Asura’s Wrath: The New Anime

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Asura’s Wrath contains one of the most brilliant player-directed narrative sequences in videogames; a fist fight. The two brawlers dance about the screen, one trying desperately to explain his actions to the other among a flurry of attacks. To evade them, the player must nail the timing for the increasingly frequent on-screen button prompts as any mistake is punished with a fist to the face, interrupting the dialogue and completely ending the conversation.

It’s a very specific kind of narrative device: it’s author-controlled, player-oriented and since that dialogue offered important characterization, each player experiences their own variation on a defined story. It’s completely scripted yet wholly natural. Above all, it’s simple. And just one of a dozen reasons why CyberConnect2’s game is so remarkable. They have succeeded at making a narratively-based game by coming at it from a different angle; making a game isn’t their priority. Through videogames, Asura’s Wrath redefines anime.

Asura, one of the Eight Guardian General’s that protect Shinkoku, is angry.  The first time we see him, he stands arms folded at the edge of one of the countless battle cruisers blanketing the sky, gazing down at the planet Gaea, his toes at the edge of an oncoming war. Then the title card pops. As if to make sure we’re ready for his adventure, we’re invited to Press Start. Hit it and Asura leaps from the ship and charges into the void below.

After a short-lived reprieve, Gaea has been overrun with Gohma, corrupted beasts that threaten to overtake the planet. The other seven Guardian Generals enter as the battle wages on, among them Asura’s solemn brother-in-law Yasha and their arrogant sensei Augus. Fueled by the prayers collected by Asura’s daughter Mithra, the cybernetic Guardian Generals tear through the Gohma and ignite the heavens under the command of Deus, the powerful Lord weary of the endless battles. As the warriors breach the battle lines, Vlitra, the manifestation of the Gohma’s hatred, nearly cracks the planet in half and reveals itself after a millennium. Then the game cuts to a mid-episode bumper.

The commercial-free commercial break makes sense given the opening credits and sets up the expectation for ‘to be continued…” and next episode preview ten minutes later. There are probably a number of reasons why CyberConnect2 chose a traditional anime series structure for their hybrid anime-game, from an attempt to honor the forebearers that inspired it to acting as a mechanism to regulate the games pacing. The name Seiji Shimoda will appear as Director in every episode but other names will be attached to individual ones. It allowed development to be divided without making the seams in the fabric jarring to the audience. Every episode has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The Eight Guardian Generals prove a challenge for Vlitra’s horde, but none of them can match Asura’s bottomless pit of rage, a deep seated fury that allows him to destroy the abomination in a single, multi-armed punch. In the renewed respite, the demi-gods return home to the promise of peace. And then Asura finds his wife murdered and he framed for assassinating the Emperor. Lord Deus’ secret coup is put into motion and the lightning god casts the disgraced father down into Naraka and kidnaps Mithra. Falling to Gaea like a meteor, Asura proclaims his vengeance. When he finally claws out of the underworld, 12,000 years have passed, the Generals have deified themselves and set out to collect the prayers of their people in preparation for the inevitable resurrection of Vlitra.

When a story is as rigorously defined as it is in Asura’s Wrath, the player becomes an actor in its play, performing the actions that reveal the unfolding spectacle. With Quick Time Events as cues, they’re given direction for actions that fit the context of their incredibly engaging scenes. Where the QTE’s are Asura’s Wrath’s primary means of storytelling, the combat between them is built on two types of player-directed action.

The first is a simple beat ‘em up with a move set consisting of little more than an attack, heavy attack and ranged firing mode. Despite its simplicity, the combat has depth; the attack button can be used to catch enemies into combo strings, charges or air juggles. The gameplay certainly doesn’t have the richness of Bayonetta or Devil May Cry but you have a rounded set of options. The second comes as a Sin & Punishment or Space Harrier-style rail shooter that has the character speeding through scripted sequences unleashing a volley at enemies while evading their attacks.

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This is what you need to notice about these two types of gameplay- one builds fight scenes, the other builds chase scenes. The mechanical simplicity is meant to provide an efficient versatility over a range of gameplay scenarios. But given that each button is consistent across modes, playing the games cinematics reinforce your understanding of the fighting mechanics and vice versa. Little about Asura’s Wrath is wasteful.

