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Memory Leaks: Super Mario World

🦖 Oooh, baby, baby it's a wild world...


Super Mario World was released in November 1990 in Japan and August 1991 in North America as a launch title for the Super Nintendo. Coming out at the height of the Console Wars, it is widely considered the best 2D game in the Mario franchise, and occasionally cited as the best video game ever made. It's the best-selling game on its platform--which is saying something as this is the same platform that gave us Nintendo's current best-selling franchise: Mario Kart.

How I Remember It...

My first exposure to Super Mario World happened one summer during our church youth group's choir tour. The host family a group of us were staying with had a SNES and we ended up staying up all night playing it. We got as far as the Forest of Illusion before we got stuck. That's the area where the main exits in all of the levels lead you in a loop--the only way to escape that area on the overworld map is to find hidden exits in the levels. So we gave up at like 3am and switched to StarFox.

SMW is rooted in the formula that worked so well on the previous installment Super Mario Bros 3. There's a top-down overworld where you navigate between levels that unlock new paths. It's mostly linear, but you have some ability to skip over things, especially in the later levels. The Koopalings are back as bosses, although there are no airships in this one. The game added a few innovations that that become mainstays: Mario's dinosaur pal Yoshi, secret exits, the ability to bank extra power-ups, an extra-challenging set of levels for post-game players, and a new flight mechanic that is kinda cool but also somewhat jankier than previous flight mechanics.

There's a lot of game here. The platforming and controls are extremely tight--this is a first-party Nintendo title after all--and the new mechanics are intuitive and introduced gradually. There are 96 level exits in total, if you want to 100% this game, which I have done, and some of them get downright vicious. The Star World levels (the post-game extra-challenge ones) are not only brutal in and of themselves, but they introduce new mechanics around multi-colored Yoshis that can do different things when they hold a shell in their mouths. There are secret exits here that lead to the Special levels, which are also extremely challenging. The level design gets quite inventive when hiding secret exits, and the Ghost House levels lean into the spookiness hard, with levels crafted to confound and disorient the player. They're wonderfully atmospheric and uniquely challenging, and it's a good thing that there aren't more of them. If I had one gripe about the game--other than the janky cape-flight--it's that the boss fights are a little underwhelming.

I've said before and will say again that the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit was the most significant evolution in consoles, especially the evolution of the Super Nintendo from the Nintendo. SMW in particular was designed specifically to show off what the new hardware could do. This console established the gamepad layout that basically all consoles use today: D-pad on the left, a diamond of buttons on the right, and shoulder bumpers. A number of iconic franchises were introduced in this generation, like Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Existing franchises moving to the new hardware almost universally improved, taking advantage of the added memory and buttons to make things more visually engaging and give players more options, but without having to reinvent themselves for 3D. And I think it's telling that the modern Mario franchise has two distinct branches: 3D exploration games and 2D platformers.

The game that immediately followed was Super Mario Land 2 for the Game Boy, which introduced Wario and inadvertently would spin him off into his own franchise. There was an official sequel (that was also a prequel) to SMW in 1995 called Yoshi's Island that doesn't feel anything at all like a Mario game but inadvertently kicked off a separate series of Yoshi platformers. The mainline Mario games would move to 3D with the next console generation, and 2D Mario platforming would be on hiatus until 2006 when the New Super Mario Bros line of 2D games with 3D graphics launched. And those are good games to be sure, but Super Mario World was the pinnacle.

It's been re-released many times for handheld and consoles and is currently available on NSO.


In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.

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