Sunday, June 19, 2011

Videogame Classics - Super Mario World

Super Mario World
Super NES

Nintendo fans will argue among themselves as to which Super Mario game was the absolute best, but everyone agrees that the golden period ranged from 1990 to 1996, from Super Mario Bros 3 on NES to Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island on the Super NES, and Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64. That's the absolute peak of Shigeru Miyamoto's playful genius.

For my money, Super Mario World is the best one. This was where Mario was his most expressive, his most colorful, his most inventive. It can be easy to forget, as games lumber on from one franchise sequel to the next, that there could be a game where practically everything in it is new, or at least novel. Eventually, the games cater more and more to the demands of the fans, like middle-aged rock stars who surrender their creativity and just play their old hits.

I think that's the feeling I'm finally stuck with by the time I finished New Super Mario Bros on Nintendo DS. That game was little more than a sugar-coated nostalgia circuit, a videogame greatest hits album. The early thrill gave way to a weary sense of disappointment, a feeling of going through the motions for the sake of going through the motions. This is why I'm not a fan of high school reunions.

I don't think New Super Mario has one tenth the inventiveness and brilliance of Super Mario World. Just run through all the cool moments that have become standard Nintendo lore. Yoshi the dinosaur. The Yoshi eggs. The Ghost Manor. The Big Boo. Switch palaces. The hidden keyholes. The star world. The extra-secret star world. The shortcut to Bowser's castle that almost skips through the entire game. The Superman cape. Flamethrowing dinosaurs. Flying dolpins. Rotating cages. Sunken ships.

There's that world map that can be skipped about from one place to the next, provided you can find the secret exists to star world. For that manner, there are all those secondary exits from the stages. You don't need to find them; it's just all part of the fun of wandering around and having fun for fun's sake. That's the real joy of Miyamoto; his childhood thrill of exploring and discovering. It's a great tribute that all the best exits require your most agile skills to discover.

There's another moment in Super Mario World that became one of the most-copied standards of modern videogame. It's the very first level with the Superman cape. You can hop down a pipe and go to a secret place, a wide area with nothing but coins in the air. The purpose is to teach you the new skill of flying with the cape. There must be several hundred coins up there, and it takes you some time if you want to grab them all. Eventually, you learn the subtlety of flying, which is an essential skill for finding all those secondary exits and keyholes.

Every videogame since then gives you the chance to learn a new skill and practice it out before it's fully called into service. Every game. It's probably the greatest contribution to game design since, well, the original Super Mario Bros.

Also, I should also point out my all-time favorite Mario secret. It's the prize you win once you've completed the second star road, eight stages of hardcore gaming hell. Damn, those are hard levels to get through, but get through them you can, and when you step back into the real world...well, if you've never played through this game, it'd be horrible of me to spoil it for you. I really think this is the point where the psychedelics really kick in. Miyamoto's Magical Mystery Tour.

Oh, and I love the ending to the game. The final battle against Bowser's far better than the anti-climactic finish to Super Mario 3, and we are treated to one of the all-time best endings. And what's with all the ragtime music? Who thought up that? Genius.

I think Shigeru Miyamoto knew that he reached a peak with this game that could never be surpassed. That's why he started his period of grand experimentation, of veering into stranger and stranger directions. Yoshi's Island is an entirely different beast, the electric kool-aid acid test of the Mario universe. Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy, indeed. And Super Mario 64 (and its 3D children) inhabits its own universe, a different realm of reality. There wouldn't be a proper, 2D Mario game for fifteen years. I never could have imagined that, as I was discovering the final, masterfully psychedelic secrets, that Super Mario World would be the last great trip.

Hopefully, the blockbuster success of New Super Mario Bros DS and New Super Mario Bros Wii (aka "Super Mario Bros 5") will encourage Nintendo to embrace this 2D series once again.  I only ask that future games not recycle the same old formulas; instead, reconnect to that wild, zany, psychedelic spirit that made Super Mario World so memorable.

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