Actions build up Asura’s Burst Gauge.  When it’s filled, a giant flaming R2 prompt like a brand from Satan flares on screen and activates Burst, a mode that rockets Asura into an explosive rage and initiates a timing-based QTE. In practical terms, Burst is a narrative device that effectively resolves that scenes tension and ends the story beat. They’re micro goals used to create a rhythmic pace. Bursts build scenes which move the story forward.

If you accept the acting metaphor, consider your performance in the two action modes as improv dance among the other actors on stage. As such, there is something almost beautiful about a battle completed quickly and cleanly, where you’ve jumped in and decimated your opponent with skill and nailed that satisfying pull of the burst button in one easy, error-free take that seamlessly transitions into QTE. Successes like that make up for the frustrating moments that don’t go as you’d like.

CyberConnect2 deserves to be applauded for what they were able to accomplish with their character designs. While the Gohma admittedly look like amorphous red and black globs, the main cast is intricately detailed and capable of a wide variety of facial expressions. Watch the cutscenes to find incredibly nuanced and subtle animations, from the movement of their eyes to the articulation in their fingers. They sell these generated models as living characters and direction that was crafted rather than captured. The story would absolutely be less without them.

From top to bottom, Asura’s Wrath is expertly produced. It’s choreographed with fight scenes that manage to clearly portray the action and doesn’t use the same tricks in the same ways. It has a quick, visceral visual vocabulary appropriate for its content. Even the power struggles are designed to test your endurance; they fight back and always make you feel like you’re one slipped button press away from defeat, even if you understand that they cheat to do it. If there’s a problem, it’s in one or two flashbacks too many that slow down the pacing. The sound design hits hard, the silence impacts and (especially in the case of Yasha’s Theme) the music energizes.

The contrast between Shinkoku’s opulence and the people of Gaea is noticeable from the moment Asura falls. Typical of a totalitarian regime, the Seven Deities have commoditized their people, making each life disposable in relation to some nebulously defined social whole opposed to a centralized threat and purely to the benefit of themselves. Scenes where they slaughter entire villages rather than let them succumb to impurity are predictably cynical for their self-righteousness. Individually, the deities are well-defined archetypes for the amount of screen time they’re given but all constructing a complemented unit. Easily the most interesting is the melancholic Yasha, the cool blue to Asura’s burning red, cut to his smash, wind to his rock. Does Yasha wear his mask out of vanity or out of shame?

The narrative is packed to the brim with classic anime themes and concepts right down to its cabal of gods that seems straight out of a Yoshiaki Kawajiri flick minus those blinking background shots, but it’s in how it upends those elements and videogame mechanics that it comes into its own. There’s a scene where Yasha talks to Deus in soliloquy, staring in the direction of the lord on his distant throne in the sky. Irritated at the empty gesture, Asura orders him to ‘Stop talking to yourself.’ Yasha is visibly perturbed, as if Asura had broken some sacred edict. I love it. Asura’s Wrath is a reconstruction of its genre; a martial arts version of Gurren Lagann (right down do the galactic changes in scale and shifts between planes of reality) that remodels the house DBZ built like Lagann rebuilt the mecha that Neon Genesis Evangelion tried burning to the ground. Asura’s act is put in the players hand in many of the scenes with the Seven Deities, providing them with a ‘Shut <Name> up’ prompt that only forces them to listen until they can’t take it anymore. Asura is tired of the endless self-aggrandizing.

By the end of his quest, you know exactly what sort of man Asura is: one that believes in justice and individual liberty, a man uncomfortable with the worship his acts receive and whose only fear is reserved for the welfare of his daughter. Yet it’s harder for him to extend his open hand to her as she cries than it is to throw it clenched at the cause. There’s psychology under the rage that not even he understands. He ends up being the most complex character in the story, just straight forward and direct. He always does what he knows is right, even if he doesn’t always know why.

Where videogames have long tried to implement cinematic techniques onto a mechanical world, every element in Asura’s Wrath’s design was made to construct mechanics onto a cinematic foundation. At face value, that seems a semantic difference but it’s really very important and, for my money, far more honest. Everything in Asura’s Wrath is story-centric- even its title. Read those two words again: they are a statement of fact, imply an analysis of the root cause and promise a journey to quench it. It’s a wrath directed at the policies, the ideologies and the people that aggressively fight others from living the life they want. His game is about pushing forward and letting nothing stand in your way.

