Sunday, April 12, 2009

'Super Mario World' Review

By 1990, Nintendo was flying high on the P-Wings of seven unbelievably successful years worldwide with the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a phenomenon of the rising video gaming console market, one which debatably secured a positive future for what had been a fairly fragile early existence of home console gaming. The big question at the time was, how on earth could Nintendo possibly match -much less exceed- expectations with a new 16-bit console? Even on their terms, the NES was a force to be reckoned with; any attempt at generating a brand new console was bound to be met with grand curiosity and suspicion. The NES's popularity showed no signs of slowing down, as its monetary successes into almost the mid-90s proved (games were produced for the system until late 1994). Thus, Nintendo must have known what a momentous task they held in their hands in the creation of a new, improved console; one which was to be released still three years before the NES had its final game produced. Needless to say, Nintendo not only met expectations but exceeded even the most inflated hype with the truly Super Nintendo.

Super Mario World launched with two other games upon the console's North American market debut, August 13, 1991, but has certainly gone on to be the most memorable and well-beloved of the trio (Pilotwings has developed a sleeper cult following and F-Zero, while greatly admired, is no Mario). It currently stands as the SNES's all-time bestselling game, 20 million copies strong; the absolutely explosive sales success Super Mario Bros. 3 enjoyed on the NES secured a 16-bit Mario platformer as a shoe-in for gigantic monetary gains, regardless of the end quality of the game itself. Nintendo loved (and still loves) its fans though and certainly put all their heart into the development of Super Mario World to ensure that the game was not merely an extension of the rock-solid gameplay from the first three games but a gaming force to be reckoned with in its own right; a unique, momentous adventure in and of itself. Enough history, however; let's get into the technical details of the game itself.

Graphically, the game pushed no ground for the system (not surprising, considering the infancy of the hardware), yet did precisely what it needed to do: look appealingly... Mario. Maturing from the evolving stylism of the NES games, Super Mario World expanded in palette to accommodate more vibrant colors (rich greens, foggy greys, soft blues/purples, and liquid reds) along with the well-established minimalistic background art direction the series was already known for in the NES era. Multiple background layers allowed for true parallax scrolling techniques and sprite scaling for a select few special effects (most notably, the boss deaths). Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, in conjunction with the Super FX chip, would go on to intensely push the SNES's hardware and exploit just about every palette color and special effect possible on the system, demonstrating Nintendo's penchant for truly showing off all sides of their hardware's personality from beginning to end; yet it is the original World's simplicity of style that makes it not only uniquely Mario but almost effortlessly timeless.

The game's ninety-six levels truly encapsulate what makes the Mario platforming style so successful and enjoyable: each one is bite-size (snuffing out replay exasperation), many of them have multiple endings to seek out (for the treasure hunters and completionists), and the difficulty of each moves ever upward but smoothly, fluidly; the appeal of challenges range from beginner to platforming veteran. Each world of levels has a distinct look for its area on the world map (forests, caves, hills, mountains, castles, haunted houses and a sunken ship are amongst the unique visual portions of the world) and each present their own challenges; whether it's learning how to take on new enemies (be it simply killing them, dodging them, or marking their deaths to your advantage), using reflexes to run a gauntlet of traps, or testing jumping skills on the varied platforming runs, the game always keeps the player on his toes and fully engrossed in the fast-paced adventure. The resulting overall balance is spot-on and helps make replaying the game a joy. Of course, none of this would be possible without great controls and smoothness of gameplay motion; fortunately, Super Mario World has both in spades; it knows how well-built it is. The forward-motion, slide-stop physics of Mario are kept intact from the original NES installments, making moving, jumping, swimming and flying feel as natural and comfortable as ever. Controls are sharp, responsive, keeping the action moving and the player in complete control of his own achievements or failures. The most important aspect of any platformer's controls (be they stiff and domineering like Castlevania, adaptable and square like Mega Man or controllably floaty like Super Mario Bros.) is that they suit the needs and difficulty of an individual game's level layouts and enemy patterns. Super Mario World adapts everything about the first three NES games and simply sizes them up to 16-bit sprite proportions, leaving the overall execution near-flawless.

The standard growth mushroom and fire flower are staple Mario items which return here (sadly, the Frog suit, Raccoon suit, Tanooki suit, and Kuribo shoe are missing this time around), along with a couple all-new inclusions: the feather (which transforms you into a caped plumber ready to take to the skies) and the lovable dinosaur Yoshi (whose cuteness is secondary only to his usefulness as a sidekick: an insatiable appetite for berries, Goombas, and Koopa Troopas coming in quite handy throughout; not to mention his willingness to sacrifice himself for Mario to make a tricky jump) being the particular brand new inclusions to the series as a whole. It's not much, but it never feels like too little either; all power-ups are usable with variety and continuity. The game lets you save your progress frequently and the availability of one-ups (via green mushrooms, collecting a hundred coins, or killing enough enemies sequentially) ensures that the game rarely feels cheap in its more difficult sections. Also, for the completionist, there are eight hidden special levels, guaranteed to push even the most hardened Mario veterans to the limits of their own skills and anger management.

Veteran Nintendo composer Koji Kondo provided his sixteenth video game score for Super Mario World and the music continues Kondo-san's penchant for writing catchy melodies that are not only enjoyable to listen to throughout the course of the entire game but become indelibly etched into the player's mind for good. Kondo actually relies on a technique that he rarely implemented throughout his career, particularly on Mario games: motivic repetition. Almost every single tune in the game is a straight-up variation on the title theme. While it has never been unusual for Kondo to revisit prior themes, never have I heard his music rely so heavily on straight up one-theme derivation. This is not harsh critique though, as each variation is memorable in and of itself, lending themselves quite suitably to the game's subdued, spirited quirkiness. The soundtrack is certainly not the high point of Kondo's compositions for the Mario series, but the man did set an amazingly high bar for himself upon achieving the musical greatness of Super Mario Bros. 3 just two years prior and has gone on to some equally amazing work recently with the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. One cannot assert that the man has ever really lost his touch, unless we're talking about Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask; two hiccups in an otherwise terrific compositional career. That is, however, criticism best saved for a later date. Super Mario World's overlying sound structure is indicative of the usual polish and quality for which Nintendo is well known; classic Mario bleeps and bloops updated brilliantly into the 16-bit audio medium, never a bother to the ears.

Super Mario World is a true gamers game and marked yet another wild success in the franchise for Nintendo. Fans were happy to see the return of many familiar foes with 16-bit facelifts along with some fresh new baddies fans have certainly grown to love stomping under Mario's hardened shoes, always on his way once again to defeat Bowser and save his beloved Princess, who is in yet another castle. It is hard to believe Nintendo has been able to crank out one great Mario platforming title after another, with virtually no drop in quality (Sunshine being the lone exception). And while I personally prefer Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island (a game which showcases Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka's game design talents at their peak), the greatness of the Mario series since simply would not exist without the tried-and-true quality of this, the original Super Mario World. I can vividly recall standing in line at the Wal-Mart demo SNES machines all those years ago, waiting to get a chance to play this incredible new 16-bit experience for just a few minutes, only to stand aside afterwards, watching more Mushroom Kingdom madness unfold on the boxy television as the next kid took his turn at the controller. It takes me back to a time when the gaming world wasn't judged by how high polygon counts could climb, but on the gorgeous simplicity of foundational gameplay and pixel-by-pixel art.


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