Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Super Mario World - The Cure for Separation Anxiety
How Mario eased me into a world that felt so technologically and aesthetically distant.

The build-up to the arrival of a next-generation console was supposed to bring with it feelings of excitement and wonder. It was meant to be a time when kids were invited to dream about bigger and better things--of amazingly expansive video-game experiences that weren't possible on our old, outdated hardware. Of jaw-dropping graphical and technical standards that couldn't be met previously. Of radical new ideas and concepts that would now come to fruition thanks to the power of these supercharged machines. Specifically, those of us who were enthusiastic customers of Nintendo were told that the company's upcoming 16-bit system was going to represent a monumental shift in the way we would play games.

Not for me it wasn't. Oh, no--I was pissed about the whole situation. What I'd deemed was that this "SNES" instead represented the untimely death of the NES, which I considered a vital piece of my ongoing childhood. I absolutely adored the old gray box and didn't want its run to end. I mean, this was the console that introduced me to Super Mario Bros., Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Mega Man, Rygar, Castlevania, and countless other beloved classics around which so many of my best memories were formed, and I was convinced that it still had a lot more left in the tank. I didn't know or care about the economic realities of the industry or the increasingly competitive hardware landscape; I just wanted more of those charming 8-bit games whose imagination-stirring graphics and unforgettable music did so well to enrapture my friends and I, our camaraderie evolving title by title.

"Why can't they continue making games for this system?" I protested, angrily, my emotional attachment to the NES' aesthetic qualities perhaps clouding my better judgment. As far as I was concerned, the SNES had to be the culprit.

Oh, sure--I had a tiny bit of interest in the console, since previews revealed that its lineup of games included sequels to all of those long-running series I loved so much, but everything about the visuals in those screenshots I was seeing seemed so repellent to me, as if the SNES was metaphor for a blindingly unfamiliar world to which I wasn't certain I was ready to find transport.

But that was my weak spot: I was a typical kid who wasn't at all immune to the deceptive marketing practices of large corporations. Why, Nintendo, which I naively assumed was playing it straight with me, had the perfect vehicle for its marketing campaign right there in my home: Nintendo Power, which is where I anxiously turned each month to read those glowing previews. And it wasn't just in my home; talk of the SNES was everywhere. I'd hear its name mentioned on the news, though not always in flattering terms ("Is Nintendo stealing our children's souls?!"). The kids at school wouldn't shut up about it. It was on the cover of every video-game magazine I'd see at the usual local establishments, including the Optimo store on 86th Street. Even my friend Dominick, who already owned a Genesis, would frequently tell me about his plans to buy an SNES as soon as he could save up the money.

Still annoyed by what I perceived to be the potentially destructive consequences of the SNES' arrival, I tried my best to steer clear of all of the hoopla, but there was no denying that Nintendo's highly effective propaganda was slowly chipping away at me. The true turning point came when kiosks running SNES games started appearing in Toys R Us and general electronics stores. Some stores had the likes of F-Zero and Pilotwings on display, but the big chains focused on what was obviously the system's main attraction: Super Mario World, which was the only launch title that really had my attention. Unfortunately, I could never get too close to one of those demo stations, because they always seemed to be occupied by an obnoxious group of kids who seemed determined to spend the entire day crowded around the unit. All I could do was watch on and imagine what playing it could be like.

But I didn't mind--I'd made a firm decision that if I was going to invest in this new platform, I wanted it to be under the condition that I hadn't yet seen it up close or made contact its controller. That my first physical interaction with Super Mario World was a genuine "first experience," played on that 20-inch television in my bedroom where so many other games made their indelibly memorable first impressions.

The blocks kept conveniently falling in place for Nintendo, which continued operating as if its executives knew of my consternation and decided to lobby specifically for my business: It turned out that the SNES' planned release date was sometime late in August of 1991, which happened to be mere days after my birthday, when I flush with money and had nothing else to spend it on, since there were no NES games currently on my radar and I was looking forward to only one Game Boy game (Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge). The sheer timing of it combined the desirable prospect of owning this brand-new system before any of my friends all but assured that I was going to go out and buy myself an SNES the moment it became available. Though, there was still a matter of those lingering bad vibes, which made me feel somewhat hesitant about committing to the decision; almost in appeasement to those nagging fears, I adopted the mindset that I should at least try to hold partially true to my former protest, as if to say, "Yeah--I'm going to buy you, SNES, but I don't have to like it!"

