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There are two ways to begin this.
I am, of course, talking about Super Mario World here and not The Super Nintendo Project, where there were an infinitude of ways I could have gone. No, I’m referring to the start of Super Mario World, where you are presented with a straightforward choice between going left to Yoshi’s Island 1 or right to Yoshi’s Island 2.
(Here’s a secret history for you.
The 1986 wide release of the Nintendo Entertainment System was one of the great marketing successes of 1980s American capitalism, a period with no shortage of contenders for that title. At the heart of the success is simply the sheer degree to which Nintendo triumphed over conventional wisdom. Following the shocking collapse of the Atari-led American video game industry in 1983, the American market was enormously wary of the entire idea of video games.
Indeed, it was in some ways surprising that Nintendo even had the opportunity to try, given that they very nearly allied themselves with Atari in 1983, just before the crash, an alternate history prevented only by a staggeringly unforced error in which Atari executives mistook a Coleco Adam running Donkey Kong at a 1983 trade show as evidence that Nintendo was making a deal with Coleco (formerly the Connecticut Leather Company), when in fact the Adam was simply playing the Colecovision release of the game via its backward compatibility. This resulted in Atari abruptly pulling out of its deal with Nintendo to distribute their successful Famicom console in the US.
Nintendo thus went it alone, initially trying to release the system as a personal computer akin to the still popular Commodore 64 or the Apple IIe, and, when this faltered, regearing the product as a straight video game console, and creating R.O.B., a console peripheral/toy robot that allowed Nintendo to situate the system not as a video game system in the mould of the failed Atari 2600, but rather as a toy.)
It’s more of a choice than it might first appear. The sense of linear progression would obviously lean towards starting with Yoshi’s Island 1, but this undersells the degree to which movement from left to right is a fundamental part of the conceptual grammar of the side-scrolling platformer genre that Super Mario World is in many senses the apex of. Likewise, the world map as visible at the start of the game emphasizes the importance of going right – the path extending forth from Yoshi’s Island 2 has two nodes that are visible markers for where Yoshi’s Islands 3 and 4 will appear, as well as a castle, recognizable as the end-of-world objective.
Funnily enough, I don’t remember the exact circumstances of getting the system. It would have been somewhere in the vicinity of my ninth birthday, which was the official release date, although systems arrived in stores a couple weeks earlier. It’s possible it took as long as Christmas, but getting the system closer to my birthday and then Super Castlevania IV and Super Ghouls and Ghosts for Christmas feels closer to my practical experience, because I distinctly remember a period where the system was defined entirely by Super Mario World.
It seems odd to forget the particulars of this. I remember plenty of other details around the launch – an argument with a video game store clerk in which he decried the still-forthcoming system as self-evidently crap, complaining that the controller was going to be too complicated because it even had buttons at the top of the controller sticks out with particular vividness. (And for all that this is genuinely funny given that the four face buttons plus shoulder buttons layout became industry standard, it’s worth remembering the sublime pointlessness of the L and R buttons in Super Mario World.)
Beyond that, of course, I remember the marketing campaign – a protracted tease in Nintendo Power that carefully stage-managed expectations of the forthcoming system. This was not a new process – indeed, the February 1990 launch of Super Mario Bros. 3 served, in many ways, as a dry run for the stage-managed release of the Super Nintendo. Nevertheless, it was effective – one of the earliest points in my life where I can recognize myself as being thoroughly shaped by a marketing campaign. It was, it seems, the season for it – this was the exact same time period that Marvel Comics was releasing The Infinity Gauntlet, one of my earliest memories of comic book buying, an event series I was firmly “in the tank” for, as it were – an event that is on the one hand entirely coincidental, and on the other hand seems like it must speak to something about late 1991, or the experience of turning nine, or like it must otherwise contain some crucial secret and truth about the world out of which we might finally build some sort of understanding.
(Almost immediately, other companies rushed back into the market. Most significantly, Sega brought the Master System to the US market a month after the NES’s wide release in 1986. This was not, to be clear, significant in terms of the NES itself. The numbers there are straightforward: in the US, Nintendo shipped thirty-four million NES consoles over the lifetime of the system. The Master System, in comparison, sold two million, an irrelevant footnote in a generation of video game history that was almost exclusively owned by Nintendo.
It was not until 1989 that Nintendo actually faced significant competition in the US market, with the twin release of the TurboGrafx-16 and the Sega Genesis in August of that year. Initially it was the TurboGrafx-16, which launched with a high profile mascot of its own in the form of Bonk, the caveman adventurer, that seemed the more dangerous of the two, assuming that you considered a threat to Nintendo’s American market share a danger. But both systems ultimately offered the same basic challenge to Nintendo: they were sixteen bit systems, capable of better graphics and richer sound than the NES’s eight bit microprocessor could hope to offer.)
Yoshi’s Island 1 is, at least, the authorized “correct” choice, in that it advances the job of demonstrating that the release of the Super Nintendo is a big deal. It goes out of its way to foreground the changes to the Mario formula. The first enemy encountered is a Koopa without his shell, an immediate inversion of the order of things. But what is more important is the second enemy, a massive Bullet Bill. Oversized enemies had appeared before in Super Mario Bros 3, it’s true, but the grandeur of this one, rendered exquisitely in sixteen bits with a richness of color and shading that had never been seen before, all magnified tremendously. It’s totally, utterly, ruthlessly cool, and clearly designed so that the game opens with a (literally) big moment.
Ironically, as a challenge within the game, this enemy is only difficult if you are taken in by the glamour of the moment. Assuming you opted to play Yoshi’s Island 1 first, the Banzai Bill (as the monster is called) is encountered prior to any power-ups, and flies exactly one unit above the ground, so that it is successfully evaded as long as you simply don’t react. The only real danger comes if, upon seeing the massive enemy, you attempt to jump and evade it, which, if you’re jumping once you’ve seen it, will bring you straight into its path. It is, in other words, only by accepting the technological advancement that the Banzai Bill represents as normal and not reacting to it that the player is safe.
(Accordingly, Nintendo had to react, and so put the Super Nintendo into development. The console launched in Japan in 1990 (where the TurboGrafx, known there as the PC Engine, had been out since 1987), to considerable success. But, notably, to less success than the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over the lifetime of that system it sold nearly sixty-two million units, thirty-four million of those in the US. The Super Nintendo, in contrast, sold forty-nine million, twenty-three million of those in the US.
But perhaps the more significant fact are the sales of the Sega Genesis, which sold forty million units worldwide, putting it relatively narrowly behind Nintendo’s system, in marked contrast to the previous generation of video game consoles, where the Nintendo Entertainment System made up 77% of the sales of the entire generation. This time their domination was not nearly so total – indeed, for each Christmas from 1991 through 1994, it was Sega, not Nintendo, that ruled the roost in US sales, and it was only the drastic reduction in Genesis inventory forced by Sega of Japan’s pivot to support their next generation Sega Saturn in 1995 that allowed Nintendo to pull back ahead. For the main heydays of the two consoles, in the US at least, the Super Nintendo was the second choice system.)
Going right, meanwhile, to Yoshi’s Island 2 is, while not quite as ostentatiously technical a demonstration of the ways in which Super Mario World is new and fresh, is nevertheless just as much a mission statement for the game as the Banzai Bill in Yoshi’s Island 1. It features the introduction of Super Mario World’s iconic character, after whom the entire first area is named, Yoshi.
In one sense, Yoshi is just another power-up. Like the mushroom or fire flower, he serves to allow Mario to take a hit from enemies without dying, and affords some extra powers. But he is not a transformation to Mario as such – rather, he’s a character Mario can ride. If Mario is hit and loses Yoshi, he simply runs away, and can in fact be caught again. (Cleverly, he goes faster than Mario at a walk, but slower than Mario at a run.) Again, there’s something not entirely unlike a precedent – the Kuribo’s shoe in Super Mario Bros. 3, for instance, actually works basically the same way. But Yoshi is rendered in endearing detail – hopping up and down anxiously and opening his mouth when waiting for Mario to mount him, with iconic sound effects both when Mario climbs atop him and when he sticks his tongue out. He is, in short, an impeccably designed mascot.
(The reasons for the Genesis’s success compared to the Super Nintendo are manifold. Certainly a well-timed price cut that meant that the Genesis was $50 cheaper than the newly launched Super Nintendo was a part of it. So was the release of Sonic the Hedgehog almost precisely alongside the release of the Super Nintendo. The game was a well-done platformer of roughly equal caliber to Super Mario World, but between its slightly punk-edged main character, which finally gave Sega a mascot that could, if not go toe to toe with Mario, at least hold his own in the cultural landscape, and its trademark high speed sections full of TV-spot friendly loop-the-loops, it served to make the system look technically accomplished and just plain cool.
It is, however, this last word that ultimately matters the most. The Genesis was promoted via a marketing campaign that aggressively positioned Sega as the young and brash competitor, famously proclaiming that “Sega Does What Nintendon’t.” Sega concocted the term “blast processing” to promote the Genesis, a technical concept that, in practice, didn’t mean much of anything, but which sounded big and explosive. The message was clear – sure, the Nintendo was what you played with back when you were a kid, but now that you’re older, you obviously want a Genesis. Even the physical consoles confirmed this – the Super Nintendo was a neutral grey with purple highlights. The Genesis was sleek black, with a harsh, metallic logo that loudly proclaimed exactly what sort of toy this was meant to be.)
But in some ways what’s more interesting is what isn’t introduced anywhere on Yoshi’s Island, namely the feather power-up, which replaced the leaf and raccoon tail of Super Mario Bros. 3 as the item allowing Mario to fly. This was held back for Donut Plains 1, the start of the second world. Indeed, the entire dynamic of the second world is notable – after you beat the first castle, the world zooms out, so that Yoshi’s Island is revealed to be a small portion. Notably, this is not a transition to a separate, larger world map – this is the main map, upon which the castles for Worlds 2, 4, 5, and 6 are all visible, along with the places where the levels will fill in for 2, 4, and 6. Instead, you start on a small inset map before the full sweep of Super Mario World is revealed. (Although this is also revealed if one opts to go left, which brings you to the Yellow Switch Palace, a cul de sac of Yoshi’s Island positioned on the main map.)
There is a subtle but significant shift in how we are meant to consider this space compared to previous Mario games. The fact that the bulk of the world is visible quite quickly, with a clear spiral path leading around the edge of the map, through places that are obviously meant to be filled in defines a clear scope of Super Mario World. Along with the fact that it is the first Mario game to feature any sort of save/password system, and the way in which it takes it exceedingly slow in introducing new concepts, so as to give the player time to acclimatize to everything, the result is a clear message: Super Mario World is a game that the player is meant to explore all of. Indeed, it’s a game the player is expected to beat.
This is helped by the fact that it is, if not outright easier than past Mario games, at least more accessible. Easy-to-get 1-ups abound, and the ability to revisit past levels means that access to an easy-to-farm 1-up factory is generally available, meaning that even challenging levels can be ground away at. A bevy of genuinely challenging levels exist in the secret area accessible via the Star Roads, but these are deep-lying structures meant to be excavated through extended, dedicated play and secret hunting, as opposed to obstacles in the way of beating the game. The result was a game that was, despite being a well-made entry in a genre known for its difficulty, namely the 2D platformer, tremendously accessible and appealing for an entire family.
(Sonic the Hedgehog, it also should be noted, was an exceedingly difficult game. Not only did it feature no save/password feature and what can charitably be called a stingy continue mechanism, but simply beating the final boss was not sufficient to beat the game, instead resulting in an animation of the main villain juggling the six “chaos emeralds” over the caption “TRY AGAIN.” To actually beat the game required collecting these six chaos emeralds, which requires both accessing and beating six tricky bonus stages. This was, of course, in keeping with the tone set by the Genesis’s advertising. The Genesis was the console for self-appointed cool kids, and so of course it had an extremely difficult flagship game. Coolness required exclusivity, and difficulty provided that.
But there’s an ugly underside to all of this. If the Genesis was the exclusive console, the people being excluded were fairly obvious: anyone who wasn’t a boy. That’s what the brash, punk hedgehog, the black and metallic physical console, and the aggressive difficulty were all there to communicate in the first place. Indeed, the concept became brutally literalized in a British ad for the console that, with no investment in subtlety whatsoever, proclaimed “the more you play with it, the harder it gets” with the rest of the ad going out of its way to ensure that nobody failed to miss the real slogan, “Sega: It’s for Dicks.”)
My ninth birthday came towards the start of fourth grade. It was not a good year for me. My teacher was, to say the least, a poor fit, memorably at one point issuing the seemingly sincere advice that I should “stop being so smart.” It was a period still very much defined by bullying, and by an increasing sense of confusion and mild alarm at the world. It was the year I learned about sex, not, obviously, as a thing I had any interest in, but as a thing that existed in the world. It marked the point at which I started to become consciously aware of my basic discomfort with masculinity, and my dislike of male spaces. I had my heart broken for the first time I remember. I learned that I did not understand the world, and, worse, that it understood me all too well. And the Super Nintendo era began.