In 1983, Nintendo changed the world. With the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), gaming was no longer restricted to arcades, but became part of the home. And then Nintendo revolutionised the games themselves, introducing the world to a fungus-snarfing plumber by the name of Mario.
Through the rest of the decade, Nintendo kept innovating with its flagship character, releasing Super Mario Bros. 3 in 1988, which many consider to be the pinnacle of the franchise. Mario 3 pushed the limits of the NES, with its charming aesthetic and assured level design making it a staple for retro gamers. But they’re wrong.
In 1990, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) launched – and its own Mario game, Super Mario World, blew its competitors out of the water. Here’s how.
It’s clear that Mario’s loyal dino-buddy was Nintendo’s biggest achievement in Super Mario World (SMW). Plastered across the box in iridescent green, Yoshi had originally been planned for inclusion in the NES’s Super Mario Bros. 3 – but developers simply couldn’t find enough processing power on their ageing console to make it work.
After all, Yoshi is more than just the Uber of the Mushroom Kingdom: he can stomp enemies into dust, walk across perilous Munchers and stuff his face with all kinds of disgusting-looking creatures (not that we’re judging).
Shigeru Miyamato had originally designed a dinosaur-like creature for 1984’s Devil World, and he was clearly itching to put his ideas into practice on Nintendo’s brand new hardware.
Miyamoto’s ambition is evidenced by the other tradition that SMW started: not only are there Yoshis, but they come in several colours. (The best, of course, is the blue one.)
Not only did SMW introduce one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, where its predecessor had tried and failed, but we haven’t even mentioned the winning argument: look at his little booties!
19. The world is more connected
True, Mario 3 has an overworld, one that provided a blueprint for other franchise entries like New Super Mario Bros, but in our opinion the landscape of Super Mario World feels so much more connected and intriguing.
Where previous instalments restricted worlds to a singular theme – ice, lava, and so on – the Dinosaur Land of SMW really does feel like, well, an entire country.
It’s severely lacking in infrastructure and local government, but taking Mario on a journey through the twinkling caverns of Vanilla Dome before descending into the murky depths of the Forest of Illusion feels real.
Part of what makes the overworld feel so natural is the many different paths to take, from pipes and diverging pathways to the deliciously elusive secrets we’ll mention later.
It also feels great to have a marked effect on the world through your actions, whether that be forging new roads or launching a castle directly into the side of a hill. Especially compared to Mario 3, which is effectively a lifeless grid, Super Mario World stands out.
18. It features the best music in the franchise
Nintendo has always innovated with music. In fact, one of the best arguments for the SNES during the Console Wars was its superior sound chip, designed by none other than Sony.
Sure, there are fans of SEGA’s synth-lite soundtracks, but nothing beats the bright clarity of the SNES. Capitalising on the console’s hardware advantage, SMW shows off a musical complexity that was literally unheard of at the time.
Almost every piece of music in SMW derives from its central motif. On the title screen, it’s a peppy adventure theme, but it’s a credit to legendary composer Koji Kondo that the music suddenly diversifies once you start playing.
Whether you’re in a ghost house, underwater, or in a castle level, the theme changes in tempo and tone while fundamentally remaining the same – as if to say this is all the same journey, but it’s taken a different turn.
And let’s not forget the adorable layering that exists in the game: hopping on Yoshi’s back adds a percussion track that can’t help but conjure memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
17. Super Mario World’s Bowser is scarier (and downright better)
By the time Mario 3 was released, Nintendo had pretty much settled on a design for King Koopa – or, as we’ve come to know him in the West, Bowser. Rather than being a bright green turtle, Bowser had become more dragon-like, albeit still with a spiky shell.
The thing is, the Bowser fight in Mario 3 is almost anticlimactic: he’s not much bigger than our portly plumber hero, and the main way to defeat him (sans fire flower) is to wait while he ground-pounds himself through the floor.
SMW turns that on its head, and gives us a Bowser fight still unmatched to this day. Stepping out on to the castle roof, in the middle of a storm, Mario first sees a horrific flying machine approach, adorned with a clown face.
And then out bulges Bowser, a terrifying mix of spikes and teeth. No longer does Mario’s nemesis need to shuffle himself along the ground, encumbered by his own weight; instead, he drops fire and cannonballs and Mechakoopas on you from the sky.
It only gets scarier once the clown face turns angry and tries to slam you with its propeller blades. Existing before Bowser became a clumsy, comedy villain, Super Mario World’s version of Bowser is still the best, and most terrifying, that we’ve ever seen.
16. The Reznors are the best minibosses in the series
When it comes to minibosses, you might think Mario 3 comes out on top – after all, Boom Boom has since become an unlikely staple of the franchise. Still, for us, the Reznors take the cake.
In part, it’s because they’re so mysterious: these fireball-spitting triceratopses feel very different from the Koopa Kids in their castles, lording it over the surrounding area.
The Reznors perch on their Ferris wheel, in their fortresses, clearly plotting something. Plus, they’re named after Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor – Boom Boom can’t beat that.
The best thing about the Reznors, though, is how tough they are to beat. Spend too long in their presence and the floor starts disappearing beneath you.
Your only shot is to leap on to the Ferris wheel itself and come face-to-face with the beasts. It might basically be the same miniboss in every fortress, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
15. The cape feather is the ultimate power-up
This might be a controversial one. Along with Yoshi being splashed across the box, and Mario himself, the one other stand-out on the cover for Super Mario World is the cape feather.
It’s the signature power-up of SMW, and one that has yet to make a full-throated return to the series. Part of this is due to its incredible power: with a deft use of the cape feather, you can fly across some levels without having to contend with any platforming.
For some, that’s game-breaking. For us, the possibilities it opens up are too intriguing not to love. An improvement on the awkward Super Leaf from Mario 3 (who’s got the time to run a marathon just to take off, and then injure a thumb as you desperately smash the controller?), the cape comes with brilliantly designed functionality.
The ground-pound looks and feels powerful, and the spin feels more responsive than ever. And we shouldn’t discount all the secrets you can reach through the artful use of a cape feather.
The cape feather isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free kind of power-up: it takes skill to master and, best of all, it’s fun! Hopefully it’ll make a return some day.
14. The colours are so much more vibrant
Besides improvements in sound and processing power, the most notable improvement of the SNES was its 16-bit colour palette. Compared to the washed-out look of Mario 3, Super Mario World glows.
Granted, some might argue that SMW’s rainbow visuals are a little garish in retrospect, but the fact we’re all now wearing glasses in this office is a small price to pay for such beautiful colour.
Never before has fire looked so crimson; never before has Chocolate Island looked so darn brown (that’s another thing: Mario 3 doesn’t even have an island made of chocolate, nor any other confection!).
That’s not to say SMW is non-stop chroma; things become more subtle in the murky undergrowth of the Forest of Illusion, while the game’s ghost houses are appropriately bleak.
Mario 3 just doesn’t have that kind of range, with everything looking like an arsenic-drenched Tim Burton film. The game was in dire need of an upgrade.
13. The Special Zone is tough postgame fun
When you reach the end of Mario 3 – after travelling through the Dark Land, avoiding those terrifying hand creatures, and defeating Bowser – the game ends.
That’s all well and good, of course, since nothing can go on forever, but Super Mario World (as usual) does one better. Technically you can reach Star Road as soon as you arrive in Donut Plains, but, given their difficulty, you’re likely to only reach the Special levels after conquering the game’s main story.
And the best part is, these levels have amazing names: Funky, Gnarly and Tubular to name only a few.
These levels are the game’s real challenge, whether it be floating as a balloon through a baseball-pocked sky or squeaking across icy cavern floors, the difficulty of the task – and the sweetness of the achievement – shouldn’t be underestimated.
Even better, the reward you get for completing every level in the Special Zone turns the entire game on its Mario-shaped head. If you want to find out exactly what that reward is, you’ll have to complete it for yourself.
12. The Forest of Illusion is ridiculous and wonderful
It takes a lot of confidence in your game to add an element that’s genuinely confusing, and then draw attention to it. But that’s exactly what the developers of Super Mario World did, and it’s probably the best world in the entire game: the Forest of Illusion.
In short, almost every level in the Forest has multiple exits, many of which loop back on each other, stymying your progress. You’ll need to find the secret exit to every level to move on.
This is brilliant on two counts. Firstly, it rewrites the gameplay: instead of simply moving from left to right through the stage, you now have to solve a puzzle, finding a secret room that contains a key, or a power-up that can help you reach a key in plain sight.
Secondly, this secrets-first approach encourages the player to go back and unlock even more pathways in previous worlds, and there are plenty.
And if this wasn’t enough to sell the Forest of Illusion to you, consider that the boss is none other than Roy Koopa, a turtle who wears fabulous pink sunglasses. It’s perfect.
11. The Spin Jump is one of Mario’s greatest innovations
The Mario series, at its core, is about two things: running and jumping. Forget Bowser, forget the Princess – the majority of time you spend in the game you’ll be running and jumping, and Nintendo has innovated on these mechanics like no other.
By Mario 3, the physics of Mario were well established, and the character feels suitably weighty yet agile enough to not be cumbersome. Super Mario World, however, added a variation on jumping that brought a new dimension to the series: the spin jump.
Used to bounce off spikier enemies, and entirely crush others under your two rotating feet, the spin jump is an innovation that deserves more praise.
Where Mario 3 insists you stand there and wait while a Spiny shuffles on by, SMW encourages you to jolt off the creature’s noggin like a moustachioed spinning top.
The spin jump maintains your speed, looks cool, and has a really satisfying sound effect. It’s even better when playing as Fire Mario, with every spin jump sending out fireballs quicker than you can say ‘centrifugal force’. Mario 3 either couldn’t or didn’t want to innovate, and Super Mario World did. That’s why it’s so much more playable today.
10. There’s much less…randomness
It’s no accident that randomness pervades video games, especially the earlier ones. Randomness is fun: something in our brain gets prodded whenever we don’t know the outcome, and the risk of failure makes success all the sweeter. (Please gamble responsibly.)
Sometimes, however, randomness is used as a substitute, a mask for another failing. And, at risk of being skewered by the diehard fans, that’s what Mario 3 succumbs to.
Whether it’s the mushroom houses that, more often than not, give you a power-up you don’t need, or those terrifying hands that pull you down when you just want to get to Bowser’s lair (those digits have been the death of many of a speed run), Mario 3’s kind of randomness just isn’t fun.
By contrast, Super Mario World doesn’t feature much randomness at all. You could argue that the bonus game is intended to be random, but it’s actually a rhythm-based experience that allows a skilled player to hit the jackpot most of the time.
Whether the overworld enemies in Mario 3 are a good or bad random element is a bit murkier. Regardless, Super Mario World manages just fine without them.
9. The story keeps it simple
Just as the development of the Mario series hasn’t been quite straightforward, so the franchise’s story has gone down some pretty strange routes, too.
The first Mario sees you attempting to rescue a princess from the evil Bowser, which is fairly plain – but then a spanner got thrown in the works. The sequel to Super Mario Bros was deemed too difficult for a Western audience, meaning an entirely different game, Doki Doki Panic, was rebranded as a Mario title. This sees the gang travel to ‘Subcon’ to defeat a giant frog named Wart. Weird.
By the time Mario 3 rolled around, the classic gameplay was back, but the plot was still wonky. Bowser has invaded – so far, so good – and transformed all of the Mushroom Kingdom’s kings into animals with a magic wand. Who knew that the Mushroom Kingdom had such a decentralised power structure?
And don’t get us started on how Mario 3 is actually a stage play, evidenced by the bolted-on ‘set’ and how Mario exits the stage at the end of the level. We wanted to play Mario, not the Matrix.
Super Mario World, on the other hand, keeps things simple: make your way to the Koopaling who’s taken over each land, then pummel them to death. Sometimes simplicity is refreshing.
8. It has much better verticality
Since the series’ inception, the Mario games have all been about one thing: moving from the left of the screen to the right of the screen, overcoming whatever obstacles are in between you and the goal. Super Mario World changed that.
Not content with only one direction of travel, SMW introduced levels and level segments with a much greater emphasis on verticality.
True, Mario has always had to contend with multi-level platforms, but Super Mario World’s bonus rooms and emphasis on the cape feather spotlight verticality like never before in the series.
Consider Vanilla Secret 1 and Star World 1; -these are two levels about ascending and descending a cavern, with flying Koopas and jumping piranha plants nipping at your heels.
And we’d be remiss not to mention the upwards throw, which means you can nail those exact enemies with a well-timed shell. In Mario 3, you’d just have to sneak around them or be eaten alive. Not great choices!
7. Super Mario World’s cutscenes are hilarious
Some might enjoy the theatrical aesthetics of Mario 3, but there’s no doubt that Super Mario World has the best cutscenes in the franchise.
On defeating each castle, Mario rescues a Yoshi egg from its cruel captor and sets about demolishing the malignant structure from which it came. To begin with, he just uses a bomb.
But then, as you encounter more castles, Mario’s weapons of castle destruction become more and more whimsical. Whether Mario returns to a lit bomb and comes out with a face full of smoke, or brings down the ramparts with nothing but a hammer, these are hugely charming cutscenes.
There’s even one in which Mario stomps a castle into the earth. The physics of this aren’t quite clear, since we’ve just guided through several rooms, each filled with more traps and monsters than the last, but who are we to question a magic plumber?
Best of all is absolutely castle #4 (Ludwig’s Castle), to which Mario attaches a rocket and sends careening into a hill. In contrast, do you even remember what happens to the airships in Mario 3?
6. It got better with each port
In a symbol of how quickly gaming hardware progressed, Super Mario World was ported from the SNES to the new Game Boy Advance (GBA), a handheld console at a quarter of the size but with even more processing power.
But Nintendo wasn’t content with simply pasting over the content on to a new platform. Instead, they made a significant change that thoroughly enhanced gameplay: Luigi.
In the original game (and Marios 1 and 3), Luigi exists only as a palette swap of Mario – that is, he’s exactly the same sprite, but in a different colour. Hence all of those jokes about Luigi being a pointless rehash of Nintendo’s mascot.
In Super Mario 2, however, Luigi was serendipitously given more utility: he now had a higher, floatier jump – at the cost of less grip on the ground. When Super Mario World was ported to the GBA, this variety-adding change was made.
As for Mario 3, it received updated graphics for its SNES and GBA ports – but they look worse than ever. The colours are saturated, and everything feels squat.
5. Each castle is different – unlike the airships
Designing boss levels is always a challenge, especially when they’re restricted to a theme. How do you keep your levels fresh and yet make them feel like part of a set? Super Mario World succeeds; Mario 3 fails.
Don’t get us wrong, the airships of Mario 3 are remembered with some fondness. The music is certainly iconic, and the theming is excellent. The trouble is that you can hardly tell each level apart.
There’s a palette swap for each airship, and some have minor enemy changes. But at the end of the day, it’s the same, slow auto-scroll. Super Mario World is different: each castle has a specific theme you need to overcome.
Whether it’s the moving platforms of Morton’s castle, the snake blocks of Roy’s, or the skewers of Wendy’s, each castle has a central motif that makes them unique. It’s down to the graphical flair and music to tie the levels together.
Super Mario World’s weakness is that the boss styles are sometimes repeated (Morton and Roy, Lemmy and Wendy), albeit with minor alterations. Still, the game’s level variety makes it leagues ahead of Mario 3.
