Mariothon Pt. 6: Super Mario World
You know, Super Mario World didn't make much of an impression on me at first. I'd saved up enough money from my first-ever summer job to buy a Super NES -- OK, I didn't really "save" since I lucked into a really posh job with the Dept. of Agriculture and my first paycheck alone could have bought two systems. But my main impetus for getting the job, I'll admit, was because of all the hot sequels slated for the system: Castlevania IV, Super Contra, Zelda III.
Mario was kind of incidental, and had it not been the pack-in title (see kids, once upon a time consoles came with games, not just samplers... and even two controllers) I probably wouldn't have even bothered with it. Mario 3 was pretty fun, but Sega had done a remarkable job of convincing me that Nintendo was pokey and boring, although they still weren't clever enough to convince me to buy a Genesis. Witness the destructive power of fully armed and operational third-party content!
But third-party brilliance was one thing; Mario was another, and he seemed kinda played out. Still, SMW was free, and I was saving most of my money for college, so I had about a month there where I had little better to do than plumb the depths of the game. And in the course of my explorations, it slowly became a favorite. The improvements it added to the Mario series were low-key, but in many ways all the more brilliant for its subtlety.
It's interesting that while Sega was thumbing its nose at Nintendo because Sonic was so doggone fast, SMW had a much slower pace than previous Mario games. But that's part of what makes it so engrossing: Sonic was all breakneck speed and punished you for trying to explore with dead-ends and unexpected dropoffs, Mario World was all deliberate pacing and alternate routes. Exploration was the key to finding the juciest parts of the game rather than an unwanted nuisance.
Anyway, the opening stages once again did a fine job of dropping players into the thick of things, giving them a taste of what was new without spoiling too many upcoming surprises. The overall vibe of that first stage is quietly impressive for Mario vets: flying blocks, enemies both new and familiar, and everything is crooked.
It's the giant Banzai Bills that made the biggest impression, though. Super-sizing bad guys is boring now, but the mammoth versions of Bullet Bill were even more impressive than Big Island in SMB3 had been for his sheer scale. Where most Super NES games were throwing around gimmicky Mode 7 effects to impress, SMW took a more direct approach by using the system's upgraded power to toss screen-sized foes at you.
Alright, so they're only a quarter of the screen's height. But at the time they were pants-crappingly huge.
It's easy to forget how good SMW looked at the time. I remember having lunch with some friends at a restaurant with the Super NES edition of the PlayChoice 10 (called "PlayChoice 5," 'cause it had five games. Clever.) and one of them watched a demo of SMW for a few minutes and boldly proclaimed, "You know, I don't think graphics will ever get better than this. What's the point?"
Still, the things I like best about SMW aren't the rotation and scaling abilities but the more clever ideas that directly impacted gameplay. Like the two-sided fences in some of the fortresses. Climbing a fence or lattice was nothing new in a game, and SMW certainly wasn't the first game to incorporate multiple planes of action. But it was the first to do it so well. Compared to the completely pointless plane effects in Castlevania IV, SMW's was pure genius -- not only was moving into the background necessary for advancement, it also gave you a means to get the upper hand on bad guys.
The Star Road was some of the best bonus content ever seen in a game -- you had to work hard to get there, and even harder to actually complete the extra stages. Sure, Zelda had its Second Quest remix, but SMW's bonus content wasn't just a reshuffled afterthought. The Star Road stages counted toward the total completion of the game, but you could totally skip them if you were a big wuss.
Plus, if you finished all 96 stages, the bad guys wore Mario masks. Which is one of many reasons Super Mario World was totally sweet.