Super Mario World and the Art of Play

Super Mario World: the most iconic video game on the Super Nintendo, and a staple of 16-bit nostalgia. It was a part of many gamers’ childhoods, including my own. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old when I got my first passport to the Mushroom Kingdom. In fact, Super Mario World is the first video game I can ever remember playing, period. My memories of this game float in a primordial soup of early childhood, where early life events exist without any particular order to them. It was a time when I used to watch colorful characters on PBS mornings, while my older brother went to Kindergarten. It was a time when I embarked on everyday adventures in the suburbs of our home in Indianapolis. Super Mario World is the perfect game to summarize the happy and bouncy child that I was.

My memories of Super Mario World don’t come from us owning the game, though. During my first years on this planet, our family didn’t own any video game console. I played this game at a friend’s house.

I can’t remember the name of this friend. I do remember, though, that he loved Mario. He wore Mario t-shirts, he watched the Mario tv show, and of course, he played the Mario games. If we weren’t outside on his trampoline, or in his bedroom building with Legos, we were in the glow of his tv with something Mario-related on the screen. I watched with awe as my friend controlled a mustachioed man, making him jump this way and that. After he got a Game Over, my friend handed me the controller and let me take a turn.

These monty moles were the cause of my first Game Overs.

I followed my friend’s instructions closely, but even then, I often had to glance down at the controller’s purple buttons to double-check which one was “Y” and which one was “B.” It didn’t take me long to run into a Monty Mole and get a Game Over. On my next turn, I hesitated before I started the level. I wanted to keep listening to the overworld theme, with its bouncy tuba and lilting flutes. Finally, at my friend’s request to “pick a level already,” I entered it. I made it farther, but I still never finished the level before getting a Game Over.

I didn’t care that I kept dying, though; in fact, I didn’t care if I even got a turn or not. I never actually finished the game with this friend. None of that mattered — I just wanted to see more of it and be a part of it.

When you ask a kid, or even an adult, why they play Super Mario games, you might be dissatisfied with their answer: “Well, it’s fun.” But what does that really mean? Why this game? Why a middle-aged plumber? Why this weird kingdom with pipes and walking toadstools and turtle monsters? The appeal isn’t exactly apparent.

It’s only when you have the controller in your hands that you start to understand. Super Mario World — and all Mario games, for that matter — tap into play in its purest form. And I’m not just talking about the kind of play found in video games: the way Mario moves, the way he parkours around his world with ease, it perfectly encapsulates how fulfilling it is to just… play, in general.

These grates remind me of climbing on similar structures in various playgrounds.

Play: Just Add Humans

I am a Pediatric Speech Therapist. I’ve spent years learning about childhood development, particularly, how linguistic, social, emotional, sensory, and play skills develop. I apply this knowledge to helping Autistic children (and other kids, too, but primarily Autistic kids) learn to survive and thrive in a world that’s often not a good environment for how their brains work. To an outsider, it looks like 80% of my job is to just play with the child. But during that play, many vital neural processes are occurring. Play is a child’s work. It’s how they learn in the most meaningful ways. Learning during play is intrinsically rewarding – meaning that the action itself is its own reward. Anything learned that way is much more likely to be remembered and used. If a parent comes to me not knowing what to do with their child, I will respond 90% of the time that they should start by just playing with their child and adapt a few things during that play.

Scientists have been seriously studying how play works for a few decades now. When you think about it, play is a rather strange phenomenon. Playing doesn’t help you survive in an efficient way. And yet, play is a vital part of our behavior. And it’s not just for kids — it’s for adults, too. Play offers a myriad of neurological benefits: improved motor skills, reduced stress, knowledge about the world, and strengthened social bonds. It’s not just limited to humans, either. Most mammals play and understand its importance. Dogs display a special pose, called a “play bow,” to initiate play with other dogs. If you’ve ever been to a dog park, you’ve seen it — if the dogs could speak, you could imagine them saying, “Let’s play!” as they bowed. Even bumblebees play. I’m serious! A recent scientific study found that bumblebees played with small balls on their way to and from a hive. They have video recordings of it. If you need a quick dose of cuteness, I highly recommend you look it up.

If you want to get all the secrets, you can. If you want to ignore them and casually trot to Bowser, you can. If you want to speedrun through, you can. There’s no wrong way to play Super Mario World. In fact, there’s no wrong way to play any video game.

