I’ve spoken about Super Mario World before. I’ve written a whole gosh dang article about it, and I’ve probably referenced its mechanics and design quirks in like a million other texts. I'm not bringing it up so much because Nintendo pays me to hype the upcoming launch of Nintendo Switch Online (although, if your name is Nintendo Entertainment and you’d like to dump cash in my pocket, please get in touch). I go on about Super Mario World because it’s a mother flipping amazing-as-heck title where you can ride a freaking GREEN DINOSAUR. Let me tell you about it; about its looks, about its game-feel, about Mario's weight loss. Buckle in.
Super Mario World’s graphics were outstanding in 1990, and they’re still gorgeous today. The reason for this is that by the time it was released we'd spent the preceding decades working our asses off, dealing with minuscule data budgets, learning how to infer incredible amounts of detail with a handful of pixels, and creating beauty with less colors than a 5-year-old knows. So when we had access to the whole 16 bits within the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, we knew how to put it to good use. Games like Secret of Mana, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Mario World show a level of expertise in the medium that easily lets them compete with today's 2D releases. It's a level of mastery that we only achieved in the realm of 3D recently.
While the character and environment design of Super Mario World is beautiful, the real strength of the game lies in the way it moves. The designers clearly understood how to make the form of the animation serve a function as well, getting the most out of these often-underused communication devices. Take Mario’s cape, gained from the feather power-up. The cape flaps behind Mario as he runs, flicks out when he spins, and even takes a moment to settle behind him when he stops moving. It looks super neat, and adds a lot to the fluid gameplay. But if we look at function, we see some interesting stuff. When Mario falls the cape floats upwards behind him. When he flies it streams out behind him. It becomes a clear indicator of velocity should the player find themselves against a background that is less effective at describing motion through parallax.
The animations play a huge role in ability signalling, as well. Take a look at the parachute ability granted by Mario’s cape. It’s clear from the image above that Mario is catching the air to slow his fall and keep himself airborne. There is no ambiguity over what Mario is doing, and this allows players to instantly pull in a little of their real-world knowledge of the function and physics of parachutes to assist them in their gameplay decisions. The same is true when Mario pulls up or dives down - Mario's change in posture, expression, and overall shape clearly imply the resultant movement.
This leads us to game-feel. And let me tell you buddy, this game feels good. Once again we’re looking at subtleties. The multitude of small opportunities to engage with the world through movement makes the world feel really responsive and tactile. One of my favorite examples are the green springy platforms first seen in the Vanilla Dome. These platforms stick out of walls, one end anchored while the other hangs free. When players jump on these platforms they bend and flex, and the player can use them to leap upwards as they would with a diving board. While part of the beauty here is in the animation, and another part is in the sound design, the core of what makes this platform special is how it responds to player input. It shows some rudimentary physics modelling, bending less or more depending on where the player’s weight is in relation to the anchor point. It’s similar to the way a ruler works when hanging over the edge of a desk - the ruler moves more easily and springs more actively when we press on the areas further from the desk. This green platform is another instance where if players choose to pull in some real-world physics knowledge, the game can reward them due to its depth of design. Ultimately it's a great little element that adds a heck of a lot of fun, and feels great to experiment with.
One design decision that raises Super Mario World’s game-feel above that of prior titles was the reworked character inertia. In the earlier games, and the original in particular, Mario weighed a crapton. It took a long time to speed up, slow down, or turn around - so much so that returning to the game today has us fighting against the mechanics rather than the evil turtle men. Super Mario World was the product of Nintendo’s experience with these early games, and the movement mechanics have been tuned to perfection. This perfect inertia, as well as jump height, air control, and bouncing on enemies contributes to a fluid play experience. The simple act of navigating the 2D space becomes a joy, and it's easy to get lost in the experience, or set yourself challenges as you play at performing harder and more daring acrobatics.
Super Mario World is a heck of a good game, and one article can't do it justice. It's always good to look back at successful older titles, and see what the effect of strict limitations force developers to think about. These old SNES classics had polish. They had simplicity. They had absolute clarity of design. Things that seem to be lacking in a lot of contemporary 2D games. But all is not lost. Get yourself a Super NES Classic Edition (email me Nintendo xox), launch Super Mario World and get lost in a well-designed, well-communicated, and great feeling world.