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Old 12-01-2011, 03:30 PM   #1 (permalink)
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The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario World

As the last of these "Road to Mario 3D Land" entries, here's a piece I wrote not too long ago for a small book of Super NES retrospectives I compiled for the system's 20th anniversary. The Super NES was great, and Super Mario World helped make it so.



Packing Super Mario Bros. in with the NES hardware at the system's launch was a stroke of genius on Nintendo's part. Not only did it help transform Mario into an icon, it also sold countless millions of systems.

It would also be an unthinkable act in this day and age. The modern philosophy on pack-ins falls somewhere along the lines of, 'Well, this game is the best piece of software available for the system, and we could easily sell it for 60 bucks, so we'd be idiots to give it away for free.' Back then, though, gaming wasn't so much about nickel-and-diming the consumer to death (except in the arcade, and even there they at least had the decency to murder with quarters), and Nintendo realized there's no better way to make a game system look appealing than to include a must-have piece of software in the box. Super Mario Bros. was a game that could sell systems. It was like no other game anyone had ever played in 1985: Vast, varied, challenging, visually appealing, audibly stimulating.

So, it made perfect sense for Nintendo to include Super Mario World in the box when the Super NES came around five or six years later. It was as emblematic of that console's mission statement as the original Super Mario Bros. had been of the NES's objectives. Super Mario Bros. said, 'This console will bring you experiences that no other gaming system has ever offered.' Super Mario World, on the other hand, made a more modest promise. It hinted at refinement and sophistication. It said, 'This console may not blow your mind with its originality, but it will bring a new level of quality and substance to the games you enjoyed in 8 bits.' This had been implicit in the consoles' names -- the moniker Super NES literally suggested an advanced NES -- but Super Mario World turned insinuation into fact.

Like its host hardware, World laid bare Nintendo's ambitions right there in its title. It wasn't a game about the Mario brothers; a second player could control Luigi, sure, but there were none of the competitive minigames seen in Super Mario Bros. 3 on offer. It was a solo joint through and through. The real point of this game was to present an enormous video game world for Mario (in his usual role as the player's avatar) to explore and conquer.



Superficially, World appeared to be a prettier version of Mario 3. Both games positioned their levels to be explored on a series of maps, and both games offered iconic flight power-ups. A closer look, however, reveals a wildly different design philosophy underlying each game. Mario 3 was the ultimate expression of the high-speed arcade-style action seen in the original Super Mario Bros.; its levels were brief, its controls nimble, its challenges up-front and obvious. Mario 3 was meant to be played quickly, and its lack of save states was no coincidence; players weren't meant to explore the entire game in a single go, but rather to replay it and take different routes, experiencing something new each time.

World, on the other hand, elaborated on the more exploratory component of the series. It didn't simply continue the Mario series' tradition of hiding things out of the way and rewarding gamers for taking the road less travelled; on the contrary, it canonized that concept. World moved at a more measured pace, with slower and more precise controls. Sega would poke fun at World's relative sluggishness, but in doing so they missed the entire point of the game, the philosophical foundation of World's greatness: It was a game of discovery, not white-knuckle action.

Not to say that World didn't have its share of nerve-jangling platform challenges and controller-chucking setbacks, of course. But the most demanding of the game's stages were hidden in the secret Star Road and Special world, a set of stages that would only ever be discovered by players who acceded to World's demand that they take the exploratory approach to its level design and find the hidden doors and secret keys necessary to unlock the most remote corners of the game. To prove the mettle of your reflexes, World first demanded that you first demonstrate the resolve of your mental agility.



Tellingly, the game tracked players' progress at the file select screen, marking not the number of stages they'd completed but rather the number of exits they'd discovered. Super Mario World contained nearly twice as many exits as it did stages, and a majority of levels had multiple routes to different ends. The main exit was always obvious and easy to reach, but a little experimentation and lateral thinking would often reveal an alternate goal that more often than not opened a new path on the world map. The game made nods to exploration from the very opening in a manner not entirely unlike Metroid, as players were presented with two different map routes right from the start. The level to the right -- the 'proper' direction, in platformer parlance -- was fairly standard Mario material, whereas everything was weird and 'off' in the one to the left... and it ultimately led to a dead end containing only a Switch Palace, whose value wasn't immediately obvious.