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DEVELOPER: CyberConnect2
PLATFORMS: PS3, XBox360
2012

Blazin’ The Trail

 

The early-to-mid 90’s set the stage for one of the most beautiful production company and development studio relationships to exist in video games with the pairing of Japanese companies Quintet and Enix. While their first game, ActRaiser, a mesh between classic platforming and Sim City style urban planning, was an insanely fresh, original idea that would lead to their eventual ‘Quintology’ it wasn’t until the release of their next title that the duo would really show their true genius.

Though ultimately not as impactful as it’s predecessor or subsequent spiritual sequel Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer for the SNES is a rare gem in the sense that it just feels right by taking the basic framework of ActRaiser and tweaking it in a few simple-yet-effective ways. Instead of side scrolling platformer, this new game would be top down in the vein of Zelda: Link to the Past, while the Sim City-esque city planning of the first game would be simplified in a way that makes the whole thing feel more fluid.

In the game you are an angel sent down by ‘The Master” (real subtle) to free the world from the demon Deathtoll, a being who feeds off the souls of the subjects of the King, who in return is granted great wealth for his treachery. A simple setup that leads to a story arch that is ultimately throwaway but with some actually fun, silly moments.Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.43.52 PM

After the initial exposition, the game opens with your character standing in a green, lush yet empty plot of land overlooking a cave mouth that acts as an entrance into the game’s first dungeon. Upon entering said dungeon, you are immediately attacked by monsters that all issue our from a certain point. Defeating all the monsters turns the spawn point into a switch that the player can step on to interact with and where the games’ primary mechanic enters the picture.

Stepping on said switches will have 1 of 2 possible effects; they will either allow you to progress within the dungeon by opening a pathway or will restore life to that area’s town in the form of NPC’s or buildings that Deathtoll had previously destroyed. The combat is based around simple swordplay not unlike that of the Zelda games and you will receive more powerful swords throughout, which admittedly do nothing to raise the level of fun to be had while monster hunting. However, being granted the ability to cast various spells does provide combat with some variety. Taken in short sessions, the combat can stay relatively enjoyable with some fun bosses, but can get repetitive over long stretches but there are enough dialogue based character interactions to keep the monotony in check.

Whereas ActRaiser split the 2 primary mechanics in a way that made you feel like you were switching off between two seperate games, Blazer sets up a symbiotic relationship between the two, effectively causing them both to be more rewarding. Progressing through a dungeon (the gameplay) leads to story progress in the town (the narrative) to form what is ultimately the games overall experience. And although your character’s actions have a huge impact on the game’s world through what could be a confusing system, the developers don’t waste time spelling it out for you. You act, the world reacts, you learn and you progress.

While there are some memorable story beats, and a few characters that positively add to the story, one of the most impressive aspects of the game is how little of an emphasis it places on narrative. Some would consider this a weakness, but when later games in the series like Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma put a heavier emphasis on story, each with a few moments that work, they ultimately suffer by being overly drawn out. Soul Blazer knows just what it wants to be. It drops you onto a field with one way to go, and you go. Progress occurs within your character, and in world in which you exist, and all at a rate that keeps the areas and supporting characters refreshing.

While the possying up of Enix and Quintet that took place in the 90’s resulted in an outpour of quality SNES titles, Soul Blazer wasn’t exactly the game every kid stared at through the window as they hurried through their Saturday morning list of chores. But, in 2014, with the return of hardcore gaming in successful titles like Dark Souls and the rise of action packed indie titles that focus on fun gameplay over all else, the qualities that make Soul Blazer a truly singular experience have never been more relevant.

Zelda’s Missing Link

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLDS

Early on in A Link Between Worlds, the travelling merchant Ravio takes up shop in your house, lines it with the franchises complement of items and offers to rent Link each and every one. This event single-handedly eradicates the suffocatingly linear item-based progression that had reached its logical conclusion even before Twilight Princess put its staggering deficiencies on display. A Link Between Worlds is in many ways an alternate take on an old story, one that reveals its true ambitions at the beginning of the second act as Link squeezes through a tear in the fabric of Hyrule and discovers that every inch of the world and its seven palaces are accessible with the right tool in hand.

