Super Mario World succeeds in giving muscle to a structure that had apparently already reached its peak, proving that unlikely improvements made to products that seemingly cannot be further polished are sometimes just as impressive as the discovery of new territory
More than a classic, Super Mario Bros. 3 is an anomaly. Because although the NES had a good share of notable games, the third installment of the plumber’s main platforming saga stood so far above all other titles of the system that it is mind-boggling to think it came out from the very same console that supported those other 8-bit adventures, as good as they may have been. Whether in design, in graphics, in soundtrack, or in content, Super Mario Bros. 3 reached such a superior level of quality and maturity that when compared to its contemporaries, it feels almost like the result of a physical aberration, as if a wormhole had suddenly appeared and granted the avid gamers of 1988 a glimpse into what the future of the medium they loved so dearly would provide.
While, in those years, numerous franchises – some of which would go on to have long lives and others that would die relatively soon – struggled to use the technology available at the time to give life to the gameplay their developers had envisioned, Super Mario Bros. 3 emerged like a fully formed product, showing such a negligible amount of rough edges and achieving greatness so effortlessly that it is still not just highly playable by modern standards, but also greatly enjoyable regardless of one’s age.
That imposing stature, which overshadowed and still overshadows nearly all of the industry’s efforts that appeared during that age, is important to grasp because it explains the path Nintendo chose to take with the Super Mario franchise as 8-bit machines got replaced by 16-bit systems, and the NES gave way to the SNES.
Released, at least in the United States, not even two years after the arrival of Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World does not feel like that big of a departure. That impression becomes clearer when the property is compared to two other big Nintendo franchises that made the leap between the two consoles: The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. After all, while those series, with A Link to the Past and Super Metroid respectively, found in the Super Nintendo an enormous opportunity for the implementation of massive improvements to their core gameplay and unearthed, as a consequence, the first entries in their catalog that actually feel like thoroughly developed and entirely confident packages; the jump available for Super Mario was much shorter and easier, because the materialization of its fully mature form had already been achieved.
Still, even if the curve that denotes the evolution between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World is relatively gentle and smooth, that does not mean Nintendo failed to excel at producing a flooring exhibition of gaming goodness.
Like Super Mario Bros. 3, and pretty much any other adventure starring the plumber, the ultimate goal of Super Mario World is the rescuing of Princess Peach, who has once more been kidnapped by the evil Bowser. However, rather than taking place in the good old Mushroom Kingdom, the character’s Super Nintendo debut sees him traveling through Dinosaur Land.
As it turns out, the peaceful realm was chosen by Mario, Luigi, and Peach as some sort of relaxing vacation following what was then their latest victory against the King of the Koopas. Little did they know, though, that their trip would bring turmoil to the place and distress to the native population of friendly dinosaurs – called Yoshis – that inhabit it, for Bowser tracks his rivals down, locks up many of the poor creatures, and runs away with the princess in the process. As a green Yoshi urges for the brothers’ help, they set out to free both Peach, who is being held by Bowser himself at his local fortress, and the hostage dinosaurs, who are watched over by the villain’s children, the Koopalings.
Given that setup, the universal knowledge of how Super Mario games work, and the incredible success of the formula inaugurated by Super Mario Bros. 3, it is not surprising that the levels of Super Mario World are spread out across an overworld and grouped into thematically cohesive worlds, as the adventure begins in Yoshi’s Island, moves through scenarios such as the caves of Vanilla Dome and the thick woods of the Forest of Illusion, until it reaches its conclusion in the twisted Valley of Bowser.
Each of the game’s worlds carries between five and eight stages, with all of them culminating in a especially tough castle level that has, at its end, a battle against one of the Koopalings, which leads to the freeing of a Yoshi and the unlocking of the next set of courses. It is basic, it is effective, and it is the exact same framework employed by Super Mario Bros. 3; yet, that core structure is also considerably revamped, because it is in its reorganization that Super Mario World finds its defining trait.
For starters, where the worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3 were geographically separated, with the character being unable to walk between them or retread to a previously visited location, in Super Mario World they are fully connected. Yoshi’s Island is, for example, separated from the Donut Plains by a bridge; and Chocolate Island leads into the Valley of Bowser through a mysterious rocky formation in the sea. It is a shift that brings a unified and organic vibe to the universe in which the game takes place, so much that it is possible to scroll through the entire land when Mario appears on the world map in between stages.
However, by far the most important ramification of that implementation is that Super Mario World feels like a true adventure; one where Mario can carve his own path from his starting location, Yoshi’s House, to the ending of his journey, the front door of Bowser’s Castle. In a way, it can be said that Super Mario Bros. 3 had already toyed with that notion when it deployed the option to ignore a few stages and implemented a warp system that, through the exploration of the overworld, allowed players to skip entire worlds. Super Mario World, though, takes that freedom to a new level.
That happens because out of the total of seventy-two courses Super Mario World contains, twenty-four of them, helpfully highlighted by the color red on the map, feature two exits: one that is easier to find and that will, consequently, send Mario down the regular and longer road towards Bowser’s Castle; and another, usually very well-hidden, that will open up an alternative path.
These secret exits can have multiple ramifications: they can allow players to skip a few stages or even entire worlds; they can lead to three of the game’s Switch Palaces, special locations that let Mario make colorful blocks – which originally only appear as outlines in the stages – materialize in order to either make his life easier or pave the way to even more secrets; they can reveal two secret worlds, one that serves as the adventure’s ultimate challenge and another that is used for warping; they can give gamers the chance to finish the quest by going through only twelve levels; and, as in the case of the Forest of Illusion, finding them sometimes may even be necessary to advance.
