My favorite Mario Bros. is the SNES version. It’s not a fun issue. Super Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, and the other games in the series all have their moments. They just don’t inspire the same degree of fascination that Super Mario World has drawn out of me. I can usually plow through the game in a handful of sessions, unlocking every secret through muscle memory. I know the levels to milk for lives when you’re running low. The route to the Blue Yoshi is permanently burned into my mind. I’ve beaten the game’s 2-D predecessors without ever having much interest in going back. I play the 3-D ones, but by about the 50th star, I just want to get it over with. What is this game doing that keeps me coming back?
From a design perspective, Super Mario World is unique in the amount of options that you have when deciding how you want to begin a level. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, I can go back to beaten levels and snag power-ups before hitting start then select to immediately exit. There was a bit of dabbling with this in the third game with the inclusion of an inventory system, but it was always a finite resource. There are only so many treasure houses, and the results were usually random. In Super Mario World if I want a cape, I just go get one then try the level again. The DS version (calling it New Super Mario Brothers seems to just confuse people) also plays with this idea, but there were really only two power-ups to collect: big and fire flower. In the 3-D versions, you always start as Mario, and you can’t even carry powers into a level. The only time that you get the bee suit is if it’s an option that the designer includes. Likewise, the only time you get to fly is if the level is built for it in Mario 64. By contrast, the only constraint that Super Mario World imposes is in the ghost houses or castles, and even then, it just means dismounting Yoshi. You are free to bring whatever you like to most levels and engage with them on your own terms.