LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews: A Link to the Past, Super Mario Kart, and Super Mario World!

In the very descriptively titled LittleMac’s 30-Minute Retro Reviews!, LittleMac puts in 30 minutes playing the NES and SNES games on Switch Online so that you can make more judicious decisions about how to spend your retro gaming time!

Whenever there’s a new batch of releases, we’ll cover those! Otherwise, we’re going back to the start and playing through every game in order. For at least thirty minutes. Yes, including Clu-Clu Land.

Don’t believe me when I say I have recently played these games for thirty minutes each? Well, I brought receipts!

This week, we’re continuing with the original wave of SNES Online releases! Let’s dive in to:

  • The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
  • Super Mario Kart
  • Super Mario World

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo

It’s possible that you’re already familiar with this game.

The Legend of Zelda series has been both celebrated and criticized for its loyalty to an established formula (at least up until 2017’s Breath of the Wild): Link heads through a linear progression of dungeons, acquiring a familiar selection of magic items (and usually some new ones), runs some errands in the overworld, attains the Master Sword, and has a final fight with Ganon(dorf). That formula wasn’t established at the outset of the series, though: it’s A Link to the Past, the third game in the series, that put the finishing touches on the Zelda template.

The SNES takes the epic fantasy moment of finding a magical sword to the next level: the moody forest scene, the swirling magical talismans, the literal pulling of a sword from a stone! Much more impactful than just seeing Link raise the sword while the same one discovery jingle plays! Source: Moby Games

After a brief detour into side-scrolling with NES’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, the series returns to a top-down view as Link explores a large overworld map littered with hidden caves and ancient ruins (and grass!). Once again, there’s a dedicated sword button (B) and a button that uses whatever item Link has equipped (Y). Taking advantage of the SNES’ extra face buttons, Link to the Past adds a Mario-esque “action” button that triggers a range of context-dependent actions. The shoulder buttons would have to wait for the GBA port to get in on the action.

There are various mechanical improvements to the top-down action-adventure gameplay. Link (and his foes) can move diagonally, and Link swings his sword in an arc instead of stabbing straight in front of him: together, these make for much more engaging sword fighting. Both the dungeons and the individual screens themselves have multiple levels, adding real depth to the exploration and puzzles (oh, you better believe that pun was intended). While there are still flip-screen transitions in dungeons and the overworld, larger rooms and areas actually scroll: we’re no longer confined to single-screens at a time.

The addition of depth to Hyrule opens up the possibilities for exploration: swim under the right bridge and you actually get an under-bridge scene!. Source: Moby Games

The most significant change in A Link to the Past, though, is the integration of a narrative. Instead of a barren wasteland where a few repeating NPCs hide in caves waiting to offer a sentence or two of garbled, cryptic advice, LttP‘s Hyrule is filled with unique characters who can be spoken to in classic JRPG fashion, and many of them have more complex requests for Link than “Show this to the Old Woman.” More significantly, Link’s adventure is itself a narrative: rather than finding a sword and then frigging around until you’ve found all the dungeons (possibly not in sequential order) and beaten the game (possibly without getting every magic item along the way), you play through an entire story sequence to get the ball rolling, and are then very much sent from Point A to Point B to defeat (SPOILER ALERT) Ganon in an intended order of milestones (with lots of opportunity for free-form overworld exploration, of course). More than anything else in the game–more than the “it’s a new Link and Zelda” trope, more than the added dungeon complexity, more than the hookshot–the expanded population and quasi-linearity set the template for the rest of the series.

After A Link to the Past, and until Breath of the Wild, there was only one piece waiting to be added to the Zelda template. I’m not talking about the shift to 3D. The final missing piece for that Zelda feel came in the Game Boy’s Link’s Awakening: NPCs with personality! A Link to the Past populates a world with NPCs, but I couldn’t tell you much about any of them (Link’s Uncle has a moustache!). It wasn’t until the Twin Peaks inspired Koholint Island that we came to expect quirky NPCs and a pervasive sense of humor in our Zelda games. Fortunately, the gameplay and graphical variety enabled by the SNES is enough to make A Link to the Past lively and colourful without any help from the dialogue. There’s a reason Nintendo spent the next 25 years iterating on this game (and a reason they eventually just straight-up re-used this particular Hyrule in A Link Between Worlds)!

Well, to be fair, this little twerp is a total twerp, which I suppose is a form of personality. Source: Moby Games

I’d be remiss if I didn’t close by highlighting one of Nintendo of America’s first steps towards being absolute wizards of localization, long before the Treehouse was established. In the process of bringing the game over to the West, translators had to change the title of the game to accommodate stringent rules against religious imagery. As a result, the generically epic-sounding Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods became the fantastically–and pun-tastically–epic-sounding Link to the Past, which remains one of the greatest video game titles of all time. As they say, great artists thrive under constraints!

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

This 30 minutes probably wasn’t even part of my first full month of playtime with this game, and I’ll surely play it again and again in the fullness of time. You should probably play it, too, whether or the first or the fiftieth time!

