It’s Super Mario Bros. Week on Gameological! In honor of the series’ 30th anniversary, we’re paying tribute the best way we know how: a week of essays and articles devoted to all things Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario World (1990)—Donut Plains 1
Donut Plains 1 starts with a joke. It’s the first stage of the second region in Super Mario World’s sprawling fantasyland. Mario is on the far end of some dusky flats, and there’s not much going on. No goombas, no coins. As soon as he walks a few steps to the right, though, bam! Out of nowhere rushes a koopa troopa—one of those sluggish, bug-eyed turtles always hassling Mario—wearing nothing but his underwear and a red cape. So jarring and funny is the appearance of Underpants Turtle that it’s difficult to realize he’s not only way faster than regular koopas—the little guy can fly. Whether or not he kills you or you reflexively jump, bop him on his head, and steal his cape-bestowing feather, the result is the same: Mario’s whole flow transforms. It’s not just the moment Super Mario World distinguishes itself from the series’ past. Donut Plains 1 is the stage where the physicality of Super Mario Bros. games becomes about more than just managing forward momentum.
At first blush, Super Mario World’s cape isn’t a wholly new idea. The raccoon tail in Mario 3 let you fly, too. Neither is the overall layout of Donut Plains 1. Viewed in full, the stage looks downright boring compared to those in Super Mario Bros. 3. “Plains” is right; the whole stretch is just a perfectly even surface save for nine spots of slight, right-angled elevation. A bunch of those flying koopa troopas are spread around alongside some chargin’ chucks—the kitted-out sports bros of Bowser’s army—and fire-vomiting plants, but all of these foes are fairly easy to avoid. It’s clear that the space is open to let you practice flying with the cape and the smattering of coins hanging in mid-air don’t seem to be arranged in any kind of creative pattern that would force you to do zany aerial tricks. Even the secret area hidden in one of the stage’s five pipes just lines them up in dense rows. If you fly like Underpants Turtle—arms out, straight forward—you can’t help but collect those coins.
But the simplicity of Donut Plains 1’s stretch is another gag. Mario’s cape doesn’t grant the same kind of flight as the raccoon tail, nor does it let him fly like those near-naked koopas. No straight line of flight, no easy ascension followed by a slow float downward—flight in Super Mario World is tricky and requires a weird, rhythmic grace to master. With cape in hand, and a stretch of open ground, Mario can launch himself into the air and stay there indefinitely, provided he doesn’t run out of space or get hit. Staying up there requires you to nail an awkward process of dipping and floating, timing your button presses irregularly to alter elevation and speed.
The cape billows up behind him, a cross between a parachute and a kite, and moving with it is unlike any other power up in the previous games. The closest thing to it is when you deploy Mario 3’s frog suit on dry land, but even that just hampers your speed control and elevation. Suddenly, the blank space of Donut Plains 1 gains real purpose. There’s nothing here because it’s where you’re supposed to learn how to use this silly yellow blanket, and the emptiness allows you to do so in relative safety. That hidden area with all those tantalizing coins is a perfect test bed. Challenging you to collect as many as possible, you can keep sending Mario up into the air, practicing the process of sending him into a steep dive and pulling back hard to catch the wind and soar up to new heights with a huge burst of speed.
For all their style, creativity, and deep variety, Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 weren’t vastly different than the original Super Mario Bros. At their heart, they’re all races. Each stage places a series of perilous obstacles in your path—enemies, bottomless pits, or even a ticking timer—and reaching the goal at the end is a matter of managing your forward momentum. Sprint past bad guys and make long jumps. Slow down to manage short hops and densely packed dangers like carnivorous fauna. For the most part, Super Mario World is no different, but using the cape requires a balletic touch. Riding the line between stop and go is no longer enough to reach the goal; now Mario has to dance, to bow and rise according to a shifting beat depending on where you need to be in the sky. Donut Plains 1’s coins, high up and out of view from where you start, are arranged in just the right way to teach the basics of those dips and swells.
After World, Mario always sports moves that require an extra degree of rhythm and delicacy. Super Mario 64’s own version of flight, the winged red hat, takes a similar approach to maintaining altitude and thrust, but even Mario’s unpowered moves gained a dancer’s bent. Activating the triple jump, his highest leap, requires a similar sense of timing to the cape, as do the sweet flips you can pull off when you jump immediately after a sudden change in direction. Super Mario Sunshine’s water-powered backpack can keep you in the air to maneuver over wide open spaces, but the fuel runs out quick and changing directions requires a keen sense of timing.
The spring and bee suits in Super Mario Galaxy, climbing up the walls in the Super Mario 3D World’s cat suit—all of Mario’s strange movements since 1991 are rooted in Donut Plains 1. Anyone sitting down to make their own levels in Super Mario Maker should pay close attention to the model here. Pedestrian layout and physical design doesn’t necessarily equate to boring and empty challenge. Cramming a million enemies between impossibly spaced bottomless pits won’t elicit the most profound response you’re looking for. All you need to completely remap the way your player thinks about moving is a new tool, space to experiment, and maybe a joke right at the start to make sure they’re paying attention.