The Best Video Game Ever: “Super Mario World”

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever.  To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.

See that thing? Jump on its head. No, wait, jump on everyone’s head. Except that plant, and that ghost, also watch out for those spikes. Duck that fireball, or have your dinosaur eat it. You’re underwater, now your hopping on stars, but you just got hit, so you better drop that mushroom before you go any further. It’s about random platforms, and fast music, and showing you what it’s like to dream while you’re still wide awake. It’s the best video game ever.

Best, from the Old English “beste,” meaning “first” or “in the best manner.” Per the Oxford English Dictionary it means “of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.” Or according to Merriam Webster: a superlative of good describing that which is the “most productive of good” or “offering or producing the greatest advantage, utility, or satisfaction.”

Super Mario World marked something of an apex for not just traditional 2D platformers, but video games as a whole, based at that time on how far they had come and where they would eventually end up.

Its systems are complex but still elegant, and surprisingly intuitive despite how unintuitive the things they form and represent are (Italian plumbers hopping toadstools, flying dinosaurs, etc.) The aesthetic presentation, visually and aurally, is finely tuned to be both delightfully evocative and extremely efficient at conveying information (isn’t that a beautiful cloud! Also duck here to dodge this giant bullet).

Video, from the Latin “videre” for “to see” or “I see.” Related to the word “vision” as in “something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural.” A noun meaning “the recording, reproducing, or broadcasting of moving visual images.”

To play a video game means to manipulate images on a screen and, to a lesser degree, the sounds that accompany them (though in recent years a number of hit titles have made the manipulation of the latter the primary component: see Rock Band, Sound Shapes, etc.) The ease with which this is possible in Super Mario World, while still providing the obstacles and interruptions which keep the flow from becoming deathly monotonous, has rarely been matched in new games, and even when it has a debt is clearly owed to the father.

snes-super-mario-world-2You can move tokens on a chessboard according to certain rules, hear the satisfying thud of a piece as it places the opponent’s King in check, and watch as they react by changing the layout of the board on their turn, and you’d be playing a game–just not a video game.

Game, from the Old English “gamen” referring to “joy, fun, amusement,” or “an activity that one engages in for amusement.” Often a diversion or competition defined by the rules which govern it.

The rules that regulate how a player can manipulate the images of a video game, and how the images themselves react to what the player does, is paramount, and also inextricably linked to that which they regulate. The images demonstrate the boundaries of the rules; the rules define how the images occur. Like the best video games, except better than all of them, Super Mario World doesn’t teach the player how to play it–it makes playing the game, and the act of empirical trial and error which happens as a result, the same thing as learning how the game works, and thus what it is.

What the constant flow of images on a screen and the independently operating algorithms that drive them make possible, is something fundamentally different from the medium’s analogic forbearers (Football, Checkers, Monopoly). The player is alone, operating not against another player but an unconscious substance. Playing a video game like Super Mario World is more like swimming through water by swimming against it than trying to act on it like you might act on another person or object.

The term “immersive” has been applied to video games on more than one occasion. People who know what the word meant before it was applied to games chuckle at those who employ it in this context. But I think the word is appropriate precisely because it denotes the contact between an object and the smooth, liquid volume that surrounds it. The player is an object. The game’s structure leads the player to associate with an avatar, Mario. The player is immersed in a video game, and Mario is immersed in Super Mario World, and through the connection between these two parallel experiences something magical happens.

Video games as a medium are so arresting in part because they are a medium whose primary purpose is to create other mediums. The 2D space of Super Mario World is finite in theory but infinite in the imagination. Its whimsical presentation and engaging kinetic puzzles are wonderful, but so is the space it creates for one set of colors to dance around another, giving the impression of time and movement, of progress and failure and constant possibility.

mwmpKnown for its satisfying “feel” as players push the mustache in overalls around a small 8×7 box, parkouring off exotic foregrounds while the 16-bit landscapes shift seamlessly behind him, the series perfected this experience in its fourth incarnation. The games that would come later, like Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and the other series partly inspired by these, are remarkable in their own right, but variations on a long running theme–not essential moments in and of themselves.

Ever, from the Old English “æfre” meaning “at any time; always.” Also associated with “at all times” and “forever.” Sometimes invoking the sense of “out of all things: this.” A way of setting something apart.

Super Mario World is the best for two reasons. The first is that it nearly perfected the cornerstone of all video games: creating an amusing or fun experience through how the player interacts with systems in order to make images move. The second is having achieved that early enough to make it a central, formative moment in video game development. Mirror’s Edge is a translation rather than an original language. It’s French–not Latin. Despite the passage of over two decades, the third-person action games and first-person shooters of today that want to get it right can still look to Super Mario World to figure out how.

The game alternates between fast and slow. The game brackets out progress into manageable chunks. The game has sequential parts but no strict breaks, with discrete levels that nevertheless flow into one another, the way a good maze confuses and misleads while still drawing its inhabitant eventually to the exit.

The game has secrets locked deep within its matrix of traversable paths. It also has no problem daring the obvious, and keeping it just within reach. And there are enemies and power ups, levels and bosses, points and time limits–each depicted by a loving arrangement of pixels and sound effects that twinkle. But most of all, Super Mario World is a game with a sublime array of frequencies. Playing the game is about vibrating at the right ones, at the right times, not because you need to save the Princess, although you can, or collect the most points, since nobody’s counting, but because the joy of Super Mario World comes from falling down and jumping back up again, giving up on the first wave so you can ride the better one, each time sliding back into the space between yourself and not yourself, the images you control and the ones coming at you–a place with fixed boundaries but endless possibilities.

It’s all there. This time and for always. Whether you want to make the next best video game ever, or just go back and play the original one.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Video Game Ever: “Super Mario World”

  1. I bought a GameBoy for that game alone. And Metroid.

    It’s a little embarrassing, because I have to put on my Grandpa Glasses, and sequester myself in the house with headphones, but those two games are just fun.

    And Ethan–I’ve always enjoyed your writing, but I’ve never seen you unfurl the superlatives like you have for this post. It’s almost as though you’re writing about a religious-ecstatic experience.

    And I thought I loved that game…

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