We all know about Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES. It was a fantastic game worthy of all the praise that it received, and that remains true to this day. So, this review won't discuss all the merits of the original game. Instead, it will focus on the unique features of Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, released on the Wii U virtual console. Confused by the title? We'll do our best to make everything clear.
SMA 4 is, at its core, a port of the version of Super Mario Bros. 3 that was included with Super Mario All-Stars, a collection of NES Mario games on the SNES. It features updated graphics, colours and audio, including classic Mario voice acting. The camera is slightly zoomed in on occasion in this updated version - due to the resolution of the Game Boy Advance - and the game controls seem to be a little less floaty than the original, conditions that may upset purists but never significantly impact gameplay. You can also now save at any point, a feature sorely missing from the original game. There are a number of other additions, the most notable of which are e-Reader levels; you can find a list of all differences here; the game also features an updated version of the original Mario Bros., which is a nice bonus.
As mentioned above, this Wii U Virtual Console version includes all 38 e-Reader levels from the original game without the need for the e-reader peripheral. A number of these levels were never available in North America, and none of them were released in Europe (at the time of writing we await this Virtual Console release in the EU). This is a big deal, and the main reason to consider purchasing this version of the game.
What was the e-Reader, you ask? It was a peripheral that you could attach to your GBA in order to add content to games you had purchased. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, logistically it was a mess.
In order to use the e-Reader, you needed to purchase the optional device and hook it up to your GBA. Then, you had to use a special cable to connect it to a second GBA in order to be able to use the device. That's right, you had to own (or have access to) a second handheld. Then, you could purchase cards linked to certain content for specific games and use those to expand your gaming experience with a particular title. While this early version of DLC / NFC sounds innovative in theory, in practice it was highly impractical and the device died a quick death.
On top of that, likely partly because the device was such a failure, North America only received 13 of the 38 extra levels that were created for SMA 4, and Europe didn't receive any of them.
This recent VC release on Wii U is an excellent opportunity to play a range of unreleased Super Mario Bros. 3 levels in one tidy package. But are the levels any good? Is it worth $8 to pick up yet another copy of this classic game? In a word, yes, but with some caveats. Buying the Wii U VC title gains you immediate access to all 38 e-Reader levels, and that alone is worth the price of admission for serious fans of the Mario series. However, your enthusiasm for these levels may be tempered if you also own Super Mario Maker.
There are a number of different types of levels in this package. The first five levels are remakes of levels from the first Super Mario Bros. on the NES, and though that makes them not especially novel, it's still neat to see these levels somewhat modernized. Plus, it fixes some annoying quirks with the original, including allowing you to backtrack when desired.
Many of the other levels feature surprising crossovers from other Mario games, and this is where it gets interesting. You can pluck turnips like in Super Mario Bros. 2, or you can fly with a cape from Super Mario World. Seeing a host of enemies from other entries animated in a 16-bit Mario 3 template is fascinating.
The levels themselves vary from short and simple to deep and surprisingly difficult. Unfortunately, some of the difficult ones feel rather like trolling - for example, "Para Beetle Challenge" has you jumping from flying beetle to flying beetle with no safety net, and sometimes throws obstacles at you that you couldn't possibly know to avoid before a few trial and error deaths.
Some of these levels feel gimmicky; the best Mario levels have a theme, but many of the e-Reader levels feel like that theme is the sole reason for that level's existence, and as a result they just don't feel as fleshed out as the main game. The "Para Beetle Challenge" level is good for putting Mario 3's tight controls to the test as you jump from flying beetle to flying beetle, but there isn't much to the level besides that challenge.
The original Mario 3 had just the right amount of content and expertly designed worlds to operate as an impressive cohesive unit, worthy of consideration as the best 2D Mario game in the franchise. These extra levels, while novel, just aren't as strong overall as the stages from the rest of the game.
All minor complaints aside, they still make for a fun experience. Interestingly, these new levels may not be as exciting as they would have otherwise been if they were released on the VC prior to Super Mario Maker. Before SMM, this would be your only chance to see and play new Mario 3 levels. Now, Wii U owners have a bounty of such levels at their fingertips – indeed, some Super Mario Maker levels seem reminiscent of these e-reader levels, such as quick running levels where your only task is to run and jump a few times to beat a level – and the only remaining draw to purchase SMA 4 is to experience stages designed by Nintendo. The value of even that is somewhat diminished if you own SMM, as someone has remade most of these e-reader levels in Super Mario Maker.
Thankfully, there is some added depth here, as levels will be more interesting for a completionist since most stages feature collectible coins (Advance coins and E-coins) that add a serious challenge. It's fairly simple to run through most of these stages, but it's another matter entirely to collect all the coins, and this will provide some extended value for those who enjoy that activity. Those that don't enjoy collecting might look at the majority of these levels like stages from the recent Yoshi's Woolly World – they are enjoyable enough to play through, but the real stimulation occurs from the challenge of trying to collect everything.
Even though many of these levels aren't especially challenging, they are enjoyable to play in part due to novel concepts that are not often revisited in subsequent entries. For example, "Slip Slidin' Away" has a section where the screen rocks back and forth in gradually widening increments, which is a unique way to play through a stage. The level "Vexing Doors" features a fun boss battle with a Big Boo (from Super Mario World) and his two little boo minions, which was a welcome break from the standard castle bosses and Koopalings. Apart from pulling turnips up from the ground, the game also contains a level built around digging sand like that which was found in Super Mario Bros. 2.
Adding to the replayability of all of these e-Reader levels is the option to play as Luigi, who, unlike the Luigi in the core game is based off of Super Mario Bros. 2's physics, complete with his floaty high jump and crazy flailing legs. This adds a unique component to the game as it is a considerably different experience using Luigi to complete these levels.
This game is essentially the definitive Mario 3 experience. On top of updated design, character models, music, and voice acting, it features 38 levels from the Mario 3 universe that you most likely have not played before, complete with added collectible challenges and character selection options. These bonus levels are chock full of extra content, from Super Mario World enemies like Wiggler to Super Mario 2's turnip chucking, and it's these little nods to other games in the series that really make this something special. The e-Reader was notoriously difficult to use, and many of the bonus levels were never made available in NA and Europe. SMA 4 provides a convenient way for you to play all of these bonus levels in one small package, effectively making one of the greatest platformers of all time even better.