Super Mario Bros. 3 takes the mechanics of the original Super Mario Bros. and builds upon them in countless new and fun ways. The result is a very tight game with a huge variety of ideas, none of which ever overstays its welcome.
The most obvious change in SMB3 over its predecessors is the number of powerups. The Fire Flower returns, accompanied by the Super Leaf that turns you into Raccoon Mario. This power provides Mario with a tail to swipe enemies with, which is also inexplicably used to fly for short periods. It also lets Mario control his descent in mid-air, which may be its most practical benefit. It’s either that or the sprite.
In addition to the two basic powerups, there are three rarer “suits” that Mario can find. The Frog Suit gives you excellent control underwater, though not on land, giving it only situational use. The Tanooki Suit is Raccoon Mario with the added power of turning into an invincible statue. And the Hammer Bros. suit lets you throw hammers and duck to block fireballs. With hammers that can defeat almost any enemy, it’s one of the most fun powerups in the entire series. Sadly, it appears only late in the game, and even then only rarely.
Once again, Mario is traversing 8 worlds, but this time each has a distinct theme. Indeed, you can probably blame SMB3 for the number of desert and ice worlds in video games to this day. That ice world in particular is really hard and less fun than most of the others, except maybe the water world. But the game also includes a world where the enemies and terrain are gigantic, and a pipe- and piranha plant-themed world that has some of the most creative and fun (not to mention hard) levels in any game, let alone Mario.
One of the reasons SMB3 holds up so well is that almost every stage is given a particular idea to run with, and these rarely repeat. The stages tend to be very short, and there are plenty of them, so you’ll never get bored. If you get stuck on a difficult stage, you can use one of the various items the game provides, some of which let you skip stages in various ways. My only real complaint is that there’s no way to replay a completed stage short of getting a game over or resetting the game entirely.
Game overs are particularly interesting in SMB3, because certain castle stages act as pseudo-save points. If you restart a world, these levels remain complete and you can usually skip right to their location on the map. However, playing the game straight through even without continuing takes several hours, and there are no save files or passwords to help you. The game does provide the ability to warp to any stage rather early on, which can be used as something like a save file.
Unlike many classics, I can’t really say that Super Mario Bros. 3 is more than the sum of its parts. But its parts are amazing, and their sum is quite great as it is. Nintendo just made the game fun in a way many other developers have never quite managed. It’s a philosophy that would continue to serve the series well for a very long time.