Super Mario World
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Super Mario World was both a tantalizing and terrifying prospect for a child circa 1991. For anyone weaned on Mario's NES adventures, it was dazzling -- now Mario could flip to the background on a gate, graphics scrolled in independent layers, and gigantic Bullet Bills had to be ducked to be avoided. Even the shot of the cape-clad Mario seemed bigger and bolder than ever before. Ten minutes with the kiosk was all I needed before I knew it was worth the upgrade to 16-bit power.
Dazzled as I was by all the fireworks, though, I was also a little scared. What was this that I kept hearing about multiple exits, I wondered? Which one was the right one? And what was all this about a Star Road? The very name suggested the unknown, a world in which exploration wasn't just an option, but a necessity. Having never played Metroid or Castlevania II, I was thoroughly worried. Explore? I thought. I don't want to explore. I want my hand held at all times. I want the comfort of knowing exactly where I'm going. Let the blanket of linearity warm me as I cross from Point A to Point B, never deviating as I crush any koopa troopa that has the temerity to get in my way.
Let's just say that if you had shown me Super Mario 64 in 1991 -- a game that doesn't technically even have exits -- you'd still be scraping me off the walls. As it turned out though, I was overreacting, as usual. The world hadn't been turned completely upside down, there was still a Point A and a Point B. It's just that Shigeru Miyamoto's team had seen fit to throw in the occasional Point C as well. Otherwise, the linear progression from level to level remained intact, and all was well.
Well, mostly. At first, I was content to make my way to the gate waiting at the end of each stage, collect my extra lives and move on. But as I saw more and more of those discolored dots -- the ones that told me that there were still secret exits left to be found -- I began to wonder what I was missing. What exactly what this mysterious Star Road anyway, I wondered? If it was a road, where did it go? I decided to make it my business to find out. I had seen the keys scattered through the various stages a few times before. And based on the commerical, I knew that there was also a keyhole hidden somewhere in the stages with the secret exits. All I had to do was bring the two together, and before I knew it Mario would be swallowed up by the black portal and sent along a new path.
This mystical union wasn't so easy to pull off in the first stage I tried to do it in, though. Donut Plains 1's key doesn't have far to go to unlock the accompanying secret exit, seeing as it's sitting not more than a foot away from the keyhole. The trick is actually getting up to it without hitting the green switch palace, since a mess of pipes is in the way. Feathers are a neccessity, and luckily they're quite plentiful in this stage. Unfortunately, that doesn't account for the flying part of the equation. As most people know, Mario World's cape isn't quite the same as the time-honored raccoon leaf. Rather than reaching the apex of flight and gently wafting downward, Mario is able to swoop and use the cape to gain extra air, or pull off a dive bomb attack, the latter of which sent me down many a pit as I tried to catch some extra airtime. The cape doesn't offer a whole lot of room for error in comparison to Mario 3's leaf, making the squeeze beneath the pipe upon which the secret exit sits harder than it looks for those who were unfamiliar with Mario's new mode of transit.
After much trial and error, though, I finally managed to force my way through my first secret exit. From that moment, the hunt was on. As it turned out, it wasn't nearly as hard or scary as I thought it would be to find the keys and drop them in the keyholes -- save for one instance. I'm sure Mario fans the world over will remember the Cheese Bridge area, and all the frustration they experienced as they tried to unearth that troublesome secret exit. I spent hours flying around with Blue Yoshi, utterly confused as to why I could not find the key anywhere. Finally, I relented and checked a FAQ, and the terrible truth became clear to me. I took the leap of faith and glided downward with the help of my cape, my fate seemingly sealed as I dipped below the gate, unable to make a safe landing. Then I leapt from Yoshi's back, sending the poor dino to his doom as I emerged on the other side of the gate. Even now, I'm not sure we're on speaking terms.
Star Road, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as obtuse as the Cheese Bridge. I was pleased with myself when I finally reached what I considered the summit of the Mario World experience, but the secret exits turned out to be quite easy to discover. The main attraction was in picking up yellow, red and blue Yoshis, and, of course, opening the way to the super secret stages -- the ones with names like "Gnarly" and "Groovy." I took particular pleasure in beating those stages, my phobia for exploration long forgotten. My earlier FAQ consultation notwithstanding, I felt like a great explorer. I had explored every last inch of Dinosaur Land, planted my flag, and claimed it as my own.
To this day, I still regard Super Mario World as perhaps the ultimate realization of Miyamoto's original idea for the series. In the thrall of my misplaced terror, I hadn't realized exploration was hardly anything new in the Mario series. Even during the original Super Mario Bros., Mario was constantly straying from the beaten path. Those warp pipes were secret exits, too; I just didn't think of them as such because I knew them so well. Super Mario World was virgin territory, though, so I suppose it was only natural to be afraid of areas like the Forest of Illusion, from which there was seemingly no escape without uncovering the secret exits.
Yet when I finally gave in to my curiosity and started to (ahem) plumb Mario World's depths... that was when the magic truly began. I still play Mario World on a regular basis, and I always go for all of the secrets. It just doesn't feel like a complete playthrough with without them. People love their Super Mario Bros. 3, but even now I don't think it quite compares to the satisfaction of uncovering that secret area in Cheese Bridge yet again. I suppose watching Yoshi plunge to his untimely death will never get old.