The series changed dramatically with A Link to the Past. What originated as a tough, tightly-paced open-world quest in a mysterious land where you could enter the eighth dungeon before you found the first evolved into a narratively-driven hike along a narrow trail that offered regular rest stops but few forks. Then the series transitioned to 3D and extrapolated those concepts out onto increasingly larger scales, maintaining the limited structure while increasing the world’s geography. Nintendo tried to recapture LttP’s magic by recasting the same spells. Zelda became an adventure at odds with itself and desperately in need of rethinking. It’s inspired then that A Link Between Worlds chose that divergence as the point to draft ideas that remain fresh despite their age onto a fully explored landscape. It brings Zelda back to the Hero’s journey it once was.

And by placing him in LttP’s familiar territory, Link’s kick into action is really a soft pat on the fanny. LBW’s got the fireball spewing Death Mountain, the sleepy Kakariko Village and the hydrated Lake Hylia. It’s got the item-based dungeons. It’s got the three act structure. It’s got the duality of universe. But rather than revisiting Hyrule’s corrupted Sacred Realm, the punticularly-named Lorule is the twisted reflection of the great kingdom right down to its dark haired Princess Hilda. This time, the powerful Yuga is the force seeking to resurrect Ganon once again and steal the Triforce. You know what comes next, seven sages and all that jazz.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLD'S PAINTED LINKYou’ve seen villains like Yuga before, the snobbish, almost aristocratic type so obsessed with perfection that he captures beauty and seals it away under glass and inside frame. The archetype is functional here, helping LBW’s new gameplay mechanic integrate into the fabric of the narrative. By flattening himself against sheer surfaces, Link has new ways of moving across known geometry. Essentially defined as on-rails sequences, the paint mechanic provides a new perspective on the series brand of traversal, one that prioritizes spatial puzzles over manual dexterity. As interesting as the painting concept is, for how well it’s applied, for how it mixes up the flow, it never quite coheres with the foundational gameplay. The two textures in the same bite just feel a little off.

But that’s not the case for the art design. The stained glass motif has been used elsewhere in the series, first appearing as the aesthetic treatment for the Hero of Time prologue in Wind Waker. As there, it has a cathedral tone that contrasts the straight forward style of the game world and is appropriate for the aura of Divinity that the series has adopted over its run. Considering how much love music gets from Zelda, it’s nice to see some of the other Arts shown reverence.

The mechanic is exaggerated by the modulating sound design, causing the music to distort and recede, making the great, complex compositions become as one-dimensional as the visuals. It’s cool. So too is how the paint mechanic is introduced, given to you after beating the game’s first dungeon and its use subtly explained as you make your escape.

That moment you see those seven ‘x’ marks scribbled across the Lorule map on your 3DS touch screen and realize you’re responsible for cutting your own path is impressively profound. Even if you hadn’t played A Link to the Past, you had come to know the sunlit Hyrule pretty well by the time you slipped through the panes of reality. Now you’re in this destroyed mess armed with a few weapons and a lot of options. It’s strangely beautiful and disquieting.

Between Worlds may feature the typical set of dungeons, but all nine are compact enough to complete in a snap but complex enough to explore a full concept. Though few of the items are unique to this game and only one has a limited use, the complete set is more versatile than has been the case in some of the past Zelda’s and can cater to your preferred play style whether that’s melee or ranged attacks or enemy management. Since every item eats a chunk of the shared stamina pool, combat is about precision of action rather than freneticism. The series deserves more sequences like the frantic sand battle.

THE LEGEND OF ZELDA- A LINK BETWEEN WORLD'S ITEMThough you can eventually just buy everything, renting imbues the gameplay with a great sense of risk up front. Get knocked out, and Ravio’s little blue-winged thug will swoop down and swipe the goods from your unconscious heap of green elf boy. That’s a great idea, an almost Dark Soulsian design philosophy applied to a staid Zelda system. It turns the death counter into a practical gameplay mechanic where it had only been a badge of shame and finally gives you something to blow all those stacks of rupees on. Praise Nayru.

The unfortunate irony is that for all the advantages to the elegantly simple open world design, the times when it doesn’t offer direction blatantly stand out. Whether it’s missing an item or the game’s main side quest, it can be supremely frustrating to miss that one villager you needed to talk to or that one cave you needed to enter and not realize it until the end of the game. Trust me. Yet here’s a secret: neither of those cases matters in the long run. This is easily the breeziest entry in the franchise.

