Friday, April 12, 2013

Video Game Review: Super Mario Bros. 3 (Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 [Game Boy Advance])

Super Mario Bros. 3 is often considered one of the greatest video games of all time, frequently being referenced both in and out of the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Its vast number of unique power-ups and advanced physics engine have kept it rather close to the hearts of gaming enthusiasts everywhere, and its contributions to the platforming genre were just as, if not more than, substantial as the contributions of its predecessors. One can say with almost absolute confidence that the modern gaming landscape would be completely different had this game never come to fruition.

This game has been remade at least twice that I know of: once for Super Mario All-Stars and again as the version which I will be reviewing today, which was released as the larger portion of Super Mario Advance 4. Now, I'm not sure of the specific details of these remakes, like if they simply added pretty graphics on top of the old physics and what-not, but I do know... they're all damn fun, and it doesn't really matter.

Super Mario Bros. 3 features graphics which are clearly inspired by their Super Mario All-Stars counterparts, but aren't quite the same. There are a few small line art differences and a lot of differences in terms of color tones. In general everything is lighter than it was on the SNES, and there are times that I feel like things are too light. Usually, though, the colors and graphics aren't anything troublesome, and often look rather nice and pretty if a little stunted by their dated animations. You see, while everything looks nice, it also feels a little... I hate to say lifeless, because when everything is in motion it definitely isn't. But I will say that if you take the time to look at the enemies and stages, you can feel how mechanical it all is. With a few exceptions such as the brilliant glimmer of breakable blocks and the cute little dance the Pile Driver Micro-Goomba's do before they leap into the air.

The music and sound is passable, but I found the sound effects to be far more memorable than the music. I can still hear the Micro-Goombas pounding the earth, Mario bouncing on a music note block, and the bwing-bwing of a swirling raccoon tail. Even the bwoodf of magical smoke as Mario transforms from tanooki to statue and back again still sounds clearly in my ears. The music is a lot less memorable, with most of the songs I do remember either being renditions of tracks from the original Super Mario Bros. (from which we have a very cool version of the underground theme) or having been revitalized in recent times. There are a couple of exceptions though, that I have to mention. One of these is the Coin Heaven theme utilized in this game, as it has a very memorable and upbeat, if cheesy, melody. The athletic theme is also fairly memorable, and not terribly stale. It does its duty well and reminds players to stay on their toes.

But I would be remiss if I did not mention the most memorable track from this game, and perhaps one of the most memorable tracks from any video game: the Doom Ship theme. This song has followed me through my life ever since I first heard it being processed through the NES' very limited chipset. And for good reason. The song that plays as Mario boards and infiltrates the Koopalings mighty Doom Ships sets the mood in all the right ways. It's heavy, deep, and gives you a sense of foreboding that builds as you delve deeper into the stage and the action really revs up. Combined with the classic bwow of the cannonballs and bullet bills, the Doom Ship song will invoke all kinds of emotion from players. If there's any single job of music from a video game, that would be it. And this track does it in spades.

The physics for the game are pretty solid, although Mario seems to be a little finicky and enjoys dashing off the edge of platforms at the top of a button. Unlike the Super Mario Land titles for the original Game Boy system, Mario won't lose his momentum in mid-jump, and that is a very good thing because there are some simply nerve-racking obstacles in this game. In fact, the later levels can be extremely challenging. Unlike similar games, however, these levels are never unfair and when you die it's your fault. And that's the beauty part of it. Some of these stages might be simply unforgiving, but they aren't impossible, they aren't cheating, and you aren't dying because the game decided you simply shouldn't win this time. You die, your fault. And that goes a long way toward preventing the kind of frustration that leads to anger, because when it's your fault for the loss you just try again and try to get better.

That said, I simply cannot fathom playing the original NES game without a save feature. I'm going to eventually, as I own it and it's my mission to experience everything I own to the fullest that I can. But man, this is a long and hard game. It took me about a week and a half of on-and-off play to see this through to the end. I don't know if I'm prepared to handle this all in just one sitting... with gruelling consequences for a game over.

Speaking of game overs, that's baby stuff in this game. Literally all a game over does is cause a screen to appear asking if you want to continue, and then send you a little further back on the map. You don't even have to replay any levels like you would in the more modern New Super Mario Bros. games. While I, as a player with a time constraint, found that to be nice and all, and probably good for my blood pressure, I don't really feel that it's a good design decision. It makes game overs no more damaging than a lost life, and in that case, why have them at all? If your game overs don't come with consequences, might as well give the player infinite lives. Just how I feel about all that.

As in most Super Mario games, you're supposed to save only after completing a fortress stage. However, there is also a Quick Save feature which lets you save anywhere on the map at any time. The downside to this is that if you resume from a Quick Save and forget to save again before shutting down, you're going to lose everything since the last fortress. So be careful about how you use the save and when you use it, especially with the fleeting battery life of the GBA systems.

