Super Mario World, which is a game about a plumber riding a dinosaur, is filled with rules that make absolutely no sense.
For example, if you—and by “you” I mean the character you inhabit, Mario the plumber—jump on something dangerous, it will kill you, unless you are big, or wearing a costume, or riding a dinosaur.
Some other rules: teething piranha plants will not pop out if you’re standing next to their pipes. Caterpillars will turn red and become invincible if you jump on them. Ghosts will stop moving when you’re facing in their direction.
To understand Super Mario World is to understand these rules. Once you figure out the game’s internal logic, you can pick it apart and break it. It’s like a giant goofy puzzle, as much about conceptualizing as it is about executing.
The rules in Super Mario World make no sense. And they also make perfect sense.
Back in the late 80s, pleased with the inordinate amount of success they’d found on the NES (née Nintendo), legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his crew decided it was time to create a new moneymaker. Enter the Super Nintendo, a glorious grey toaster with stylish purple buttons and 16 bits, which for the time was a whole lot of bits. (Today, of course, we have many more bits, to the point where we’ve stopped keeping track, and talking about bits in 2013 is thoroughly uncool.)
Accompanying this Super Nintendo was Super Mario World, a pretty new game that yanked the already-iconic plumber from his familiar Mushroom Kingdom to a country called Dinosaur Land, where adorable reptiles rule everything and the terrain is made out of desserts.
By all accounts, Super Mario World is an excellent game—the best Mario, many argue. The greatest game of all time, some might say.
I am not here to argue that point. You are aware that Super Mario World is a good game. Here, look, it gets a YES:
My question is: what makes this fun? Why is this game regularly ranked among the classics? Why, as I play through Super Mario World for what must be the 50th time by now, this time on the Wii U’s Virtual Console, am I still enjoying myself?
I think I've figured it out. And we could talk and talk about the art, and the music, and the sound effects, which may very well be the most important part of Super Mario World, because the clink of a coin or the whir of a jump are just as integral to the game as anything else, but really, it’s all about the rules.
Super Mario World is a masterpiece because of them.
The first thing you see, after loading up your platform of choice and starting a new game of Super Mario World, is a plump little Mario, in all of his 16-bit glory, flanked by bushes and colorful fruits. There are big giant hills in the background. And there’s a message: "Welcome! This is Dinosaur Land. In this strange land we find that Princess Toadstool is missing again! Looks like Bowser is at it again!"
The text is justified for some reason, so there are giant gaps between many of the words. You’ll probably skim over this and hit the A button, more than once if you’re impatient, and eventually find yourself on Yoshi’s Island, where you’ll see the world map for the first time.
Wow! Now THAT is a world map. Immediately you can tell that this game is going to be interesting, and immediately you're fascinated not just by what you see but what you don't see, which is one of those things that has characterized Mario games over the years: the idea that there's always something else out there.
As you start to run and jump through each level (represented by those dots on the map), you start learning the rules, sometimes from little instruction boxes that pop up and toss you clunky hints like “This gate marks the middle of the area!” but usually from clever environmental clues. You see a red shell next to a row of enemies, so you throw it at them to see what happens, and bam, you see that killing nine enemies in a row will get you an extra life. Rule learned.
That sort of elegant level design—the type of lesson that makes you feel smarter because you figured out the answer yourself—is missing in many of today’s over-tutorialized games, which may be one of the big reasons Super Mario World is so highly revered. There are tutorial boxes in the game, yes, but they are optional, and easy to skip. You have to figure out yourself that jumping on chainsaws will kill you, unless you use the spin move, which somehow makes you temporarily invulnerable to most enemies. You have to learn on your own that the only way to get to the top secret power-up treasure trove is to fly to the top of the ghost house.
In an interview with the New Yorker a few years ago, Shigeru Miyamoto had some choice words about game design, comparing a video game to a detective novel. Games, the Super Mario World producer explained, are all about escalation.
“To what extent are you going to hide the secrets?” he said. “In order for a mystery or a joke to work, we have to provide the necessary amount of information. Not too much, not too little, but the perfect balance, so that in the end people can feel, How come I didn’t realize that? The difficulty with video games, unlike movies or novels, where the authors themselves can lead the audience to the end, is that in games it’s the players who have to find their own road to the end.”
Miyamoto has always been a mystery virtuoso, a master of progression and level design. He's always understood that a game's rules are only as good as its lessons. I imagine that watching him use a level editor would be some kind of spectacle, like Mozart at a piano or Hemingway at a bar.
But, yes. Back to Yoshi’s Island.
Your first choice in the game is whether to go left or right. If you go right, you meet Yoshi, and you start getting to know Mario’s new green partner, who is beloved because he’s overpowered. He can eat almost anything, spit fireballs, stomp baddies, grow wings, pound the ground to cause a mini-earthquake, and provide you with a last-minute vertical boost if you jump off him at the right moment, even if it means you have to sacrifice him along the way. You monster. (Maybe the dinosaurs actually went extinct because we were always dropping them off cliffs.)
If you go left, you’ll have to jump on dragons, dodge giant bullets, and stomp your way up a hill, where eventually you learn that there are four hidden palaces in the world that contain giant colored switches, and if you find them all, you can fill in all of the colored outlines throughout the world and turn them into helpful blocks.
By the time you reach the first castle of the first world, you’ve learned quite a few of the game’s rules. You understand that a P-switch will turn blocks into coins, so it’s easy to figure out that you can get that trapped Fire Flower by hitting the switch and making it fall to you, which feels more rewarding than, say, jumping up and getting a Fire Flower because it's right in front of you.
