The dawn of the 1990s saw some major shifts in the gaming world. The popularity of the NES was winding down, and Sega had an early jump into the 16-bit generation. With Sega’s head start into this new era of gaming – complete with a certain blue hedgehog who threatened Mario’s crown – Nintendo needed a killer launch title if its own 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, was ever to compete with Sega. Super Mario World was that killer launch title, and so much more.
If Super Mario Bros. 3 perfected the formula laid down by the original Super Mario Bros., then Super Mario World may have transcended it. Everything that Shigeru Miyamoto and his teams at Nintendo had learned in developing the NES Mario trilogy culminated in Mario’s SNES debut. It wasn’t merely a graphical overhaul for the series (though it was that too), but a game that took the series’ blueprints and was ready and willing to rewrite them in the most playful ways imaginable at every turn.
Mario seemingly learned a thing or two from Nintendo’s own Metroid by this point, as Super Mario World placed a much greater emphasis on exploration than the series’ previous titles. Super Mario Bros. 3’s world map concept was greatly expanded on by two simple yet profound innovations: Replayable levels, and secret, alternate goals within the game’s stages.
No longer was Mario’s mission to simply make it to the end of the stages by heading right. Now Mario was frequently heading upward, downward, and even inward to find secret exits that would create new pathways on the world map. Simply completing a stage was only half the battle. Mario’s ultimate goal was to scourge every last level for alternate paths to discover all the secrets of Dinosaur Land, which served as a replacement to the Mushroom Kingdom for the game’s setting. Super Mario World’s playful insistence on secrets went to such lengths that it hid a secret world within a secret world.
It’s the way Mario uncovers Dinosaur Land’s hidden levels that truly showcase Super Mario World’s sheer inventiveness. Finding many of the game’s secret exits often requires Mario to break the very rules he himself established in his NES adventures. And the levels themselves, though not as difficult as those of Mario 3, are somehow greater than their predecessors. The sheer creativity presented in each level showcases Nintendo at their best. Rarely has a game been so consistently imaginative with its every last concept before or since.
Some lament the fact that Mario’s list of power-ups was lessened from his Super Mario Bros. 3 arsenal, with only the power-ups from the original Super Mario Bros. (Mushroom, Fire Flower, Starman) returning along with one major new power-up. But this new power-up was the Super Feather, which granted Mario with a magic cape that worked like a super powered version of the Tanooki Suit of Mario 3. The Super Cape granted Mario with the ability to take to the clouds, but it controlled more smoothly than his raccoon tail, and with enough skill Mario could fly indefinitely. He could perform an earth-shaking dive bomb attack that defeated every onscreen enemy, as well as a spin attack to take out stronger bad guys. The simple fact is Mario didn’t need any more power-ups, the Super Cape alone made Mario feel – most appropriately – super.
But Super Mario World somehow outdid even its best new power-up with an even greater addition to the series: Yoshi.
Yoshi was Mario’s new dinosaur pal. Mario would hop on his back, and Yoshi could gobble up enemies, walk on dangerous surfaces that Mario could not, and gained special powers based on the color of Koopa shell he held in his mouth (red shells allowed him to spit fire, blue shells gave him wings, and rare yellow shells gave him a stomp attack). Additionally, secret red, blue, and yellow Yoshis could be found, and gained the shell power that reflected their own color no matter the type of shell they ate, while also gaining the individual benefits as well (meaning a blue Yoshi could fly and spit fire with a red shell, and so on).
Yoshi not only changed up the gameplay, but he went on to become one of Nintendo’s most popular characters, even rivaling Mario himself. Aside from Yoshi’s starring role in Mario World’s own prequel, Yoshi has arguably never been better utilized than in his debut outing here (though Super Mario Galaxy 2 might challenge that statement).
It goes without saying that Super Mario World’s visuals were improved over its predecessors. The new 16-bit technology allowed for more colors and effects, which Mario World used to such success that it remains one of the most visually timeless games ever made. It’s as colorful and vivid today as it ever was.
Complimenting the visuals is one of the best soundtracks in the illustrious series. With the possible exceptions of Super Mario RPG and the Galaxy duo, World’s soundtrack sits near the very top of the mountain of memorable Mario soundtracks for its energy and personality, not to mention its catchiness.
Though a technical improvement over its predecessors, what truly makes Super Mario World one of Nintendo’s finest achievements is that aforementioned creativity. There’s simply never a dull moment. Super Mario World is always introducing a new idea, or a twist on an old one, to keep things fresh.
Yes, Bowser has still kidnapped the princess. But whereas the minimal plot is a retread of the previous Mario adventures, the journey itself is anything but: Ghost Houses, more unique boss encounters (including some non-Koopa bosses with Reznor and the Big Boo), the save feature, the secret exits, the branching paths, the secret worlds, climbing fences and knocking out the enemies on the other side, the Super Cape and, of course, Yoshi. Super Mario World is both a refinement and a subtle but powerful reinvention of everything Mario learned up to that point. It remains not only one of the best Mario games ever, but one of the greatest video games. Period.
It’s Super Mario World. We’re just playing in it.