The secret to Mario is: nothing. Sonic The Hedgehog can run like hell, and Mega Man has his trusty blaster, but Mario? A cheap pair of red overalls, a hat, and a porn-star mustache. Sometimes his brother will show up, if you’re lucky and have a friend to play with, but mostly, it’s just one dude, alone against a sea of bad news. The first level starts with poor Mario barely tall enough to hit eye level with the bad guy. You run into a question-mark block and you jump into it hoping for the best, because, seriously? It’s not like this day was going to get any worse.
If Mario is a blank slate with just enough personality to make him likable, then Super Mario Bros. 3 is the crayon explosion designed to distract from all that white space. It’s a tension that’s been with the series from the start. Super Mario Bros had the novelty of a side-scrolling world to explore, and the U.S. release of Super Mario Bros. 2 thought outside the box, filling up Mario’s life with a whole cast of characters to play with. (Even then, while Luigi can jump high and Princess Toadstool can float, Mario’s defining characteristic is his averageness. He’s the control group. The others are the experiments.) When SMB3 rolled out in 1988, the question was, what came next? And the answer was pretty much everything.
Super Mario Bros. 3 goes back to basics, plot-wise: The Princess has been kidnapped by King Koopa, yada yada yada, happily ever after. The one wrinkle to the story is that this time, Koopa has seven kids (the Koopalings) along for the ride, and each of those kids runs amok in his or her own world, with several levels, fortresses, and an airship to defeat. Koopa’s virility was a sign of the times. Everything in SMB3 is bigger, richer, and more stuffed full of secrets than ever before.
In movies, sequels that try to repeat the original film only with louder explosions and crazier effects tend to be terrible, because all that shininess comes across as a soulless attempt to cover for a dead story. But with Mario, the story was never the draw. The play was the thing, and SMB3 offers so many new treasures to try. There are the world maps, with their shops scattered throughout the land (the treasure’s free, but the shopkeeper always makes you choose blind), and the freedom of being able to pick which level you played when. Sure, that choice is mostly an illusion, but the illusion is an important one. It turns the Mushroom Kingdom into a playground waiting to be explored.
Best of all, there’s a wardrobe full of different suits to try out. The mushroom is still around, and the good old reliable fire flower, too. But now you can grab a Super Leaf and turn yourself into a flying raccoon. You can put on a Frog Suit to finally make those awful swimming levels a breeze. You can get a Tanooki Suit that lets you fly and turn into a statue as needed. If you look hard enough, you might find a black armored Hammer Suit, in which you lob hammers at your enemies like a good koopa.
And then there’s Kuribo’s Shoe.
Kuribo’s Shoe—“Kuribo” is the Japanese word for the Mario game’s squat “goomba” enemies—is not exactly a suit. It’s a big green shoe with a wind-up key stuck into one side, and unlike the other power-ups in the game, it only appears in the third level of the fifth world. You can’t get it at the store, and there’s no way to cheat and hold onto the thing: Even if you manage to survive the level without losing it, as soon as you hit the end of the stage, the shoe drops off.
World five is the cloud world, but the first few levels are on the ground. Level 5-3 opens on a single screen, forcing the player to go down a pipe to continue. This isn’t unusual, except that the pipe doesn’t send you underground or underwater. Instead, it empties into a normal level, except that you’re traveling right to left. There’s some tricky business with a spiny guy and a piranha plant, but if you survive that, a goomba hops into view wearing the distinctive green shoe. To steal it, all you have to do is hit the goomba from below while he’s sitting on a block. Manage that, and you’ve got yourself some stylish new footwear.
Design-wise, what’s most notable about 5-3 is how the game goes out of its way to help you get the most out of the Shoe in the small time it’s available to you. It’s possible to beat the level without the Shoe, but it’s significantly more difficult (and a lot less fun.) With the Shoe on, you can jump on pretty much everything, even enemies that would normally kill Mario stone dead. Level 5-3 is packed with spines and plants called munchers that fill up long, flat areas. Normally, all these hazards would require you to find an alternate route. Not with Kuribo’s Shoe.
In the Shoe, you don’t so much run as bounce merrily along. Accordingly, the level offers plenty of places to explore by jumping, and there’s no real need to do much running. Even more telling, if you lose the Shoe, there are a couple of opportunities to pick up a new one before the end. Heck, there’s even a Shoe-wearing goomba stuck inside a cage of blocks, just waiting for you to take him out and steal his footwear.
Like most levels in Super Mario Bros. 3, this one is short by modern standards, easy to finish in a couple of minutes even if you take the time to enjoy yourself. There’s something bittersweet in that; no matter how much you try to savor the power up, there’s only so much you can do with it, and only so much space to do it in. Unlike later Mario games, once you beat the stage, there’s no going back. You can waste a few lives letting the clock run out, but SMB3 is made to keep you moving along, to see what else you can discover, what other treasures you can find. It’s built for the rush.
Yet the Shoe is hard to forget. Its singularity is part of its appeal—a cliffhanger of design that leaves us forever waiting for the other shoe to drop. That singularity points to the fundamental genius at the heart of the game. There are all these toys and tricks and wonders, but they don’t last. If it isn’t the end of the level, then it’s a pit, or a hammer, or a giant fish ready to swallow Mario whole. And every time, Mario comes back, short and vulnerable and ready to go. A little nothing of a guy, but with so much possibility.