That first castle, by the way, is not messing around. The first half is filled with dangerous lava pits; the second half puts you in an auto-moving room with big brown pillars that plummet from the ceiling every few seconds in an attempt to crush your skull. And just when you think you might be safe, when the screen has stopped scrolling and you're at the boss's big red door, you can't wait too long, or another pillar will smash your face.
Then you beat the boss, by knocking him off a tilting platform in what may be the coolest boss idea in any Mario game ever, and you blow up his castle.
This is where the real game begins.
See, when you get to the next section/level/world/whatever, Donut Plains, you can finally pick up the Cape Feather, which is a new power-up that allows Mario to cosplay as Superman.
The cape functions a lot like the Raccoon Suit in Super Mario Bros. 3, in that you can use it to fly, but there's one pivotal difference: in Super Mario World, you can stay in the air. With a bit of deft maneuvering, you can glide indefinitely through the skies, essentially cheating your way through almost every level in the game.
Presumably this is why we have yet to see the cape in any other main Mario game. Flying above every level, while fun as a weird sort of guilty pleasure, is not the ideal way to play a video game, and if you do this a lot you'll just feel kind of awful, like you just ate an entire bag of Lays: it was fun while it lasted, but now you kind of regret it.
Still, one of Mario's grandest traditions is that you can always find ways to skip past sections of the game. Warp pipes, warp whistles, that sort of thing. In Super Mario World there is the cape, and there is the Star World, which you can use to break all of the rules and actually beat the game in only 11 levels, if you do everything just right, although what would be the point?
Longtime Mario fans, when revisiting Super Mario World for the first time in years, may find that everything feels more... slippery. Newer Mario games aren’t quite as bouncy, and they make it much more difficult for you to die, mostly because you can cling to walls. Super Mario World is much more punishing. (And fans have found ways to make it even tougher: almost every SMW ROM hack is just an excuse to make you navigate random mazes of muncher plants.)
This is a difficult game, yes, especially compared to its successors, and what's particularly interesting about its difficulty is that there's very little reward for getting things done. There are no achievements here. No trophies. (Curse the thought.) Your reward for accomplishing something is always a green mushroom, also known as an extra life, also known as a 1-up. Always!
Earn 100 coins? 1-up.
Get three matching tiles in the goalpost mini-game? 1-up.
Hit the right blocks in that other mini-game? 1-up.
Eat two pink fruits? Spawn a cloud that starts flinging coins at you. Collect them all and you get... a 1-up.
Collect five dragon coins? 1-up.
Strange, right? Must have been a holdover from the arcade era, where getting an extra life essentially meant getting more money. But in your comfortable living room, when losing all of your lives just means having to replay a couple of stages, why are these 1-ups so prevalent?
I took this idea to Kotaku boss Stephen Totilo, and he proposed that maybe the rewards don’t matter, because what really matters is the act of doing these things in the first place.
Fair point. There are two different types of video games: the ones where you do things for a greater purpose, and the ones where you do things because you like doing them. You trudge through quick-time events in Heavy Rain, for example, because you want to see the story, while you play Tetris because it’s fun to play Tetris.
Super Mario World falls into the latter category, and much has been written about the simple satisfaction of the Mario jump, or that iconic jingle that plays when you collect 100 coins. Indeed, the game feels great to play, because the acts of jumping and climbing and dinosaur-riding are fun and satisfying and smooth and glide-y. There are few things quite like frantically hitting the left and right directional buttons while Mario is mid-air, trying to get him to land in juuuust the right place.
But what's really satisfying, I think, is the intersection of those individual acts and the rules that drive this game.
See, as you progress through Super Mario World and figure out how everything works, you will experience revelatory moments: when you land on a new platform and see a wire, for example, you’ll instinctively know to duck from the incoming razor blade, because you learned earlier in the game that when there’s a wire, there’s probably a razor blade en route.
Every new section of the game throws more rules at you. The dolphins on Butter Bridge only jump in one direction, and you have to quickly hop through the herd to get to where you want. Little fireballs in the Forest of Illusion jump to the left or right, leaving dangerous tails of fire separated by Mario-sized gaps, and the older ones will start to disappear after a few seconds. The big rhinos on Chocolate Island take two stomps to die; the small ones die in one hit, but they breathe fire.
And there's nothing quite as rewarding as mastering these rules—realizing that, for example, jumping on nine koopas without hitting the ground will get you an extra life, and climbing on a chain fence still counts as being in the air, so you'd might as well try to see how many nasty lizards you can stomp before you've gotta hop off.
Then, there's a section of the game called Special World, accessible after you've found all of the secrets—or cheated your way through all of the secrets—in the Star Road. The Special World is not meant for beginners, nor is it meant for cheaters. You need to have played through the rest of the game in order to understand it.
Every single level in the Special World blends rules and ideas from all throughout the game. You'll see obstacles presented in new ways, or enemy combinations that you've never seen before. But the rules are still all the same. Super Mario World never breaks them. The logic is always consistent. It might make no sense that piranha plants are scared to come out when you're standing next to them, but they're always scared to come out when you're standing next to them, so it makes perfect sense.
And that's why Super Mario World is brilliant, really. It's not just about how good it feels to make Mario leap off the ground: it's about challenging yourself to learn the rules surrounding what Mario can do when he's off the ground. That's when you really get it. Every single enemy, every single obstacle, every single aspect of Super Mario World has a personality. That's what makes it special.