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The ‘Super Mario Bros. 3’ Airship Levels are a Lesson in Great Game Design

The ‘Super Mario Bros. 3’ Airship Levels are a Lesson in Great Game Design:

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.


At the time Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in 1988, there were two similar Mario games to compare it to. The first, Super Mario Bros., premiered the classic formula we know and love today. But the second one, Super Mario Bros. 2, was a bit more polarizing. Japan got the real Super Mario Bros. 2; it was a more difficult version of the first game, with poison mushrooms and stiff winds that could blow the player into nearby pits.

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The rest of the world, however, got a graphical overhaul of another game by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, a creation called Doki Doki Panic. Nintendo replaced the game’s actual characters with Mario and friends, changed its name and called it a day And other than requiring the player to move from left to right and jump over things, the Western version of Super Mario Bros. 2 shared little in common with the game that preceded it. For example, Mario killed enemies by throwing uprooted vegetables at them; stomping on their heads did absolutely nothing. It wasn’t a bad game, per se, but it was definitely different.

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Mario’s identity was clouded for a while, and it was unclear where the franchise would head next. Super Mario Bros. 3 was the clarifier. This was what a Mario game was, and this is what they would continue to be. It established so many Mario archetypes—basic expectations that we take for granted today. It was the first time that Mario could fly. It was the first time Mario could stomp a Koopa, pick up its shell, carry it somewhere else, and kick it. It introduced the ‘stomp on the boss’s head three times’ formula. It even innovated the overhead map function, which encouraged players to think of the Mushroom Kingdom in holistic, non-linear terms.

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The new enemies were equally iconic. Just as there were different species of Koopas in the first game, the third game established different species of Piranha Plants and different species of Hammer Brothers. The new Boos had a charming hide-and-seek gimmick. They were allegedly based on a developer’s wife, who could be very sweet and shy in one moment, and then extremely terrifying in the next.

And then there were the Koopalings.

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It seemed that Miyamoto had figured out what his fans already knew —that fighting Bowser in every single level got redundant (and detracted from what made an end boss intimidating) Instead, the developers created seven Koopalings, one for each of the seven worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom. They each had an eccentric look, because they were individually designed by the developers to make them unique. The American translators gave them name derived from music superstars (Iggy Koopa from Iggy Pop, Wendy O. Koopa from Wendy O. Williams, and so forth). And rather than sticking them in big castles, each Koopaling got a physically impossible flying airship, which Mario had to navigate before facing a Koopaling in battle.

The first Koopaling Mario encountered was Larry Koopa, the youngest of the troupe. His airship was the simplest in layout and the easiest to assault. But despite this (and perhaps because it was the first airship) Larry’s airship is one of the most memorable and resonant levels in the game. It’s a perfect intersection of music, drama, and design, in subtle ways that could be missed on a first playthrough.

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First, the music. Composer Koji Kondo created atmosphere with rudimentary bleeps and bloops, and it’s unnerving how closely he approximated real instruments. The bum-bum at the beginning of this song, for example, is a dead-on imitation of a timpani drum; for the first few seconds, that’s all the song is.

It works perfectly, however, because the on-screen action is identically sparse. You board the airship by grabbing onto its anchor, and when you first hop onto the deck, there’s nothing that’s overtly threatening. But then, the screen scrolls to the right—the constant scrolling does a lot to create a mood of inevitability and dread—and the first cannon pops into view.

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That one cannon then becomes two cannons.

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And those two cannons then become three: two regular cannons and one Bullet Bill cannon. Their projectiles can be killed with a simple stomp. A talented player, with the assistance of a raccoon tail, can actually ricochet bounce between multiple cannonballs and Bullet Bills, and eventually start accumulating 1-Ups.

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This slow escalation of artillery builds the tension to a crescendo. The music swells. And right around this time, the airship lurches upwards and then downwards—a subtle reminder that you are not on solid ground. The lurch of the ship also throws off your spatial perspective, and the cannonball, which once would miss you by an inch, is now on a collision course for your face. In short, you’re under siege. Bullets and cannonballs are flying everywhere. There are no “safe spots,” and you have to always be moving.

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Often you’re jumping over the firing cannons, directly into their line of fire; you have to time your jumps so that you aren’t killed at point blank range. The best trick to defeat this, ironically, is to stand right next to the Bullet Bill cannons. They don’t fire when you’re pressed up against them, and although that makes very little sense, no one is complaining about it.

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It’s also worth noting that there are no actual enemies in this level—just a whole lot of impassive obstacles and defense structures. In this manner, it’s different from every level that came prior to it. You get the message loud and clear: the fun and games are over.

There is a single power-up at the midway point—a Fire Flower if you’re big, Super Mario, and a Mushroom if you’re regular Mario.

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And then, after several more cannons, including a multi-cannon that fires in every direction, you’re ready to fight Larry Koopa. You reach a white pipe, and you descend into the bowels of the ship.

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You have to stomp on Larry’s head three times without dying yourself, and unless you know the strategy to beat him, that’s easier said than done. Aside from his wand, which can shoot spells at you, Larry Koopa is most dangerous when you stomp on him. That’s because he retreats into his shell, and then tosses himself across the room. Because of that, the uneven ground on the left hand side of the screen is a real pain in the ass. It allows Larry to trap you in the corner, and the room is so cramped that there is little opportunity to escape.

Instead, what you have to do is run underneath him. Larry Koopa throws himself at you at a high arc, and by dashing under him, you give yourself enough space to jump and stomp him again. Three times, and he’s dead.

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When Nintendo re-released Super Mario Bros. 3 on the Super Nintendo as part of the Super Mario All-Stars collection, the developers did a full upgrade on the graphics. The airship sky, once peaceful and sky blue, was now dark and intimidating. Thunder cracked and lightning struck at random intervals. Take a look at the screenshot below—you can compare it to a nearly identical screenshot above.

The updated graphics look gorgeous; there’s no doubt about that. But when you replay the level, you realize that these visual upgrades are mere window dressing. It’s the level structure itself that generates the suspense, and that’s what makes older games like Super Mario Bros. 3 so brilliant. It’s not about the level of detail on a single cannon—it’s about how that cannon is placed, and how it works in conjunction with the other cannons in close proximity.

Many old games did not tell stories exclusively through cut scenes; they told stories through design and gameplay. Not a single word needed to be spoken! And that’s a lesson that many developers, who blur the fine line between interactive experiences and interactive games, can learn from.


Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.


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