I'll tell you a little secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not about the jumping. They're about the floating. It's no great trick to make Mario jump. Just press a button, and he jumps. The trick is managing the float, the drift, the momentum - whatever you like to call it. If you own the space between the jump and the landing, you own the Mario universe.
We love the float. It's the brief sensation of flight. It's the burst of drama after the leap.
Beneath all the genius environments, daft enemies, and secret passages lies an exceedingly simple challenge. Manage the drift and stick the landing. Players who master this skill amidst all the chomping chains, falling thwamps, and whirring levels will find their way to the top of the flagpole.
But along the way they will discover that the float itself...well, it floats too. In other words, the game's primary means of altering your relationship to each level is playing with the float; manipulating it environmentally (e.g. wind, water levels) and offering the player power-ups that subtly or dramatically impact what happens after Mario's feet leave the ground.
We like to say games are about rule systems, and that's certainly true; but much of the joy to be found in Mario games comes from bending the rules or overcoming them with a just-when-I-needed-it power-up. It's like sanctioned cheating. 'I beat a level that killed me 5 times, thanks to this nifty Penguin Suit!' I picture Miyamoto winking at me with a little thumbs-up. I owe you one, Shiggy. ;-)
Here's another secret about the Super Mario Bros. games. They're not intuitive. Hand a controller to someone who's never played a Mario game, if you can find one, and observe what happens. D-pad moves Mario: easy. Button press makes Mario jump: easy. Jump and land on row of bricks above: hard. Why? The float. The newcomer must learn to account for it, and until she does the game feels hard to control, and she will die many times.
Confession time: even after 25 years of side-scrolling with Mario, I usually miss my first jump. Returning to an SMB game after time away requires me to re-master the system. And I contend that is a very good thing.
The precision of movement players ascribe to SMB games, the responsiveness of the controls, are big factors in the long-term success of the series, but they require conditioning. Mastering Mario's peculiar physics feels like an earned achievement because, not in spite of, their peculiarity. That's a big reason why these games deliver such deep satisfaction. Once you've grokked the float, Mario moves like Baryshnikov. You own the joint. You tease the goombas. You grab the big coins. And that's when the Hammer Bros. arrive. And the Lakitus. And the Propeller Suit.
At some point in the development of the new Super Mario Bros. Wii game, somebody probably suggested tying Mario's jump/float to a waggle. Then, some wiser soul stepped in and vetoed that idea. Then some fully enlightened being said, "Let's split the difference. Launch Mario in the Propeller Suit with a gesture, then let the special physics of the suit control his descent. But be sure to let him float for a long time. The player will love that."
Isn't enlightenment a marvelous thing?