Super Mario Kart (1992)
: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo

It’s possible that you’re already familiar with this game.

Mario is the star of the best-selling video game franchise of all time, and it’s not the one where he goes on adventures to save Princess Peach. Instead, it’s a spin-off series where he and his friends (and foes, and acquaintances, and eventually strangers from other dimensions) race Go-Kart’s on tracks all around the Mushroom Kingdom. Super Mario Kart gave Nintendo a license to print money, invented the “mascot racer” video game genre, and set the stage for many, many other spin-offs where the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom get together for some friendly competition in between royal kidnapping crises.

To this day, I’m not sure why there are crayon scribblings on the late afternoon sky of the title screen. Source: Moby Games

Super Mario Kart offers a limited range of modes. In single player, players can compete in Mario Kart GP, racing against seven AI opponents across a circuit of five tracks (there are four circuits to choose from, for a total of 20 tracks), or in a Time Trial mode that is exactly what it sounds like. Two players can compete together in GP mode, face off one-on-one in a Match Race on a track of their choice, or go toe-to-toe in Battle Mode, setting aside finish lines and focusing on the joys of hitting each other with shells and banana peels.

The racing action takes full advantage of the SNES’ Mode 7 effects: the entirely flat tracks can rotate on screen, allowing players to experience the race in a pseudo-3D view from behind their racer. Courses are littered with obstacles and item boxes. Driving over an item box grants the racer an item (there are weapons, like Koopa Shells and banana peels, and helpful items like speed-boosting mushrooms). The controls are simple enough: B accelerates, Y brakes/reverses, A uses items, and the R button hops (if held, the hop can turn into a Power Slide, helping you negotiate some of the trickier curves in the track). If you want to feel horribly disoriented, the X button will change the bottom half of the screen from a map to a rear view of your racer.

Maybe you had to be there, but it was a big deal to view a racing game from behind the racer and actually experience real turns in the track, instead of just seeing a bend up ahead while a weird gravity effect pulled your car to one side. Source: Moby Games

This was a tremendously fun game at the time, and it technically holds up, in the sense that you can still have a lot of fun with it: it’s a very good racing game! Playing with the knowledge of what’s to come, though, one becomes very aware of what’s missing from the experience. The Nintendo 64 would introduce 3D tracks, while Mario Kart: Super Circuit (the only other 2D entry in the series) crams a lot more Mario-iconography into its flat tracks. More importantly, Nintendo’s future consoles would lead the way in encouraging expanded local multiplayer options, and every future console entry in the series enables four players to get in on the action. More human racers makes for more racing fun, but Battle Mode benefits even more significantly: one-on-one exchanges of Koopa Shells are just not as exciting as the multiplayer chaos to come.

Look how much livelier the same “completely flat beach” course type looks in Mario Kart: Super Circuit! That Shy Guy Pirate Ship! Source: Moby Games

Ultimately, the most important element of Super Mario Kart‘s design has nothing to do with its (excellent, though long-eclipsed) racing mechanics, and everything to do with the mid-development decision to use Mario and other Mushroom Kingdom denizens as the racers. This was the first time young players got the chance to control characters outside of the core four heroes of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the novelty was impactful: I remember trips to the family cottage where my friends and I assigned Mario identities to the six colours of croquet balls, with modified rules to give each “character” their own special shot. In one fell swoop, this branding decision opened the doors to the mascot racing genre (it’s hard to imagine Naughty Dog deciding to develop a Go Kart racing game starring Crash Bandicoot to chase the tail of Excite Kart 64) and to the broader idea that Mario and co. can branch out from into a wide range of friendly compeititons. It’s no exaggeration to say that Super Mario Kart is the progenitor of series ranging from Mario Tennis to Mario Party to Super Smash Bros.

There’s no Mode 7 on this screen (no racing at all, even!), but we’re looking at the most impactful design decision in Super Mario Kart, and one of the most impactful design decisions in Nintendo’s history. Source: Moby Games

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

I’m sure I will, but take this as a less emphatic “yes” than the other two in today’s column! I doubt I’ll put this on the shelf forever, but 99 times out of 100 I’m going to scratch my Mario Kart itch with literally any other game in the series (heck, unless you really want two-player action, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t prefer the mechanically and aesthetically superior Mario Kart: Super Circuit‘s presentation of all twenty of this game’s tracks as bonus content!).

Super Mario World (1990)
: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo

It’s possible that you’re already familiar with this game.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was a titanic artistic achievement that took the NES well beyond its technical limits: as I’ve discussed in a previous column, it’s as much a hacking achievement as a programming achievement, the development team was forced to abandon some of their more ambitious ideas (no dinosaur rides for Mario…), and the NES absolutely struggles to run it despite all that. With Super Mario World, the first Mario game on the SNES, Shigeru Miyamoto and his crew had the opportunity to make a truly next-generation Mario experience without worrying that the console running it would spontaneously combust from the effort.

