Super Mario World – a study of a complex 16-bit digital ecosystem

By Neil Merrett

Super Mario World, released on Super Nintendo in 1991, Developed by Nintendo

Out of some of the more grandiose titles to be attributed to Nintendo’s flagship Super Mario series, 1991’s Super Mario World is arguably the game that most lives up to its title in terms of scope and indeed population.

The game has some 44 idiosyncratic enemy creatures. This excludes the playable and non-playable hero characters, including the Yoshi species that debuts in the game as a dinosaur the player can ride, weaponise or literally use to consume levels and certain antagonists.

Building on some of the cast already developed for Super Mario Bros 3, released three years earlier on the NES console, each of these creatures has their own unique psychologies and behavioural patterns that requires the player to learn and exploit as weaknesses or foibles.

Granted, some are just traditional Mario enemies – such as the literal walking explosive Bob-Omb or the antagonistic mushroom creature Goomba – but with a parachute attached. Yet there are also huge host of surprises and new creatures seemingly ‘living’ throughout the game’s world.

Boo to you

These creatures include the returning ghostly Boo, who is characterised via a crippling shyness that sees it freeze up in terror and going into a dormant state if the player is looking right at them.  Boos are harmless at this point as long as the player doesn’t touch them. However, they will continue to pursue a gamer when they turn their head to face another direction.

Individually, they can be easy to navigate around or avoid, but in a ghost house setting with a larger number of boos, they require the player to remain on a swivel to prevent being overwhelmed from all sides and potentially losing a life.

In terms of character design and concept, a standalone game could almost be made on the concept of the socially anxious Boo. But the enemy design is emblematic of a wider eco-system of friends, foes and passive aggressive lava beasts that give Mario World and its successors so much personality.

That Mario World is built on almost 100 levels spread across a giant interconnected map with secret routes and inter-dimensional star zones allows for different regions to be rendered in the game. Each has a unique looks and climatic conditions that house their own enemy creatures.  A dense forest area entered mid-way through the game for example, will see the introduction of creepy crawly enemies to battle such as the Caterpillar-esque Wiggler. 

A fairly sedate and slow-moving creature to avoid or navigate around. Yet should the player find themselves bouncing on or antagonising a Wiggler with some fireballs, the creature instantly becomes a heavily armoured and fast-moving menace.

A canyon setting shortly after this area introduces being such as the cumbersome Dino Rhino that attempts to ram or pounce on the player. 

Should the player bounce on the creature instead, it will then be transformed into a mini-dino that when threatened can spew jets of fire up into the air.

One of the game’s core revolutions is a relatively open-ended approach to how a player travels across or scales many of the game’s levels.

The fiendish platform challenge of previous Super Mario Games is still available, particularly in the hidden-star world, but there are options to avoid some of the trickier jumps and challenges with the game’s unique power-ups.

 A large number of these levels can be traversed by air, should Mario find a feather item that provides him with a Superman-style cape that can allow the player to make use of air currents with sufficient speed to glide and soar above levels without needing to potentially land once, if they have enough skill or practice.

But taking such an approach, or uncovering a hidden blue Yoshi that can obtain wings and fly for a period of time upon consuming certain types of enemies, risks undermining the broader experience of exploration that is required to find all of Super Mario World’s secrets and hidden levels.

World building is a consideration that we tend to critically attribute to more modern game design and interactive storytelling – think the large amount of optional quests, tasks and moral choices that can be made in one of Rockstar’s blockbuster Grand Theft Auto or ‘Red Dead’ titles.

Yet the often charmingly shallow narratives adopted in the Super Mario series can mask the sophisticated enemy mechanics that the player is required to familiarise themselves with – not just in a single game – but throughout the series’ ongoing development.

Even great games can build their challenge and mechanics around battling a dozen or so characters that may have some generic attack styles, weapons or slightly look.  However, the Super Mario series embraces this diversity of character design as a core and recurring theme of almost all of its games in a way that creates a genuine sense of place.

In this month, of this year, of this decade, it can be churlish to use diversity in terms of digital fictional creatures, but it does reflect a unique strength and example of the universal appeal of Nintendo’s foremost game series.

For many of us, the richness and diversity of our world, is not solely something we measure in terms of the human race’s achievements or lack of.  It is also in the myriad lifeforms that we share our planet with.

Some animals pose a danger to us, others, if we deserve it, can serve as a life companions every bit as vital to our wellbeing as human connection. At their most vital, even inconvenient ‘pests’ can be central to allowing us to survive and thrive comfortably as a species.

All of these aspects are loosely explored in the fairly limited confines of the 29 year-old programming inside a Super Mario World cartridge, even if the player spends most of the game throwing fireballs or bouncing off these very creatures.

Yet their programming creates a kind of unique personality quirk in almost every enemy that borders almost on the psychological.

A Super Mario role call

Take Blargg for example. A mostly submerged lava dragon that will initially reveal itself via a pair of eyes poking above a level river. The creature then submerges itself fully as the player draws near, before attempting to burst above the surface and surprise the player in an attempt to consume them.

The game even boasts its own marine life, such as the gigantic Porcu-Puffer that pursues they player below the water waiting to get them should they fall into the dip below. Not to mention there is also Rip Van Fish, a lethargic creature that will happily remain fast asleep on the seabed without causing the player any trouble unless they get to near and disturb its slumber.

Thematically, in some parts of Super Mario World there are creatures that are decrepit, if not entirely dead.

Beings such as the bone-turtle Dry Bones that will constantly reform after being smashed unless consigned to lava of some permanent form of off-screen destruction.  Not to mention the Thwomp, an antagonistic stone being that waits to drop or slide itself into the player should they get too near or breach its line of site.

Even death traps such as a Ball and Chain or Grinder will attempt to smash the player. They are reminiscent of the fanged Chain Chomp creature that will lunge at the player in their general direction as far as their leash will allow them. They are one of the Mario series’ more evocative creatures strangely missing from Super Mario World. Yet the creature has gone on to be a staple enemy of almost every game and spin-off title since.

There are wind-up Mechakoopas that once jumped on or damaged can they be punted into the air or across the level as a kind of football-style projectile.

Strangely, the game’s most underwhelming encounters come from many of its bosses, such as the Koopalings – an extended family of nephews and a niece of main series villain Bowser Koopa.

A stand-out final battle with Bowser in his flying personal propeller craft is perhaps the most interesting and satisfying of these encounters, with the battle teed up in the last area of the game by the character menacingly waiting in anticipation above his castle.

Super Mario World’s attempt to create a kind of in-game ecosystem remains a central component of most of the games in the overall series right up to their most modern iterations.  This includes Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker series, where players are given large amounts of freedom to build and construct adventure, puzzle or exploration levels often built on the core design and behavioural patterns of a huge number of the most popular Mario enemies.

Perhaps a key factor of Mario’s enduring appeal is not the charming and somewhat shallow design of the main character itself, but the ingenuity of the entire world that the plumber inhabits.

Now that is what you call world building.

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