Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.
Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.
Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.
This week, I'm taking a look at...
Super Mario Bros. 3
And just so you know, the version I played for this review was the Snes version, ported onto the Wii for Mario's 25th Anniversary. In terms of content, it remains exactly the same as the original Snes game.
SMB3 is widely regarded as one of the greatest Mario games ever. Indeed, some hold it as the defining Mario game against which all others must be measured. I actually owned this title as part of the Super Mario All-Stars bundle on my Snes, so let me assure you, I have just as many fond memories of it as the next Mario fan.
So why, once I put the controller down, wasn't I filled with the sense that I had just played the perfect game?
Lets begin with what SMB3 does right. In terms of gameplay, this is classic Mario. The physics are perfect, and every jump feels utterly natural. Considering this is only the second (proper) Super Mario Bros game, it's very impressive that Nintendo got it so right this early on.
Level design is a joy to behold. Those who've grown weary with the same-same presentation of more recent 2D Mario games, are in for a treat. SMB3 eschews the familiar Mushroom Kingdom visuals in favour of something a little more imaginative. Egyptian/desert levels, a region focused largely on pipes and mazes, a world that transitions unexpectedly from green and lush to a cloud environment - it's eye candy galore, especially if your version of choice is the Snes update, with its more vibrant colour palette.
And there's gorgeousness in the details too. Every time you board an airship at the end of the world, it feels like an epic undertaking. There are no goofy, cartoony visuals, the likes of which you've seen in New Super Mario Brothers, the last level is made to feel like a foray into danger. The way Mario leaps and climbs the anchor at the beginning, the slow haunting music, the flashing lightning...all of this culminates in a truly atmospheric experience.
And once you beat the boss and claim the magic wand? Then you're treated to a tinkling serenade, in the form of the victory music that accompanies your floating descent back to the castle. That one tune is a work of art, and it doesn't matter how many times it's played, its beauty never diminishes.
But what about the bad? I type tentatively as I dare to criticise this much-loved classic, but the fact is, it isn't perfect.
The levels are short, and some can be finished in under 30 seconds. My assumption is that this a result of the game's Nes-era origins. Difficulties with console memory etc meant that levels had to be short, so that the developers could cram in as many as possible. In truth, this isn't too much of a deal-breaker as it gives a certain snappiness to the game's pacing. Plus, without the presence of check-points, the short lifespan of each level can be a blessing in disguise.
Less excusable is the repetitiveness of the boss battles. Each world has one or two fortresses, where you fight the sub-boss Boom Boom. Although with each encounter Boom Boom gains new abilities - such as swifter movement and flight - every battle plays out the same. Jump on his head, move aside as his spikes extend, then jump on his head again before he starts moving. There is no variety.
The main bosses aren't much better. At the end of each world, you'll fight one of the Koopalings. Again, there are minor differences between each - sometimes they'll be riding a ball, sometimes their wands will launch different projectiles - but ultimately it comes down to avoiding their very similar attacks, jumping on their head, dodging as they withdraw into their shell and jump at you, and repeat.
These battles all require good reflexes - but every single one is the same fight, with your opponent wearing different skin. Again, I'm led to chalk this up to a remnant of the Nes-era. When Nintendo produced SMB3, limited processing power meant that they couldn't engineer hugely diverse boss battles. The problem is, this decades-old limitation is still in place, dampening the otherwise brilliantly imaginative-scope of the game.
And my final criticism has to be the difficultly. Hard games are good. I like hard games, and I like a challenge, but I don't like infuriating games. SMB3 is infuriating.
In terms of difficulty levels, SMB3 manages a perfect upward curve as the player progresses through the game. The amount of skill they gain in playing is directly proportional to how much harder the experience gets. But then, at world 7, the difficulty sky-rockets. Levels become a nightmare of awkwardly timed jumps and cruel enemy placement. The fortress right before the World 7 castle is an exercise in sadism that I will never forget.
And this sudden leap in difficulty wouldn't be such an issue - if the player could save their progress properly. From the Snes port onwards, players can save each time they finished a fortress or a castle. The catch? If you've made it halfway through a world, beaten the fortress, saved, and then turned your console off / run out of lives, when you restart the game, you have to do all the levels of that world again. Only the fortress(es) remain defeated.
This isn't such a problem early on in the game, but by the time you get to the longer, tougher latter stages, the prospect of going through every level again is truly depressing. It's fine if you can finish the whole world - the game will remember that you progressed to the next, but pulling that off without running out of lives becomes an ordeal towards the end of the game.
Considering the Snes' larger memory, and the fact that this redundant save system is still in place for the GBA and Wii versions, it's inexcusable that it has been allowed to endure. I'm all for preserving games in their original form, but improving what was a serious deficiency, even at the time? That should be a given.
And exacerbating this fault is the inability to revisit past worlds and stock up on items. I understand that even during the Snes-era, memory limitations might not have allowed this, but it doesn't stop it from being a huge drawback, and for the GBA and Wii, it should have been added. By the time you reach the last few worlds, you will need a good reserve of items to see you through. But without the option to go back and earn more from Toad Houses, Card Games or beaten levels, you'll find yourself taking on ludicrously difficult stages as small Mario. I know that the hidden Warp Whistles help with this matter somewhat, but considering the game doesn't hint as to their location until after you've passed them, it's little comfort.
I can see why SMB3 is so dearly loved by gamers. Its original launch on the Nes pre-dates my birth, so while I did enjoy this game as a kid, I didn't enjoy it in the same way. Before SMB3, all gamers had was the excellent Super Mario Bros, and the oddball Super Mario Bros 2 (a Mario game in name only) When SMB3 came along, however, it blew gamers away because it showed Mario looking like a real guy and not a collection of blocks, it added environments gamers had never seen before, and the power-ups were unprecedented. The ability to fly with the raccoon tail? I can only imagine how amazing that was to experience. SMB3 was everything gamers had come to love about Mario by playing SMB1, and then some.
And remember, this was a time before Mario became a franchise, with each subsequent title adding power-ups and concepts. The very idea of adding new things to Mario, was itself brand new. Try to imagine that, if you will.
But Mario - and gaming - has come a long way since then, and with its roots firmly planted in the Nes-era (despite some minor updates) SMB3 is lagging behind. It's actual gameplay is absolutely fine. If you've played any of the NSMB titles, the skills you've learned are totally transferable. SMB3 is a master class in creating a fantastic game, with minimal visual prowess.
But what holds SMB3 back is the technology upon which it was built. The issues with saving and backtracking don't make it hard, they make it unapproachable. These faults don't challenge the gamer, they alienate them. And what really irritates me is that these shortcomings are such an easy fix. Why they've been allowed to last so long is beyond me. Super Mario Bros 3 starts out as gaming-perfection, but by the end transforms into an ordeal. It's worth your time, and it's worth your money, but it isn't worth your patience.