The Greatest Games: Super Mario World (1991)

Super Mario World (1991)
Developed by Nintendo EAD

The secret of this writing project is that, despite being perhaps the most famous video game series, Mario is absolutely proving to be the hardest thing for me to write about in this context. What is there to say about Super Mario World which hasn’t already been said about Super Mario Bros. 3 or the other platformers which expanded upon this formula? I can’t even say it took SMB3 and did it better, as there’s been times where I preferred the older game. It’s like trying to define the word ‘the,’ something so foundational that describing it requires more technical knowledge than simply using it.

To put this another way – critics like video games with stories because it gives them something easy to write about.

So let’s try to get technical. I’ve played plenty of platformers in my life; what is the specific element which sets Mario apart? For me, Mario simply controls better. It’s surprising how many platformers out there never end up feeling quite right. The ease of adjusting Mario’s movement as he jumps gives the player a perfect sense of control. Many other platformers introduce weapons or more realistic momentum. Mario keeps things so simple that platforming and fighting are one and the same. But it’s not as easy as reducing all enemies to jump damage. I just played through Sonic 3 & Knuckles, which shares a similar design philosophy, except there are times when jumping will not do damage – you have to jump in a specific way or else the character does not enter the necessary ball form. Other platformers are too floaty, which feels unnatural and reduces the urgency which typically makes the genre engaging. When a platformer’s controls gets too complex, it can sometimes feel as though the game is not properly responding to certain inputs.

The 2D Mario games always managed to avoid that feeling. It’s all about jumping, with the only real complexity coming from its intuitive button mechanics. Mario will jump higher if you hold the button down longer. Most platformers incorporate this mechanic, but Mario’s singular focus means the stages are constantly building upon this one mechanic. World introduces an alternative jumping attack, but this is importantly assigned its own button. There’s just enough depth, but each element is intuitive. We can talk about level design, but even the most basic levels work because these mechanics provide such a solid foundation.

Yoshi was a key addition to the series. Mario’s lovable dinosaur pal changed up the basic mechanics, but again in an intuitive way. His presence offers some nice variety and helps Mario access distant paths. This also leads to a particularly uncharacteristic bit of dark humor on Nintendo’s part. One level requires Mario to ditch Yoshi to make an otherwise impossible jump. His sacrifice will never be forgotten.

With steadily increasing difficulty built around these mechanics, the levels are all expertly crafted. There are also a significant amount of secret levels and alternative paths which reward exploration in a largely straightforward genre. Getting to the final level doesn’t take too long, but the game has so much to offer. With such fluid mechanics, more levels is always better, especially when several of those bonus levels require absolute mastery of these controls.

In video games, Mario’s influence is ubiquitous. When discussing platformers, the easiest option is to note how it differentiates itself from this franchise. Sometimes, these added layers can make Mario seem too simple in comparison. But it’s not simple due to neglect – this simplicity has always been an informed creative decision. Nintendo has done their best to ensure all their major franchises remain mechanically accessible while lending themselves to distinct level designs – the later success of Super Mario Maker reveals how endlessly variable this system can be. Super Mario World just happens to be the 2D Mario formula at its arguable best.

The Greatest Games: Paper Mario (2001)

Paper Mario (2001)
Developed by Intelligent Systems

The Mario series has always been a stylistic oddball, a remnant from an era where character design had more to do with what could pass with limited technology than any semblance of narrative purpose. A plumber fighting a dragon-turtle to rescue a princess is the exact sort of nonsense we’ll accept in an NES platformer without question, because why would we care?

I bring this up because the Mario RPGs were handed the challenge of making some narrative sense of this nonsense. Instead of playing things as simple as the platformers, SMRPG and the Paper Mario games really go all-in on this strange setting, adding a layer of whimsical humor through excellent characterization and then ramping it up through its own bizarre creations. This is where most of the central cast really comes into their own, with special sections focused on Peach really adding to her character. The universe starts to feel like more than a dozen stray thoughts smashed together – or rather, it continues to feel that way, but with purpose!

The fifth generation of console gaming is perhaps the toughest to revisit. Even through the early PS2 era, capturing a sense of fluid motion in 3D gameplay proved challenging for many developers. Most games from this generation simply do not look very good. Nintendo, however, has always had a knack for making limited technology work in their favor. Through its combination of 2D characters and a storybook-styled world, Paper Mario might just be the best looking game from its era. There’s a simple charm about its aesthetics that work even twenty years later.

Paper Mario has the magical feeling of being a beginner-level RPG while offering enough to remain engaging to even the most experienced player. The use of timing mechanics during combat offers a better experience than simply mashing attack until the enemies are defeated like many other JRPGs – all while serving as a reminder that this is a Mario game, where timing your jumps as you land on enemies has always been key. Most enemies having certain weaknesses or immunities also adds at least some thought to basic encounters. Though the game might be overly easy, it never stops being fun. The simplicity of its numbers is also important here, allowing the player to better understand just how much damage they’re doing without much analysis required; these low numbers also keep the battles at a quick pace.

Even if the overarching narrative is simple, with Bowser again kidnapping Peach, there’s so much charm in each of this game’s locations and the characters within. Generic enemies from earlier games are given a chance to shine, and the subplots offer up their own whimsical moments.

Simple is a word I keep coming back to, but I think that’s what really sets Paper Mario apart; this is a minimalist RPG that does everything just right. There’s really not all that much to it, but the presentation is just that strong – and considering how many contemporary JRPGs really came down to rudimentary attacks in everything but boss battles, the lack of complexity does little to hurt. Ultimately, Paper Mario improves what Super Mario RPG started, a comedic RPG that still manages to capture the spirit of a classic Mario game.