Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 50 Games - 7. Super Mario World

What are video games for? What's the point of playing one? To get absorbed in a faraway virtual realm? To embrace the novelty of player agency in narrative? To commit arson and murder and other heinous crimes without real-world punishment? If you were to ask Shigeru Miyamoto or any of his disciples, they would tell you that people play video games to have fun. When it comes to Mario, that pure and simple Nintendo methodology goes a step further: to instill joy. Fun is being entertained by what's in front of you; joy is having what's in front of you work in such a precise way as to create a pleasure high. Super Mario World is and forever will be a source of pure, distilled joy.
The eternal children at Nintendo have a different interpretation of "cool" than the rest of the world. Super Mario World, like its grandpa Super Mario Bros., was a pack-in launch title that had to almost single-handedly sell the new system on release. To show off the power of the 16-bit Super Nintendo, SMW did not feature explosions or fast cars or cutscenes. It featured a pudgy mustachioed plumber hopping around colorful side-scrolling levels, mounting a pet dinosaur named Yoshi, and soaring through the skies with a brand new cape. Less than a year later, Sega introduced the world to Sonic the Hedgehog on the Genesis. Where Mario represented the old guard of childish silliness, Sonic quickly became the 'tude-sporting mascot for "cool" in the early 90's. His legacy may have turned to sand in the last ten years, but back in 1991, the speedy blue rodent was a force to be reckoned with. Generation X was growing into its adolescence, and for some, Mario just didn't cut it anymore. That's a shame, because Super Mario World is two-dimensional perfection, timeless in a way that a trendy Sonic never could be. Although it wasn't much removed fundamentally from the stellar Super Mario Bros. 3, World managed to do a lot in terms of proving to kids and their parents that the SNES was worth shelling out for. To this day it remains technically flawless, impressive, and cool.
I'm hopelessly fixed in the belief that game designers are some of the most creative people in the world and there is no doubt in my mind that today's developers are just as imaginative and boundary-pushing as yesteryear's. Video games, however, are fast becoming much more sophisticated, grounded, and contextual than those of the 80's and 90's. Oftentimes, this is good: who still yearns for pointless collect-a-thons? Sometimes, however, this push towards believability is lamentable. Case in point: Super Mario World. In a series noted for its inexplicable weirdness, SMW stands out. The generational leap in graphical power allows World to show off its colorful, endearingly out-there design with more confidence and ability. The game is a universal time capsule of childhood, transporting any cynical player back to a point in life when every little thing in the world became something else, something magical. It's a stewpot of craziness filled with dinosaurs, Donut Plains, Bullet Bills, football players, evil hammer-tossing cloud-riding turtles, and more. The enemies, stages (most named after food), power-ups, and challenges are almost dizzyingly light-hearted and random. By not sticking to a cohesive context, SMW is able to constantly wow and delight with blissful platforming locales and activities that couldn't be approached through any other design philosophy. It's downright refreshing.
I feel that one of the most efficient ways to describe Super Mario, or at least the 2D iterations, is to call it an obstacle course. Yes, it's superficially about saving Princess Peach and defeating Bowser and all that, but the games really are tightly composed tests of agility. Some have criticized Super Mario 64 for one of the same reasons it was lauded upon release: it's extra-dimensional freedom. Rather than being a series of stages in which scrolling to the right is the only option, it was a spacious non-linear romp in which Mario could run around a Goomba instead of jumping on its head. Super Mario Galaxy struck the perfect balance between freedom and defined sequence, but Super Mario World was arguably the game that really introduced exploration and alternate approaches to the series. Many stages have secret exits and routes that can be uncovered through poking around and trying out different moves. Star Road was an awesomely surreal alternative to the game's normal sequence of levels, and the general feeling of "secrets galore" is supremely enticing to minds young and old alike.
Super Mario World speaks video game fluently. There's next to no dialogue, cutscenes, or tutorials. With its most salient assets (namely visuals, sound, and control) and little else, Super Mario World is able to communicate with its audience as effectively as any other game ever made. It fosters a subtle synesthesia in which the mechanical timing, observed height, and springing sound of Mario's jump come together to teach players how to play through play. Super Mario World is an expertly-crafted thesis on good game design. Look Play and learn, industry.
I claimed before that Baldur's Gate got me into gaming, but Super Mario World is almost as accountable for spawning my undying obsession. In kindergarten through third grade, I went to an afterschool daycare program called the Children's Center. When I was in the first grade, we got a Super Nintendo console and a few games. One of them was Super Mario World. Sitting in our uncomfortable metal folding chairs, we would take turns playing on an old CRT. The game was like crack to my 7-year-old self, and I soon became infatuated with every aspect of it. I met two good friends at the Children's Center in part through my drawn depictions of the game. Super Mario World was the first game I ever beat, the second game I ever fell in love with, and needless to say one of the most ridiculously nostalgic artifacts in the world for me.
There's really not a whole lot one can say about Super Mario World. It's classic Mario perfected. It's adorable. It's got a still-impressive audiovisual package. It's fun. Most of all, though, it's a portal to another world; not to City 17 or Hyrule or Rapture, but rather to childhood. It forms a beautiful bond with its player and reminds him that joy, true joy, never ages.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I'm a bit surprised you didn't specifically mention the greatness of its music.
    E.g.: "Sub Castle BGM"