It was important to keep up the act, you see.

Back then, there was no such thing as a solid release date, so I did what was always appropriate under those circumstances: I recruited Dominick and my poor mother to help me search all over Brooklyn for my latest coveted prize. The hunt went on for days, our efforts repeatedly coming up empty (some stores hadn't yet received shipments, while others were sold out), until we got lucky and miraculously got a hold of the very last SNES in stock at the Toys R Us by Caesar's Bay Bazaar. No, really--as we exited the store, there was almost a sense that some divine force had intervened and manipulated conditions to help us get away with something of a heist. Though, Dominick and I didn't care to dwell on the topic for too long as we speed-walked our to the car and urged my mother to hurry us back to our house.

Once the car was safely parked in the garage, we rushed up the front steps, into the house and up to my room, where we began unboxing the SNES. Palpable excitement began to build in the air as pulled the cables from their plastic wrapping. The only thing that threatened to subdue our emotional high was the process of setting up the console, which for some reason was inexplicable to us. We wound up wasting about a half an hour trying to hook the SNES up to my TV, since we weren't sure if its AV cables could stack onto the NES' and then forget which wires belonging to which devices as we bumblingly shuffled everything around; then we didn't realize that you had to place the antenna connector onto the other end of the AV cable, which led to our desperately searching through the channels for any visual confirmation of a graphically advanced Italian plumber. We eventually figured it out, of course, but, man--what a mess. 

Now, the afternoon period of any warm summer day would ordinarily be the time when we'd marathon favorites like Balloon Fight, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and Gauntlet II, but today we were anchoring our ship at the shores of undiscovered country, neither of us knowing what to expect. Looking back, it seems appropriate that the story of our first experience played out unpredictably: From the moment that purple power switch was pushed to the "On" position until the nighttime hours, we were glued to Super Mario World, which managed to instantly win me over with its breathtaking title-screen sequence, its clean, vibrant imagery and wonderfully exuberant music washing over me like a sensory-overloading intro to a bar-raising science-fiction film. We watched that entire sequence play out two or three times over, even our arcade-going sensibilities overwhelmed by the feelings of awe that had enveloped us.

Just as were before dinner, we remained hopelessly engrossed in Super Mario World, which was delivering upon all of the technologically impressive hardware capabilities Nintendo Power had been endlessly boasting about: Each stage's landscape was decorated with sloped surfaces, diagonal pipes, and moving platforms of every variety. You could use the newly added L and R buttons to scroll the screen forward or back a few inches, effectively spying some knowledge on surrounding dangers. Underwear-clad Koopa Troopers would dive out from their shells when stomped and then hasten back to retake control to their tiny mobile fortresses. We could climb across long stretches of fencing and even utilize flippable panels to switch to the opposite plane, in either instance able to bump off the Koopa Troopers that could be seen scrambling along on the reverse side. Dozens of Boos hovered atop the screen in Ghost Houses, with packs of them diving down one after another and not a single hint of slowdown.

We weren't sure about the inclusion of a rideable dinosaur--Yoshi, who had been much ballyhooed about--but we were pleasantly surprised about how strong an impact his addition made; we had a ton of fun experimenting with our multicolored dino buddies, who could swallow the equally colorful Koopa Trooper shells that afforded them the power to spew fireballs, cause earthquakes, and even fly! Though, we spent most of our time with Yoshi running around the stages testing the limits of his ingestive prowess--mainly to find out which enemies he could and couldn't swallow ("He can scarf down Spinies? Awesome!").

We battled Bowser's alleged children, who were back with some all-new tricks and the obligatory Mode 7-assisted feats of athleticism--the most memorable battle being waged against the game's first boss, Iggy, whose arena teeter-tottered as we vied to knock each other into the lava (this battle also taught us much about the complexity of the game's momentum system, which felt like a big deal at the time). We platformed along schools of leaping dolphins to avoid the watery hazards below. Blarghs popped out from the lava and tried to eat us, just like we'd seen in all those screenshots. And two extra face buttons meant that Mario now had a new spin-jump maneuver that allowed him to shatter troublesome spinning blocks, utterly destroy certain enemies, and safely rebound off of others that were normally deadly to touch. 

