●variety of challenging enemies and obstacles;
●approachable learning curve;
●expansive, well-designed levels with creative features like sinking islands;
●wealth of areas to explore and secrets to discover;
●nuanced animation (Mario's walk included more frames than in any previous Mario game, and the sprite allows for new poses such as sliding and ducking while holding his cap down);
●expanded library of sounds and music;
●and excellent replayability, offering players the chance to create new challenges for themselves even after beating the game.
At the time of its release, "Super Mario Bros. 3 […] revived the sense of wonder that made Super Mario Bros. so special," historian Tristan Donovan writes. "Super Mario Bros. 3 became, both critically and commercially, the culmination of Nintendo's journey from unknown Japanese toy maker to global video game giant."
Howard Phillips offered SMB3 one of its first reviews, long before it hit shelves. During SMB3's era, Nintendo used a quality control in-house rating system for all games—both Nintendo-made games and third-party licensed games. Each new title was ranked by three people on a scale of one to five for a variety of traits, including gameplay and graphics. Several staffers (including Phillips), game counselors, and a couple hundred customer service representatives taking phone calls were all a part of this system. "Out of all those groups, I consistently rated SMB3 higher than the other groups [did]," Phillips said, "For me, when I saw it, I thought, [this is] not just another game, and it's not just a fun and challenging game—it was truly a quintessential video game. And that's how I rated it. If not the top-rated game, [SMB3 was] the second top-rated game I ever gave during my time at Nintendo rating hundreds of titles."
"Well you know that now I have to ask you what your highest rated game was," I prompted Phillips during a phone interview.
Phillips gently declined to answer. "I don't want to spoil anybody's party," he said. "There were a number of games that were all great, so whether it was the SMB series, Legend of Zelda, games like Metroid—there were a number of games that were just phenomenal. Once you get into that environment, does it make a difference if you take one step further up the mountain? I don't think so. Once you get to the top, you can't go much higher."
As much as the world loves SMB3, Miyamoto himself has mixed feelings about it. "I look back and play some of these games and there are a lot of places where, to be honest, I'm a little embarrassed," Miyamoto told Time. "I look at Super Mario 3, and [feel] like, 'This was it?! This is what we thought was good enough?' That being said, I do have new understandings of that work. The balance in that game is what it needed to be at that time. It really was. And so, even seeing all the limitations, I'm very happy with what we created and I wouldn't change it."
SMB3 was the last game on which Miyamoto had a "designer" credit. From here on out, his name appears only as "producer" and "director." It was also, as Phillips indicated, the game where he proved that his successes with Donkey Kong and SMB1 were not a fluke—the game where he earned his status as a legend. If Donkey Kong was Miyamoto's breakthrough and SMB1 his revolution, then SMB3 was his masterpiece.