Zelda has always been at its best when it’s simple and quick. Though 2D visuals are hardly novel for the series, Between Worlds benefits from its use, the most obvious of which is that it keeps the world tight and concise. The economy of space means that you’re never more than 15 seconds from something interesting so unlike the larger 3D titles, world traversal is rarely tedious. To make it faster, not only is there the robust fast travel system a button away but there are dozens of tears spread out so Link can easily slip through the cracks. The game gets you moving and never brakes until you find yourself at the final boss. It’s magical.

A Link Between Worlds gives us a peek at a parallel universe version of one of videogames most important series. It’s intriguing to ask what great adventures Link could have embarked on if The Legend of Zelda had made a different choice in it’s Past. Perhaps that’s a question not worth answering, but maybe this one is: what does Link do with all those items after he’s saved Hyrule? He probably sells them.

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DEVELOPER: Nintendo EAD
PLATFORMS: 3DS
2013

The Saint’s Flow: Purple Stuff

‘Super excellent!’

The Japanese ad for The Saint’s Flow Energy Drink shows Pierce, the hip and youthful face of the Third Street Saints brand division, being mercilessly beaten on a basketball court by armed punks. The situation looks bleak, until an anthropomorphized purple can of Saints Flow descends from heaven and gives him the strength to throw off his attackers, unleash a savage volley of fists, kicks and a clothesline before shooting a Ryu-style fireball from his hands and closing out the performance by atomic dunking a basketball that appeared out of nowhere to a shower of neon stars. The Third Streets Saint’s lifestyle has been canned and is ready to be swallowed.

Great art is transformative. In videogames history, the titles that take advantage of the interactivity of the medium attempt to use our actions to expose a truth that lies hidden within us. While you may learn of deluded obsession in Braid, guilt in Shadow of the Colossus and Hotline Miami and of manipulated destiny in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Bioshock, their messages can be too abstract to easily be anything more than reflective. They require that players understand the lesson and then actively apply it to a future behavior.

Like the brilliant Asura’s Wrath, Saint’s Row the Third as an aesthetic work isn’t a treatise on philosophical concepts but the explicit application of a productive world view the player can observe and put into practice.

Art is the tangible representation of a philosophy working within reality. For story, various philosophies manifest physically as characters that act in accordance to their own values. As they interact with each other in regards to the goal of the plot, each moral code goes from being a theoretical system to a perceivable and practical way of life.

The Third Street Saint’s open the game by robbing a bank wearing the mask of their famous macho badass Johnny Gat, using the giant shades-wearing bobble heads as a tool for publicity rather than anonymity. When even the arresting cops want the gangs autograph, you know the world has chugged them some Saint’s Flow.

It’s not hard to see why. Where the usual crime story MO has the protagonist rising through the ranks, SRtT places you at the lead of a brash, arrogant and fearless gang of misfits that have a penchant for executing an elbow drop from turnstile on the corrupt, the power hungry and the dickish. Instead of being about growth, the game is about setting your direction, moving forward and not letting anything get in your way.

Unfortunately, the bank is owned by the Syndicate, a new coalition of criminals seeking to step in on the Saint’s turf in Stillwater. Now finding themselves in the city of Steelport, the crew needs to build themselves back up. Within an hour, you’re standing at the door of a helicopter, about to jump into the night above the city’s skyline, a parachute strapped to your back while Kanye West’s ‘Power’ surges through the air.

The Saint’s insane, balls-to-the-wall bravado is not only expressed directly through their actions in the story’s plot but in the gameplay and systems to pursue it, from missions that have you falling through the sky unloading clips into dozens of enemies to a deployable predator drone other games would relegate to a scripted sequence and talent tree upgrades that flip the restrictive notion of balance the proverbial bird by giving players infinite ammo, no reloads and invincibility all without making them feel like dirty cheaters for it.

The games perfect tone is the result of a careful balance of contrast between the Third Street Saint’s puckish attitude and the thousands of mundane pedestrians and neighborhoods that comprise Steelport. Yes, they’re absurd and larger than life but that’s why their behavior is so believable and attractive. Regular, everyday life ends up looking comatose by comparison.

