Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 48, Super Mario Bros. 3

Many of the Mario platformers that helped make Nintendo a giant of the industry don't hold up enough for our purposes here, but Super Mario Bros. 3 remains as wonderful as it always was.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

The Nintendo Entertainment System still has a wonderful library of games, and some real classics worth revisiting for far more reasons than nostalgia for an era of video games long gone by. It, along with its peers like the Sega Master System and Hudson’s generation-spanning Turbografx-16*, sit at a fascinating point in gaming history, really, since they are responsible for major leap forwards in what games even were and could be, and while (unfairly) seeming like relics in some respects with our modern sensibilities, are also not so old that the DNA they passed on to their descendants is obscured.

These contradictions made selecting NES games for these rankings difficult. In an early draft of the list, I was taken a bit aback when I saw how few games from Nintendo’s inaugural home console had made it, to the point that I ended up scouring through Nintendo’s entire publishing history on the console to make sure there was nothing I had missed (there was not). There are myriad reasons for the absence of plenty of games you know the names of, though, and before diving into the first NES title in these rankings — yes, we got through over 60 games before hitting a single NES one — let’s focus on those reasons for a bit.

The main reason you won’t see many NES games in the top 101 is because the ones you would correctly guess that I seriously considered for this project are more in the 110-150 range. I ranked much further back than 101 for my own benefit, to get a real sense of where games sat in relation to other games, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything and that all of my comparisons in list-making made sense or could eventually be justified. In the end, I couldn’t justify including, say, Kirby’s Adventure, classic as it is, when there are a number of similar-enough Kirby games that do the same kind of gameplay better. The original Mother — or Earthbound Beginnings, as it’s known for its official North American release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service — is a nifty RPG and start of a cult favorite and critically beloved franchise, but it’s also well behind what it would help to spawn, in terms of story and gameplay and… everything, even if in some ways it feels ahead of its time. That’s not a top 101 game, not on a list where A Link to the Past barely made it. When A Link to the Past comes in at number 100, you can imagine how difficult it was for some NES games — including the original Legend of Zelda — to find a space.

A second reason — one that ties very much into the specific games mentioned above — is that Nintendo has almost universally already improved upon what they produced on the NES. For Mother and The Legend of Zelda, it’s that the subsequent releases managed to overshadow what Nintendo accomplished with those initial titles. For Kirby’s Adventure, it’s not just that the gameplay of the franchise has taken enough steps forward that the pink puff’s inaugural home console release isn’t in the top 101, but it’s also that the Game Boy Advance did a re-release of this game titled Nightmare in Dream Land that used a vastly improved game engine to provide a more satisfying visual experience than even what the SNES was capable of, never mind the NES. While that wasn’t enough for Kirby to secure another spot on the list — the little guy has a long history of releases, you know — this kind of upgrade did make it so I never had to consider for a second whether the original Metroid would be ranked. The existence of the GBA’s Metroid: Zero Mission, to this day one of Nintendo’s greatest feats of remastering their past, meant that all I had to figure out is where this version of Metroid would rank. Without Zero Mission, it’s likely the first NES game you would have seen ranked in this space is that console’s version of Metroid. Zero Mission does exist, though, so you’ll read about that (and about the original it superseded) at a later time.

The last reason for the lack of NES titles is that the system was not built on the strength of Nintendo’s own offerings for it alone. This might seem foreign at first blush, considering how much Nintendo’s consoles are believed to be for those who specifically want Nintendo games in their lives, but it used to be that you bought a Nintendo console because it’s where the vast majority of games you would want to play were, not just Nintendo’s own. Exclusivity deals with developers in Japan and North America ensured Nintendo’s dominance of those regions, and made it so that there was never a shortage of games available on the NES and, to a lesser degree, the SNES as well. Without this same kind of exclusivity in place in regions like Europe and Brazil, Sega’s Master System was able to be far more popular and successful there than it could be in North America or Japan, where they just couldn’t muster the third-party support necessary to compete with Nintendo’s market share. If you’ve ever wondered why the NES and SNES channels on your Switch don’t have game libraries more in line with what you remember the actual consoles having, this is one reason why. Wrecking Crew has its moments, sure, but it’s no Mega Man 2, you know? And Capcom et al have other plans for where their classics can be found, and for how much.

So, yeah. You won’t even need all of the fingers on one hand to count the NES representation on this list. I’m sitting next to a television with an actual NES plugged into it as I write this, that gets more play than you might imagine given how this list is shaking out, and yet that remains the case given all of the reasons detailed above.

