So here’s the scene. It’s a rainy afternoon, and my five year old is getting bored. He wants to play Lego Ninjago Movie: The Video Game with me, but although that game is pretty good, we’ve played it so much that I’m starting to get sick of it.
So then I’m thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we could play an old Mario game from when I was a kid?’ He’s just discovered the moustachioed one through Lego Super Mario, so it would be fun to show him one of Mario’s early adventures. You know, start him from the beginning. Maybe I could educate him about video game history, show how games have evolved, that sort of thing. And old 2D games are much simpler to control than complex, modern 3D ones. After all, manipulating a game’s camera is a pretty hard skill to master when you’re five.
I dig out Super Mario All Stars and plump for Super Mario Bros. 3, thinking that it might be a bit more accessible than the earlier two games. I show him the buttons, give him the controller, and he dies immediately by running into a Goomba. OK, I think, maybe I’ll just play for a bit to show him how it works.
And then I died almost straight away by falling down a hole. And then again by colliding with a Koopa. And this is just on the first level.
Back in 1990, I finished this whole game at the age of ten. I played it for HOURS with my sister. Was it always this hard? The inertia seems to be extreme, with Mario easily sliding off platforms to his doom with only the slightest touch. Running to activate flying with the raccoon suit is a hazardous activity, giving you just a fraction of a second to avoid enemies lurking just off screen. And dying sends you right back to the start of each level.
Reader, I’m not too ashamed to say I struggled. I made it to the fourth level – the one with the forced scrolling and the platforms that drop into oblivion – before completely running out of lives. Back in the 1990s, I had memorised pretty much every stage, remembering exactly when and how high to jump, but all that muscle memory has since turned to dust.
I have no doubt that with a bit of patience and practice I could regain some of my old Mario prowess, but frankly I found the difficulty frustrating and off putting. We turned off the machine soon afterwards and went to the cinema instead.
Playing Super Mario Odyssey a bit later on, it’s obvious just how much more forgiving Mario games have become. ‘Lives’ have gone, replaced by infinite continues, and each level has generous numbers of checkpoints. Mario even has hit points, so one-hit deaths are a thing of the past.
Some people may complain that games have gone soft, mollycoddling players to the point of removing all challenge. But I think they’ve just got a lot more fun. Super Mario Bros. 3 reflects the arcade game mentality of the time, when gamers were used to steep difficulty and harsh restarts. Yet those things only existed to get kids to pump their 10-pence pieces into a chip shop coin-op. It never really made sense to have those same mechanics in a home console game, especially one that didn’t even originate in the arcade.
In a nutshell, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a lot less fun than I remember it being when I was ten. I persevered with it back then because I didn’t know any different – and since NES games cost about £50 (the equivalent of £115 today), I had to wring as much enjoyment as I could out of each one. I played every game to death, patiently mastering every level, because it might be months before I could afford another one.
But in hindsight, Super Mario Bros. 3 is damn frustrating. I’ll take the more forgiving difficulty of the later games any time.
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