Mario 3's plot is (barely) more involved than earlier games in the series. First, the Mushroom Kingdom has been expanded to the Mushroom World, with seven other kingdoms populating the region/planet/whatever it is. What's particularly notable about these other seven kingdoms is that they all have kings. I mean, the fact that Princess Toadstool isn't Queen Toadstool tells us that at least one of her parents must still be kickin' around somewhere, but clearly they're not doing anything if they let her get repeatedly kidnapped and put the responsibility of actual rule on her shoulders. I wish I could say Mario 3 was a quest to find the Princess' deadbeat dad, but alas. Perhaps that's an idea for down the road.
The actual setup for the game has Bowser (same baddie, new name, despite the fact that the game only calls him "King of the Koopa") having apparently sired seven
Which brings me to the first huge difference between this game and its predecessors: items. Not only did the game add far more power ups than just Super Mushrooms and Fire Flowers, but it also implemented an item storage system, by which you could hold a large number of power ups and save them for use before any given level down the road. You receive these items typically from Toad Houses, which is where the Toads seem to live when they're not suffocating in sacks in random castles. This makes the Toads really useful, which is a bit of a shock when you remember that the only previous time a Toad was any help was in Super Mario Bros. 2, which of course took place entirely in Mario's head. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to call the existence of these Toad Houses Mario's dream come true.
The most notable of these new power ups is the Super Leaf, which gives Mario raccoon ears and a matching tail. A leaf is obviously a logical segue into raccoon-hood, so we'll go with it. This allows Mario to build up running speed and fly around levels, which is nifty and opens up a bunch of secrets. There's also a frog suit for water levels, a tanooki suit that turns Mario into some kind of Buddhist statue, and even a shoe. That's right. You find a goomba hopping around in a green boot, kill it, and steal the boot. The boot is amazing, as you can just jump on anything to kill it, even if it would normally kill you. Sadly it's limited only to a level or two.
The Princess isn't slouching either. She'll mail you a few different things, but none more effective than the "P-Wing," or Magic Wing, which gives Mario the same power-up as a Super Leaf except that for the entire next stage he can fly infinitely. That's great for situations like the one at right. Where's Mario in that mess of death? Flying a safe distance above it, that's where. No need to put yourself in harm's way, man. Be cool. I could go on about the various power-ups, but there's just so much new stuff I can't hit it all. Mario's even got new basic abilities, like picking up and carrying around the shells of defeated koopa troopas. There's so much new stuff that the game manual literally dedicates four entire pages to covering Mario's moves, and doesn't finish the job before giving up.
It's not just the moves and power-ups that are new, either. Mario 3 added a ton of baddies to the equation. There are amphibians throwing boomerangs at you. There is a creature of indeterminate inspirational species that barfs spiked balls into its hands and then throws them at you. There are goombas with wings that fly around giving birth to tiny infant goombas. There are even undead koopa troopa skeletons that magically reassemble themselves every time they are killed. And I didn't realize it until writing it out, but everything above is absolutely nightmarish. While you play you just kind of go "Oh hmm, that sun looks pretty angry." Then it shakes a bit and tries to collide with you. I mean, the freaking SUN has a personal wish to engulf you in its endless nuclear plasma and melt you to nothing. That's terrifying!
...But not quite as terrifying as an ice kingdom. Look, I get it. Each of these seven kingdoms needs to be somehow distinct for gameplay and design purposes. It's understandable. But when I rescued the king of Water Land and gently reminded him that his sovereignty was an oxymoron, I thought I'd seen the worst the Mushroom World had to offer. What could be more heinous than an entire nation of water levels? And then came Ice Land. "Say, what if we took all that water and just, like, you know, froze it?" DIE. That's the worst idea of all time. You spend your lives in Ice Land slipping and sliding down pits, into enemies, and generally into the inescapable depression that accompanies your glaring inadequacy. They give you the occasional fire flower so you can melt some tiny bits down, but it's not enough, and by then the psychological damage has been done.
