On the topic of videogames that scared the heck out of me as a kid: Super Mario Bros. 3. No, really. I was a… very highly strung child. But hear me out.
While Final Fantasy is the first game I remember seeing, the Mario games are some of the first ones I remember playing. The combo Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt cart was a staple in my household. I forget whether we had a Mario 2 of our own or if we borrowed it from one of my brothers’ friends, but there was a lot of that game too. And Mario 3 — we never owned it, but rented it what seemed like every weekend. Despite that, SMB3 is the one that stuck with me most.
Why? Because it was the scary one! Now… you could argue that Mario, being a series for kids and everything, shouldn’t be scary. I, being wise and worldly, would say that it’s good for kids to be frightened occasionally and to work at overcoming their fears. It builds character! Besides, which Mario is the best one? Mario 64 of course! — and that one had the absolutely horrific Big Boo’s Haunt.
Going back and playing Mario 3 now, the most shocking thing is how short these levels are. Each is such a perfect, finely-tuned little gauntlet. Every one has its own gameplay concept or gimmick. And they’re all over almost before you know it — which is weird, because I remember Mario 3 feeling like an ordeal. Eight huge worlds full of branching paths, roaming hammer bros. ready to battle you between levels, and no save function. That was the killer, and I remember countless times leaving the console running overnight so we wouldn’t lose our progress.
The original SMB is child’s play compared to this one. It’s a fun adventure: rescue the princess and be home for dinner. If Super Mario Bros. was The Hobbit, Super Mario Bros. 3 would be The Lord of the Rings. Bowser this time is waging war, not just on the Mushroom Kingdom, but on the entire world. He’s staging a full-scale invasion, flying airships over to each of the eight nations, and preparing to launch a fleet of battleships and a caravan of tanks out of a base of operations that looks like it’s located in Hell — surrounded by skulls, pocked by flaming geysers, and dark as the abyss. Jesus Christ, Nintendo.
Then again, it may not have been intended to be so grim. That’s the beauty of the NES and its limitations, fed by a child’s uncanny ability to fill the gaps in with the grimmest possible option. Seriously, though; there will never be a greater sidescrolling Mario than Mario 3. This game taught me how to stick with a thing, how to work with my otherwise insufferable brothers, and… how important it is in war to have land, sea, and air superiority.