Super Mario World was a game of moments, of which there were many. The observance of each new graphical treat worked to heighten the sense that we were witnessing something truly special in action. And yet there were so many of those extra little details whose memorable garnishment couldn't be understated: How mounting a Yoshi would add a tropical-sounding string of percussion to any stage tune. How you could throw shells in seemingly all directions. How you could use the cape (which at first we concluded was a less-interesting ripoff of the Raccoon Suit) to gracefully glide across entire sections of stages. 

How you could take out Reznors using their own rotary contraption as your improvised base of attack (though, we always took it as a challenge to see if we could eliminate all four of them without ever leaving the temporary safe zone on the left). How baby Yoshis would swallow up enemies even when you weren't holding them. And how Mario would demolish the Koopa Kids' castles in interesting ways, like scrubbing them out of existence, column by column, with a long-handled paintbrush; feverishly hammering them to pieces, Donkey Kong-style; reducing them to rubble using kicks and stomps; and lifting them up wholesale and tossing them away, doing his best to channel Popeye.

And I couldn't forget mentioning that credits sequence with its highly rewarding, ever-escalating victory theme, which started a trend of epically composed ending music for Nintendo's SNES games. Truly, finishing Super Mario World was worth it just to enjoy showering in the inspiriting harmony of its head-swaying finale.

My takeaway from that fun-filled day was that the SNES was the real deal and that I was a fool for ever questioning its existence; I knew now that I needed the SNES and Super Mario World in my life, and I welcomed them so enthusiastically that I was inspired to go out and use whatever remained of my funds to shortly thereafter purchase F-Zero and SimCity. Though, for those first few weeks, all I really cared about was Super Mario World; whether I was alone or in the company of those friends who weren't yet fortunate enough to own an SNES (a "Super Nintendo," as we called it), I'd play Super Mario World from start to finish at every opportunity, always intent on displaying my aptitude for finding every secret exit and achieving a perfect 96 completion rate.

Super Mario World would never run out of surprises, it seemed. I was floored when I completed every stage in the Special World and exited that final star warp only to discover that the game's map had been tonally altered into something recognizable yet curiously distinct. The in-stage changes didn't amount to anything more than the substitution of Mario-headed Koopa Troopers and pipe-lurking Pumpkin Plants plus a few other swaps, but it certainly felt like an extra-mile effort to me. I was so into the game's world that every new bit of information I'd find in Nintendo Power's Classified Information section seemed like a huge deal, whether it was the discovery that you could re-enter a completed castle stage by holding down L and R or that original Super Mario Bros. music would play on the Special World map if you remained idle for two minutes (this bordered on taboo for me considering how loosely connected Super Mario World felt to the 8-bit games in an aesthetic sense).

More so than Super Mario Bros. 3, I thought, Super Mario World did well to provide meaningful callback to the underappreciated Super Mario Bros. 2. Where the former stopped at Bob-ombs, Super Mario World expanded its reach to include Pokeys (which, honestly, were there more to showcase Yoshi's rapid swallowing ability); Pidgets (or "Pidget Bills"), which replaced Bullet Bills once the Special World had been cleared; and even Ninjis, whose unexpected one-time appearance late in the game made for such a memorable occurrence ("There are freakin' Ninjis in this castle?"). I can't say for certain why the number of callbacks was such an important metric to me, but it apparently qualified as a major scoring category.

But my favorite recurring element had to be the opening section of the Sunken Ghost Ship stage played immediately following the completion of Chocolate Island, since it was a direct reference to the airships from the much-adored Super Mario Bros. 3! I'd get all tingly whenever I'd enter the stage and see those familiar crates and guardrails. What I liked to do was open up separate issues of Nintendo Power and compare the games' maps in an attempt to figure out which Koopalings' ship it was likely to be (I believe I concluded that it was Morton Koopa Jr's, merely because it had the most crates and a few Bullet Bill blasters in proximity). I obsessed over the Ghost Ship partly because I felt it was the only true link, aesthetically, between Super Mario World and the NES games.

