Super Mario World: A Leap Forward, A Step Back

By Nick Olsen

Super Mario World Cover Srt

The cover art for Super Mario World

If Super Mario Bros. established the gold standard for game design, Super Mario Bros. 2 was an exercise in madness, and Super Mario Bros. 3 is where the series took flight, Super Mario World, the first Mario entry for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), took another leap forward, utilizing the boost in power of Nintendo’s next gen system, but also took a step back.

For North American gamers, Super Mario World hit the market a year and a half after Super Mario Bros. 3 (February 1990 vs. August 1991); in retrospect, the similarities between the two gives them the feeling of near-simultaneous releases. Super Mario World borrowed heavily from its predecessor including the use of an overworld, mid-world minibosses and storage for unique power-up suits. But even these elements come with distinct differences in Super Mario World.

The Leap

The most obvious advancement from Super Mario Bros. 3 to Super Mario World was the bump in eight bit graphics to 16 bits, but a bigger leap comes in Mario’s built-in abilities. Mario was no longer restricted to simple run and jump mechanics; Mario was now equipped with a spinning jump which was more deadly to enemies and could be utilized to break blocks beneath the player, opening new pathways.

But the inclusion of Mario’s spinning jump impacted more than just the player’s ability to explore – it also opened avenues for the game’s developers to experiment with level design. With a few notable exceptions (Super Mario Bros. 2 opens with Mario dropping from the sky, Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced flight for greater vertical exploration) the Super Mario Bros. franchise had been traditionally horizontal with players experiencing levels from left to right. Super Mario World on the other hand became increasingly open in level design. Not to the degree that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern open-world games like Saints Row: The Third, Far Cry 3 or Fallout: New Vegas, but Super Mario World, while utilizing the start left, end right formula, encouraged players to ascend and descend, and backtrack throughout the level to locate all of it’s hidden secrets.

Super Mario World checkpoint

Checkpoints were a critical addition to Super Mario World after a switch to less linear level design

The decreasingly linear level design also gave rise to an in-level checkpoint system, another first for the Mario franchise. Similar in nature to the goal posts designation completion at the end of each level, a smaller version appeared at roughly the halfway point. As soon as the player crossed these posts they’d begin the level from this point should they die before reaching the end. This checkpoint also provided another player benefit – should Mario cross the marker in his “small” state, he’d instantly be transformed to his bigger version as if he’d receiver a Super Mushroom. This checkpoint system became especially invaluable in later levels of the game when difficulty increased – by restarting at the checkpoint rather than at the beginning of the stage, the player could focus on defeating the particular challenges which killed them rather than re-defeating the segments they’d already navigated successfully.

Backtracking wasn’t limited to in-level gameplay –  for the first time, players could backtrack through the overworld and replay levels they had already completed. This choice again gave more freedom to the developers to include secret areas and puzzles which opened new items and areas within levels, encouraging players to re-explore them in search of collectibles such as dragon coins, which when a player collects enough provides bonuses, such as extra lives.

Super Mario Bros. 3 borrowed from role-playing games to give players an item bank to stash reserve power-ups, but Super Mario World improved the mechanic by automatically storing a power-up acquired within a level and giving players two types of access to them: to either be used in case of an emergency, or strategically save them for the appropriate moment. For emergencies, the stored power-up would drop from the bank and float slowly down the screen if a player was damaged by an enemy, giving the player a chance to recover an ability, be it size from a mushroom, fireballs from a fire flower, etc.

Players could also choose for the stored item to drop into play by hitting “select” on the controller, giving them access to the stored power-up for strategically dealing with unique puzzles and enemies. For example, the player may have been equipped with a fire flower with a cape feather (gives Mario the ability to fly for short distances and glide, similar to the super leaf from Super Mario Bros. 3). in their bank. If the player encountered an area which could only be accessed by flight, they could opt to access the cape feather in their bank, switching Mario’s power mid-level. These changes gave players more freedom for utilizing stored power-ups; no longer did they have to wait to access their bank in the overworld as they did in Super Mario Bros. 3.

