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Xander Markham avatar 3:03 PM on 12.05.2010  (server time)
The World Is Not Enough: Super Mario World in retrospect

Nintendo have pushed hard to bring the two-dimensional platformer back into gaming prominence this generation. The immense success of their DS revival of the 2D Mario series with New Super Mario Bros and profitable emulations of Mario games from older systems on the virtual console brought about New Super Mario Bros Wii and for this Christmas, Donkey Kong Country Returns and a Wii-creation (geddit?) of Super Mario All-Stars for the series' 25th anniversary. Nintendo's success in this field was almost certainly behind SEGA's decision to pull their much-abused mascot Sonic back into his native two-dimensions, while the much-acclaimed likes of Braid and Super Meat Boy show evident inspiration – albeit with a parodic slant – from Nintendo's headline series.

Nintendo's decision to use the original version of Super Mario All-Stars for their Mario anniversary Wii game is an interesting choice as it noticeably lacks Super Mario World, one of the character's most acclaimed adventures. This is most likely down to Nintendo having the original All-Stars rom to hand and wanting to get something out quickly. Even if only down to laziness, that decision may accidentally prove to be a wise one. Sales-wise, Mario is a beloved enough character to carry a collection even lacking such an important entry in his legacy. Yet All-Stars' appeal for new gamers will be to experience the evolution of a genre which is coming back into vogue. By ending their collection with Super Mario Bros 3, Nintendo are putting an abrupt halt on gamers' ability to experience the genre's growth to its fullest extent. Don't get me wrong, Mario 3 is a wonderful, wonderful game – in fact, it has a very strong claim to being my favourite of all the Mario platformers. But where Nintendo's literal repackaging of their history ends at that point, arguably so has the memory of those they have charged with bringing the genre up to date.

Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros games have put a lot of stock in their updating of the old-school platforming experience. Yet far from growing the genre, the series seems to have forgotten all the evolutions made once the NES was put out to pasture. There's a reason that so many people consider Super Mario World to be the finest platformer ever made and probably why its sequel, Yoshi's Island took the series in such a different direction (in the same way that Majora's Mask refocused the Zelda series after Ocarina of Time was similarly hailed as a masterpiece).

Let's look back at how the genre has changed with Mario. Super Mario Bros was far from the first scrolling platform game, yet it was by far the most successful of its time (selling 40 million copies and starting a production boom for the genre) and one of the most ambitious. The instance most famously quoted as symbolising this ambition is Mario jumping on top of the screen near the end of the second level of the first world in order to reach a hidden shortcut. It showed the series' willingness to break the rules and reward players for exploring and pushing boundaries. Super Mario Bros. 2 is usually considered the black sheep of the family for not originally being a Mario game at all, but in addition to introducing several of the series' enduring characters (notably the Shy Guys), it introduced the ability for players to turn back on themselves and levels to be built vertically as well as horizontally. But where Marios 1 and 2 were all about moving towards an end point, Super Mario Bros 3 used those elements introduced in 2 as a way of redirecting players' reason for playing. 3 is a game which can be finished very quickly if simply running through each level from beginning to end, yet the introduction of the tanuki leaf, enabling Mario to fly, positively begged players to take to the skies and explore each environment to its fullest. Mario 3 took the original game's affection for players' desire to break gameplay patterns and put it at the heart of the experience. The discovery of hidden rooms and items became just as important as reaching Bowser's castle at the end of World 8.

This is where the modern view of the genre ends. New Super Mario Bros and its Wii sequel are packed full of secrets, but all within the confines of its individual levels. Yet Super Mario World, Nintendo's headline game for their brand new Super Nintendo console in 1990, was far more ambitious. Once again Nintendo changed the entire focus of the series' gameplay. Mario 3 introduced the world map, yet put it to limited use. Its sequel's adoption of the word 'World' into its title could not have been more appropriate: where every platformer preceding it had the ultimate goal of players completing levels with the aim of eventually reaching an end point (no matter how much exploration within those levels was encouraged and rewarded), Super Mario World made the world map itself the ultimate goal. In a twist of almost Baudrillardian proportions, Nintendo took the idea of 'completion' out of the individual levels and applied it to the world map instead. Players never truly 'completed' individual levels as each could be now be revisited at will. Instead, players' actions within levels were put towards the discovery of secrets which would open up new paths in the overworld.

Where every previous Mario game had allowed players to forego exploration if they so desired, World actively forced a lateral approach to level completion and the seeking out of concealed exits. The Ghost House courses were the most clear example of this, where the player would be forced to run around in circles unless they could decypher the puzzle-box level design. Nintendo have rarely been a developer enthusiastic about directly tutoring players in how to play their games. The Ghost Houses are a classic example of Nintendo subtly suggesting to players that they not approach levels from a strictly linear perspective and would have to adopt the role of explorers rather than adventurers to find their way across Dinosaur Land. In the Forest of Illusions sub-world, reaching the obvious end goal of a level would only create a circular path on the world map, forcing players to go back and seek out a hidden exit within the same level in order to move onto the next one.

Along their journey through the overworld, players would see details in the corners of the map that would hint at there being secrets to be found: a fortress or a pipe atop an apparently inaccessible hill, a little island too conspicuous to be mere detail... having shown players that levels may not be as linear as they first appear and that exploration would yield dividends, Nintendo actively egged them onto revisiting previously tracked paths in order to discover their every hidden nook. Playing Super Mario World in the same linear fashion as one plays Super Mario Bros results in huge quantities of the game being missed, including many of the best levels, items and bosses. We increasingly hear nowadays about developers' fears at implementing features or levels within their games that players may not find. Back in 1990, Nintendo used that fear as a proponent to propel players forward in the game: keep on looking, or else you might miss something vital.

Today's resurrection of the genre might have brought back a perspective from yesteryear, but seem to have forgotten that just because all those beloved old games were seen in two dimensions doesn't mean they couldn't create worlds with real depth. The biggest difference between today's 2D revivals and the games they seek to emulate is that the modern games are using advanced technology to achieve deliberately limited means, whereas Super Mario World used its limited technology to create a land where the possibilities never seemed to end.

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