Name of Game: Super Mario Bros. 3
Platform: Originally NES; played on the SNES emulator with Super Mario All-Stars
Year of Release: 1990
Despite the fact that SMB3 was the game that got me into gaming (thanks to glimpses snatched briefly at the houses of other kids,) I never owned a Nintendo-- by the time I learned that video games were, yea and verily, not some aggression-based pursuit for snot-covered little boys, but a challenge of skill that little girls might like as well, it was the Super Nintendo age, and that was what I got for Christmas. I wound up cutting my gaming teeth on Super Mario World, and never really got to spend much quality time with SMB3, though I would have liked to. The first time I acquired a SMB3 game for my very own was with Super Mario All-Stars, and by then I'd shifted focus to other sorts of games, mostly RPGs, so I still didn't spend the time with it that it deserved.
Recently, though, a friend mentioned the game, which caused me to abruptly want to play it again. My cartridge-based systems have long since stopped working, but that's okay, since I have emulators and a USB converter for my PSX controller, which I'm more used to holding by now anyway. On some undefinable level it's not quite the same, but it's easier for me with the setup I have here, and I don't really feel much of a difference anymore. I decided to do a playthrough, and, because I am spoiled with save files nowadays, I decided to go through every level, and to make a nice set of saves that would allow me to begin at any world next time I want to play (since I've seen, well, enough of world 1, and even getting the warp whistles would require me to start from the beginning, plus I wouldn't have any power-ups.)
I'd thought that I'd gone back and played all of SMB3 at some point, but near the end I was beginning to doubt. I saw things I don't remember ever seeing before. I saw snowscapes like sugar, and a land of eternal night. I fell luckily through traps set to catch me, and I was snared by lone enemies in the simplest of setups. I travelled through places that don't exist anywhere else at a lightning speed too fast for me to see and note all of their features. The world feels fantastically huge, in a way that many of today's games with their expensive, individually-drawn maps seldom capture anymore. Worlds can be easily made large when they're pasted together from big blocks, and the potential world is larger yet: so many permutations and possibilities exist even just with the materials we're given in each level, and the very fact that the game designers have made so many places-- per game-- gives me a wide-open sense of there being more things on heaven and earth than I can dream. Space isn't even treasured; it's throwaway; I might fly over a whole level, and never see the microcosm below that yet exists. The world doesn't seem like a limited globe with every place charted on a map; it feels like a space extended without bounds, as large or as small as I can dream. And I have access to all these places, myself and at my leisure, so long as I've got a controller in my hand and I can wiggle past the piranha plants to get there.
And, like the real world, in SMB3 sometimes I saw echoes of something cherished from the past. When I entered Bowser's castle and saw those laser-firing statues, I felt for a moment like I was back in SMW. Perhaps it's because that game has laser statues too, but it looked like the same place, or just close enough, that I felt it as an extension of that other place that I once explored and thoroughly knew. It's a resonant argument for why making graphics flashier can sometimes take away from the gaming experience: if what I want is more of the same, then a sequel should look the same as well-- it should feel as much as possible like an extension of the old. Sure, it's good to have new games that look different, but it would be wonderful to see more of the old games as well.
Speaking of comparisons to similar games, I wondered a few times whether my longtime experience of SMW (that being one of the few games I'm actually good at) made it harder for me to get through SMB3. I noticed that I was much more likely to lose both power-ups or die altogether when I'd just lost the first power-up, and eventually I realised that the time I spent invincible and flashing was just a tiny bit shorter than I expected it to be. I was treating the mechanics as if they were SMW, because in so many ways they looked and worked the same. I noticed that where the mechanics worked the same way as SMW, I did very well, but where they differed, I made some of my dumbest screw-ups. I suppose it's good that I've got to hone my skills on new mechanics that aren't the ones I've mastered so well, but at times it was frustrating, knowing what I could have done in SMW, and simply couldn't here.
I was sad that some of the neat things, like Kuribo's Shoe or the Hammer Bros. Suit, weren't really used very often, and that you could finish the game pretty much without them. I tried to take the time to learn the nuances of all the different power-ups, but most of them were never required, and the suits felt very optional. The game had so many interesting features that felt like they weren't adequately used-- even if you wanted to take some time and immerse yourself in what the Kuribo's Shoe could do, you could only use it in one level. And the suit power-ups were rare, so if you got hit by enemies a lot (as I did,) you were unlikely to be able to spend much time using them and getting a feel for what they could do. I wish there had been levels that required these abilities for the player to pass, making them not just a bonus that the player had to try hard to enjoy, but a really integrated part of the game. On the one hand, this added to the feeling that the game had possibilities I hadn't even explored. But on the other hand, it was easy to forget that these power-ups even existed. They weren't permutations of obstacles; they were permutations of ways I could move, and not really having the chance to master these moves meant that they weren't all really accessible to me.
Despite my aforementioned travel at lightning speed, it actually took me a few days to finish the game. I am not that experienced with it, and not that good. Were these the days before save files, I never would've finished the game, because I don't think I can do so much in one sitting. In those days I didn't mind wasting time on video games so much, and I might have developed enough skill to do it in one sitting-- but I might have not, because the lack of variety caused by having to play the same early levels over and over might have driven me away from trying. So thank goodness for save files. But even though save states on an emulator can make life easier when you have to leave the game and come back later, abusing them is a real temptation. I have to remind myself that no, it is never permissible to save in the middle of a level, no matter how hard it might be to get past that obstacle again (and powered-up, too!) if I do something stupid and walk right into obvious doom. There's cheating and there's cheating, and while I don't mind some cheating, there's a point beyond which it becomes not so fun anymore.
But for me, that point is pretty low. Because I did cheat. I could not, for the life of me, find the final door in the fortress just before Bowser's castle, and I asked a friend where it was. And of course I felt silly afterwards for not checking there, even though I'd thought it had something to do with that switch, and I rationalised that if I'd only played a little while longer, I would've found that door on my own. Yet-- would I? Or would I just have gotten tired of trying and wandered away, bored? I try not to cheat until I'm at that point, but I do hit that point fairly quickly, and I think cheating is better than giving up on a game. I'm not very proud of my gaming skills; they're not that great, except at a few select games. I'd rather do whatever I have to to keep enjoying and exploring the game, even if it means I have to cheat. Oddly, I seldom cheat at other types of games, like crossword puzzles, because there's no fun in bothering to do a puzzle if you're going to cheat at it. But there is still fun for me in video games if I have to cheat, and that speaks to there being something about the game besides the challenge that makes it worth playing. It's about exploring.
It's always been about exploring, for me-- seeing new places, and feeling that these arrangements are limitless. I've travelled all over the world, and all it made me feel was that the world must be small because I could get to the other side. But travelling through games like this, games that can be recombined in so many ways, makes me feel like it's big, because I cannot get everywhere-- there is no finite number of places to be. Even if it hasn't been dreamed of yet, it easily could be.