I Finished Super Mario Bros 3: 8 Things I Learned

As the title of the article implies, I FINALLY finished Super Mario Bros 3. A little background to start – I first got into retro video games about a year and a half ago. I was suddenly seized with a desire to get a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), so in one of the rare instances where I took advantage of having a stable income, I went on eBay. After what seemed like a never-ending week, I was holding it in my hands, along with a few games, one of which was Super Mario Bros 3. While I enjoyed many of the games immensely (Final Fantasy and River City Ransom both spring to mind), Super Mario Bros. 3 was an instant hit both with me and my friends. In fact, parties centered around playing the game became a staple at my household, taking us through birthdays, New Years, and countless weekends during which the only thing on the agenda was to GET AS FAR AS POSSIBLE into the game. This became the basis for the Nostalgia club (SHOUT OUT!) which defined the second half of 2012 and most of 2013 for me, socially.

For all my enthusiasm and effort, however, I’m really not a great gamer. I enjoy games of all types very much, particularly any that might serve as lubricant for social interaction, which Mario is great for. When it comes to possessing a good reaction time, fast analytical thinking, or great eye-to-hand coordination, however, I’m just not good at it. I never really had a lot of computer games as a child, which may have contributed to this. I generally don’t mind it, however, and rarely let it dissuade me from continuing to play games. The difficulty of Super Mario Bros. 3, however, made it something of an unattainable – and consequently, in my mind, perfect – goal for me and my friends (who, despite various levels of skill, are also not hardcore gamers). As of the beginning of 2014, therefore, I had only ever gotten to the very beginning of the fourth (of eight) world in the game.

The change began with Kristijonas, a childhood friend of mine and a neighbor, being kicked out of his place so his brother could bring over a girl. He asked if he could come over for a few hours, and I suggested he play some Mario to pass the time. He had evidently gotten hooked by the time I came back to check in on him, because we spent the rest of the evening playing. We could not turn off the console, or we’d lose our progress, so we agreed to meet up again the next evening to continue.

This was January 11th. We finished the game in the very early hours of February 12th. By now you can probably see that the game came to mean a lot to me, if only for the social experiences it led to. In that respect, finishing it feels like an end of an era, a feeling both myself and Kristijonas felt after finishing the game. If only to feel like the experience was a valuable one, here are the things I learned about both Super Mario Bros. 3 and games in general.

1. Lack of Saves Creates Engagement

To start with, getting through the game would definitely have taken less time with saves (particularly a quicksave system), for the simple fact that mistakes can be mitigated in that way. Screwed up? Reload. Kristijonas downloaded a ROM of the game while we were playing, and got through it in a matter of days that way. That being said, if the game contained, say, a battery save in the cartridge, in the style of Final Fantasy, that would have meant we would have simply played less. Part of what drove us playing (nearly) every night was the fear that the console would eventually shut down. I was acutely aware of the fact that the Nintendo Entertainment System could not be on indefinitely, and while it valiantly waited for us to finish the game, a cable could have been moved, or someone could have accidentally pressed the reset button, and we would have had to start over. This imposed a time limit on us to finish the game. Without it, we almost certainly would have played much more rarely.

As a side note, I’d like to mention the NES’ genius design, because during the entire time, despite periodically checking, I could not feel even a hint of the system or power supply heating up – something I could not say for my 20+ years newer MacBook.

2. Best To Play With 2 Players

To be fair, even when I play the game by myself, I play it in 2-Player mode, for the simple reason that it allows me to die with one character, and not have to go back to the beginning of the world with the other, the way I’d have to if I only had one player.

The much bigger reason, however, was that playing with another player not only made the hours spent on the game both bearable and meaningful, but allowed us to learn from each other. Each of us came up with techniques and moves we would never have hoped to arrive at alone. Figuring out where to stand to have the seemingly random attacks from all sides pass you by safely became the only way to beat certain levels. It also took tens of tries, in some cases, to find that spot. Accidental innovation drove our process through the game, each of us learning to replicate what the other did. That replication aside, however, we also had different playing styles and abilities, that complimented each other quite nicely.

More importantly than any of that, however, is the fact that it allowed one of us to pull the other up when we were hilariously failing. One night, I literally could not make one specific jump in a level, which also coincidentally happened to be the first jump on it. No joke, that Friday evening consisted of me starting the same level at least 20 times, and just jumping right into lava. Over. And. Over again. To say the least, this was frustrating, but to Kristijonas’ credit, he passed the level and got much further that evening, despite my severe incompetence that night.

3. The Learning Curve Is Genius

This is getting into the true reasons the game became the best-selling video game to be sold separately from a system, with over 18 million copies sold. The reason is that the learning curve and level design is simply so genius, that it makes the game simply irresistible. Nearly every level seems more difficult than the last – and in fact, it probably really is more difficult. However, the actual perceived difficulty does not really go up, because one only ever really passes a level once they have learned and absorbed whatever skills that level required. These skills would make another level of the same difficulty almost easy, and if the entire game required you simply executing the same actions in different order on each level, it would have become boring very quickly. The makers of the game avoided this by masterfully introducing in each world new elements to be mastered.