In action games, mechanics are stuffed with characterization. Saints Row may have the traditional open world trappings, but as the Saint’s boss, your actions are imbued with the gang’s self-assured cockiness. The inclusion of the ‘Awesome button’ alone adds more personality than the vast majority of games can manage in their 8-10 hour length.  A sprint modifier that allows you to dive through windows to steal cars rather than pull their drivers from their seats and sidewalk surf on enemies rather than punching them, this awesome button adds speed and character to otherwise rote mechanical functions. You experience their lifestyle rather than imagine it.

Saint’s Row accepts you no matter who you are. It doesn’t care about the color of your skin or what you pierce through it- doesn’t care what’s between your legs or what you do with it. It knows that even if you like dressing up like fuzzy animals, are a disgraced pro wrestler or a kink-loving former FBI hacker, you’re a person first and deserving of respect. It loves you (but that won’t stop it from teasing you).

And the true test of a game’s love is in the respect it shows for your time. SRtT knows you would prefer to warp to shore than swim to it, that you want your missile spewing attack chopper delivered to you more than you want to run across town to grab it from your skyscrapers helipad and realizes that you probably play open world games to screw around so allows you to call off your heat because you’re bored of testing your giant purple didoes durability on pedestrians faces. Because it knows your life is finite, it regularly drops cash in your account, rewarding your play regardless of how you spend it.

But you’ll spend it well. There’s a mission where you and your homie start singing along to Sublime’s ‘What I Got’ while cruisin’ the streets in your purple convertible. The scene has the two of you messing up the lyrics, losing the beat and laughing together on a sunny day. There’s honesty here. Saint’s Row is about music and adventure and friendship and playing and silliness and dancing and good-natured rough-housing and self-confidence and chaos. The Saints are what the Muppets would be if they all developed debilitating crack problems.

Saint’s Row doesn’t believe that there’s more truth in opaqueness than clarity, that reflection and introspection, seriousness and solemnity are somehow more spiritually enriching than over the top, life-affirming madness. Through the philosophy of its gang and made-to-break mechanics, SRtT says that life is yours for the taking and gives you the means to make it happen. The result is absurdly empowering, wonderfully optimistic and gloriously inspiring.

That’s important because when we live in a world where bricks of frozen poop can fall out of the sky and through the engine block of an acne-scarred nerds beater Chevy as he’s picking up the school’s head cheerleader for their first date, causing him to careen off a cliff and through an orphanage’s wall, sometimes knowing that happiness is attainable if you go after it can give you the sense of purpose you need to get out of bed on tough mornings. Saint’s Row the Third is a 20oz shot of guarana, taurine and ginseng directly into the soul. It’s the kind of art that makes you a better person. (Attention: Saints Flow is not available in California)

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DEVELOPER: Volition In.
PLATFORMS: PS3, XBox360, PC
2011

A Super Mario World: Exploring Dinosaur Land Through Play

SUPER MARIO WORLD

Super Mario World starts at Yoshi’s House and gives the pudgy Italian plumber the freedom to explore the overworld to the left or right. To the left is Yoshi’s Island 1, a bright and colorful place with tank top-wearing koopa’s, small purple dinosaurs and giant goddamn bullet bills. Beat it and the area around will come alive underfoot. The path dead ends at the Yellow Switch Palace sitting on top of a cliff and the large button that causes matching boxes to fill in throughout the world. With this one action, large scale change has swept across Dinosaur Land. It will never be the same.

When the red curtain fell on Super Mario Bros. 3, the adventure to save Princess Peach from the spiked-shelled-turtle/dragon Bowser and his seven Koopa Kid’s (no relation) had been won with a combination of ability-granting suits and pitch perfect control. Mario bounced around with his belly out like a pregnant porpoise through bite-sized levels stuffed with fresh and interesting content spread across overworlds that felt alive with roaming Hammer bros, optional mini games and secrets to be found with the right items. SMB3 was theater with Mario (+Luigi) cast in the lead.

The Super Nintendo’s flagship launch title, Mario World is a 16 bit cartoon that perhaps scales back its predecessor’s sheer ingenuity but creates a more persistent quest with save feature, stripping out the suits but adding a new spin move and the means to pocket a second item. In between the start and finish lines are stages that took advantage of the SNES’s legendary Mode 7 capabilities to display parallax backgrounds and rotating planes that blended with the foreground sprites to create a sense of place rather than abstract obstacle courses and complemented by fun music and sound effects afforded by the awesome Nintendo S-SMP onboard audio CPU.

