Re-used Nintendo magic is still Nintendo magic.
Nintendo’s passion for (or reliance on) re-releasing classic games from the NES and SNES era is clearly exemplified in their Super Mario Advance series. We have now seen four games, none of which offers a new and unique Mario adventure. This strategy could be regarded as a sign revealing Nintendo’s laziness and arrogance towards the market – something that could backfire once the competition heats up. Still, from an immediate, financial standpoint it’s easy to understand the reasoning behind the strategy. With their low production costs and strong selling power, these games constitute a true gold mine and a secure source of income. They also keep many consumers happy. There are obviously still a lot of people out there who still haven’t tried these extraordinary games - not to mention all the hard-core Nintendo fans that fancy a trip down memory lane. In that sense, it would be stupid not to make these re-releases. The fact that these games manage to maintain a high level of interest is a testament to their quality, and this fourth release is probably the most long-awaited of them all: Super Mario Bros. 3, one of the most well-rounded and successful games of all time.
What makes Super Mario Bros. 3 so outstanding basically boils down to three gameplay elements that are superbly implemented: freedom in gameplay, variation in design, and simplicity in controls.
Freedom is usually limited in 2D games, since you can only move left, right and jump. Furthermore, most levels only have one specific goal. Still, Nintendo has managed to break free of these constraints by constantly confronting players with options and decisions. First of all, the inclusion of a world map means that you are not confined in having to complete the levels in a certain order. Mini-games and small vs. battles with the infamous Hammer Bros. are scattered all over the place, providing a nice break from all the platforming action. Items further enhance the amount of routes through the game. Use a Cloud to skip a level, or a P-wing to fly over it. There are even secret Magical Flutes that allow you to travel to a world of your choice.
Likewise, in the the levels themselves you will often find that there is more than one solution to beating a section. For instance, when meeting a Goomba, the standard enemy, there are several ways of eliminating him. Besides jumping on his head, you can kick a green shell in his direction, or even hit the block he’s standing on. Once again, items further increase the amount of possibilities. Shoot a fireball, throw a hammer, whack an enemy with your raccoon tail, or simply ram into him after touching a Starman. Utilizing the right items at the right occasion becomes an integral part of the gameplay. Underwater levels are made easier by putting the Frog Suit on, while a Fire Flower or a Hammer Suit is helpful in levels with plenty of enemies. Figuring out the best times to use a certain item can be fun and rewarding.
Variation in level design is another pleasing aspect. The worlds themselves all have a unique quality, not only in terms of environmental setting, which ranges from deserts, caves, underwater worlds, and icy landscapes, but also in terms of difficulty. The levels of the first world feature standard enemies including Goombas and Koopas, but later on you will face more challenging foes such as Bob-ombs or Lakitu. The latter levels also feature more complex puzzle elements as well as some insane jumping sections that require pin-point accuracy. It is often necessary to learn the exact placement of objects and enemies in order to complete these levels. The increase in difficulty is gradually and subtly implemented, so pure skill is required in order to complete the latter levels. When you lose a life, you are always the one at fault. No collision detection problems or unresponsive controls can be blamed. Your skills alone determine whether you succeed or fail.
Simplicity is also a keyword in this regard. Since only two buttons are used, the game is easy to pick up, yet difficult to master. One button is used for jumping, while the other has multiple functions, including dashing, holding green shells, or shooting fireballs. The controls are as spot-on as ever and feel completely natural. Take the act of flying for example. Like an airplane, Mario needs to gain a lot of speed on the ground before take-off. Once in the air, ascending is done by pressing the jump button multiple times. In a way, it’s a very logical process. It feels intuitive as a result, and you never think that the control scheme should make use of more than the two buttons.
Apart from the upgraded graphics and sound, which are comparable to those of the All-Star version on the SNES, Super Mario Advance 4 offers some new features. The multiplayer mode, which we have seen a hundred times before in the other Super Mario Advance games is of little interest. Fortunately, we are now given E-reader support. Press R on the world map and you’re prompted to insert an E-reader and scan a Power-Up Card. This feature becomes rather helpful later on. More interestingly, the level cards allow you to download and play a completely new level. In theory, Nintendo could continue releasing new cards thus expanding the game indefinitely, but in reality, it’s an expensive endeavor for the consumer. Even though the E-reader compatibility feature is a nice and innovative idea, it’s unlikely that it will occupy you for several hours.
This brings us to the biggest problem with the game: its lastability. Super Mario Advance 4 is merely a visually enhanced re-release - not much more. There is simply not enough new stuff. Therefore, the value of the game is questionable for Super Mario Bros. 3 veterans. It is possible to run through all the levels in a matter of a few hours, and since the multiplayer-mode and E-reader compatibility exist merely as gimmicks, they do little to enhance the lastability. It’s still an enjoyable ride, not least due to the nostalgia factor, but it may be a shortlived one.
On the other hand, if you missed SMB 3, you can add at least one point to the score, pushing the game into the must-have category. It is no coincidence that Super Mario Bros. 3 sent shockwaves through the industry when it was released. By flawlessly mixing so many gameplay elements such as a world map, item collection and management, puzzle-solving, varied level design, platforming action, mini-games, and much more, it stands as a true masterpiece. Super Mario Advance 4 offers everything that made SMB 3 brilliant and wraps it into a nice, visually enhanced package.