One Giant Leap, 1990: Super Mario World

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we enter the 16-bit era with Super Mario World

These days, new console generations are pretty unexciting. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S have both been out for nearly half a year now, and even beyond the fact that they remain hard to buy from a store neither console’s really made much of an impact. Nearly all of their games also exist on their respective predecessors, and what improvements they offer are incremental and subtle. Better loading times and fancier lighting isn’t nothing, but it’s hard to notice at a glance. Like, who gets excited over this?

Hey, looks like the PS5 turns up the brightness on your TV! Nice!

Eventually both consoles will have exclusive games roll out, enough units will be built that we can ignore the scalpers, and developers will learn enough about the new hardware to produce games that are a distinct visual upgrade over 8th generation games. However, this will be a gradual process, noticeable only in retrospect.

It didn’t used to be this way, however. Before things plateaued over the last ~15 years, a new console generation represented a significant increase in capabilities. Even when comparing the absolute best-looking games of the last machine to a launch title of the new one the upgrade was clear. And if you wanted to illustrate that, you could do a whole lot worse than Super Mario World. Graphically, it’s no contest; SMW is so vibrant compared to the limited pallets of Super Mario Bros. 3. But even beyond the technical, Super Mario World represents a big leap forward in design.

I’ve talked several times before about how NES-era Mario games focus primarily on beating the game as the overarching goal, and include features that skip entire chunks of the game to facilitate this. Super Mario World is where this paradigm really shifts. It’s the first to let you replay levels. It actively encourages both replaying and exploring by including hidden exits that branch off into extra hidden levels (rather than a shortcut to deeper in the game, although sometimes it’s both). It even locks some of those hidden exits off, behind outlined blocks that can only be filled in by hitting a switch in a different level entirely. This is finally the Mario game that’s about the journey instead of the destination.

It’s clear those green outlines go somewhere, but you’ll need to find the Green Switch Palace first.

This focus on exploration dovetails nicely with a willingness to give overt, clear direction to the player. Super Mario World is (at least compared to its NES predecessors) chock full of text boxes explaining things to the player in clear English. For some people, this might be a bad thing; one of the advantages of the best old-school games is how they communicate everything important to the player entirely through their own gameplay, without any need for overt direction. But, if you attempt that approach and mess it up even a little, your game quickly becomes impenetrable and obtuse. Super Mario World thankfully doesn’t make that mistake. It takes advantage of the SNES’s expansive memory to tell the player important details, like how Dotted-Line Blocks work, or the fact that levels with multiple exits both exist and are marked by a red dot on the map.

And the expanded scope doesn’t just apply to exploration. One of the best upgrades here is in the boss fights. Super Mario World brings back the 7 Koopalings from Super Mario Bros. 3. But while the 7 were largely interchangeable in SMB3, with each fight playing the same way, here there’s more variety. One fight might have you see-sawing on a platform suspended in lava, trying to push the boss off before they can do the same to you. Another might see you playing whack-a-mole over a series of pipes. These fights aren’t huge or anything, but it’s nice to see something that’s any sort of twist on standard gameplay. It’s a nice build on the “make Bowser stomp a hole in his own bridge” fight at the end of SMB3.

The Wendy O. Koopa boss fight

And we haven’t even gotten into the most prominent new features! There are two big new powerups here; the Cape Feather, and Yoshi. The cape is in the same vein as SMB3’s Racoon Suit, in that it lets you float, lets you fly at high speeds, gives you a spin attack, and just generally feels like something you should always have access to.1 Perhaps being so derivative is why it largely hasn’t returned? But far more interesting is everyone’s favorite expendable dino. The biggest selling point here is conceptual, rather than mechanical; Yoshi is cute, and riding him is just a really fun idea. But there are also two really smart choices here that elevate Yoshi beyond most other powerups. First, you can jump off of him in mid-air, serving as an extra jump at the cost of your noble steed. I don’t think there’s ever a spot where you need to ditch Yoshi, but always having the choice is nice; it can potentially give you a one-use only escape from a sticky situation.

Yes, this is from Super Mario Maker, but the principle’s the same

And secondly, the fact that Yoshi is an independent creature means that he doesn’t work as an extra hit point for Mario in quite the same way as other powerups. If you take a hit while riding Yoshi, he’ll run away crying. If you can catch up to him you can start riding again, as if you never got hit at all, which in a game as stingy as Super Mario World is pretty big. But, Yoshi runs fast, and many times rushing after him will just cause you to take further hits, and not actually be worth it. It forces the player to make a split-second decision under unpredictable circumstances, and is the sort of shake-up that’s always nice in a game like this.

This was my second time playing Super Mario World, and each time I was surprised by how much I liked it. 2D Mario isn’t generally my speed, but there’s just so much here, and it’s so much more polished than what we saw on the NES. The next Super Mario World game would feature Yoshi as protagonist, and after that the Mario series leaves 2D behind entirely, not returning until 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. Partially this is just because of larger industry trends, but even if 2D weren’t so heavily deprioritized during the 5th and 6th generations I feel like Nintendo might not have returned. Super Mario World really feels like the final word on this style of Mario game. It finally embraced the exploration elements that were always present but deemphasized in the NES games, and achieved something wonderful as a result.

Stray Observations:

  • Super Mario World tries to solve the “the game plays so much better with powerups, which you lose whenever you take a hit” problem, with mixed results. You can keep an extra powerup in storage, and call it down at will, which theoretically allows you to always have a fire flower or cape at the exact moment you need it. Unfortunately, it also drops automatically when you take damage, robbing the player of that choice. It sort of works the same as the Yoshi hit system, but it doesn’t feel as good because of how much better it would work if it was fully under player control. Future games will remove the auto-drop, but like I say up top “future games” aren’t coming for a while
  • Saving also isn’t quite here yet. The game gives you the option to save after clearing specific types of levels (castles, ghost houses, etc.), rather than just letting you save in the overworld whenever. It’s just a weird hurdle, and not something anyone playing with save states should ever subject themselves to
  • There’s a lot of sprite rotation and scaling here. Really trying to show off that fancy new Mode 7.
Behold, the raw horsepower of a Super Nintendo!

Other 1990 platformers of note:

Bonk’s Adventure is a cartoon platformer on the TurboGrafx-16 and a would-be competitor to Mario. It features a large-headed child who headbutts things. It was generally well-received by critics, but the TurboGrafx-16 was not especially successful, especially outside of its native Japan, dooming Bonk to relative obscurity. Somewhat ironically, most people who’ve played it today probably did through via Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Despite his ambitions, Bonk was no match for his would-be rival Mario. Though, speaking of Mario rivals….

Next Time: He can really move. He’s got an attitude. He’s Sonic The Hedgehog