As we move forward, we often look back for advice. History can teach us so much; not to eat that rice that’s been in the fridge for a week. I’m serious, throw it out. We can learn a lot from old games, too. Super Mario World, developed as a launch title for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, celebrates its 26th birthday this year. Taking full advantage of the new 16-bit hardware, the game was more colorful, more detailed and better sounding than had been possible on the NES. We had new enemies, new abilities, and a brand new dinosaur friend to ride around on. We also had green fart bubbles with next-gen alpha effects.
But much of what made Super Mario World a solid experience wasn’t technological wizardry or better graphics (some things never change), but small and often subtle design choices that quietly worked with players’ desires to create motivation and drive without relying on gameplay or plot.
Exploration wasn’t a focus of early Mario games. The original Super Mario Bros. was a linear, bare-bones platformer, with only the occasional hint at a wider world beyond the game’s individual levels. Super Mario Bros. 3 was an early experiment with an overworld, but it was a fractured experience. The world was presented as a map that imitated a board game, with a small, barely-animated icon that represented Mario. The icon would slide from one numbered level marker to the next, like a board game piece. The map was broken into distinct, separate worlds, such as Desert Land, Water Land, and Sky Land, all of which were accessed by traveling through magic pipes in sequence. The result was that it was impossible to figure out where these worlds were in relation to one another geographically. Players couldn’t look ahead to see what the next world in the sequence is, and it was impossible to replay levels that have been completed. Nintendo had created a world for their platformer levels to exist in, but it didn’t feel like a living world. It was too disjointed, and interaction with it felt flat.
Super Mario World arrived, and suddenly players had an environment that breathed. The game builds on the foundation of Super Mario Bros. 3, the overworld featuring a path studded with level markers, each of which has to be completed before players can proceed to the next. The world is singular and continuous in this game, and the player can walk to every location. This is one of the more important subtleties -- the Mario sprite on the overworld map is animated to walk along the route between levels, even turning to face the direction of the path. It’s not a quick, snappy transition like in Super Mario Bros. 3. Mario takes just enough time to walk the path between the levels as the game reminds us that he’s on a journey through this world to rescue the Princess. If it took any longer for Mario to move between levels, it would be frustrating. But the developers have struck just the right balance, and this small detail is one that immediately separates the overworld from the relatively lifeless implementations that came before.
Upon leaving the starting zone, players can scroll the camera around and see the entire map, their eyes tracking the path set before them, or darting across to a particular forest or mountain that looks interesting. The developers have used a bit of selective concealment here, with some areas of the map, such as the interiors of caves or the depths of forests, not being visible until players visit them ‘in person.' Curiosity is sparked. A path leads into a cave and vanishes -- curiosity. A path leads to a green pipe that vanishes underground -- curiosity. It’s similar to the map in Zelda: A Link to the Past. In both of these games, areas are largely without labels, and players are left to speculate about the meaning and nature of landmarks. Curiosity is constantly sparked as players engage with the overworld. And Super Mario World manages that curiosity expertly.
The issue with building curiosity in players is that it’s often not managed very well. Several times in recent years, a game will have had an interesting landmark that I’ve been unable to reach, unable to explore. A distant room in Portal, a mechanical tower in Dishonored. These weren’t hinted at as being important, but if they had this would’ve been a deal-breaker. If you’re choosing to make players curious, you must respect that curiosity. In Super Mario World, an effort is made to show players, clearly, that the areas they are curious about can (and will) be visited over the course of the game. This is where curiosity starts to become a tool for motivation.
The starting zone establishes that mini-bosses are contained within numbered castles, and it’s not difficult for players to deduce that as they defeat more mini-bosses, they’ll come closer to rescuing the Princess. A quick look at the map establishes the player’s route, from one castle to the next, and one area to the next. We can actually follow the majority of the path across the overworld. Anticipation is created as players see the means to satisfy their curiosity: the completion of levels. It’s a somewhat roundabout way to motivate players. It may feel a little subversive compared with the more obvious carrots and/or sticks that we use, like plot progress, power-ups, and punishments. But ultimately it’s giving the player a taste of exploration, a sense of a big fictional world to poke around in, and the space to speculate as they try to imagine what has been hidden from them on this map. Knowing that they have a way to find the answers they want pushes players to delve deeper into the game. Ultimately, to remain engaged.
Super Mario World could be a motivational speaker. Its main client base would be turtle-hating plumbers, but it’s a living. The game knows how to innovate and motivate -- and how to hedge its bets. There are other motivational tools here; the old ‘save the Princess’ story returning alongside a mission to save Yoshi’s siblings. If one of these hooks doesn’t get players moving, another one certainly will.
Curiosity is powerful. Anticipation is too. And I anticipate writing more about this classic as we pick apart the gameplay, graphics, and audio over the next little while to see what makes this game tick.
I make no apologies for any bad jokes contained above.