Friday, 3 June 2011

Retrospective: Super Mario World (Gaming, 1990)

Rumours abound that Nintendo's conference at E3 on Tuesday will not only see the full unveiling of the first Mario platformer for the 3DS, but possibly one for Project Café - or whatever the Wii's successor ends up being called - as well. In anticipation, the new 'Retrospective' feature, which will look back at the legacies of some of the most important and fondly remembered games, movies and television programs ever made, kicks off with one of the heights of Mario's long career, a game considered by many to be the finest 2D platformer ever created. Welcome to Dinosaur Land, everyone. Welcome to Super Mario World.

Nintendo have pushed hard to bring the two-dimensional platformer back into gaming prominence this generation. The success of their DS revival of the 2D Mario series with New Super Mario Bros and profitable emulations of Mario games from older systems on the virtual console brought about New Super Mario Bros Wii, Donkey Kong Country Returns and a Wii-creation (geddit?) of Super Mario All-Stars for the series' 25th anniversary last year. Nintendo's success in this field is almost certainly behind SEGA's decision to pull their much-abused mascot Sonic back into his native two-dimensions, notably for the upcoming Sonic Generations, while the much-acclaimed likes of Braid and Super Meat Boy show evident inspiration – albeit with a parodic slant – from Nintendo's headline series.
The New Super Mario Bros games have put a lot of stock in their updating of the old-school platforming experience. Yet far from growing the genre, the series seems to have forgotten all the evolutions made once the NES was put out to pasture. There's a reason that so many people consider Super Mario World to be one of the all-time great platformers and why its sequel, Yoshi's Island, took the series in such a different direction, much as how Majora's Mask redirected the Zelda series after Ocarina of Time was similarly hailed a masterpiece.

Let's look back at how the genre has evolved with Mario. Super Mario Bros was far from the first scrolling platform game, yet was by far the most ambitious and successful of its time, selling 40 million copies and starting a production boom for the genre. The instance most famously quoted as symbolising this ambition is Mario jumping on top of the screen near the end of the second level of the first world in order to reach a hidden shortcut. It showed the series' willingness to break the rules and reward players for exploring and pushing boundaries. Super Mario Bros. 2 is usually considered the black sheep of the family for not originally being a Mario game at all, but in addition to introducing several of the series' enduring characters, notably the Shy Guys, it introduced the ability for players to turn back on themselves and levels to be built vertically as well as horizontally.

But where Marios 1 and 2 were all about moving towards an end point, Super Mario Bros 3 used those elements introduced in 2 as a way of redirecting players' reason for playing. 3 is a game which can be finished very quickly if simply running through each level from beginning to end, yet the introduction of the tanuki leaf, enabling Mario to fly, positively begged players to take to the skies and explore each environment to its fullest. Mario 3 took the original game's affection for players' desire to break gameplay patterns and put it at the heart of the experience. The discovery of hidden rooms and items became just as important as reaching Bowser's castle at the end of World 8.

Yet Super Mario World, Nintendo's headline game for their new Super Nintendo console back in 1990, was more ambitious still. Once again, Nintendo changed the entire focus of the series' gameplay: Mario 3 introduced the world map, but put it to limited use. Its sequel's adoption of the word 'World' into its title could not have been more appropriate: where every previous platformer had the ultimate goal of players completing levels through the aim of reaching an end point (no matter how much exploration within those levels was encouraged and rewarded), Super Mario World made the world map itself the goal.

In a twist of Baudrillardian proportions, Nintendo took the idea of 'completion' out of the individual levels and applied it to the map instead. Players never truly 'completed' individual levels as each could be revisited at will. Instead, players' actions within levels were put towards the discovery of secrets which would open up new paths in the overworld.
Where every previous Mario game had allowed players to forego exploration if they so desired, World demanded a lateral approach to level completion and the seeking out of concealed exits. The Ghost House courses were the most clear examples of this, where the player would be forced to run around in circles unless they could decypher the puzzle-box level design. Nintendo have rarely been a developer enthusiastic about directly tutoring players in how to play their games, so players would have to adopt the role of explorers, rather than adventurers, to find their way across Dinosaur Land. In the Forest of Illusions sub-world, reaching the obvious end goal of a level would only create a circular path on the world map, making players to go back and seek out a hidden exit in order to move onto the next level.

Along their journey through the overworld, players would see details in the corners of the map that would hint at there being secrets to be found: a fortress or a pipe atop an apparently inaccessible hill, a little island too conspicuous to be mere detail... having shown players that levels may not be as linear as they first appear and that exploration would yield dividends, Nintendo actively egged them onto revisiting previously tracked paths in order to discover their every hidden nook. Playing Super Mario World in the same linear fashion as one plays Super Mario Bros results in huge quantities of the game being missed, including many of the best levels, items and bosses. We increasingly hear nowadays about developers' fears at implementing features or levels within their games that players may not find. Back in 1990, Nintendo used that fear as a proponent to propel players forward in the game: keep on looking, or else you might miss something vital.

Today's resurrection of the genre might have brought back a perspective from yesteryear, but seem to have forgotten that just because all those beloved old games were seen in two dimensions doesn't mean they couldn't create worlds with real depth. The biggest difference between today's 2D revivals and the games they seek to emulate is that the modern games are using advanced technology to achieve deliberately limited means, whereas Super Mario World used its limited technology to create a land where the possibilities never seemed to end.


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