I loved everything about the game's continuous world map and how it would shape-shift around my exploration efforts--how uncovering and visiting Switch Palaces would fill in those outlined squares and drastically alter certain stage layouts, supplying greater access thanks to helpfully placed platforms and easing the game's difficulty via the barricading of Thwomps and Thwimps. It was arguable among my group as to whether or not its map themes were better than Super Mario Bros. 3's, but we all agreed that the Vanilla Dome music was the best of the bunch and that it was always worth parking the controller for a minute or two and bopping our heads to its hot beat. 

Another thing I liked to do was recreate sections of its world map in Mario Paint using the painstaking method of pasting together 16-by-16 samples as produced in the Stamp Editor. Though, there was always an air of futility surrounding my map-constructing efforts, since it was rare that my final creations would, you know, actually save. It was a complete waste of time, really. 

Man, I'm glad I gave up spending so much energy creating things that only few people will ever see. 

In the end, Super Mario World allayed my fears and proved that the SNES was worthy of space right beside my NES, which it turns out had a lot of life left to live. It remained one of my most frequently played titles throughout the course of the SNES' lifespan and at least for a while became my go-to Mario game. 

Maybe it's because I played it to death, or because newer SNES games like Donkey Kong Country and Super Metroid were taking up all my time, but I found myself returning to Super Mario World less and less over the years until I pretty much didn't play it at all; this was remarkably similar to my experience with Super Mario Bros. 3 and a strange common thread shared between two games whose aesthetics I so struggled to reconcile that I chose to consider them occupants of entirely separate universes. Why I never felt the need to return to either one of them is something that puzzled me for decades. They're just too damn good to ignore, no matter how contrary the emotions they evoke.

I think it might be that Super Mario World's flaws became more evident to me as time marched on. Even when I played it recently, I felt like the game was always trying to slow me down with its brand of watery and scrolling stages, and I found myself drifting off as I waited for shifting bedrock to move into place and for undead enemies to slowly waddle into position. Also, I became annoyed with the game's repeated trick of throwing a ton of enemies at me in stages where charging ahead was initially encouraged, as if I was suddenly running into nasty snowstorms that were intended to kill the game's flow. Parts of it feel truncated, too, like World 4, the Twin Bridges, which for a long time I didn't even realize was a separate world (I was certain it was an extended secret area with an oddly placed Koopaling castle). Compare that to Super Mario Bros. 3, whose eights worlds were packed with stages and creatively diverse.

For years there were debates amongst the neighborhood kids as to which was better--Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World--and I was always vehemently in the camp of World. But in 2015, after replaying Super Mario Bros. 3 after as many years, I don't know how I can continue holding to that opinion; I find that it simply has far more variety in terms of its level design, power-ups, and overall content; its scope is incredible, and I can't see the more-focused World as anything other than its close equal at best. That's still a fine distinction, sure, but a next-generation Mario game should have been so much more; part of Super Mario World's lasting legacy, instead, is that it gives me a new appreciation for what Super Mario Bros. 3 was able to accomplish on inferior hardware, and I'm starting to understanding why I've neglected it so.

As to why I also neglected Super Mario Bros. 3 for all that time? Well, uh, I believe a famous AOL user put it best when he told me, "MRPERFECTION U R STUPET." Sadly, he was correct.

Though, don't take any of what I've said to be a diminishment of what Super Mario World was able to achieve; it's without a doubt an all-time classic video game--a grade-A platformer and one of the genre's best exemplars. More personally, I hold it as a game vitally important to my personal gaming history--a necessary component in my coming to grips with the reality that the systems to which I was emotionally attached eventually had to run their course, that Super Mario World deserved to be judged by its own merits and applauded for how it introduced so many brilliant new ideas to the Mario universe.

Moreover, Super Mario World was the game that provided me the most supportive of entry into the brave new world of 16-bit consoles. It represented the bridge whose golden path was temptation enough for me to unapologetically cross over its sloped surface en route to the future. That's where I appreciate it most.

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