4. Super Mario World has dolphins
It can be a lonely world out there for a chunky plumber. In pursuit of a distant princess, with only fungi for sustenance, and all manner of foul beasts and mechanical demons out for blood, you need a friend – and Super Mario World provides them in spades. Or should that be pods?
We’re of course talking about SMW’s dolphins. Given the fan appreciation for these goggle-wearing bottlenoses, you might be surprised to hear they only appear in two levels – Vanilla Secret 3, and in a short hidden area near the end of Chocolate Island 1.
You’re able to ride on their backs and evade the dastardly fish of the deep. What other friends do you have in Mario 3? Even the sun is willing to risk the delicate balance of the solar system to swoop down and fry you.
Of course, SMW also provides Mario’s best friend of all time: Yoshi. Interestingly, Yoshi was able to eat the dolphins in the Japanese release of the game.
In the West, this was changed – perhaps to reinforce the idea that the dolphins aren’t enemies. Undercutting this, however, is the fact that Yoshi regained his PETA-infuriating abilities in the GBA port of the game.
3. It has far better enemies
In a series that sees you moving from left to right, what populates the space between the start point and the goal is critical. That might sound obvious, but to skirt around it would be to undervalue what makes Mario’s level design so influential.
From the leftward-moving Goomba in the original Super Mario Bros (possibly the most important video game enemy in history) all the way through to today, enemies are vital to a game’s success. And while Mario 3’s enemies are OK, Super Mario World’s are excellent.
Compare, for example, the two games’ versions of Dry Bones. Mario 3’s enemy is pretty much a recreation of the original: a quadruped that crumbles into a pile of bones when stomped.
SMW’s, on the other hand, is a bipedal, bone-throwing nightmare. Plus, now you can permanently destroy them with the cape feather.
As for other enemies in the game, Mario 3 does have that memorable angry sun. But we’ll wager that being incessantly pursued by a Porcu-Puffer, as you struggle in the water, is far scarier.
2. Super Mario World has a sunken ghost ship
We have to respect confidence, and Super Mario World is definitely confident. In fact, it trash-talks its immediate predecessor within the game itself.
That’s probably reaching too far, especially since most of the team who worked on SMW had also worked on Mario 3, but something needs to explain the presence of the sunken ghost ship.
This is an Easter egg that flies over the head of many players. And you know what else flies? The airships from Mario 3. That’s right – the ghost-infested sunken ship of SMW is actually a downed aircraft from the previous game.
Since you’ve tackled several ghost houses by now, it’s a daring move to suddenly shift the gameplay underwater. And as you explore the abandoned decks, and seas of ghosts fade in and out around you, you truly feel like you’re on the very knife-edge of the difficulty curve.
Plus, you complete it by touching a mysterious orb at the end, the only example of this in the entire game and since. That’s one intriguing level.
1. It wasn’t featured in a dated movie…
Ultimately, what we’re arguing is that Super Mario World has aged better than Super Mario Bros 3. Partly that’s down to game design and processing power, as we’ve discussed. But were hardware capabilities equal, and even if Mario 3 had features like Yoshi, it would still be dated. Why? It was featured in a dated movie.
We’re of course talking about The Wizard. Chances are, if you’re reading about Mario 3, and you’ve read right down to the final point, then you love The Wizard; it’s definitely been reappraised as a cult film, even if it attracted negative reviews on release.
The film is renowned for its extensive product placement of Nintendo games, and in fact served to introduce Mario 3 to the North American market.
At the climax, Jimmy and Lucas go head to head on Mario 3 (which, while it has multiplayer functionality, isn’t exactly thrilling), with Lucas wielding the infamous Nintendo Power Glove.
But even if you love The Wizard, it’s hard to deny that it dates everything in it, from the Glove, to the Nintendo Power Line to – yes – Mario 3 itself. Super Mario World doesn’t need to worry about being so definitively set in time. Apart from commercials like these.