Super Mario World's Historical Context
Our first step in studying Super Mario World is to understand the game’s historical context. The Mario series, though it seems safe and conservative from a design perspective now, began a revolutionary trend in videogame design. Before 1985, videogames were generally designed along a single axis of obstacles. The axis of obstacles measures the designer’s ability to raise and lower the difficulty in a game by changing one or two variables. A good example of this would be how the aliens in Space Invaders work: they start the level by moving slowly, and then get progressively faster, before resetting (with a slight uptick in difficulty) when the next level begins.
Another good example is the asteroids in Asteroids, which start as a few slow, easily avoidable objects, but break into numerous faster-moving objects as the player shoots them, until the difficulty drops at the beginning of the next level. You can visualize the axis of obstacles as in the graph above, in which the drop-offs coincide with the start of a new level. The up-and-down motion caused by the designer’s manipulation of those one or two variables is pretty much all there is to know about the design of those early games. Pac-Man, Phoenix and Galaga added powerups, but generally these powerups were simply another variable that made the game more or less challenging. In the case of Phoenix and Galaga, the powerups directly multiply the player’s abilities, making the game easier. In the case of Pac-Man, the benefits conveyed by powerups gradually decay across the course of the game, making the game harder in the later levels. These powerups were fun, but they were really just back doors into the axis of obstacles that already existed.
Donkey Kong, in which Mario first appears (as “Jump Man”), opened a different evolutionary path for powerups. Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer, saw that it was far more interesting for a powerup to fundamentally change the nature of the gameplay rather than merely making it easier or harder. Thus, the hammer powerup in Donkey Kong doesn’t simply enhance Jump Man’s abilities, it changes their nature. When he obtains the hammer, Jump Man loses his jumping and climbing abilities and gains instead the ability to attack enemies with a weapon. Essentially, the game temporarily stops being a platformer and starts being an action game. Instead of only sliding along an axis of obstacles, the game can also move along the axis of abilities. Miyamoto’s experiment in genre-bending powerups led to a new kind of game and a new era in game design: the era of the composite game.
A composite game is one in which a player can use the mechanics and abilities of one genre to solve the problems of another genre, making it a composite of two videogame genres. The first game to exhibit all the features of a modern composite game was Super Mario Brothers (abbreviated SMB) in 1985, which is both a platformer and an action game. In the case of SMB, the player uses platforming game mechanics (jumping) to solve action game problems (defeating enemies). Jumping on the head of a Goomba to defeat it typifies the intersection of genres that makes SMB so great. The hallmark of composite design is not just a mash-up of genres stretched across the course of a game, but rather a particular way in which the genres are combined.
In a composite game, the challenges that the player faces bounce back and forth between the two genres. In SMB, this means that the game tends to alternate between platform-intensive levels with lots of open jumps, and action-intensive levels that feature considerably more enemies. The game never stops being both a platformer and an action game, but it tends to alternate its focus between them so that players never get bored of just one kind of activity.
This back-and-forth motion between genres leads to a high and sustainable level of engagement that we can call composite flow. This kind of flow is not necessarily the same as traditional psychological flow, but its consciousness-consuming effects are analogous.
In the early days of the composite game (1985 to about 1994), level design was more or less defined by powerups that emphasized one genre or another in the composite, and Super Mario World is a good example of this trend. Super Mario Bros had only one frequently-used powerup that worked as a genre-shifter—the fire-flower—but it’s remarkable how often that powerup appears in levels where there are lots of enemies to defeat, and not a lot of space to defeat them. In essence, the fire-flower reinforces the level’s emphasis on action and combat (but never removes the need for a timely jump, now and then). This design trend was true for most classic games of the era, in fact. Think of how Metroid or Mega-Man titles featured powerups that defined the levels (or sections of levels) in which they appeared and you can see how designers let powerups guide their design. Super Mario World, which came later, is one of the most essential examples of this kind of level design philosophy in action, as it uses two powerups (the feather and cape) to emphasize one side of the genre composite over another in any given level.