Secret exits are the heart and soul of Super Mario World; they give the game a degree of freedom that is rarely seen in the platforming genre and that, at the time, was unheard of for titles of the kind. Additionally, trying to find all of them is an alluring task whose achievement is reserved to the most skilled and dedicated players.
Inside the levels themselves, the relationship between Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 is also quite similar to what is seen in the game’s general structure; that is, there is a noticeable level of similarity between both, but the punctual changes that are implemented do a lot in terms of differentiating the pair. The flow of the gameplay and the sorts of challenges Mario will encounter are basically the same, as enemies and structures are combined to form obstacles that require precise jumping, quick reactions, and some occasional reasoning.
Once more, stages unfold from left to right, and power-ups like the mushroom, which makes Mario larger; the fire flower, which lets him shoot fireballs; the cape, which replaces the Tanooki Suit and allows him to fly if he gains enough speed; and the star pop out of blocks to, in the case of the first three, allow the character to take extra hits without dying and, in the case of the last one, make him invincible for a small amount of time. It is quite clear, though, that in Super Mario World the stages have grown in both complexity and size, creating platforming challenges that are more intricate, varied, and surprising than ever before.
Those qualities become particularly evident in two cases: when one is looking for the alternative exits, which sometimes require a degree of exploration that pushes the boundaries of what a Super Mario level can contain in terms of secrets and hidden ledges; and when one is going through special courses, like the fortresses and ghost houses that show up towards the midway point of the worlds and the castles that close them out.
Fortresses and castles seamlessly merge segments that scroll as Mario moves forward with portions where the scrolling happens automatically; likewise, they feature platforming challenges that have the hero moving upwards, as if he were inside a multi-floored dungeon. Although not exclusive to castles and fortresses, both the auto-scrolling and the vertical progression appear with notable prominence inside them. Meanwhile, the ghost houses, introduced here in Super Mario World, work like mazes that are bent on tricking gamers, as their rooms with multiple doors and light switch-pressing puzzles are not shy to send the protagonist back to the beginning of the stage if he makes the wrong choice, adding a special mysterious flavor to the brand of platforming carried by the saga.
Other than that organic growth seen in the overall level design, Super Mario World also brings some improvements and changes of its own when it comes to the gameplay front. When not small, for example, Mario can – through the A button – perform a spin jump that will break blocks below him. Furthermore, Super Mario World has plenty of moves that greatly increase its accessibility and decrease possible frustrations.
For starters, all levels now feature a mid-stage checkpoint from which the plumber can restart in case he falls to his death. In addition, there are plenty of opportunities to collect extra lives, as other than gathering the traditional one hundred golden coins, Mario can also either go after five smartly positioned Dragon Coins that, if collected in a single trip through the course, will grant the character an extra life or play a bonus mini-game whenever one hundred star points are accumulated, with these being handed out by the stages’ exit gate according to the height in which the plumber touches its moving vertical bar.
None of those novelties are, of course, as big as the introduction of Yoshi: Mario’s trusty mount that serves not only as a protection against harm, as the character does not lose power-ups when on top of the dinosaur, but also as a mighty attack tool thanks to his far-reaching tongue, which allows him to swallow foes and even spit out shells or fireballs, as well as his ability to dispose of most enemies after just one jump.
With measures both big and small, then, Super Mario World greatly fleshed out and added deeper nuances to the framework that was put in place by Super Mario Bros. 3. And this growth is nearly omnipresent, being felt in: a more intricate gameplay; a more welcoming – yet still notable – level of challenge; a more complex overworld; richer visuals; and a soundtrack that – featuring the same level of quality – is more well-produced and varied. Still, a couple of problems emerge.
The first one is related to the bosses that lie at the end of fortresses and castles, as battles against them lack any sort of variety: in the former group, the bad guy faced inside them is always exactly the same; in the latter, although the Koopalings are all unique in looks, the duels against them come in only a couple of formats. The second one shows up in how some secret exits are just too obscurely hidden, as gamers will have to rely either on luck or on the combing of all corners of the stages, as ridiculous as they might be, in order to track down a handful of those goals.
Finally, the game only saves Mario’s adventure when he clears a fortress, a ghost house, a castle, or a switch palace, and although intervals between these stages are not very large, the fact remains that a good deal of progress – sometimes as big as four courses – can be lost if gamers run out of lives, an event that will not be uncommon to some given that the title packs a fair punch.
Super Mario World may not be as groundbreaking as its immediate predecessor; after all, Super Mario Bros. 3 marked the moment when the franchise’s gameplay reached its fully matured state, and moments such as those are very hard to come by. Nevertheless, the game succeeds in taking massive steps towards further developing the framework that was already in place.
The Super Nintendo’s superior hardware allowed the creation of more intricate levels that pushed the boundaries of what a stage of the franchise could contain; the introduction of Yoshi not only brought forth a new charming character, but also expanded the series’ gameplay considerably; and the complex construction of the title’s overworld, greatly aided by the various secret exits that its courses held, gave the adventure a level of freedom and exploration that had yet to be touched upon by the platforming genre. Through those means, Super Mario World succeeds in giving muscle to a structure that had apparently already reached its peak, proving that unlikely improvements that are made to products that seemingly cannot be further polished are sometimes just as impressive as the discovery of new territory.