As someone born in the early 90s who didn’t really start consuming games in large quantities until the Gamecube era, playing anything from the early Nintendo consoles required intentionally going out of my way. I’ve played pretty much all the classics at this point; Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Dragon Quest, Castlevania, DuckTales, Ninja Gaiden, and so on. These games are largely pleasant enough, but most laid the foundation for even better sequels. Few are singular enough to be more than a historical experience; Mega Man 2, Tetris, and Punch-Out!! stand out, even to someone with no particular nostalgia for the era. Even modernized versions of those latter two are closer to variants than direct improvements. It only seems fitting that the cream of the crop was a sequel to the game that kicked off the era.
Likely due to the popularity of Super Mario Bros. and the simplicity of the genre, the NES era was dominated by the platformer. Thanks to a certain popular design philosophy, many of these were brutally hard, and the limits of the console produced some frustrating level designs. Few things will make me drop a game faster than enemies which immediately respawn combined with outrageous knockback. But Nintendo themselves have always been in the business of family friendly content, and the early Mario games always ramped up their difficulty smoothly.
The 2D Mario games are built around a certain simplicity. In general, you run from one side of the screen to the other, with most enemies able to be defeated by simply jumping on their heads. Even the original is still a great game due to the fluid controls, but Super Mario Bros. 3 built upon that with stellar level design. Where the original only offered a fireball upgrade, 3 introduced a slew of fun items. The highlight is the tanooki suit, giving Mario the ability to fall slowly, fly, tail whip enemies, and even transform into a statue for a ground pound attack and invulnerability. The later games would especially build themselves around various power-ups, but it all started here.
With improved graphical capabilities, this is where Mario truly comes into its own stylistically. The world is filled with more color, while the koopa kids offer a nice change of pace from simply jumping over Bowser like in the original. Where the original was limited to a few basic level designs, 3 offered more styles while also introducing auto-scrolling stages. These force a sense of urgency in an otherwise gentle experience. The addition of a world map connecting these levels added to the idea of progression.
Like many great games, the selling point of Super Mario Bros. 3 is the way it mixes simple controls with intricate level designs. Anyone can pick this up and play, but it takes skill to survive the later stages. The 2D platformer has always been around, and while there are constant innovations, nothing has outright replaced the simple charm of this early masterpiece.