Now, when we talk about a level or section of a level in a composite game that emphasizes one genre more than another, we’re talking about that level’s declension. (I.e., that level or section declines or “leans” toward one genre, but never abandons either genre.) Typically, the declension of each successive level (or section of longer levels) is different, especially early in a game. If the previous level was a platforming-intensive level, it’s likely the current level is going to emphasize action, and vice versa. This is not to say that the Mario team never explored how the level designs themselves could express a genre declension, such as some platformer-oriented levels in which fireballs are available, but not especially useful. Obviously, they did dabble in these kinds of levels for a variety of reasons, many of which are examined later in this document; most of these deviating levels are fine in the situations where they appear.
For the most part, however, Mario games before 1995 shaped their levels around powerups. Super Mario Bros 3 (abbreviated SMB3) is most interesting for the way it uses a huge variety of powerups to achieve the back-and-forth motion of composite flow. Between the fire-flower, raccoon tail, wings, Tanooki suit, frog suit, hammer suit, super star and Kuribo’s Shoe, the designers were able to push powerup-driven composite design to its logical ends. We can think of SMB 3 as being the game in which the Mario creators tested the limits of what powerups could do—a Mario game at its most experimental. That experimental attitude resulted in some truly weird and beautiful levels that people still admire today. That weirdness also had some drawbacks in terms of approachability, though: once the game got too strange or complex, players might not be able to finish it or enjoy all those intriguing side-track levels.
If Super Mario Brothers 3 was Mario at his oddest and most experimental, Super Mario World is Mario at his most refined. Super Mario World strips away the numerous powerups of SMB3 and leaves us with the purest of powerup-based declensions in the series. If you were to illustrate this new, polished dichotomy it would look something like this.
(Note that Yoshi could fit on either side as his tongue attack, dismount-jump and damage-resistant feet help both action and platformer aspects of the game.) The basic idea is that the fire-flower emphasizes the action elements of the game while the feather emphasizes the platforming aspects. This, admittedly, is a slight simplification. It is possible to use the cape to do action tasks, and the ability to shoot fireballs can make some jumps considerably easier (especially when it comes to intercepts, which we’ll talk about at length).
Generally, though, the levels that offer multiple feathers or multiple fire-flowers tend feature a level design that befits the declension the powerup would suggest.
This doesn’t mean that the game features a one-to-one ratio of action to platforming; indeed, there is a lot more platforming than there is action. It also doesn’t mean that whole levels must be either in the platforming declension or the action declension. Many levels, especially the later, longer levels will start off with an action section before switching partway through to a plaftorming section that’s so long it can be considered its own entity. Sometimes, levels will juggle action and platform challenges throughout, and only context in the greater game tells us how to interpret that. By the time the last levels roll around, the player’s skills and stamina for challenges are honed to the point that long, varied levels become fun rather than exhausting. The long levels also allow the designers to synthesize the lessons of various skill themes from earlier in the game to create master-level challenges.
This introduction presented a lot of introductory information without any expectation that the reader should completely understand everything said so far. Everything explained above will be explained in more detail below. The important ideas to take away from this history, going into parts II and III, are these:
- Super Mario World is a composite game. A composite game is a game made up of two or more genres, in which the player can use the mechanics of one genre to solve the challenges of another.
- Like most composite games, Super Mario World keeps the player interested by bouncing back and forth between genres. In the case of Super Mario World this means that the player alternately encounters platforming and action challenges. This means that every level has a declension, i.e. it leans toward either platforming or action—but it never stops being both an action game and platformer.
- Super Mario World belongs to the “early period” of composite design, in which designers shaped their levels and skill themes around powerups. Super Mario World can be seen as the most refined essence of powerup-based design in the Mario series, as it breaks the powerup declensions down into feather/platforming and fire-flower/action.