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Super Mario World is filled with some of the best level designs to grace a 2D platformer. Instead of restricting Mario to the x-axis locked in a sprint forever to the right, Super Mario World shatters the box and gives Mario the freedom to explore. Thus, the levels of Super Mario World evolve from a “one and done” format to, “I need to play this level ten times to see everything that’s going on.” Pipes were hidden in the clouds, keys unlocked alternative routes, and the activation of colored blocks could change levels drastically.
With over 90 levels with varying themes, obstacles, and quirks, two levels stand out on their own as fascinating. Not to discount the other levels, but for the Mario mold, which experienced a battery of tests, Top Secret Area and Chocolate Island 2 spring to mind when Super Mario World is brought up in conversation. They’re so absurdly different than any previous Mario level, and Nintendo has yet to riff on the ideas and concepts introduced in the two stages.
Top Secret Area
Top Secret Area appears early on in the game, after the first ghost house in World 2. Fearless flyers who don a cape and fly past an army of phalanxing ghost are treated to this unique level. Calling it a level is a stretch since its only purpose is to hand out items and give Mario some R&R. It’s the equivalent of a break room, full of vending machines of power-ups and snacks. And a dinosaur.
The Top Secret Area was home to five item blocks. The two on the left produced fire flowers, the middle one summoned a Yoshi, and the right two dropped feathers. This was one of the most visited levels for me. Before the invention of the “Super Suit” in modern Mario games, an assistance tool that appeared after too many deaths that left the player invincible, Top Secret Area gave me the chance to beat difficult levels. It offered an advantage and tools without feeling like I was sacrificing skills or giving up. Sure I would have to trudge from Chocolate Island back to the Top Secret Area, but Mario’s head did not hang in shame, but filled him with a sense of resolve and determination.
Also, Top Secret Area served as a sort of HQ for Mario strategy. Hidden away from enemies and obstacles, it gave Mario a sense of place and ownership. A place to hang his hat and take a deep breath, something missing from many Mario games where it’s all action all the time. There’s the castle hub in Super Mario 64, but even that seemed foreign, cold and strangely empty.
Chocolate Island 2
This is the MC Escher of Mario Levels. It’s strange that so late in the game, World 6, there was an advice block. Surely by now Mario would have encountered every obstacle and understand the fundamental concepts of the game. No, because Chocolate Island 2 is different. It’s the LOST of levels. It defies the idea that when Mario exits stage right that the next screen is a known quantity. The advice block warns Mario that progress is determined by the time left on the clock and the number of coins collected. It’s easy to skip the block, defeat the level and never know that there are nine possible screens to explore.
I ran a battery of tests to understand how Chocolate Island 2 works. The odd thing is that repeating a test with similar variables would produce different results. For instance, I collected all eighteen coins in the first screen and entered the pipe to the next area with 270 seconds remaining. In one instance I was transported to an area with a feather, a ramp, and a wide gap to fly over. Another time I was treated to a lot of slanted platforms and bottomless pits with flying Koopas sprinkled throughout. I dunno! I’m not a Mario scientist, but entertain me as I break down the process.
At the offset you there are two variables: coins and time. You start with 300 “Mario seconds” on the clock (which count down much more rapidly than human seconds) and there are 18 coins that can be obtained, plus one dragon coin. Funnily enough, speeding through the first two areas and getting to the third area before the time gets to 250 ends in the “super-secret” exit. It is by far the easiest area to access.
Now, there are a number of interesting areas to explore if you’re trying to wring the Super Mario World towel dry. By retrieving 0 coins and finishing the first area with less than 116 seconds on the clock, you’re treated to an area of floating bubbles (filled with items!), and some water to swim through. It’s a silly non-sequitur, but worth visiting for the quirk. It represents more of a Mario fever-dream, mushrooms raining down from the sky and no escape in sight. Poor guy.
Heading into the third area after the item-bubbles is an area full of Rexs, the purple dragons. Dragons marching endlessly towards Mario. Adorable, but deadly.
If you collect every coin, but don’t make it to the final area before the clock falls below 250, Mario encounters two P-Blocks and the exit. I don’t know what the purpose of both P-Blocks are, but if you carry one to the exit you earn a one-up. Huzzah?
The other two levels are home to those large green dinosaurs that spit fire, and another that’s a combination of dino-rhinos and dragons.
Chocolate Island 2 is so bizarre, and even after playing through it thirty times at different speeds, collection different amount of coins I’m not sure I understand how Chocolate Island 2 works. But I know I love it. I love the uncertainty, the variables, and how when Mario enters that pipe there’s no telling where he’ll pop out.
Super Mario World is home to a myriad of mystical levels, all of which I don’t mind playing through even in 2012. For some it’s a pinnacle of what level design can be, and redefined what a 2D platformer can be. It’s more than just an x-axis and gaps, it’s an adventure. A massive adventure broken up in bite-sized chunks.
Dang, Super Mario World was a fine game.