The game that’s currently in that NES? That’s — segue alert — Super Mario Bros. 3. This game is not just the pinnacle of Mario’s NES adventures, but it’s also the pinnacle of straight-up 2D Mario platforming. The New Super Mario Bros. games, as has been litigated in this space more than once, attempt an impersonation of the past that, while fun, do not necessarily stand up to that past in a direct comparison. Super Mario World is still a lot of fun to play, but I have just enough friendly disagreement with some of its design choices that it is in the “just missed” bin instead of on this list. Don’t worry, I’ll write about it some day, because as I said: it’s still a lot of fun to play. It’s just no Super Mario Bros. 3, nor does it hold up against Mario’s more modern venturing into a hybrid 2D/3D space.

SMB 3, though, is pure joy and thrill, and on a system that, viewed through modern lenses, doesn’t always generate those feelings for one reason or another. The first Super Mario Bros. game was great — like World, it’s a just missed title — and its sequel was… less so. More of the same, but harder and more unfair, it didn’t make it to North American shores until it was included in the Super Mario All-Stars collection on the SNES. Super Mario Bros. 3, though, was a total reinvention of the series, even if it was built on a similar premise that Mario’s 2D platformers continue to be built on to this day. And it also possessed the kind of energy that is directly responsible for how Nintendo would approach building a 3D world for Mario to traverse, one that put experimentation and variety at the forefront.

SMB 3 continues to hold up because of this design. The point of what you’re doing is always the same, but how you do it tends to shift from level to level. It’s not just eight worlds in eight distinct settings, and how the environments of those settings can change the way you interact with the world or how the world interacts with you (sand, water, ice, lava, floors made out of sentient plants trying to eat you, all changing how you can move around, what’s safe to do, etc.), but also in how you’re expected to get from point A to point B. There is a rhythm to much of Super Mario World that made it age a bit worse than 3 because of the sameness it created — lots of floating with the cape, flying through areas that annoy you without the game doing much to stop you, Yoshi making Mario kind of overpowered more often than not — but SMB 3 never lets you truly settle in like that. It is incessant and expects you to be present.

Stages are often short, and just as often, feature some element you haven’t seen before and might not see again. It is incredible that something designed with obvious disparate intent can still manage to feel so unified and together over 30 years later, but that’s the beauty of Super Mario Bros. 3. It is a game where the developers were constantly throwing ideas at the wall, ideas that could have been fleshed out into full on world concepts, but are instead part of a stage that takes you 90 seconds to complete. Again, you see this kind of development strategy in the Galaxy games, or Super Mario Odyssey, but even with this level of familiarity around the concept by now, 3 still manages to impress.

It isn’t a platformer stuffed with secret collectibles meant to keep you playing — sure, there are hidden whistles and the like, but why would you want to use those when they rob you of the act of playing Super Mario Bros. 3? — but is instead mostly built on the idea that you will want to play it again and again for the sake of it. It’s got real pick-up-and-play energy from a time before pick-up-and-play really existed as a concept, and is short enough that if you’ve got part of an afternoon free, you can burn right through it. And I do! More than any other NES game, this is the one I go back to. It does not get old like Super Mario Bros. 2, and does not require the kind of overhaul of gameplay that Super Mario Bros. 35 gave the original in order to remain highly relevant in 2021. Even if you only have time to replay some early stages, or [sigh], you use the whistle to get back to where you left off last time instead of just playing through again, Super Mario Bros. 3 delivers every time.

There is just enough difficulty here — especially toward the middle and end of the game — for things to feel challenging even for longtime veterans. The fact it’s two-player from your couch is just as vital in the present as it was in 1988, when couch multi as a market continues to shrink despite the fact couches and couples and roommates and irl friends continue to exist as they did 30-plus years ago. That an entire arcade game is shoved into the gameplay is a bonus, too: don’t try to tell me you don’t enjoy the Mario Bros. arcade experience, that’s the kind of thing the Switch’s NES service is good for, to keep me from shelling out $25 for a cartridge of that thing on eBay. And in SMB 3, it’s worked into the game, to let players challenge each other for supremacy and risk losing their own turn in order to do so.

There is a reason I’ve brought up Super Mario Bros. 3 in some form in many of the Mario posts you’ve read in these rankings already: it rules. It holds up, it remains a total thrill to play, and while there are certainly some NES oddities to be found here, the game is otherwise flawless. If you haven’t returned to it in some time, do so: you might be surprised at how much you still love it, all these years and Marios later.

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