Shigeru Miyamoto has expressed disappointment with the way Super Mario World turned out, which might be shocking to anyone who has ever played it (it’s great!). If I had to guess, I’d say that the root of his disappointment is in the fact that, despite some new features that would’ve been impossible without the SNES’ horsepower and revolutionary Mode 7 effects(–eat your heart out, “blast processing”!), it’s very much just a levelled up Super Mario Bros. 3. Eight discrete region maps where Mario journeys through courses to fight a Koopaling on an aircraft become one contiguous world map where Mario journeys through courses to fight a Koopaling in a castle at the end of each region. Mario flies with a cape instead of a raccoon tail, and the flight physics are more sophisticated. Fortress and Castle levels are joined by Ghost House levels. These are all excellent additions to the Mario formula, but they don’t represent the same leap forward that SMB3 took over the original.

Thanks to the power of 16-bit, Mario can finally ride a dinosaur. Also, note how the entire screen can actually be rendered by the hardware! Source: Moby Games

Mario’s controls are expanded to take advantage of the new face buttons. The core Mario controls remain: B is the jump button and Y is the action button. Mario also gains a new spin jump: by pressing A, he will twirl as he hops, which allows Mario to break bricks that he lands on and also, in a great shock to me when I learned about it twenty-some years later when Super Mario Maker came out, bounce unharmed off the backs of Spinys! The shoulder buttons shift the screen a bit to the left or right, if you’re into that sort of thing. Besides that, Select now serves a purpose, due to the odd choice to store “spare” items in a box at the top of the screen: upon taking damage, Mario reverts to small form but has a chance to catch the spare item as it falls from the box; if the spare item is a power the player wants right now, Select will trigger the spare to release. I didn’t mention this weird variation in the previous paragraph because of that “[t]hese are all excellent additions” bit at the end: this is very much just a strange addition that never recurred in the series.

The level design is terrific, and particularly so in its interactions with the larger World Map. Some stages on the map have flashing icons that indicate the presence of a secret exit: if Mario finds this secret exit, a branching path opens on the world map. Early on, these branches allow Mario to access special P Switches that permanently fill in outlines that exist in stages throughout the game. Soon, though, they start really opening up the world: it’s possible to skip entire sections of the game by finding ways around them, and at the same time there are tons of stages you’ll never see if you just take the straightforward path through the adventure. Better still, Super Mario World introduces the “really hard bonus content” concept to the Mario series in the form of Star Road, a secret path inside a secret path filled with wacky levels with absolutely radical early 90s slang names. Watch out for Tubular, dudes: it’s totally gnarly! COWABUNGA!

If you wanted, you could skip this Ghost House altogether by finding the secret exit in that flashing red water level, but then you’d lose the chance to find the secret exit in the Ghost House, which reveals a handy “free items” bonus stage! Also, the secret exit in the stage right before the Ghost House reveals the Green Switch House, and activating that will open up the possibility of finding even more secret exits! There are a lot of secrets in this world map, is what I’m saying. Source: Moby Games

Dramus18 has already covered this so well in the One Giant Leap column that I’m going to take advantage of the option of just referring you to that column for a better breakdown. Now that this column has covered all the bases via hyperlink, I can devote some time to one of my favourite details in Super Mario World: the music. You see, Koji Kondo took an unusual approach to the soundtrack here: he only wrote one single melody for the entire game! There’s distinct music for different level types, but they’re all just variations on a theme! Underground and “Speedy Aboveground” levels switch up the tempo and instrumentation. Ghost Houses, Fortresses, and Castles switch the melody to minor key. Underwater levels switch the time signature to a waltz. It’s “do, do, do-do do-do, do-do do-do dooo do-dooo” all the way down, though (which is probably why, if you’ve played the game at all, you were able to read that and here one arrangement or another in your head!).

Mode 7 also allows for this fun twist on a Koopaling fight: instead of beating Iggy by hitting him three times, you need to maneuver him off of this rocking platform and into the lava! Source: Moby Games

So Super Mario World isn’t a great leap forward for the series in the same way that SMB3, Super Mario 64, or Super Mario Galaxy were, and it didn’t establish a whole new template for the series in the same way A Link to the Past did when it brought Zelda to the SNES. It’s certainly a great step forward, though! No Mario game since (perhaps no platformer since) has put forward such an excellent world map. Yoshi instantly became a beloved mainstay of the series. Star Road oversees a grand lineage that includes, among other fantastic endgame challenges, Super Mario 3D World‘s Champion’s Road. It’s endlessly replayable, and people have indeed been replaying it since it was released and will surely continue to do so.

Will LittleMac continue with this game after his first half-hour with it?

Yes, I surely will! I bet you will, too!

And that’s it for this edition! Unless Nintendo overloads me with options by launching the Genesis and N64 services in the next two weeks, we’ll be heading back to the NES for the eclectic mix of Gradius, Ice Climbers, and Ice Hockey!

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