Perhaps the most memorable leap forward for Super Mario World was the inclusion of Yoshi and his multicolored dragon pals. Up to this point in the Super Mario franchise, in-world characters were limited to the player, the various enemies, and dialog-only interactions – such as Toad who guided the player through mini-games and shops in Super Mario Bros. 3. The first appearance of Yoshi in level 1 was a truly novel experience – for the first time Mario had an in-level ally with unique abilities which augmented Mario’s own. While Yoshi was used more like a tool than an independent character (afterall, Yoshi couldn’t take independent action) he provided players with a new way to solves puzzles and defeat enemies. For instance, with Mario riding Yoshi, he could instruct Yoshi to jump and then jump off of Yoshi in mid-air to reach new heights. Yoshi, being a dinosaur, was also capable of eating all manner of enemies, even those with spikes which presented traditional challenges to the jump-on-to-kill-focused Mario.

A Step Back

Super Mario World Flying Yoshi

The combination of Yoshi’s and Mario’s unique powers were fun, but not worth the expense of many power-ups from Super Mario Bros. 3

But for the great leaps forward Super Mario World took, it also took a step back in a handful of ways. First and foremost, Super Mario World abandon most of the the memorable power-up suits from Super Mario Bros. 3. The iconic super leaf which transformed the player into Raccoon Mario had vanished and in it’s place we were given the cape feather. While it may seem like an insignificant swap since both provided the ability to fly, it felt like a strange decision for Nintendo to so quickly abandon it’s most iconic addition to the franchise to date. Perhaps it was Nintendo’s way of signaling the divide between its NES entries and its new SNES flagship. And had it been limited to replacing the super leaf with cape feather for it’s superior functionality it may have gone unnoticed. But when Nintendo stripped the game of the super leaf they also took the tanooki suit, the frog suit and the hammer suit along with it. Giving Mario new abilities like the spinning jump and providing him with suitably equipped dinosaur companions was their compromise, but by moving to less strategic tools, many of the unique level designs which utilized them suffered.

The refinement of the power-up bank also came with significant sacrifices including the ability to store more than a single suit and removing the ability to access the bank from the overworld. Again, on the surface it may seem like a small sacrifice, but it limited the player’s ability to utilize power-ups strategically. Yes, the in-level access to power-ups had certain advantages, but swapping the ability to make thoughtful decisions about how to approach levels for on-the-fly decisions creates an extra element of chaos in naturally chaotic situations. The addition of the power-up bank in Super Mario Bros. 3 added a unique and useful element to a traditional platformer and much like the abandonment of the super leaf, the quick abandonment of the expansive power-up bank felt abrupt and shortsighted.

Even the overworld, an idea carried directly forward from Super Mario Bros. 3, felt lacking by comparison in Super Mario World. In Super Mario Bros. 3 the overworld map featured multiple routes allowing the player to skip certain levels if they didn’t feel up to their challenge, but Super Mario World’s overworld map was distinctly linear, with players forced to experience each level sequentially. Furthermore, there are fewer levels in the base game (72 for Super Mario World vs. 90 in Super Mario Bros. 3) unless the player was able to locate the two hidden worlds (bringing the total number of levels to 96). While the hidden worlds were a nice addition for the dedicated gamer, it’s difficult to understand why they came at the expense of the number of levels available to players in the base game.

A Flawed Classic

There’s no denying that, just as the SNES represented a leap forward in console technology, Super Mario World represented a significant leap forward for the Super Mario franchise. Many of the changes and additions which appeared in Super Mario World have had a lasting impact on the genre today – Yoshi has become one of the gaming industry’s most beloved characters, non-linear level design has become prevalent (even in platformers like Super Meat Boy), and Mario’s unique bag of tricks has continued to evolve with each new game.

But with Super Mario World it’s just as important to examine the steps back taken from Super Mario Bros. 3 and what they represent. It seems like Nintendo was aiming for significant differentiator to separate Super Mario World from Super Mario Bros. 3, and yet they didn’t want to completely forego much of the innovation which they had previously established. This approach, however, created some significant shortcomings which kept Super Mario World from reaching it’s true evolutionary potential. After all, the best games find ways to build successfully on previous entries through tactical evolution; Nintendo aimed for a revolution built on the established foundation of the Super Mario franchise and did so by unnecessarily abandoning some of it’s best, and most recent features. Revolution is an admirable goal, and one that developers should never lose sight of, but sometimes it just as important to ask which is is more important, revolution or evolution?