Super Mario World starts at Yoshi’s House and gives the pudgy Italian plumber the freedom to explore the overworld to the left or right. To the left is Yoshi’s Island 1, a bright and colorful place with tank top-wearing koopa’s, small purple dinosaurs and giant goddamn bullet bills. Beat it and the area around will come alive underfoot. The path dead ends at the Yellow Switch Palace sitting on top of a cliff and the large button that causes matching boxes to fill in throughout the world. With this one action, large scale change has swept across Dinosaur Land. It will never be the same.
When the red curtain fell on Super Mario Bros. 3, the adventure to save Princess Peach from the spiked-shelled-turtle/dragon Bowser and his seven Koopa Kid’s (no relation) had been won with a combination of ability-granting suits and pitch perfect control. Mario bounced around with his belly out like a pregnant porpoise through bite-sized levels stuffed with fresh and interesting content spread across overworlds that felt alive with roaming Hammer bros, optional mini games and secrets to be found with the right items. SMB3 was theater with Mario (+Luigi) cast in the lead.
The Super Nintendo’s flagship launch title, Mario World is a 16 bit cartoon that perhaps scales back its predecessor’s sheer ingenuity but creates a more persistent quest with save feature, stripping out the suits but adding a new spin move and the means to pocket a second item. In between the start and finish lines are stages that took advantage of the SNES’s legendary Mode 7 capabilities to display parallax backgrounds and rotating planes that blended with the foreground sprites to create a sense of place rather than abstract obstacle courses and complemented by fun music and sound effects afforded by the awesome Nintendo S-SMP onboard audio CPU.
Even though Yoshi’s Island 2 isn’t billed as the game’s start, it’s the first appearance of a Nintendo icon- hit an early item block and a small white egg will pop and that lovable green bastard Yoshi will not only hatch but reach full maturity in a few, time compressed seconds. Jump on the prehistoric pony’s back and Mario doubles his moveset to the groovy beat of jungle bongos.
It’s hard to say whether or not Yoshi actually increases Mario’s damage output, but touches including exploding enemies and low frequency booms sure sell it. Regardless, the very concept of a mountable second character kept him from being relegated to a single use, providing Mario one more point of health but causing him to flee until he’s reclaimed or falls into a pit, dead forever or until another of his eggs are found. Now, I understand how Yoshi was in an egg to begin with- man, I sure was at some point- what I don’t understand is how he got back inside it!
Let’s talk about the cape. The start of Donut Plains 1 has you running to the right for four seconds. While not the longest time, it’s more than enough to let you drop your guard, make with the plane arms and enjoy the motion. But just as you fall into the moment, a Koopa appears from the right of the screen directly on a collision course. Because your attention is focused on him, you notice that the little fella is wearing a blinking red cape. He runs at you for a few seconds before jumping, putting his arms forward like Superman and starting to fly. Jump on him and a feather pops out. Grab it and that cape is yours. This simple moment tells you much: it quietly teaches you how to use a mechanic that actually exists in its world, not just an item placed in a box. Mario even has the perfect running animation to go with it.
There’s a considerable difference between the cape and Super Mario 3’s Raccoon Suit. Both require a running start, but where the tail only allowed a limited time to jam on the jump button to stay air born, the capes flexible control scheme of brakes and dives give you the freedom to swoop in the air or power slam the ground and is deep enough for players to bypass entire levels. The sensation of flight is terrifically satisfying with great heft and fluid response.
The key to Mario’s success has always been in the tight control of a deep set of gameplay mechanics providing the player the means to explore levels packed with complexity and secrets. SMW expands that scope so play in the level affects the world outside it. The game even found an intuitive way of revealing it to the player.
It’s easy to find yourself running around in circles in the Forest of Illusion, unable to escape. But find the large brass key hidden within one of its levels and take it to the nearby keyhole and the sprite expands to the sound of contracting space, swallowing Mario whole. If you hadn’t discovered before now, many of the levels feature secret exits that lead to branching paths back on the overworld.
With a total 96 levels in all, the exits are all hidden in interesting ways and each requires its own test of manual dexterity, old-fashioned legwork or, in the case of flying over a good chunk of a level only to dive under a goal gate and through another just past it, aerial acrobatics. It also explains why the direct route puts you within sight of Castle 4 in the distance but doesn’t lead to it.
The adventure subtly hints at a developing world that changes and blossoms around Mario as levels are beaten and the Koopa Kids reigns end. In the little cinema after defeating Ludwig von Koopa, Mario straps TNT to his castle and rockets it into a green hill in the distance. For the rest of the game, that hill will have a small bandage where it was hit. The story and gameplay turn Dinosaur Land into a living place that recognizes the events of its simple narrative.
So Mario’s demolished six of the Koopa Kids castles, tore Wendy O’s bow and broken Roy’s shades and finds himself on big daddy’s Front Door. The low rumble of the music sets a nice tone for a sinister looking fortress with all the subtlety and half the blinking bulbs of a Vegas casino framed against a black night sky split by a flash of lightning and clap of thunder. It’s challenging, complex and long.
But it doesn’t need to be. Mario World’s many exits have taken you all over the map, to new areas you wouldn’t have seen or to completely bypass others and the benefits of the exploration all comes together in the last battle…by taking the back door. By finding the detour just a few levels earlier, Mario can be dropped at Bowser’s mid-castle checkpoint, foregoing half the stage altogether. It’s a smart way to have all the gameplay pillars ultimately come together. What’s more, if you find the right path, you can kick down King Koopa’s door after as few as eleven stages. No warp pipes or whistles required.
The secret is Star Road, a five point trek across the heavens that double as shortcuts throughout the land. Beat all its stages with their colored Yoshi’s and the SPECIAL area opens with the game’s most challenging levels. Completing them uncovers the last of Super Mario World’s secrets: the world has turned, time has passed and autumn has set on Dinosaur Land.
DEVELOPER: Nintendo EAD
PLATFORMS: SNES, GBA