The Super Mario Bros. games on the NES had one of the most impressive examples of growth and evolution of any series on the same system. With Super Mario Bros. 3 making such a drastic leap forward for the series, does Super Mario World have any chance of moving the series ahead to the same extent? Well, no, that’s pretty much impossible. However, just being better than Super Mario Bros. 3 by any margin would be a huge accomplishment. Will the power of the Super NES allow SMW to achieve that?
After repeatedly saving his own world and doing some charity work to save other ones, Mario decides to finally go on vacation. Mario, Princess Toadstool, and Luigi visit the uncharted Dinosaur Land, which apparently would have been a peaceful and relaxing place if things had gone according to plan. They do not, however, and Bowser has conquered Dinosaur Land by the time Mario arrives and kidnaps Peach, along with the entire Yoshi species. Rescuing a green Yoshi named … Yoshi, the Mario brothers and their new friend set out to defeat Bowser and the Koopalings once again.
Like every 2D Mario platformer, Super Mario World is made up of several dozen levels — divided up into worlds — Mario must make his way through. However, SMW makes a significant change in the levels and world map by making them both much less linear. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 3’s eight completely separated world maps where you could never return to an earlier one, Super Mario World has one big interconnected world map that will let you backtrack to any level at any time. As that would lead you to guess, this means that you can also return to levels that you have previously completed — with the exception of castle and fortresses, which you for some reason need to enter a simple code to play again. The levels themselves are more open, longer, and much more likely to combine vertical and horizontal scrolling into the core level design than previous Mario games.
The core gameplay in Super Mario World is very similar to Super Mario Bros. 3. Mario still has the great feeling and easy-to-control momentum that all 2D platformers strive for and it may even be a little smoother than in SMB3. You do get a couple new tricks in Mario’s basic abilities: you can throw items upward and jump while crouching. The biggest additions, though, are the power-ups. While SMW doesn’t have as many as SMB3, every power-up included is perfectly executed and frequent.
Yoshi is the star, of course. The rideable dinosaur can eat enemies, stomp and walk on things Mario can’t and receive special powers when it has the right color of Koopa Shell in his mouth. The Cape Feather is similar to the Raccoon Suit from SMB3 but better in every area. It lets you fly for as long as you can balance your dives and rises, rapidly twirl through enemies, and gives you a completely smooth glide when landing from jumps. The Fire Flower has the same projectile function as every Mario game, but the Cape really overshadows it, especially since the gliding and flying from the Cape can be done while riding Yoshi while the Fire Flower will become redundant.
No matter how good the controls or power-ups are, they wouldn’t mean anything without great levels to use them in. Thankfully, Super Mario World is just as good in that department. The bigger and more open levels are still, at their core, linear and have the same airtight platforming and pacing as Super Mario Bros. 3. You have plenty of incentive to explore the levels, because Super Mario World has added secret exits.
While the older SMB games would occasionally have secret exits in levels that rewarded you with a power-up or let you use a warp zone to skip ahead, the secret exits lead to new levels you would never see otherwise. You can take different paths through worlds, find shortcuts, and even find some entirely secret worlds. This also lets players who aren’t up to the game’s hardest levels still see the ending, which is a great compromise. There are levels as hard as the ones at the end of Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3, but only players who seek them out will find them. Secrets are now an integral part of fully completing the game and getting the most challenge from it.
That’s not to say SMW doesn’t have plenty of new ideas, either. You’ll climb walls that let you switch between their front and back sides, dodge fireballs while riding a line of Snakeblocks that crawl across the screen in whatever manner they choose, and solve puzzles in Ghost Houses. Memorable new enemies like gigantic Banzai Bills, teleporting Magikoopas, and the long-ignored but strong and versatile Charging Chucks also add a lot to the level design. In addition to that, there are 24 secret exits to find (thankfully, most of the levels that contain these are marked) which ensure you’ll explore the levels thoroughly.
As I mentioned earlier, Super Mario World provides a very balanced challenge, thanks to its use of secrets and multiple paths. The main game ramps up difficulty at a very even pace, using gameplay to seamlessly teach you how to deal with obstacles before pounding you with them. The mandatory levels never reach the challenge of the last worlds in previous Mario games, but experienced players will find it in the many optional levels hidden deep within the game.
There’s also the exploration to find the secrets, which not only adds another layer of challenge but gives SMW the best replay value of any Mario up to its release. One issue that must be addressed is the claim that the game is too easy because you can use a cape to fly over levels. This is only true of a small minority of stages; this will not work for any stage that is underground, inside, underwater, or that has a secret exit. Flying over stages with the cape also requires you to master the timing to allow indefinite flight and go out of your way to skip stages with it.
Despite being one of the very first Super NES games released, Super Mario World still looks great. The 16-bit generation has arguably the best aging visuals of any video game generation and Dinosaur Land looks just as lively and whimsical as it did in 1991. The settings aren’t quite as varied as Super Mario Bros. 3 and the later Mario games; SMW was going for a more coherent world in its graphical theme. Dinosaur Land has grassy hills, caves, forests, lakes, and of course, castles, but nothing that ventures very far from what you could expect on a prehistorically themed island. Even the chocolate-themed section feels pretty similar to a canyon with the rocks simply a tastier color. Despite this, all the areas are vibrant and well-detailed while the characters take full advantage of the SNES’ power to look very close to their drawings. The music is mainly remixes of one theme, but there is so much variety in how it is remixed that you probably wouldn’t notice unless it was pointed out.
Super Mario World is a timeless masterpiece. While it lacks the pure wow factor that Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 had, it not only matches SMB3 but surpasses it when analyzed on its own merits. On the surface, it may look too similar to its predecessor, but the new ideas and much larger emphasis on secrets give it a feel of its own once you play it. The battle between it and Super Mario Bros. 3 will probably never reach a strong consensus among fans of the series, but I place Super Mario World as the best Mario game of the 20th century. Regardless of how you judge it in comparison to the other highlights of the Mario series, SMW is a fantastic game that everyone with the slightest interest in platformers or old-school gaming needs to complete.