It’s Debate Day! This week we wanted to do a Nintendo theme in remembrance of Satoru Iwata, so we’ll be looking at the best Mario game. To see Aaron’s cockamamie mutterings, click her: Super Mario 64: The Best Mario. To read my awesomely righteous opinion, scroll on down!
I’ve been playing Mario games since I could hold a controller. No series has made a bigger impression on me as a gamer and, dare I say it, as a human. Picking a favorite was tough, since there are so many awesome candidates: the original, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and even Super Mario Galaxy is a strong contender. But in the end I had to vote with my heart and pick what was probably the first video game I ever played: Super Mario Brothers 3.
I can still remember my first video game experience. It was in my Uncke Tom and Aunt Bridget’s basement, a chilly room with faux-wood panelling, a couch, a small CRT television, and an NES. It also had a barber’s chair around the corner because my Aunt Bridget was a hair stylist and ostensibly I was there to get my hair cut. But for me that was always the secondary reason for our visit. The primary objective: watching Uncle Tom play NES games, and maybe even playing along when my hair was properly shorn.
Tom only had a handful of games, but every one stood out as a classic: Ninja Gaiden 2, Rad Racer, Tetris, Duck Hunt, Super Mario Brothers, and the main event, Super Mario Brothers 3. My first gaming memories are of the title screen’s silly clip of Mario and Luigi kicking a shell at one another, the bright sound effect when you clicked Start, and the whimsical World 1 theme.
Back then, it should be noted, I couldn’t pronounce “Nintendo” (I was four), so instead I called it “Intendo.” This led to many a night where I pleaded with Uncle Tom “I wanna play Intendo!” It’s also a fact he never let me forget when I got older. My little cousin Flynn called it “Tondy,” and Tom still revels in reminding him of that every chance he gets. Tom was always happy to oblige me, and the first game I can remember watching him play was also my favorite: Mario 3.
So why is it the best? It ain’t just nostalgia. Mario 3 did a lot for the platforming genre, and its effects reverberate through all future Mario titles. It was the first Mario game with a map screen, a feature that tied the levels together into cohesively themed worlds. Players had a choice in which path to take, with better rewards usually lying beyond difficult levels or hidden sections of the map. I can remember the feeling of euphoria when a hidden bonus stage appeared on the map, and that feeling is what hooked me on gaming in the first place. The idea of an overworld that can be explored in its own right is a key facet of all platformers today, and that all stretches back to Mario 3.
It was also the first Mario game to feature a bevy of costume changes for the portly plumber. While the original Mario Brothers featured the badass Fire Mario, 3 upped the ante with Raccoon Mario, Frog Mario, Hammer Mario, Tanooki Mario, P-Wing Mario, and Kuribo’s Shoet, a giant goddamn boot for Mario to ride in which can bounce on literally anything. It just doesn’t get cooler than that. I always loved P-Wing Mario the best as a kid. Fly over the entire stage and get a Raccoon Suit out of the deal? Hail Hydra to that. The sheer variety is amazing for an NES game. While most games struggled to implement even one or two interesting mechanics, Nintendo designed eight worlds worth of levels that have to account for all these possible costumes and their various properties. That’s pretty damn impressive if you ask me.
It also has some of the most interesting stage designs in the series. Mario games today are about making the stages challenging but ultimately giving players a way around the most difficult parts. Mario 3 exercised a different philosophy: players are the enemy and must be destroyed. With mechanics like and evil sun that tries to murder you, auto-scrolling stages full of bottomless pits, fiendish labyrinths stuffed with dirty tricks and dead-ends, and boss stages that might as well be bullet-hell games, Mario 3 isn’t holding back. For all the sadism on display, it never feels unfair, especially with the then-new feature letting you stock power-ups and use them between stages. Every death feels like a personal failure, and every victory feels hard won.
Mario 3 also introduced a lot of tropes we take for granted in games today. The whole idea of fire worlds, ice worlds, desert worlds, grass worlds, sky worlds, and water worlds goes back to Mario 3. Back then it wasn’t a played-out trope, but an awesome journey through fantastic landscapes with new surprises around every corner.
I never got bored of playing Mario 3 with Uncle Tom, even though I sucked hard at it and he had to finish all the hard parts. While most games back then got repetative pretty quick, Mario 3’s variety was endless. Whether it was hidden one ups, the elusive coin ship, or secret warp whistles, it always felt like there was something new to discover with each playthrough. I would watch Tom play until my parents dragged me out the door. Video games were all I wanted to do after that. Tom had truly created a monster.
Aaron’s going with Mario 64 this week, and I honestly have nothing bad to say about it. I almost picked it myself. What Mario 3 did for 2D games, Mario 64 did for 3D games. But Mario 3 was the foundation for the game design philosophy present in 64: a vast overworld, branching paths, elusive secrets, abusive difficulty, and exciting power-ups. That’s why if we’re talking best Mario ever, I have to pick number 3.
Even though modern Mario games feature amazing graphics, tighter controls, better physics, and even greater stage variety, 3 has the charm of a perfectly cut diamond. There’s no non-essential elements and nothing is lacking. It’s about as close to perfect as a game can come, and that’s what makes Super Mario Brothers 3 the best Mario game of all time.
Which Mario truly reigns supreme? I mean, I know I’ve thoroughly convinced you by this point, but we made a poll anyway so Aaron would feel better. Clickity-click your choice below!