Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal, from 1990!

I’ve owned more Happy Meal sets than I can remember, but only a few transcended the novelty of “free toys.” Getting plastic baubles with my McNuggets was always welcome, but on certain occasions, those plastic baubles were my total reasons for being.

The Super Mario Bros. 3 Happy Meal, from 1990, was definitely one of those occasions. Remember, Nintendo toys in general were scarce back then. Even when they did pop up, the results could be pretty offbeat.

(Given how white hot Nintendo was at the time, I’ve never understood why they didn’t make a bigger push for toy store merch.)

This Happy Meal was the perfect storm. Super Mario Bros. 3 had just come out, and it was all kids were talking about. Our interest in these toys wasn’t casual at all. We absolutely would’ve gobbled ‘em up even if they were sold as regular retail items without bonus cheeseburgers.

That the toys were so good by Happy Meal standards was almost immaterial. Ronald could’ve written “KOOPA” on plain brown bags, and so long as Nintendo stamped it, we woulda been there. In a sense, it’s surprising that they put so much effort into this set. (Not that I’m complaining!)

There were four toys in all, or five if you count the “Under 3” exclusive, which in this case was a stoic Raccoon Mario without any of those pesky choking hazards. The “core four” are shown above, each with a unique mold and action feature.

If I’m being honest, I would’ve preferred plain figures to these “gimmicky” ones, if only because it was harder to work Mario into my everyday action figure adventures when he had a suction cup popping out of his ass.

Even so, these were arguably the best Nintendo toys produced by that point, and the fact that we got them FREE WITH FRIES made everything extra amazing.

Mario’s spring-loaded thingamajig let him kinda/sorta fly, because that’s what Marios with raccoon ears do. Luigi’s pull-back cloud car may have lacked flashiness, but it was the most durable and versatile toy in the set.

Then there was the Koopa Paratroopa, with a gaudy air pump that let him bounce around like a puppy. (The pump famously detached too easily, but when it did work, it worked wonders.)

Rounding things out was Little Goomba, who had a teensy suction cup tucked under his chin. After you pushed his head down, the cup would eventually lose pressure and cause the whole figure to somersault backwards. (Complete with pleasant “smashing the LEGO castle” sound effects!)

Everyone had a favorite, but there wasn’t a bad figure in the set. Really, it wouldn’t have mattered if there was. We were gonna stick with this promotion for its four week duration no matter what, determined to collect anything and everything with even the barest tie to Super Mario.

In a move that further pointed to this being an especially major Happy Meal, McDonald’s produced two TV spots in support of it. (Since most Happy Meals only got to tag out on otherwise-unrelated McDonald’s commercials, this was huuuuge.)

The first one, where Ronald and Grimace visited Mario’s in-game universe, is easily my fave. Grimace talking about Mario’s “mystery block” is still the thing I turn to in my darkest hours.

Flipping the script, the second commercial had Mario leaping into some rando’s living room before visiting a real life McDonald’s. It was great stuff, but nothing could compare to Grimace waddling around on World 1-1.

Even the boxes were fantastic, perfectly capturing the feel of the game.

If you’re interested in reclaiming this lost glory of youth, the toys are affordable enough, though certainly on the higher side for Happy Meal freebies. Bagged figures sell for around $5 each, but the elusive cardboard boxes can easily fetch twice as much.

Nintendo and McDonald’s have teamed up plenty of times in the years since, but I can’t imagine that today’s Mario-themed Happy Meals mean half as much to kids, given the glut of products already available.

On the other hand, when is getting free toys with garbage food ever NOT the best?