There are just as many different ways to play as there are people. Many parents voice their concerns to me about how they see their Autistic child “off in their own little world,” lining up cars, or spinning around in circles for no apparent reason. Behind these concerns is the assumption that lining up toys is an “unhealthy” or “wrong” way to play. It’s a common misconception. I understand that many parents are afraid that these play patterns will ostracize their child or cause further delays. Not to be overly cynical, but attempts of trying to “cure” or “hide a person’s Autism” by policing their play patterns results in the Autistic person needlessly stressing themselves out… and then getting ostracized anyway. Everyone’s time is better spent teaching genuine communication skills and building authentic relationships around their natural play rather than becoming the Play Police. Some Autistic children play differently, and that diversity is beautiful. And other kids will understand that, too, if you help them see it. My usual advice to a concerned parent is: “Have you tried playing that way, too? Give it a shot. The next time they line up cars, take something else and line them up nearby. The next time they start spinning and jumping, you do it, too. Pay attention to how it feels. Try playing the way that your child plays, and I’m certain your child will notice you and they’ll have a positive reaction to you. If they’re struggling to join your world, then you should try joining theirs. At the very least, you will start to understand what that play feels like, and why they do it.”

It takes a bit to learn, but nothing feels quite so joyful and free as flying around with the cape.

Virtual Playgrounds

Whether it’s lining up cars, hopping on every other tile at school, or competitive Wikipedia searching, anything can become a game. Anything can become play. A father’s bathrobe can suddenly become a king’s royal attire. A pile of sand can suddenly become a castle or a volcano. A cardboard box can suddenly become a cave or a rocket ship. These are all, arguably, “wrong” ways to use those objects. But that’s part of what play is. Humans are remarkably good at exploring their world and substituting one object for another. Anything can become a toy. Anything can become play. As long as you aren’t hurting anyone, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to play.

Part of why Mario is so appealing is that he moves just like a child would. His jumps feel like bouncing on a trampoline. His scampering feet feel like playing tag in the backyard. His leaps off of platforms feel like flying out of a swing – capturing those milliseconds when your body is suspended in space, before your shoes delightfully crash into the wood chips. It’s that sense of momentum and sensory feedback that makes moving so fun, and that’s exactly what Mario gets so right as you control him. The foundation to Mario’s fun is his momentum and physics. My first sessions playing Super Mario World at my friend’s house consisted of just that – experimenting with movement. The end goal didn’t even really matter that much. And that was perfectly okay. Ask anyone who has taken the time to master Mario’s controls when flying with the yellow cape. That bob and weave will never not be satisfying on its own.

Mario’s momentum is what gives the game so much staying power.

If Mario is a child, then the level is his playground. The pipes, the blocks, the enemies… they’re all meticulously designed like a series of monkey bars and slides. And in Super Mario World, Nintendo expanded these levels to have more verticality and secrets, persuading players to poke around everywhere. The delightful levels with their various backgrounds and soundtracks creates a themed experiences with all the magic of a Disneyland ride. It’s more than just window dressing; it’s another key component to Mario’s appeal. It’s the little details that give the game its charm — the eyes on the clouds, the echo sound effect in the caves — they immerse you into the bizarre world and make it feel like more than just a set of virtual tire swings. In fact, I’d even say that the little peace sign that Mario gives after finishing a level is another strong reason why people like him so much. It’s a small but significant nod to the player. Mario briefly breaks the fourth wall and shares that sense of accomplishment with you. Without it, the game just wouldn’t feel the same.

The hills and forests of Super Mario World always remind me of the hills and forests I explored as a little kid.

To 4-year-old me, the fantastical levels didn’t feel all that different from the fantastical woods and farmlands that surrounded my home. My family frequently took road trips to the foothills of Southeast Ohio. My mother came from a small town near the border of West Virginia, where my ancestors had lived for centuries. She would put my brother and me in her car and drive us out to visit her extended family. I remember watching the city of Indianapolis fade away, followed by endless fields of wheat and corn. The roads got smaller while the hills and trees got bigger. We would stay with my grandma at night and visit the constellation of small towns during the day. There were, sadly, barely any kids our age in those towns. The relatives were all quite elderly and poor, a crowd of nice but funny-smelling people. While my mother would chat with them, my older brother and I were set loose to explore their yards. Nothing is as boring to a kid as watching grown-ups talk, yet nothing is as exciting as getting a new place to explore. When I see the rolling hills of Super Mario World, I remember the rolling hills of Ohio. When I see its pixelated forests filled with various shades of green, I remember the army of trees surrounding my relatives’ trailer homes, the sunlight blazing through the leaves. I was at just the right age where I could imagine that anything could be lurking in those woods, but I wasn’t old enough to realize that there’s probably just bunnies and deer living in there.

