One of my favorite Star Trek quotes is this, spoken by Spock to the man who has just stolen his lifelong fiancée: “After a time, you may find that ‘having’ is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as ‘wanting.’ It is not logical, but it is often true.”
That pretty much sums up my experience with Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3.
Ever since I owned a Game Boy, which held the promise of playing NES-like games on the go, I had been dreaming of being able to carry Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMB3) with me all the time. I was a kid, this was the 90s, and while Game Boy was leaps and bounds better than other portable options I’d tried like Tiger Electronics, it kept falling short. Super Mario Land seemed disappointingly primitive after playing SMB3—and even paled in comparison to the original Super Mario Bros., which I rarely went back to once I had mastered it and other games were available to me. Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins was a solid effort, but it was like a hybrid of SMB3 and Super Mario World, which I also didn’t love as much as its 8-bit predecessor.
But then the Game Boy Color came along, and Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. Deluxe, and I had hope again for a handheld port of my favorite NES game. Deluxe was pretty much the game I remembered, but with compromises. (Remember that word, “compromises,” as it will be a common theme here.) The smaller real estate on the tiny, reflective screen meant you had to scroll around to see everything, adding a layer of frustration and challenge and preventing it from being an authentic, accurate recreation. At least it had an NES version of The Lost Levels.
The Game Boy Advance was a step in the right direction. The Classic NES series of games were nearly perfect adaptations of the original NES games, and my GBA SP even looked like an old Nintendo controller! We got a great version of the original Super Mario Bros., which I didn’t buy again this time around—although I did import the Famicom Mini port of Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels) from Japan. But… still no Super Mario Bros. 3., arguably one of their most successful and recognizable NES games? Why, Nintendo? Whyyyyyy?
So far this has been about everything but Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (SMA4), and that too is kind of the point—because of all the things that game is not. But we’ll get there.
When Nintendo introduced the Super Mario Advance series, they weren’t done messing with players, particularly with me, because out of the whole Marioverse, for their first Advance game they went an adaptation of Super Mario Bros. 2, my least favorite game in the series. (Hold up, haters—It’s a good game, but at the time it was a bit too different for my taste. I like my Mario games as old school as they come—platforms, block-busting, and fireballs, please.) On top of it all, this was apparently based on the Super Mario All-Stars version, but somehow… worse? They added voices(!?) and giant vegetables that messed with the gameplay mechanics and transformed it into a bad version of a game I didn’t even like all that much the first time. Distracting graphics, different music, altered physics—the 16-bit versions of my 8-bit Mario games were not for me. (You can keep your SNES Ninja Gaiden Trilogy too, thank you very much.)
But—I still hoped that this meant a Game Boy version of SMB3 was on its way. Instead, the next in the Super Mario Advance series was… Super Mario World. This was acceptable, since they didn’t alter the game much and at the time I didn’t have a Super NES. But where SMB3? Finally Super Mario Advance 3 arrived and it was… Yoshi’s Island?! That’s an amazing game that I adore, but come on, it isn’t even really a Mario game. (I bought it anyway, because I still had no SNES, and Yoshi’s Island in any format is worth buying.)
Then, finally, in 2003 we got the awkwardly named Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3. I was excited. But I knew it was the Super Mario All-Stars version, so my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered and I didn’t rush out to buy it. By then, I had plenty of other portable games to play and not much time for games besides, but when a friend gifted me with a GBA game I already had, I went to Best Buy and traded it for SMA4. I popped that tiny cartridge into my GBA—and it was as bad as I had feared.
Despite Mario’s constant exclamations, “Just what I needed!”, SMA4 was neither what I needed nor what I wanted. It was SMB3 but with compromises. So many compromises. Updated 16-bit graphics I didn’t like, a slightly weird aspect ratio, remixes of the game music I had loved—and incessant commentary from Mario throughout. I recently popped in my cartridge for the first time in decades to prepare for this article; my save files are still intact, and it looks like I never even bothered playing past World 6. Womp womp.
Had I been a different kind of player, I might have received SMA4 more warmly, perhaps embracing it as a way to replay a childhood favorite. But I was one of those people who in 2003 still had—and indeed, in 2020 still have—an original NES plugged into a CRT. I had other games that I preferred playing on my commute, and I could still play the original SMB3 in its original, best incarnation, whenever I wanted (at home). I could even play it on my laptop if I wanted, and not many years later there were other, better options for portable gaming.
In 2020, I can play SMB3 portably without many compromises: on my Switch, or in a portable emulator, or on my Gamerz Tek 8-Bit Boy HD (portable NES). And yet, 17 years after its release, I find myself finally playing and enjoying SMA4 after all—and on the Wii U, no less.
See, something I wasn’t aware of long ago were the optional Nintendo eReader cards that linked up with SMA4, even though I did have an eReader. It turned out that Nintendo had released card packs with extra power-ups and bonus levels for SMA4. Unfortunately not all of them were released in North America, and somehow they flew completely under my radar. But after listening to an episode of the Retronauts podcast, I learned that the Virtual Console release of SMA4 includes all of those long lost levels by default, for the low price of $7.99. That’s 38 brand-new SMB3 levels I’ve never played before, which adds practically 50 percent more game!
And so I found myself double-dipping on SMA4 after all, and I’m playing it again for the first time just to experience those new stages. (Some of them are really hard!) It isn’t SMB3, but finally, even with all the compromises, I think it has earned its Advance designation. And maybe, instead of trying to capture the old game exactly and disliking SMA4 for its many off-putting differences, I can now enjoy it for what it is: a remixed version of something I love that holds new challenges and creates fun experiences that hearken back to my favorite game. Instead of Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, I think of it as “Super Mario Bros. 3.5,” and that’s pretty neat.
“Oh yeah, it’s Mario time. Let’sa go!”
Wahoo! You are a Super Reader! But the adventure doesn’t stop here… There’s more of this project in another castle! This article is just one level in an entire Super Mario Multiverse, a galactic collaboration between writers around the world sharing a bit of our hearts and memories about our favorite Mario games. Visit the Center of the Multiverse to see more: