Brick by Brick: The House that Mario Built
There are about eight Mario adventures that could easily be listed within the lexicon of the greatest games ever made, and Super Mario World and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System sit on that list. Super Mario World helped define the 16-bit era, transforming the classic Mario formula into something bigger, faster, brighter, and some would say, better. Meanwhile, the follow-up, Yoshi’s Island, is a wonderful vision of pastel colors, majestic landscapes, and beautiful sprites that represent a mishmash of creativity, and imagination that only Nintendo could bring to life.
As the story goes, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Mario to be able to ride a dinosaur and actually conceived the idea during the 8-bit days, but the limitations of the Nintendo Entertainment System made it impossible to include the additional character on the first four games in the series. Yoshi lived only in Miyamoto’s imagination for years — until a newer, faster, stronger and better console would be made. That, of course, was the Super NES. Released in 1990 in Japan and 1991 in North America, the console introduced advanced graphics and sound capabilities compared to other consoles at the time and a variety of enhancement chips (which were integrated on game circuit boards) helped to keep it competitive in the marketplace. The SNES was a global success, becoming the best-selling console of the 16-bit era despite the relatively late start, not to mention the fierce competition from Sega’s Genesis. In North America, Super Mario World launched as a bundle with the console and demonstrated the console’s “Mode 7” pseudo-3D rendering capability. More importantly, Super Mario World gave Shigeru Miyamoto the opportunity to realize his vision and featured a new signature gameplay mechanic: His vision of Mario riding on Yoshi’s back was finally brought to life.
Super Mario Bros. 3 had equipped the hero with a long list of power-up abilities, including fan-favourites, the Tanooki and Hammer Bros. suits. Here, though, the power-ups are slightly different. Super Mario World includes the usual Super Mushroom and Fire Flower, but this time around Mario had new tricks up his sleeves. The best is the feather power-up, which grants Mario a superhero cape and lets him float, glide, and spin-attack his way through stages. Another new and helpful innovation was the item storage box, which allowed for an extra power-up to rest in reserve until called upon. But the game’s biggest addition was Yoshi, the friendly dinosaur who could snatch enemies with his long red tongue and swallow them whole. In addition, Yoshi was able to spit fire, spit out shells, kick up deadly sand clouds, and even fly depending on the color of the turtle shells he digested. Riding Yoshi gave the standard run-and-jump Mario series’ a new twist, but it also proved that Nintendo could deviate away from a traditional formula and still have a massive hit on their hands. And for this reason alone, Super Mario World is one of the most important games Nintendo has ever released. It gave them the confidence to continuously experiment, even if it was at the expense of their valuable mascot. It also helped the Super NES sell millions of units while teens were desperately trying to decide between purchasing either the Super NES or the Sega Genesis.
Dinosaur Land makes for a different setting in the Mario universe which was mostly populated in past games with the standard fire, water, and ice world themes. The change of scenery was most refreshing at the time, and the individual levels mix things up in ways that keep it feeling fresh throughout. In addition to straightforward platforming, players must also work their way out of complicated mazes in several haunted houses. The level designs in Super Mario World are among some of the best and most challenging in any platformer. In addition, the overhead map was a huge upgrade from Super Mario Bros. 3, allowing players to travel around freely from one course to the next. Any stage that a player beats can be played again and again, which is handy since many of the game’s levels have more than one route that a player can take in order to finish the course. 24 of Super Mario World’s 74 levels contain a second, hidden exit which expands the game world even further. Just think about that — the level design in Super Mario World, is ingenious for the time.
Opinions vary on which is the best-looking 2D Mario outing, but my pick goes to Yoshi’s Island’s which I’ll talk about below. That said, Super Mario World isn’t far behind. It’s an absolutely beautiful game in its own right and even though it was the first SNES game released, Super Mario World is also one of the best-looking games on the system. More importantly, it holds up incredibly well, even today. The graphics are colorful, the animations are adorable, and there’s more variety to each level design than ever before.
Legendary composer Koji Kondo is a name that will appear throughout this series and with reason. His melodies, even those that are variations on a single theme, remain some of the best music ever composed for the medium. The music of Super Mario World might just be the best in the entire series and fills up a double disk soundtrack which contains arrangements by Soichi Noriki, and the original tracks by Kondo himself. Koji Kondo’s soundtrack greatly adds to the atmosphere, and demonstrates the range, and quality of music that could be achieved with the system’s sound chip. Meanwhile, the excellent sound effects provide another layer to the soundscape — from the bongo beat heard when Yoshi bounces around, to the musical waltz in the underwater sections, and most notable, Yoshi’s famous screech at the start of the game.
The Genesis vs Super Nintendo debate was a hot topic for any kid growing up in the ’90s and is arguably the first worthy battle in the long-running console war (even though Nintendo sold twice as many units). The Genesis was lagging in sales, but many gamers preferred Sonic the Hedgehog’s blazing-fast speed to the slow pace of Nintendo’s famous mascot. When Sonic the Hedgehog 2 came along in 1992, Sega fans exploded —claiming Sega’s cooler, edgier approach to gaming was better than Nintendo’s family-friendly vibe. The debate will forever live on as to which game and system is better. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario World, are excellent in their own rights, but for my money, Super Mario World is still the better game. Sonic may have been the speedy, fresh newcomer, but Super Mario World is far more complex and possesses some of Nintendo’s best level design. It also has better replay value, and unlike Sonic, Super Mario World stands the test of time.
What makes the Super Mario series great, is Nintendo’s insistence in finding new ways to expand upon its basic concepts in unexpected ways. Super Mario World managed to push the boundaries and exceeded the expectations of gamers back in 1992. Following up on the brilliance of Super Mario Bros. 3 was no easy feat but Nintendo pulled it off with great success. I think it’s safe to say that Super Mario World is the apex of 16-bit platforming and set the bar impossibly high for any future 16-bit releases. Smart, imaginative, inventive and riveting; the only way Nintendo could follow up is to do something completely different, and they did.
Nintendo took a radical step with Super Mario World 2 Yoshi’s Island, opting for a prequel, not a sequel, and a completely different style of game play. Gamers were yearning for a sequel to Super Mario World, and naturally, expectations were high — and naturally some gamers weren’t happy that the series star was given a backseat to a long-tongued dinosaur. In Super Mario World, the game casts players as Yoshi as he escorts Baby Mario through 48 levels in order to reunite him with his brother Luigi, who had been kidnaped by Baby Bowser’s minions. It was a ballsy move on the part of Nintendo, but thankfully, it worked. Yoshi’s Island is another prime example of Nintendo’s constant strive for perfecting video game design and a testament to the abilities of the great Shigeru Miyamoto. In 1995, along with designer Takashi Tezuka, Miyamoto managed to create another groundbreaking achievement.
Despite being released at the twilight of the console’s life, Yoshi’s Island received instant and universal acclaim and sold over four million copies. Miyamoto’s distaste for computer pre-rendered graphics found in such games as Donkey Kong Country led to Yoshi’s hand-drawn aesthetic—a style new to the series—and the beginning of a different philosophy for Nintendo. Yoshi’s Island was all about how graphics would dictate the technology and not the other way around. Yoshi’s Island pushed the capabilities of the SNES to its limits. Taking full advantage of the Super FX 2 chip, the game’s breathtaking graphics, vibrant colors and brilliantly detailed backgrounds make it the best-looking game on the Super NES and set it apart from other platformers of the time.
Besides the graphics being near revolutionary, the gameplay was also drastically different from previous installments. Although Super Mario World 2 has traces of Mario’s traditional platforming formula, Yoshi’s Island plays like a different beast. Unlike previous games, Yoshi’s Island relies on a countdown instead of a life meter. In fact, Yoshi is virtually invincible unless you fall into a bottomless pit or into lava. Throughout the game, Yoshi must carry, and protect, baby Mario on his back. If Yoshi is hit by an enemy, baby Mario will be launched into the air, causing a timer to pop up. Yoshi then has 10 seconds to get him back before Kamek’s toadies steal baby Mario and the player loses a life. Once Mario is retrieved, the countdown stops. Along the way, Yoshi also comes into contact with hidden bonus levels, rides on an indestructible canine friend named Poochie, and transforms into various vehicles such as a train, a mole, a helicopter, and a submarine. While the power-ups are extremely charming, the game doesn’t pack the punch that typical Mario games do with their special abilities. And so, while Yoshi’s Island might be a visually stunning game, the gameplay just isn’t the same. Instead of smashing bricks and hopping around on platforms, Yoshi’s Island focuses more on puzzle-solving and item-collecting. And Yoshi’s Island might just be the easiest of all the core games in the Super Mario franchise, making the replay value a little less satisfactory. There are 6 worlds overall, each being divided into several levels that can take only a few minutes to go through. Each stage holds a possibility of 100 points — 20 red coins, 30 stars, and 5 flowers. Largely the scores are worthless unless a level is completed — but if you accumulate 100 points for all 8 levels of an area, then a new stage, along with a bonus game will open up.
The boss battles are the best part of Yoshi’s Island, with each of them being unique in their own way and each presenting a different layout and strategy. Most notable is Burt the Bashful, Naval Piranha, Roger the Potted Ghost and Sluggy the Unshaven. Equally as beautiful is the soundtrack by Koji Kondo?, the greatest video game composer of all time. The in-game music consists of some of the catchiest tunes of the entire series — from the intro stage to the epic majesty of the final boss battle. In fact, the only downside to the sound design is the infamous cry of Baby Mario which can be heard whenever an enemy hits Yoshi.
While still part of the Super Mario series, Yoshi’s Island has enough gameplay ideas to constitute its own franchise. The game’s story is an interesting choice as the origin story for Mario and Luigi, and the game injected a wonderful variety into a franchise that was still growing. As for the levels themselves, their design is completely and utterly brilliant, with tons of secrets to uncover and bonus rooms to be found. The game’s only true disappointment, however, is the linearity of these levels – other than that – Yoshi’s Island is one of the greatest games on the SNES, and arguably, one of the greatest games ever made.
– Ricky D