My favorite Mario Bros. is the SNES version. It’s not a fun issue. Super Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, and the other games in the series all have their moments. They just don’t inspire the same degree of fascination that Super Mario World has drawn out of me. I can usually plow through the game in a handful of sessions, unlocking every secret through muscle memory. I know the levels to milk for lives when you’re running low. The route to the Blue Yoshi is permanently burned into my mind. I’ve beaten the game’s 2-D predecessors without ever having much interest in going back. I play the 3-D ones, but by about the 50th star, I just want to get it over with. What is this game doing that keeps me coming back?
From a design perspective, Super Mario World is unique in the amount of options that you have when deciding how you want to begin a level. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3, I can go back to beaten levels and snag power-ups before hitting start then select to immediately exit. There was a bit of dabbling with this in the third game with the inclusion of an inventory system, but it was always a finite resource. There are only so many treasure houses, and the results were usually random. In Super Mario World if I want a cape, I just go get one then try the level again. The DS version (calling it New Super Mario Brothers seems to just confuse people) also plays with this idea, but there were really only two power-ups to collect: big and fire flower. In the 3-D versions, you always start as Mario, and you can’t even carry powers into a level. The only time that you get the bee suit is if it’s an option that the designer includes. Likewise, the only time you get to fly is if the level is built for it in Mario 64. By contrast, the only constraint that Super Mario World imposes is in the ghost houses or castles, and even then, it just means dismounting Yoshi. You are free to bring whatever you like to most levels and engage with them on your own terms.
There’s also something to be said for the power-ups themselves. While the new Wii version of Mario Bros. lets you carry items like in Mario 3, they’re still limited in terms of power. Throwing fireballs or being able to slide around as a penguin isn’t really that empowering. On the other hand, the yellow cape is probably the most powerful costume that Mario has ever used. You can fly, spin, dive bomb, and make huge leaps using it. In a platformer, mobility is always going to be the real source of power. The raccoon suit or the beanie hat pales in comparison with their brief bursts of flight. Super Mario World expands this theme of mobility through the use of Yoshi and his various powers. While riding the dinosaur, you can eat anything, get abilities from turtle shells, step on any spikey surface, and even jump off if you miscalculate a leap. Best of all? Getting hit just means losing Yoshi, which can be fixed if you just catch the dinosaur.
Interestingly, Rus McLauglhlin says that Miyamoto would eventually claim that Super Mario World was a bit rushed and incomplete (“IGN Presents “The History of Super Mario Bros.“, IGN: Retro, 7 November 2007). I think that might be the inherent appeal of the game for me. This Mario game, more than any other, can easily be broken because of all the power-ups. It’s fun to just screw around sometimes. If I’m in a rush or uninterested with a level, I can just find a long enough stretch and then launch myself with the cape. There’s no pleasure quite like flying over the legions of canons, goombas, and piranha plants that the game clearly expected me to be struggling with. It’s like using the P-Wing from Mario 3 but for any level that gives you enough space. The Blue Yoshi, which can fly as long as you’ve got a turtle shell in it, only magnifies this ability. In most of the areas, there is usually a level where you can harvest power-ups, lives, and a Yoshi with ease. Getting a colored Yoshi to grow up means feeding it, but the blue one grows up immediately because a star drops right in front of it when it hatches. It’s almost as if the designers accepted that people were going to be returning to Star World for the special Yoshi and decided to speed up the process. The fun of Super Mario World is just figuring out ways to break the level.
The level design is interesting because of the way that it makes you come back down from your lofty powers. Any ghost house or point on the map marked with a red dot has a secret exit. You’re never going to find that exit without checking all the warp pipes or screwing around near something dangerous. Once you beat the first castle, you are no longer bound to a linear path. You can skip sections of a world or take a totally different route through it. The number of paths that you open up are all scored and saved, so that every time that you start, you see how much of the overall map that you’ve unlocked. This always drives me to keep compulsively playing until my score maxes out. The game ratchets up the difficulty in the Special Zone alone where every level is carefully designed to be unbreakable. The hellish one where you have to inflate Mario into a balloon and float across is easily the most difficult. The toughest secret to find is on the cheese bridge when you’re trying to open the path to Soda Lake. You basically have to float a Yoshi underneath the finish post and then jump off him at just the right moment so that you don’t accidentally end the level. There’s also a long line of moving chainsaws that you have to bounce across to even get to this point. For as much as you can skip the levels by flying overhead, a lot of them still work because the game knows that you have to come back down if you really want to unlock the entire map.
It’s the exact same concept that you see in the 3-D versions, which make star collection optional, but there the game only presents these events as a series of challenges. Mario 64 merrily tips you off to what Star you can unlock next when you leap inside a painting, letting you explore the level and figure out how to unlock it. There’s never really much of a sense of empowerment. If I’m doing something mobile and free in a level like flying, it’s because the designers intended me to. In Super Mario World, they let you bring your own toys to the level so that you can dance and jump around however you like. Only when I choose to chase after the trickier rewards do I have to play the way that the designers expected me to. For some reason, that makes all the difference.