Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. saved the video game industry in 1985. It revolutionized what a video game could be, and set the gold standard for platformers and games moving forward.
Three years later, on the same hardware, Nintendo released yet another masterpiece – Super Mario Bros. 3 – that blew the minds of gamers with incredible innovation.
For Nintendo’s next trick, they crafted a new Mario experience to help launch their new console, the SNES.
Super Mario World evolved the board-game-world-maps to a connected open-world, went crazy with secrets, and honed the power-up game to a few tight mechanics, and a friendly green dinosaur.
Super Mario 3 introduced a navigable map for each world, giving the gamer more freedom while injecting personality with each theme.
Super Mario World took the next logical step and connected each zone’s map into one large open-world map. The player was free to backtrack as far as they liked without the need for warp whistles. Shortcuts, hidden areas of the map, and secret exits to levels were included to increase the replayability of an already stacked game. I beat the game as a child, go back to it now and again, and still haven’t found everything there is to see.
Nintendo also introduced the much-needed save system, strangely absent from SMB3. Metroid, Zelda, and many other NES games used password systems or battery-save systems to store player progress in games that weren’t meant to be completed in one sitting.The save system aided and encouraged secret-hunting. In the battle for #1 Mario game, this feature gives World a strong advantage over SMB3.
SMB3 had a larger variety of power-ups, but many were rarely used. The green boot is insanely adorable but shows up only in level 5-3. The Frog suit is fun underwater but a drag on land. The hammer suit is powerful, but rare as well.
World pared back Mario’s abilities to the classic mushroom, fire flower, and star, but added two huge additions: The cape and Yoshi. The cape expanded on Mario’s ability to fly in SMB3 by allowing an infinite float depending on skill and available real estate. Yoshi gave Mario another hit, the power to eat enemies, spit shells/fire, and even fly. Mario could also save himself by leaping off as Yoshi plummeted to his death. The musical score cleverly reflected this, adding a bongo track to the existing music whenever Mario rode atop his buddy. The fuller sound, rythmic emphasis, and slightly exotic nature fit the experience perfectly. When Yoshi was lost, the loss of the extra musical oomph was also felt.
All of these extra features and innovative ideas would be meaningless if the controls and level design weren’t setting the industry standard once again. Mario and Yoshi control like a dream. It’s a pleasure to sprint through the levels, hurling the plumber through highs and lows, or soaring through the air wearing an over-powered cape. The levels are never too long, but usually provide some unique feature, be it related to gameplay, visuals, or secrets. Throughout the long journey, the colorful world is a cozy place to inhabit and explore.
The music – by Koji Kondo – is of course top-notch. This time, Kondo created just one catchy theme, modifying it for each track. On paper this sounds repetitive, but I actually didn’t notice until it was pointed out by the wonderful Marcato Bros podcast. Even the boss theme, is a minor key variant of the theme. It provides a cohesiveness and familiarity (even if not obvious). The rag-time feel is pure bouncy fun and fits my fantasy that Mario is Nintendo’s warped idea of America and Americans.
The difficulty ramp is also very well done. The first levels introduce you to a wide variety of enemies that can easily kill you, but few killer pits. The first castle is the real gate-keeper, ramping up the challenge with fiery pits and those wonderful humongous stalks that threaten to squash wee Mario until he figures out the auto-scroll rhythm.
Once into the Forest of Illusion, the game’s mysteries take the experience to the next level. The first Ghost House isn’t difficult to avoid death, but could take a new player many tries to solve the riddle. The wonderful mechanics are consistently introduced in a gentle manner and then expanded upon to increase challenge and satisfaction.
Super Mario World is a treasure of gaming. A perfect moment encapsulating the very best of the 2D era. As fun today as it was then, to play alone or with a friend. To rip through the critical path or find every last secret Miyamoto gleefully left behind. I’m more nostalgic for SMB3 as a tight experience, but if I’m stuck on a desert island, I’d be a tiny bit happier to know I could spend the next few years exploring every inch of Dinosaur Land.