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Decades later, Super Mario Bros. 3 is still full of surprises

Playing it on Nintendo Switch made me obsessed anew

A Nintendo Switch with a screenshot of a Mario Bros. 3 dungeon level posed next to a Game Boy Advance SP. A Super Mario Bros. 3 GBA cartridge is propped up against the Switch. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I still remember unpackaging my purple, slightly iridescent Game Boy Advance SP. My uncle gifted me and my cousin matching ones during the holidays in the early 2000s, along with our first games. I received Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, a classic I would come to play over and over again — with equal parts love and frustration — as I was pulled inexorably into the spell of platforming.

Though Super Mario Bros. 3 was first released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, it was a perfect port for the Game Boy Advance SP. The handheld was the right size for my small hands and fit in the pockets of my favorite frock, making it easy to pull out and play a level whenever adults around me talked about boring adult things. The recent addition of Game Boy and GBA games to Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack has given me an excuse to revisit it. And though the Switch doesn’t fit as well in my pocket, the game has absolutely stood the test of time — I’ve found myself once again toting it around with me everywhere, hellbent on beating the next level.

The reverence that some feel for Dark Souls games, with their accompanying baggage to “git gud,” is close to how I feel about Super Mario Bros. 3 for GBA. The game requires fairly precise platforming, forcing me to memorize the weight of Mario’s jump and skid landings when I played it as a kid. The game taught me to approach its levels like puzzles, each with a best path or strategy, and often with hidden rewards and sections — which is to say that it taught me how to platform, period.

A hand holding up a purple Game Boy Advance SP with Super Mario Bros. 3 faintly visible on the screen. Photo: Nicole Clark/Polygon

Super Mario Bros. 3’s first level, with its jolly music, is seared into my brain. It introduced me to the basic concepts that govern Mario’s world (which I paid for in Game Overs). In the first seconds of the level, a Goomba approached me; touching it meant the level was over, but guiding Mario to jump on its head made the Goomba disappear. This same act of jumping taught me to hit my head on coin blocks, which yielded rewards like a Super Mushroom. Later in the short level, a Koopa paced near a coin block on the floor, which taught me the value of throwing a shell to strike the block — and the terror, and ensuing heartbreak, of having the shell careen back at me.

This airtight level design is no surprise. Nintendo is known for this attention to detail, and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto has given interviews detailing his creative process for the original Super Mario Bros.’ first level. Clearly, this process works. Super Mario Bros. 3 sucked me into the rewarding process of trial and error, making it fun when I was young and had zero patience. The relatively minimalistic controls were still an uphill battle for me at the time, though. I was learning how to use the D-pad with my left hand while tapping buttons with my right. Hand-eye coordination is not really at a prime when you’re 9 years old.

But the game kept pushing me with new obstacles and powers. Floating platforms fell, quicksand pulled me in, fish chased me underwater. But I could jump on a flying Koopa’s head for extra jump height, or don Mario in a frog suit for precise swimming. I noted patterns in boss fights, including minibosses, like a Hammer Bro on a ledge. By World 4, I blazed my way through difficult levels, returning to earlier overworld maps to revisit Toad Houses. I’d become the girl on the playground who the boys grudgingly handed their Game Boys to when they could not beat a level. Some of these boys would even “pay” me in recess snacks to beat the entire game for them — fresh strawberries were my preferred currency — so that they could go back and play whichever levels they wanted. I still have an extra copy of Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island that I forgot to give back to my elementary school BFF’s younger brother.

But even this level of fond remembrance couldn’t prepare me for the fun I had when I jumped back into Super Mario Bros. 3 last week, even with decades of other platforming games under my belt. Nostalgia can easily paper over flaws, and I had played this game start to finish some eight times as a kid. But I was unprepared for how many intricate hidden passageways and sections I would find this time around — things totally invisible to me when I played the game two decades ago, in the era before I had computer access for guides, and before YouTube existed.

As a kid, it took me until about World 5 to actually understand how the P-Wing mechanic worked — the one where you hold down the right trigger so that Mario sprints, allowing him to fly into the air when in Tanooki form. By that point, I’d banked Tanooki power ups I’d won at Toad Houses, and used them to fly through challenging levels. But I’d never tried it in earlier levels, figuring I never “needed” it to beat those earlier challenges. Lo and behold, as I reopened the game to play on Nintendo Switch last week, I found the first level in the entire game has a hidden section in the sky. And that was just the first of many surprises I encountered during this playthrough — like hidden pipes leading into other secret sky sections, dozens of “P” buttons that converted blocks into coins, and other secrets I had completely missed as a kid.

After playing video games for years, I often forget how difficult learning the control scheme of games can be for first-timers. That Super Mario Bros. 3 caters to both a first-time player and a longtime fan speaks to its enduring level design — and its place in video game history.