It was with these secrets and alternate exits that Nintendo's devious design talents truly shined, as the hidden paths were frequently tucked away in secret corners that demanded players try and break out of the game's boundaries, just as they'd had to do in order to find the Warp Zones in Super Mario Bros. Here you'd have to swim beneath the rock outcropping that contained the pipe to the normal exit, squeezing into a narrow space between cold stone and the murderous void at the bottom of the screen. Here you'd need to swipe Lakitu's cloud and fly to a hidden spot. Here you'd work your way through a ghost house's phantom traps to find a normally invisible door. The more players experimented, the more they'd discover; and when at last your save file denoted a full 96 exits uncovered, there was a genuine sensation that you'd truly seen all there was to see in Super Mario World.

The Internet loves to argue, tiresomely, whether or not Super Mario World is superior to Super Mario Bros. 3. It's a meaningless debate, as both games are the result of distilling the same basic premise -- Mario runs and jumps -- through completely different philosophical filters. One need look no further than each respective game's flight ability. Mario 3 makes flight simple: Merely run and begin pumping the jump button to lift off and gain altitude. World puts more finesse on it, making air time less a matter of finger speed and more a matter of understanding and controlling its dynamics; unlike Mario 3's raccoon tail, World's cape is a passive tool. Yet in capable hands, it can take Mario anywhere, and many of the game's most interesting secrets are hidden behind walls and boundaries that only a true master of flight can discover.



In retrospect, the cape positions World as a very definite midpoint between the 8-bit and 64-bit incarnations of Mario. Its flight mechanics operate under the same principles as Super Mario 64's winged hat -- all updrafts and hang time -- but it's presented with visuals that peg it as an improved rendition of the classic NES games. In the same way, the Super NES was transitional hardware where Nintendo began exploring game design beyond the rudimentary instant gratification seen in NES games and moving more toward the immerse sandboxes and toyboxes that became de rigueur once polygons conquered the planet. There's a slightly experimental feel to World, and you can see the game designers poking at the new hardware to get a sense of what they could do now that they were freed of the sharp constraints of the NES. Not every idea has proven to be a winner -- did we really need a 3-UP moon? -- but generally speaking the throw-it-against-the-wall design approach taken to Super Mario World made for fun, inventive, concepts. Even when ideas are clearly just the designers goofing around with hardware features (as with the multi-layered transparencies of the Ghost Houses), the guiding hand of Shigeru Miyamoto and his tyrannical devotion to play value kept World's design ultimately grounded when other SNES developers were getting carried away with gimmicks and forgetting to make their games fun.

Ultimately, World's subtlety -- and the fact that it was a pack-in title -- distorts people's perception of the game. It wasn't the bold revolution that Super Mario Bros. had been, but rather an iterative work that expanded the concept of a Mario game in a new but intuitive direction. Like the hardware it came packed with, World was about taking a step beyond what had come before in search of the future. And just as the engineers who constructed the Apollo landers are overlooked in favor of the men who piloted them into space, so too is World often brushed aside in the rush to pile praise on the flashier, more dramatic Mario games. In the end, though, that lack of showiness is precisely what makes World such an enduring masterpiece.

It's no big deal to create a piece of software that puts new hardware through its paces, but it takes true artists to take a more reserved approach and focus on substance instead. Super Mario World certainly did its share of showing off, but ultimately it was a game about exploring new directions for familiar game designs and paving the way for what would ultimately come. Like the Super NES, it didn't represent the future in and of itself, but rather a road by which to get there. A road with 96 different exits, each one as brilliant as the last.





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  Thank you Robot. Throbot.
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Old 12-01-2011, 05:07 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario World

Super Mario World » Super Nintendo

I love this game

Also this hack on RU is really fun.

Super Mario World: Return to Dinosaur Land » Super Nintendo
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Old 12-09-2011, 04:01 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario World

Ah, the only Mario game I can look back to and truly smile. I loved the bit about comparing the whole game to the subtlety of the cape and allowed for personal development with it's functions as opposed to the Tanooki tail that would merely get the job done as you needed.

I disagree about the three-up moon, however. I think it added a bit of rarity- it was a trophy object that was given value through it's infrequency, like the $30 bill.
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Old 12-09-2011, 05:32 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario World

Probably the best Mario game ever made. The only flaw I can think of is how easy it can be beaten if you know the game well, but that's not much of a flaw.
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Old 12-09-2011, 11:28 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Road to Mario 3D Land: Super Mario World

This is the first video game I have any distinct memories of playing. It's my favorite Mario game, it's one of my favorite games in general.

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