Nice, then, that they give you a map. For the first time, Mario isn't railroaded from one level to the next automatically. Instead, each world has a map screen with the locations of levels ("action stages," according to Nintendo) and other points of interest marked. Between levels you can navigate the map and use items you've collected. It's not a 100% necessary feature, but it's better to have a map you don't need than to be missing one you can't live without. And the maps are nice to look at, especially because natural landmasses like hills can't help but dance to the background music. And they give you access to fun little mini-games, like a memory matching game that gives you items, or a pseudo slot machine that gives you extra lives; fun elements that add onto the game without feeling like they are necessary chores.
As would be expected, the end of the game has Mario taking on Bowser in his home region. Also perhaps as expected, the reason for Mario going there is that Bowser used the distraction of the first seven worlds to kidnap the Princess. That's right - Bowser was in it for the long con and never took his eyes off that sweet sweet prize. So maybe it's guilt that drives Mario forward; the Princess did, after all, dutifully mail you helpful items (though hell if I know what those cloud or music block items were). The least you could do is make sure she's not going to end up mothering more Koopalings. Or maybe it's just good old fashioned lust. Who knows? All I know is that Bowser has his place defended better than any legitimate kingdom in the Mushroom World. You have to work through a procession of tanks, a navy of warships, a series of fast battles against some harder enemies, and a fleet of airship bombardment platforms. And then you hit the first actual level. His castle even has statues of himself that shoot lasers out of their eyes at you. Dang, Bowser!
You'll notice in the above paragraph alone a description of a variety of levels. Mario 3's designers really went above and beyond on that. While Super Mario Bros. got more challenging as it went, the levels themselves remained linear. And the design of The Lost Levels was purposed simply to be as stupidly hard as possible. Mario 3 evolves the series to a much better place. For one thing, you can now backtrack on most stages, encouraging some exploration. More importantly, the stages themselves often include puzzles or new mechanics you need to figure out to progress. For example, throughout the game's worlds there are "mini-fortresses" that contain challenging traps and a small boss at the end. When you reach the first such fortress on World 7, you find that it contains only three rooms and is entirely empty. There is not a single enemy or obstacle to be found, save for a pit of lava in one room that you just need to not leap into. You quickly realize that the objective in that castle is not to fight your way through enemies and traps to the end, but to figure out how the heck to even get out of the place. Your enemy becomes the clock, which gives you ample time, but stays there as a reminder that you need to keep thinking. This type of puzzle platforming is a large step forward for the Mario series, and helps to really spice up the variety in the game.
So you'd think that after fighting a multitude of new enemies, working through eight total worlds without being able to save (thanks, NES), and solving all sorts of clever design puzzles as you went, that you'd get some sort of reward for your efforts. Nope! Here's the Princess laughing at you and saying bye. And yes, that is the actual end of the game. There is no "second quest" or harder run-through or World D-4 or any other such nonsense in Mario 3. You beat the final boss, you're done. Congratulations! Now escort this wench home. I feel like whatever else Luigi's faults might be, he wouldn't stand for that. Remember Princess Daisy from Super Mario Land? Yeah, that's Luigi's girl now, Mario. You're stuck with Pretty In Pink over here. Have fun with that.
And speaking of Luigi, Mario 3's got unquestionably the best multiplayer experience of the series to date. In the two-player game, the brothers team up and alternate levels and lives. So instead of the first Super Mario Bros. where Player 1 got to play until finally dying, and then Player 2 could take over, here everyone is guaranteed a turn in relatively short order. On top of that, they took the old Mario Bros. arcade game and remade it specifically for Mario 3. Now Mario and Luigi can engage one another in a versus battle old school style to see who gets to move on. Can't agree on who gets first dibs on a level? Settle it with a POW Block fight! It's still one of the best ideas multiplayer platforming has had.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was a platforming revelation. It showed the world that there was much more a platformer could be than just running and jumping - or in other words, that the Mario series could go beyond itself. Future games would perfect this even more, but Mario 3 is a landmark game for a reason. Even the main complaint one might have about it - that players can't save their games - is alleviated by the hidden "warp whistles" that allow the player to skip over entire worlds. And how would a player find these whistles? It's simple: watch The Wizard.
Bottom Line: 16/20