Super Mario Bros. 3 review

Boss Fight Books' Super Mario Bros. 3 is a poignant reflection on a game we (mostly) all played and loved.

Boss Fight Books launches their third season of narrative read-’em-ups with some nostalgic reminiscence about Super Mario Bros. 3 by author Alyse Knorr.

There’s a television ad for Super Mario Bros. 3 that you may have seen before: a young man in blue, surrounded by like-dressed companions, chants Mario’s name. Other children, dressed in white, black, and red, join the chorus. The camera pulls back to reveal a sea of children, all clamoring for the plumber, until that sea becomes an ocean and the camera pulls all the way out into low-Earth orbit, where we see Mario’s grinning mug stretched across the entire continent.

Alyse Knorr, in the latest from publisher Boss Fight Books, uses this ad as a touchstone for explaining the outsized place that Super Mario Bros. 3 held in the gaming zeitgeist when it was released in 1990. Nintendo’s dominance of the home console market was so complete at the end of the ‘80s that the company’s name was synonymous with “game system,” and the marketing muscle behind SMB3 was so considerable that if you were a child in the ‘90s and you had access to an NES, you probably played SMB3.

The big question that Knorr tries to tackle in her unpacking of the game is: Why does SMB3 hold such a place of importance in the gaming canon? Is the game just superbly constructed? Was it just well marketed? Does it have to do with the timing of its release, at the twilight before the onrushing Console Wars of the ‘90s? Or can it all be put down to simple nostalgia -- the love we have for the toys of our childhood?

Knorr’s answer turns out to be a bit of an “all-of-the-above” scenario, and it’s obvious from the many childhood anecdotes that pepper the text that her nostalgia for SMB3 is such a core part of her perspective that she can’t extract it from her evaluation of the game. So she does the next best thing and integrates it fully, blending reminiscence with research to try and see all sides of the game at once. The result is a slightly messy but ultimately charming look at a game that was a cultural touchstone for a significant portion of the author’s generation.

Not all of the author’s personal reflections hit home, and if SMB3 wasn’t a significant part of your own childhood (I went straight from a Game Boy to a Sega Genesis, myself) some of the peeks into Knorr’s memories might fall flat. At times, the game is simply a beloved toy shared with her family and friends -- sweet, but not necessarily moving. At other times, however, she pulls back the authorial curtain a bit further, discussing the notion of games as “boys toys” and the friction that created with her mother, grappling with issues of gender identity, or recognizing the game as an oasis she shared with her brother during her parents’ divorce. These bits are all affecting, poignant and compelling even if you came to SMB3 late, or not at all.

As in the other Boss Fight Books, a fair bit of consideration is given to the circumstances of the game’s development and the design philosophies of its creators, from the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto to composer Koji Kondo and designer Takashi Tezuka. More interesting (somewhat surprisingly) are the perspectives of Nintendo Power editors Howard Phillips and Gail Tilden, who laid much of the groundwork for the marketing push that helped SMB3 rise to the top of the heap in 1990. Knorr discusses the game’s music, its enemies, its theming, its mechanics, and even some of the unused levels and concepts still lurking in the game’s code, but the most engaging pieces are always the consideration of SMB3’s cultural impact -- like its appearance in family adventure movie/marketing ploy The Wizard.

Floating as we are in the wake of Pokemon Go, it feels very appropriate to be reading about a game that so completely dominated the gaming discussion at the time of its release. Super Mario Bros. 3 is worth a look, especially if that mustachioed plumber holds a place of reverence in your own nostalgic heart.