Because of this, occasionally you would begin a level and be assaulted from all sides by a type of foe you’d never encountered before, and quickly dispatched. It seemed like some hell, populated by completely erratic and unpredictable demons. This was, of course, not really the case as we continued playing, identifying order in the insanity. The difficulty level being continuously turned up, and the game constantly containing new things to learn, kept us invested.

It also discouraged falling back on mindlessly falling back on your instincts. I realized, after a while, why I kept embarrassingly failing that one jump – I had turned off my brain, and allowed my fingers to do their work, and they were doing it WRONG. I had to learn there to overwrite what my fingers wanted to do, and actually think when I needed to jump, and how.

4. You Start Looking at the Game Differently

After a few nights, the game becomes more than just a game, but a sport. You start congratulating your friend on a masterfully made jump. You begin psyching yourself up before starting a level. You become superstitious, even, to a certain extent, feeling that maybe a particular song, or type of tea will help you perform beyond your normal abilities. You start coming up with jargon for specific types of jumps, or elements of the game. This happens, to various extent, with any game or activity you take part in long enough, of course. It is merely to the credit of the game that it engaged us long enough to have that effect.

5. You begin understanding why things look like they do

It must be acknowledged – Super Mario, at its core concept, is a strange game. There’s no way around it. And while much of the incidentals could have been replaced with something else, it’s difficult not to note that even after all these years, the game looks fantastic! Mario himself may look odd, for example, but he is also instantly recognizable on the screen; at any size, and in any number of odd costumes. His nose may originally have been so big to simply allow for one to be there (it is effectively one pixel in size), and his mustache serves to simply hide his mouth, which would otherwise be tough to animate different expressions onto, but it also makes him instantly visible and impossible to confuse with anything else. He always pops against the background, and cannot be mixed up with the green Luigi, even if the two are on the screen at the same time. Other games, genius as they are, cannot make that boast. Similarly, even when elements on the screen overlap, there are rarely, if ever, any visual glitches, as is the case in some other games.

6. The controls are perfect

So, here’s the thing about Super Mario: button mashing will get you precisely nowhere in this game. And while this is the case in most platformers, what sets this one apart is the fact that, while one often makes mistakes, or has lucky accidents, you can almost never blame it on the game, or a malfunction of any sort. You are in perfect control of your character, meaning that if you fail you are acutely aware that it’s your fault. This may seem like a cruel attitude to take, but in fact it prevents the sort of confusion that may arise in other games where, despite seemingly doing everything right, your character simply will not jump, or do so too late… Other games will have well-programmed portions, and extremely frustrating portions where something simply does not work. This does not happen in Super Mario. The precise controls also allow you to develop keen instincts about playing the game, where one has very little thinking to do in most situations, and can mostly simply respond to the environment in the game as one would in the real world – effortlessly. While there are notable exceptions, such as the infuriating “match three” mini-game, this has very little effect on the playability of the game – and considering the fact that the rewards in it are so big, you can simply treat it as lottery.

7. It’s Difficult and Takes Forever

I feel it’s worth reiterating this again – I am not great at games. I’m not embarrassingly awful either, however, and the fact is that it took me and Kristijonas just a little over a month of playing nearly daily to finish the game. This does not take into account the weekends and nights I had spent on the game before the successful campaign to finish it. There is a reason I wasn’t able to finish the game faster, which is that the difficulty is occasionally absolutely brutal. Consider level 7-7, where the only way to pass is to carefully time picking up stars to run over the top of munchers – effectively, piranha plants. The most difficult part of it, however, is the fact that one typically can only consider certain levels passed after also finishing a castle, which are typically very punishing, and contain a boss at the end to boot. Once defeated, even after dying you can expect to be able to get back to just after the castle without having to repeat any levels. Doing it on the five tries you are given can be extremely difficult.

8. It’s Completely Doable

The previous point notwithstanding, the fact remains that even an average player like myself can learn to finish the game. This is not Donkey Kong, where the kill-screen (the end of the game) has only ever been reached around six times. The trick really ends up being memorizing the patterns of the game, learning each move of each enemy to the point that their behaviour can be predicted with something at least resembling certainty. The result is having to painstakingly learn each level until the castle is passed, allowing you to proceed and not have to return to the past levels. And while learning some levels can take hours, it is doable. Me and Kristijonas steadily learned to pass at least one or two levels each evening, allowing us to eventually complete the game.

Without the previously mentioned elements of the game, I may never have gotten to the end. We were engaged enough to work at the game, and eventually finish it, because it is probably the greatest video game of all time. Finishing the game felt incredible, to say the least. To be honest, the ending was almost anti-climactic. The final level was not overly difficult, and while the final battle with Bowser was fun, it ended with a joke about the princess being in another castle, and a nice picture retrospective of the game. We sat in stunned silence, unable to process having finally finished the game… And after a while, inevitably, we moved on. We’ve since completed River City Ransom, as well, which was a lot of fun, and I’d actually probably rather play that one again, precisely because it’s nowhere near as difficult. But it’s also not even close to being the same kind of victory. I’m almost sure I’ll never invest that kind of time into a game, which is probably a good thing, all considered. I will never reach a kill-screen on Donkey Kong, but I did reach the end of Super Mario Bros. 3, and I feel good about it.