I like that you don’t ever see any tree trunks in the forest background — it’s all just leaves.

I’m sure you have your own fond memories of playing Super Mario World, whether it was in the ’90s like me, or it was later through one of Nintendo’s various digital re-releases. Maybe you completed it 100%, finding all of the secret exists and beating all of the secret levels. Maybe you ignored all of those and just casually finished it. Maybe you just played the first few levels and never finished it at all. Maybe you used a guide; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you used Save States on an emulator; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you tried a speedrun, skipping most of the game’s levels by just unlocking the secret exists on Star Road. Maybe you tried one of those “no coin touching” challenges popularized by YouTuber Nicobbq. Maybe you’ve decided to play one of the many ROM hacks, like the infamous Kaizo Mario, which has spawned its own subgenre of uber-difficult Mario level design, or the fan-made spiritual successor, New Super Mario World 2: Around the World. Maybe you’ve even taken a crack at making your own ROM hack, or tried to make your own Super Mario Maker level. I’m sure I’m leaving something out — the internet is constantly coming up with new ways to play with this game. If you’re unfamiliar with these play styles, it’s tempting to call one of them the “wrong” way to play (I initially felt that way when I saw the “no coin” challenge), but once you see someone play that way and you see them enjoying themselves, you realize that it doesn’t matter. Play is play. Each new challenge and playthrough teaches you something new about Super Mario World‘s design that you might not have noticed otherwise. Acknowledging these different play styles becomes part of the joy of how diverse and different we are as people.

I love these little poses that Mario does. They appear in every game after this one.

In Conclusion

I opened this essay with a poem by e. e. cummings. The way he arranges his words on the page makes me think of the child-like movement you make in a park, or on a playground, or even… in a Mario level. Sometimes you don’t have any words to say other than “wee!” as you jump and run and feel the joy of springtime all around you. It was the perfect poem for this delightful game.

As we become adults, play becomes at best an occasional event; and at worst, it becomes nonexistent. Our time is more limited. We have work and responsibilities. Some of us even have to work two or three jobs just to pay the bills. The Hustle Culture of today’s internet insists on squeezing every minute of your spare time into making money… or at least into making something productive. For me, I can get so caught up in making sure I’m giving the best therapy possible that I have to stop myself from not dedicating my entire day to it. I used to wear my long hour days like a badge of honor… until I realized that it detracted from everything else in my life. I got lucky. I found a better job, I stopped bringing my work laptop home, and my life improved 110% because of it. Me changing this blog’s schedule is also me trying to keep myself from committing the same mistakes with my writing. My body knows when it’s becoming too much. My body knows when it needs a break. My body knows when it needs to move. And over the years I’ve learned to listen to it again.

I finally defeated Bowser in Super Mario World as an adult in 2019 once I got my SNES Classic. Ever since then, I’ve re-played this game at least once a year. And every time I do, I experiment with new mechanics and try new routes. But even with all of those replays, Super Mario World hasn’t lost its magic. It has managed to capture and bottle the joy of childhood. It’s a reminder of the days when I saw an adventure in every backyard. It’s a reminder that when I have the choice between another dollar or some free time, it’s okay to not hustle. It’s okay to choose to play.

Further Reading / Sources

Cummings, e. e. “in Just-.” Tulips and Chimneys, Thomas Seltzer, 1923.

Hiruni Samadi, Galpayage Dona, Cwyn Solvi, Amelia Kowalewska, Kaarle Mäkelä, HaDi MaBouDi, Lars Chittka (2022). Do bumble bees play?. Animal Behaviour, 194, 239-251.

RJ Erickson (1985). Play contributes to the full emotional development of the child. Education, 105, 261-263.

3 thoughts on “Super Mario World and the Art of Play

  1. Homo Ludens… not real or ordinary life. The first time I played Mario was also at a friends house when I was very young. One of the kids there showed me the back of a magazine with the future of gaming. He told me it had “real people”, that went around their kitchens and did chores just like we all did. Obviously I think now it must have been The Sims. I remember the images of the 3d being pretty mind blowing to me. But I never got around to playing the Sims actually. And for a long time I preferred any game where you imagined what was happening.

    Those early games like Mario and Sonic, and I suppose even the Sims were an approximation of a dream like world, they didn’t really strive for realism. They kind of get caught up and associated with early memories of playing them as I imagine toy soldiers or slinkies or whatever else we used to have lined up along Kitchen counters. The world of objects like those is disappearing (in fact even of objects which are not toys) but games still seem to captivate. Even old ones.

    Thanks for the read.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s