If I'm going to keep sharing my most intimate thoughts about games here, I feel like there's something I need to disclose. A shameful secret that I've been hiding for years.
I do not like Super Mario Bros. 3.
Again and again I've seen people cite this as their favorite game, or the greatest game ever made. And it's not that I think the game is good but overrated, I genuinely do not care for it.
If you're still here and haven't gone to report me to congress or something, permit me to try and explain myself.
It all started when I was a small boy renting SNES games from the local video rental establishment. One wintry afternoon (I assume, since I grew up in Calgary) I took home a little cartrage called Super Mario All-Stars. It had versions of all the classic Super Mario titles: Super Mario Bros.; Super Mario Bros. 2 aka Doki Doki Panic; Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels aka Super Mario Bro. 2; Super Mario World; and... Super Mario Bros. 3.
I loved this collection and rented it several times. I've always had a soft spot for Mario games, what with their inviting graphics, jaunty melodies and refined gameplay, and each of the games in the collection offered something unique for my young mind to devour... except Mario 3. That one just weirded me out for some reason. I had no problem accepting Mario 2 and its odd Arabian theme, but there was something about Mario 3 that just felt wrong or off-brand somehow, like it was clearly the black sheep of the Mario family. 'Oh well,' I remember thinking, 'they can't all be home-runs.' (I guess I thought in baseball analogies back then.)
Flash forward a decade and a half, Al Gore invents the internet, and I find it scattered with people waxing nostalgic about how great Super Mario Bros. 3 was, yet I find myself looking back on it the same way I look back on my first trips to the dentist's office. So what did I miss?
With commendable optimism I grab myself a copy off of Wii Virtual Console and fire it up, eager to see what my younger counterpart missed all those years ago. 'Okay' I thought, 'the music and the graphics still don't appeal to me, but I'm mature enough to look past that now.' A few levels later I feel my enthusiasm start to fade as the game continually finds new ways to irritate me.
'Well the game's over two decades old,' I hear you say. 'Of course it's not going to hold up to modern scrutiny.' Pipe down, Strawman, I'm a retro gamer. I just played through and enjoyed Castlevania 3, and it has a couple of mechanics that are objectively awful. Dated gameplay does not faze me.
To be safe though, I went back a replayed Super Mario World, and for me the difference was like night and day. Where Mario 3 felt weird and frustrating, Mario World easily won me back with its smooth gameplay and inviting presentation. Yes Super Mario World was released later on a better system, but when you throw out claims like "best game of all time" it doesn't mean "best game ever for nine months, going by North American release date."
I've put several hours into Mario 3 now, just trying to suss out what I find so un-fun about it. My main issue stems from the fact that Mario controls sort of like a freight train and begins moving quite fast once he gets any momentum behind him. Sonic the Hedgehog has a dash attack that allows him to plow right through enemies, but Mario can only defeat enemies by landing on them, which becomes quite a bit more challenging at high velocity. Couple this with a lenient timer and the fact that the levels seem specifically designed to have stuff unexpectedly pop out and kill you, and a slow and cautious approach tends to work a whole lot better. This pretty much kills any flow since as soon as I start to do well, Mario takes off like a bat out of hell and I have to put on the brakes or risk running headlong into some minute projectile, or landing a jump two pixels in front of an enemy. The screen also seems a little reticent to show what's about to hit you.
However I think most of my irritation stems from the level design rather than mechanics themselves. Enemies always seem to be in the most awkward locations, making them difficult to avoid even when they don't catch me by surprise. I'm all for challenge in games, but where I find Super Meat Boy's levels satisfyingly frustrating in an "I can't believe I just did that" sort of way, in Mario 3 I'm usually saying "I can't believe I let that kill me!" I don't think the Meat Boy method of shortening the levels and giving me infinite lives would fix the problem, although it might have prevented a few controller-shaped dents in my wall. The airship levels are pretty rad though.
A lot of the problem is that I just can't get past the presentation. I think it's some sort of uncanny valley type thing. Titles like Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy appeal to me because, despite the things that set them apart, they somehow embody that familiar Mario-ness I've come to know and love. Titles like Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario RPG, and Yoshi's Island appeal to me because they are so wonderfully unlike anything else in the Mario-verse. But Mario 3 somehow manages to straddle the line and be just familiar-yet-different enough to make me subtly uncomfortable, like it's Hannibal Lector wearing Mario's face or something.
Ultimately, I can't make a very compelling case for my position. The controls are tight for the era, and there are no major flaws present. It's a "death by a thousand cuts" kind if thing. Mario 3 is not a bad game by any stretch, and I'm not trying to suggest that it doesn't deserves its place in gaming history, I'm merely saying that I would rather eat glass than play any more of it.