The plot isn't really anything remarkable, although something interesting I noticed as I finished it off the other day (and this is a pretty big spoiler, so if you care about that... y'know, stop reading): Princess Peach isn't kidnapped until near the end of the game. Throughout the game the Princess sends you letters with helpful hints and items, but I always assumed that these letters were sent from somewhere within Bowser's Keep. In retrospect that doesn't make sense, but hey, the Super Mario universe has all kinds of magic. However, at the end of World 7 (which is the most difficult world in the game, in my opinion) you get a letter from Bowser who mentions having kidnapped the Princess while Mario was out rescuing the other kingdoms from the Koopalings. That caught me a little by surprise, because I'd always assumed Mario was out to rescue Peach the whole time. Pretty cool way to twist things a bit, Nintendo, even if the end-game is ultimately the same.

As I mentioned, Mario actually leaves Mushroom Kingdom to rescue a number of other kingdoms (the Grass, Desert, Water, Giant, Sky, Ice, and Pipe Kingdoms, respectively, and to ultimately attack the Dark Kingdom where Bowser lives). Each land has its own gimmick with enemies and obstacles which fit the setting quite nicely. The ice land has lower traction, the giant land has enormous enemies, sky land has cloud platforms and flying beetles, and the desert kingdom has an evil miniature sun which has made it its personal mission to fry Mario into a spicy Italian crisp. All of these worlds are awesome, and each one has something to offer which players are going to remember.

What will players remember about Pipe Land, though? How infuriated it made them, most likely. Pipe Land is home to a number of mazes and the majority of its stages are the most difficult in the game. Even the final land is a cakewalk compared to Pipe Land. I take this as confirmation that Ludwig von Koopa, the Koopaling who orchestrated an attack on Pipe Land, is actually the most evil of Bowser's children. And also the most tactically competent.

While Dark Land isn't nearly as difficult as some of the other lands in the game, it is one of the most memorable. Each stage brings you closer to Bowser's castle, and you get a very strong sense of invading an enemy kingdom. It starts off with Mario defeating Bowser's infantry and naval units, which are a pair of very awesome stages where the plumber single-handedly takes out tanks and warships in an ocean of blood (yes, blood). After this the world becomes a little more regular, which we can assume to be Mario invading the civilian areas of the Dark Land. Ultimately Mario storms Bowser's castle to engage in a fairly difficult end-game brawl to set the peachy princess free.

What this game lacks in music, it more than makes up for in level design and simple variety. There are a few dozen enemy types, all with unique behavior which lends a sort of puzzle element to an otherwise puzzle-less (in the traditional sense) game. This game introduced Boos, Thwomps, and Chain Chomps to the franchise, as well as one of my personal favorite enemies: Hot Feet. Hot Feet are haunted candle flames which can freely leave their stick to pursue Mario. Like Boo they stop when spotted, but they travel exclusively along the ground. Love them.

But of course the most renowned aspect of Super Mario Bros. 3 is its large number of power-ups. Mario has a personal arsenal in this game, able to assume a number of animal forms, the typical fire flower item, starmen, and even a hammer-throwing suit which appears stolen directly from the Hammer Bros. themselves. This is all easily managed by the introduction of an inventory system, one which, in my opinion, is the best inventory system the franchise has seen thus far.

This GBA port of the game features several notable enhancements over the original. For starters, clearing the game unlocks a World Select menu, which lets you jump around to any world you want. After clearing every level, you can also freely replay and exit levels at your whim. This is a nice touch, but I wish it was something which came earlier in the game. Also there are two methods of play: Mario Mode, and Mario & Luigi Mode. While Mario Mode lets you play through the game as the iconic hero, Mario & Luigi Mode is a throwback to the back-and-forth two-player mode of the NES era. While I'm sure that was the intention behind its inclusion, the mode has another function: allowing you to play as Luigi.

In most instances this is nothing special, as Luigi is often a simple palette swap of Mario. However in this game they went the extra mile to make Luigi play just a tad differently. He jumps higher, falls slower, and slides farther than his little big brother. Luigi also comes equipped with his somewhat-trademarked panic-jump from Super Mario Bros. 2. At first I really hated that this bizarre jump was finding its way into every game where Luigi was used, but I admit that it's beginning to grow on me.

Unfortunately, as I do not have multiple copies of the game or multiple Game Boys, I could not play any of the multiplayer games. I am also unable to assess the e-Reader exclusive levels and power-ups, which is a real bummer as those were the primary reason I bought this version of the game. Apparently they're now ridiculously priced collectibles. Meh.

Really, I have no complaints with Super Mario Bros. 3. It's a great game, and I recommend anybody with any fondness for platformers to give it a go. Yet despite all the praise I give it, and all the praise I still want to give it, there was always something a little... bland about it. Not to say that it was a boring game, because it really isn't by any means, but it always felt like something was missing. I'm not quite sure what that something was, but it was a weird and ever-present feeling that made the game a little less enjoyable than it otherwise could have been. Because of that I'll have to give the game a nine out of ten.

But hey, it's still almost perfect.

*Quick apology: forgive if my writing seems a little off or stilted in this review. I woke up with not quite enough hours of sleep and I don't believe my melatonin pills had worn off when I awoke. As a result I started falling asleep about halfway through the post. Kind of hampering some of the other things I wanted to talk about today. Oh well. I hope it's not actually as bad as I think that it is, because there have been times where I've written while tired only to find out that it was totally coherent the whole time. With the exception of a few extra letters here and there. In any case, I apologize if this post was not quite up to par with my usual.