Saturday, May 16, 2009

VC look: Super Mario World

My opinion of this Super Nintendo classic has shifted many times over the years. It seems that even with the game approaching twenty years of age I've yet to figure out if I think it's a great game or merely just a good game. I can assure you right now that if for some wild reason you've never picked this game up I implore you to do so now, play through it several times over, then come back and read this piece. I don't usually go around proclaiming that certain games should be "required" but Super Mario World is definitely one of those titles that needs to be played.

Going with the assumption that everyone reading this blog has already played the game I see little reason to explain the basics but I'll try to be brief. Super Mario World takes place in Dinosaur Island, where the evil bowser and his seven evil children have captured the princess and seven dino eggs. You're Mario(and Luigi if playing with a friend) and you have to rescue them all through a lot of running, swimming, jumping, and so on. If you've played a Mario game before you know what to expect and if you haven't...well God help you. With that out of the way I'm going to talk about the flaws of this game...or at least the things that I perceived as faults. 

To start with extra lives are simply too numerous. Unless you're doing particularly bad or dying on purpose you will never see the Game Over screen. I think I saw it once while playing SMW on a Wal-mart demo unit with a broken controller. At this point why even have extra lives at all? Pick up Super Mario Galaxy and its the same thing. Heck the Princess is mailing you extra lives in that one it's so bad. It feels like little more than an old stand-by, like Nintendo knows they shouldn't bother but their fans love those green mushrooms and the little 1up jingle. On my latest playthrough of SMW I was still a good twenty stages away from the last boss when I maxed out my life count. 

Speaking of old stand-bys what's the point of having a score? This isn't like the early games where you could attempt to get as many points from a stage as possible. By SMW it's rendered moot by the fact that you can repeat most any stage. In fact if you store a fireflower in the reserve box and put on a cap you can simply jump towards the top of the screen and get an easy 1,000 points everytime you mash the select button. Thankfully Nintendo ditched this and created a far better scoring system for Yoshi's Island. 

The worst aspect of SMW to me however has always been its lack of direction. I'll always say that Super Mario World has more good ideas in a single stage than most platformers have in their entire game. Even though this game and Sonic The Hedgehog 1 were released at near the beginning of the 16-bit generation neither of them have seen their equal let alone been surpassed when it comes to creativity(okay Yoshi's Island provides a strong case, and I'm sure some will argue in favor of Donkey Kong Country 2). But most of the time that's all the levels are...ideas. A lot of them simply don't go anywhere. In the Forest of Illusion there's a stage where enemies are floating along in bubbles touching the bubble or allowing it to hit a block causes it to pop. It's an interesting idea but nothing really happens with it. For the most part you can run through the stage as usual not even caring about this. While the cape is neat it renders a lot of stages pointless as you can simply fly over them with no penalties. At least SMB3 limited your flying ability to prevent you from skipping entire stages. Hence you have a lot of great ideas that don't go anywhere and/or can be completely ignored. At least this was how I thought for quite awhile.

After a recent playthrough however my thoughts on the game have changed significantly. The extra lives, the useless score, the so-called lack of direction really don't mean a thing. Super Mario World is in fact your world and it can be anything you make of it. If you fly over everything and ignore much of what the game has to offer it's all right. This doesn't make it a fault of the game or the player. That stage with the bubbles? Who says you really have to ignore them? It's your world and you can try to lead a bubble all the way to the other end of the level if you like(or at least as far as it'll go before hitting a pipe). People always talk about making new challenges in games they're familiar with and SMW is perhaps one of the best at it. See how many stages you can play through while carrying a turtle shell. Try to cross a number of pits using Yoshi or the Spin-jump to bounce off spikey enemies. You've got more than enough lives right? Why not waste a few trying something different? The game isn't rating you on how you get through the stage, whether you get through without getting hit, collecting all of the coins or defeating all of the bad-guys doesn't matter at all. Everything that isn't beating the stage and reaching the exit is left up to you. Even if you're not capable of flying you can still complete every stage in the game. Sure you can't reach particular exits but otherwise you can still reach the end. So why not go small Mario? It's perfectly acceptable as long as you remember to skip the checkpoints since they make him big again

A lot of these Super Mario World hacks and free-ware titles like I Wanna Be The Guy completely miss the point of what makes a platformer great. They're so caught up in making everything difficult and having every little step lead to a potential death that there's really no point in actually playing the game. Instead you're trying to find a solution via a particular combination of button inputs so you can solve the levels. That's not good game design. There's no freedom to take chances or try new things. What exactly are you going to do from there? Try to play through the game faster and die less? If that's all that can be done to make a game more challenging and entertaining that's just not good enough. There should always be enough options for the player to limit themselves on their own terms. 

In conclusion I have gained even more respect for Super Mario World and it has certainly deserved it's place as one of the truly great games. I'm just ashamed that it took me this long to realize exactly what makes it so great(especially since I've been playing the game on and off for most of my life). Few platformers offer this level of freedom and experimentation and with design and mechanics to match it is without a doubt a required game to play for those wishing to explore and understand game design.

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