I was 6 when I tried learning to fly.
It was Christmas Eve, and I had just received a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. That officially made me the happiest kid on the planet. I rushed over to the Nintendo with box in hand — Mario mid-flight on the cover — and played it for a few minutes until my parents, exhausted by my enthusiasm, told me to go to bed.
The problem started the next day. I played the game and grabbed the raccoon suit right away in the first level. I knew Mario could fly — given the ubiquitous marketing push with its commercials, cartoon series, and McDonald’s happy meal toys, it was hard not to. I knew it was in my reach, I just didn’t know how.
I didn’t read the manual. 6 year olds tend not to. Maybe because its purpose, to teach me how to play, must’ve seemed counter-intuitive. I didn’t need to be told how to play with a toy, I just absorbed what was possible, the way I had when given Lego or a soccer ball.
A few decades pass by and now I know that great craft goes into making a game that gradually teaches you to play without literally teaching you to play. The first few screens of the first Super Mario Bros are carefully constructed to encourage certain behaviour. What looks like a random, if iconic, series of bricks and question marks is teaching the basic laws of the Mushroom Kingdom. This is not an easy thing to do. Just look at the number of otherwise good games that cop-out and opt for a straight forward approach.
The first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 is no less constructed. It gives the player the leaf, which transforms Mario into his raccoon form, in the first 30 seconds of the level. It gives the player a runway, and even has a trail of coins going up, off-screen, hinting at something else above. But all this only seems obvious if you know the raccoon suit makes Mario (or Luigi if you have an older sibling) fly. Flying is never crucial to the game, so it’s completely possible to go through the whole thing without having to learn. This is not unique to this Mario game. In the Anna Anthropy article I linked to earlier, there is talk in the comments about a similar hidden ability in the the first Super Mario Bros. — holding B makes Mario run. While it certainly makes the game a lot easier, it’s possible to get through the entire game without knowing this.
Super Mario World is a lot more forceful when it comes to teaching flight.
Super Mario World is not a game that I love, but one I respect. Just as Super Mario Bros. showed off the potential of the Nintendo years before, Super Mario World was a tech demonstration, mission statement, a genre defining video game for the then-recently released Super Nintendo. It’s big and ambitious by design, and has a lot of ground to cover.
What’s interesting about playing Super Mario World is just how much there is to know and take in. The original Nintendo controller had a direction pad, a start and select button, and two buttons. For Super Mario Bros. the direction pad is somewhat self-explanatory and the Select and Start button take on non-diegetic game functions (in this case, Start pauses the game). The A button is always jump, and the B button is context sensitive, but usually only has one functions at a time. The Super Nintendo controller has all of those, plus another two face buttons (Y and X) and two shoulder buttons (L and R). That gives the player a lot more they can do, but also a lot more that needs to be taught.
Super Mario World takes its time teaching concepts. The game is divided into worlds, each with a set of levels that are sometimes connected by some loose theme. Between levels there is a overhead map where the player can select which level to play. Later on it’s possible, with shortcuts and secrets, to circumvent levels, but the first world is the only set of levels that a player is forced to play through. Knowing that every player is going to, at least, see these levels, Super Mario World uses the first few levels as a gentle schooling: It’s final level, the castle, is an end of term exam.
For example, there’s a level dedicated to the new character Yoshi, the Silver to Mario’s Lone Ranger. Yoshi pops up at the beginning of the level and Mario can ride him. The game unfolds several concepts unique to Yoshi in this level : How to eat with Yoshi, the effects eating the different colour turtle shells have on him, how to dismount Yoshi. None of this is explicitly stated. This is not cordoned off, a separate half-level with overbearing messages telling you what to do. This is a place with its own secrets and wonders. What’s disappointing is that this isn’t always the case. For the more abstract concepts, like explaining that levels that are red in the overworld have multiple exits, there are little boxes that look like speakers that spit out text blurbs when hit. They feel like a cop out.
Flying isn’t even in the first world. The designers are more concerned with keeping your feet on the ground and getting the fundamentals across. Once in the second world the game opens up dramatically (or it doesn’t. Entire swathes of the game are easy to miss). The overworld map in between levels still presents a linear sequence of levels, but there are signs of other destinations off the beaten path. Maybe that’s why flight is introduced then, a metaphor for the freedom the game is now allowing you.
This is the start of level 1 of world 2.
Not a lot going on. A lot of levels start off with this little bit of dead space. It’s a safe area that at least gives the player a second to get acclimated. Even the castles and haunted houses start with a short little animation of Mario walking in. Move slightly to the right and you see this.
This is a Super Koopa. It’s not obvious here, but the cape shimmers (really just alternating between red and yellow rapidly, hence the lacklustre screenshot). This will be the first time the player runs into it in the game, and, one of only three levels in the game where it appears. Note: This is the only level with Super Koopas that the game forces you to play to progress. The first enemy is meant to be picked off. He’s placed in front without any back up. Step on him and a feather pops out of thin air and starts to float down.
Feathers mean lightness, they evoke birds in flight. Grabbing the feather means taking on its characteristics. This is pretty much counter to what the game has done up until the point. A mushroom doesn’t symbolize growth, nor does a flower mean fire. Grabbing the feather gives Mario a cape. Another metaphor. Gone is the raccoon suit and its narrow cultural reference. I have no idea how universal a Superman reference is, but to a North American and Japanese audience, there is no mistaking who it brings to mind. It’s been less than a minute, but a motif has developed. If this was a heavy piece of a Russian literature, I would have scrawled “SYMBOLISM!!!” along its margins
Move slightly further to the right and you see this.
and then this
Those other two enemies do not have shimmering capes. With a little skill, they’re easy enough to avoid. If you manage to jump on one, you’ll notice that they yield no feather. Their real function is to show off how to fly with a cape, which are identical to Mario’s. Each of the turtles scurries along the ground takes off in an attempt to kill Mario. It’s a death trap doubling as tutorial video.
Nothing is quite as important in this level as this little bit. It pretty much teaches you everything you need to know about flight. Now you’re free to fly up above the level and hang out in the clouds collecting coins. Without a feather, the level is actually really difficult. It leans heavy on enemies with erratic patterns and multiple projectiles. Enemies not only fly at you, but they swoop in from above the frame to attack. No, no, you are meant to fly. Mastery of the technique by the end of the level lets you gain access to the first secret of many in Super Mario World a reward for mastery.
In retrospect it seems painfully obvious: Run really fast by holding down the B button and when Mario arms are outstretched, tap A. I eventually learned to fly. It was a feeling of unparalleled joy and I only remember it dimly.
About the Author:
Filipe Salgado is a bank teller, but he swears he isn't that bad. You can read his tweets at @philthe25th or read his fiction at Big Talk, Real Slow (http://bigtalkrealslow.tumblr.com/)
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