We’re jumping, stomping, and diving into the most iconic and popular video game franchise ever, the Super Mario Bros. series. Each week, we’ll take a unique look at each game in the series, and discuss aspects you may not have considered. This week we explore Super Mario World, the SNES launch title that drew inspiration from its last gen predecessor.
That’s the sound of a Nintendo exclusive starting, and it’s not unlike the original Playstation boot screen tones, or even the click of a Switch joy-con snapping into place. The instantly recognizable tone will send you back to the early 90s via audible recognition.
After the massive success of Super Mario Bros. 3, Nintendo chose to make the next console entry in the series a bundled launch title for their new 16 bit system, the Super Nintendo (SNES). These days, when a new console launches, the differences graphics-wise are negligible, but the leap from 8 bit to 16 bit was huge. Tens of thousands more colors! True parallax scrolling! Object rotation! And more texture stretching than you can shake a near-perfect controller at!
Nintendo would use Mario as their launch title mascot up until 2001 when Luigi took over the reigns and helped launch the GameCube, with his lighting effect technology, as Luigi’s Mansion ushered in Lil’ Purp’s debut. The Super Nintendo needed a game that could show players what the console was capable of, but it also wanted to move the Super Mario franchise forward at the same time. So was the game a successful leap forward or a rehash of Super Mario Bros. 3, the (at the time) gold standard for the series?
unmistakable sound of hopping on Yoshi’s saddle
But first, we should explain to the folks at home who Yoshi is, and what Switch Palaces are, and other bits of fantastic newness. Super Mario World takes SMB3 and puts a shinier, glossier coat of paint all over it.
Mario in 3 can briefly fly, so in World he gets a cape and can fly forever! Mario 3 has an overworld map, and features a few levels with branching paths that lead to secret areas. Mario World is full of levels with multiple exits (indicated by a red dot on the level location), secrets galore, and bonus worlds that lead to other bonus worlds.
The hot new thing in World is of course, Yoshi. We know modern Yoshi, forever trapped in a Micheal’s craft store, but back then we were just getting to know the guy. World is where Yoshi shows you what he can do.
From the moment he’s introduced you have access to a ton of new gaming mechanics that will forever change how you play Mario games. I know we toss the hyperbole around like it’s penny candy sometimes but Yoshi is a huge game mechanic that could’ve been a quick one-and-done (sorry, FLUDD).
You can use Yoshi to launch yourself up into the air. He can eat most enemies. He can spit fire on occasions. He’s a dinosaur for all terrain, be it Chocolate, Vanilla, whatever.
As a quick aside, I always forget that this game introduced the food theme into the Mario series. Vanilla Dome. Chocolate Mountains. Donut Hills. Anytime there’s food stuff in Mario games I always think it’s random, but nope, Super Mario World did it.
No. Not those Switches. This was pre-Click. Early on, the gamer encounters Switch Palaces. These are not-always-but-often hidden areas where you can activate a certain colored switch to turn invisible, dotted-lined boxes into tangible ones that hold hidden items, or merely create walkable pathways for Mario to traverse otherwise inaccessible spots.
It dawned on me during my replay that these little animations are probably the inspiration behind future Super Mario games where they work in a bit of business in the opening cut scene to “explain” why, for example, one game has so many Raccoon Mario acorns all over the map!
Mushroom Kingdom Citizen # 1: Why are there Cat Mario bells everywhere?
Mushroom Kingdom Citizen # 2 (Purple): Didn’t you see the opening credits? There was a cannon or something!
Mushroom Kingdom Citizen # 1: Like when that explosion made all those Penguin Suits fall from the sky.
Mushroom Kingdom Citizen # 2 (Purple): I suppose. I’m just glad Bowser doesn’t turn us into bricks anymore.
Mushroom Kingdom Citizen # 1: Amen to that, my eerily-similar looking friend!
My point being, I don’t think the items need an origin story, but I always find it amusing that the later games in the series go to the effort at all.
Listen to the Sounds
The sound design in SMW is near perfection. You immediately know when you’ve mounted Yoshi, even in hectic, confusing situations. The Switch Palaces implode with a satisfying thud. You can time the rhythm of your flying by the sound your cape makes. Sounds are subtle when they need to be, and heightened sparingly.
The Super Mario World theme isn’t one of my favorite tunes in the series. It sounds like the music for a circus level in a lesser game. That being said, the rest of the soundtrack is phenomenal. The moody organ music of the Ghost House levels. The peaceful relaxing Underwater Theme that was often juxtaposed with me trying to out-swim an angry fish I accidentally woke up. The Vanilla Dome theme that sounds like light dancing off crystals. And last but certainly not least, Bowser’s Castle map music, with the accompanying thunder and lightening. It’s a game of sounds and musical moments burned into my brain.
Of course it was, because Koji Kondo did the music. His music from the series is iconic and as memorable as always. However, if you want to hear his music, the best way is to listen to The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony Orchestra Soundtrack that came with my copy of Skyward Sword. It’s so amazing, I don’t even care that I hate Skyward Sword.
SNES Does What the NES Simply Could Not
Back when each new gaming generation meant you took the bits and multiplied them by 2, the SNES burst onto the 16 bit generation scene with aplomb. That meant Super Mario World had independently scrolling backgrounds, rotating fences, and—my favorite early 16 bit trope—stretching and distorting bosses to let you know they’ve been defeated.
Still, for every bit of fantastic newness, there are bits of World that feel like a retread. Namely, the bosses. The Koopa Kids are back, along with big papa himself, Bowser. You once again reach them by traversing levels on an overworld map. There are mini-boss levels where the same few enemies are recycled. It’s all a bit familiar, but also tweaked just a bit as well.
The game itself is loaded with secret exits and paths. Any level indicator with a red mark means that level has multiple exits, and most levels are marked red. Ghost Houses—another series staple that makes its debut here—are infamous for having deviously tricky secret exits.
Other levels require you to track down a key and then carry it to a mysterious keyhole location, which will exit you out of a level into a secret path.
The game is still relatively short for the average modern gamer, although it did begin the tradition of having bonus areas that had secrets in themselves.
World Star Trip Hop
The Star Road is akin to a Hard Mode, only it’s not all that hard. In order to complete these levels (one per each regular World in the main game) you will need fast reflexes and quick thinking. Item placement in certain levels is very deliberate, meaning everything has its place, and for a good reason.
Still, if you’re a run-and-gun style player, the levels won’t be much of a challenge for you. However, the goal is to access the secret exit in each of these Star Roads. Upon completing all secret paths and creating a single path on Star Road will unlock the final secret: The Special World.
The Special World is 8 more, ultra-difficult (still not that bad) levels for you to complete. They all have level names based on mostly outdated slang from the 80s and early 90s. Unless you say things like “Mondo” or “Tubular” on a regular basis, in which case, aren’t you late for a drum circle somewhere?
The game overall is very low stakes nowadays. Modern platformers have stolen every good idea from this game and perfected it, built upon it. Upon replaying it, I found my way to Bowser’s Castle accidentally by traveling to a few connected shortcuts. My Donkey Kong Country/ Rayman conditioned brain had me highly attuned to where secrets lay. This is also why this game is the grand-daddy of modern side-scrolling platformers. It made you stop going left to right once in a while to look for irregularities around the margins, and to always be looking for secrets.
Super Mario World was another step in the evolution of Mario. It managed to move the series forward while holding onto the bits everyone loved from the third entry. It certainly gave no indication of what would come next, but that’s a story for next time.