Super Mario Bros 3 (1991)
I would have said that Super Mario Bros. 3 needs no introduction, but it’s important to note that the game got a pretty massive, in-your-face one in the guise of an entire motion picture called The Wizard. It came out in 1989 and starred young Fred Savage, and it was a sort of mix of Rainman and Stranger Things, with your typical Stand by Me format of kids venturing across Podunk America and evading the misunderstanding adults.
That all sounds quite by-the-numbers, but the main hook of this particular film is that the kids in question were big-time gamers, purveyors of the plucky old NES in particular. The whole caper was a journey across the States to get to the Video Armageddon gaming competition.
Here, Fred Savage and the wee lassie following him would unleash their secret weapon and designated third wheel Jimmy, the so-called “guru of gaming”. They essentially force this post-traumatic boy to do the bizzo on the NES and win them 50,000 dollars, sending everyone else home depressed.
Well, just about everyone denigrates The Wizard as a load of rubbish, but I always like those simple, easy-to-follow roadtrip films. I’m also a sucker for an innocent childhood romance, and I mean that strictly in a non-paedo way.
What really kept me interested the first time I watched is that, because my eyesight is so bad, I thought it was Clarence Boddicker from Robocop who was chasing the kids up, trying to bring them to justice. Pity it wasn’t him really, that would have been a lot better and added a lot more tension to the picture. I’ll take sickening ultraviolence over hammy goofiness every time.
It’s true that The Wizard was a massive advertisement for Super Mario Bros. 3 and for the NES as a whole. But for much of the film, the little autistic boy who’s a shark at videos games is actually relegated to only a few scenes of awful acting, while the young love story between Fred Savage and the girl develops. This is what I meant about the gamer boy becoming a bit of a third wheel, and that’s what you don’t want to be.
I’m sure you’ll have experienced this at some point in your life though, where you’re out with your best pal and they’ve brought along your partner. Now, if you get along great with their significant other, then it’s happy days.
But even so, and especially if they’re only just starting to go out with each other, you’ll eventually hit that slight bit of self-consciousness. That’s when you realise, later on in the day, that the two of them want to be alone and you’re being a real spanner in the works here.
You may even find yourself overcompensating at this point, and being a bit too loud, a bit too wacky, things you wouldn’t ordinarily be, just to make up for the imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend that you didn’t bring along. Does that sound familiar?
No? Oh, well, no matter – suffice it to say that, until the big endpiece of the film begins, the gaming contest where Super Mario Bros. 3 almost literally comes out of the screen and hits you in the face, you’ll otherwise spend most of The Wizard watching that awkward young boy in love, the same boy you probably used to be.
The difference here is that Fred Savage actually does get a kiss out of it. Savage will probably always be introduced as the main young man in The Wonder Years, though that one wasn’t big over here, so I’ll only ever see him as the Mole in Austin Powers – a vital mole, ah, role, he played there.
Actually, I’m telling a bit of a lie because there is one other significant scene after the awkward introductions and before the gaming contest to end all contests. It’s when the kids go to see the sex offender. No, I’m not making anything up there, and we have to refer to the young actor as a sex offender because that’s what he is nowadays, and that’s what he’ll always have to sign on as.
It’s the infamous Power Glove scene, which is so bad, and in more ways than one – I’m sure you’ve seen it or read about it by now, but it introduces you to the designated villain, Lucas, dressed in wicked black. Now that I think about it, he would have been great as a young Anakin Skywalker if only the ages had only matched up, and if only he wasn’t done for child molestation.
Well, dubious character though he is, he’s beaten every NES game in existence, and that’s no mean feat. He even has lackeys with him, one of them Tobey Maguire in his first film role, and they carry around Lucas’ selected NES collection in a special briefcase. I’m not going to lie, if I had seen The Wizard as a 10-year-old boy, I 100% would have wanted to be this guy. At least, until he wandered down the path to the dark side.
Finally, the competition begins with incredible fanfare, and our little gamer boy gets himself into the sperg zone. Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis join as spectators, but they seem to demonstrate an awful lot of knowledge about the secrets of a game they’d never seen before in their lives.
Still, I think this might even be an actual phenomenon (we might call it the Fred Savage Phenomenon) because Super Mario Bros. 3 is the first game I ever completed. And I somehow managed to do this at the young age of 4, with very little knowledge about how games worked, very little knowledge about how to go to the toilet even, and I still knew about some of the game’s litany of secrets. How do you explain that?
There’s definitely a lot to remember here though, let me tell you. We’re talking a blanket upgrade from the first two Mario Bros games. It’s still eight worlds, the same as SMB1 and one more than SMB2. But the sheer variety is staggering, and there are more than four levels per world – in some cases, with fortresses, castles and other special level tiles, the level count goes into the dozens.
Depending on your definition, there’s about 90 levels in the game, and remember that even Super Mario World, with its much-vaunted 96 number, only had 72 levels to go with its 96 exits. SMB3’s levels are a lot shorter mind you, but you’ve got the classic Mario world themes here – grass, desert, water, lava, and my personal favourite, the giant world.
Those ecosystems or archetypes or whichever fancy word you want to use definitely became boring and routine as the series went on, especially with that most uninventive series of New Super Mario Bros. games. But at the time, SMB3 was a staggering feat. Mario’s physics are better as well, a real improvement over the other 2 NES games, and we won’t mention The Lost Levels.
If I’m 100% honest though, and this is probably a shootable offence, I was never fully happy with the tightness of Mario’s controls in Mario 3. I still felt he was just that tiny bit too slippery, whereas Super Mario World finally nailed it.
He’s a vast improvement on the first SMB, don’t get me wrong. And nobody used Mario in SMB2, but still. In general, I do think Super Mario World is the slightly better game than Super Mario Bros. 3 in most respects, but that’s no shame – we’re still talking about probably the best game on the NES here.
The only conspicuous disadvantage I think this game suffers is its lack of a save system. Save batteries did exist in the NES days of course, the Zelda games, Final Fantasy and StarTropics had them, although they came at a premium.
It means that you have to beat the game in one sitting – a difficult ask until you learn about yet another new secret, the secret of the warp whistle, and there’s two available to you in the very first levels if you know where to look. If you don’t know where to look, a little Wizard will help you.
Having these warp whistles means you can quickly get back to wherever you left off, useful if you had to go to school and your fearful mother unplugged the NES you had strategically left running, in case it set her house on fire.
And even if you remained ever ignorant to the wonders of the warp whistle, a quick trip to the SNES or the GBA to play the All-Stars version of the game, with new graphics and a save system, worked just as well. In fact, without even trying, you probably already have about ten renditions of this game.
What we have here is the best of the NES, and it deserved not just one film but several, as well as all of the praise and art and fanworks it’s received over the years. What Super Mario Bros. 3 probably confirmed to us above all is that Nintendo really did have a whole host of wizards working for them.
4 December 2020