Even though Yoshi’s Island 2 isn’t billed as the game’s start, it’s the first appearance of a Nintendo icon- hit an early item block and a small white egg will pop and that lovable green bastard Yoshi will not only hatch but reach full maturity in a few, time compressed seconds. Jump on the prehistoric pony’s back and Mario doubles his moveset to the groovy beat of jungle bongos.

It’s hard to say whether or not Yoshi actually increases Mario’s damage output, but touches including exploding enemies and low frequency booms sure sell it. Regardless, the very concept of a mountable second character kept him from being relegated to a single use, providing Mario one more point of health but causing him to flee until he’s reclaimed or falls into a pit, dead forever or until another of his eggs are found. Now, I understand how Yoshi was in an egg to begin with- man, I sure was at some point- what I don’t understand is how he got back inside it!

Let’s talk about the cape. The start of Donut Plains 1 has you running to the right for four seconds. While not the longest time, it’s more than enough to let you drop your guard, make with the plane arms and enjoy the motion. But just as you fall into the moment, a Koopa appears from the right of the screen directly on a collision course. Because your attention is focused on him, you notice that the little fella is wearing a blinking red cape. He runs at you for a few seconds before jumping, putting his arms forward like Superman and starting to fly. Jump on him and a feather pops out. Grab it and that cape is yours. This simple moment tells you much: it quietly teaches you how to use a mechanic that actually exists in its world, not just an item placed in a box. Mario even has the perfect running animation to go with it.

There’s a considerable difference between the cape and Super Mario 3’s Raccoon Suit. Both require a running start, but where the tail only allowed a limited time to jam on the jump button to stay air born, the capes flexible control scheme of brakes and dives give you the freedom to swoop in the air or power slam the ground and is deep enough for players to bypass entire levels. The sensation of flight is terrifically satisfying with great heft and fluid response.

SUPER MARIO WORLD OVERWORLDThe key to Mario’s success has always been in the tight control of a deep set of gameplay mechanics providing the player the means to explore levels packed with complexity and secrets. SMW expands that scope so play in the level affects the world outside it. The game even found an intuitive way of revealing it to the player.

It’s easy to find yourself running around in circles in the Forest of Illusion, unable to escape. But find the large brass key hidden within one of its levels and take it to the nearby keyhole and the sprite expands to the sound of contracting space, swallowing Mario whole. If you hadn’t discovered before now, many of the levels feature secret exits that lead to branching paths back on the overworld.

With a total 96 levels in all, the exits are all hidden in interesting ways and each requires its own test of manual dexterity, old-fashioned legwork or, in the case of flying over a good chunk of a level only to dive under a goal gate and through another just past it, aerial acrobatics. It also explains why the direct route puts you within sight of Castle 4 in the distance but doesn’t lead to it.

The adventure subtly hints at a developing world that changes and blossoms around Mario as levels are beaten and the Koopa Kids reigns end. In the little cinema after defeating Ludwig von Koopa, Mario straps TNT to his castle and rockets it into a green hill in the distance. For the rest of the game, that hill will have a small bandage where it was hit. The story and gameplay turn Dinosaur Land into a living place that recognizes the events of its simple narrative.

So Mario’s demolished six of the Koopa Kids castles, tore Wendy O’s bow and broken Roy’s shades and finds himself on big daddy’s Front Door. The low rumble of the music sets a nice tone for a sinister looking fortress with all the subtlety and half the blinking bulbs of a Vegas casino framed against a black night sky split by a flash of lightning and clap of thunder. It’s challenging, complex and long.

But it doesn’t need to be. Mario World’s many exits have taken you all over the map, to new areas you wouldn’t have seen or to completely bypass others and the benefits of the exploration all comes together in the last battle…by taking the back door. By finding the detour just a few levels earlier, Mario can be dropped at Bowser’s mid-castle checkpoint, foregoing half the stage altogether. It’s a smart way to have all the gameplay pillars ultimately come together. What’s more, if you find the right path, you can kick down King Koopa’s door after as few as eleven stages. No warp pipes or whistles required.

The secret is Star Road, a five point trek across the heavens that double as shortcuts throughout the land. Beat all its stages with their colored Yoshi’s and the SPECIAL area opens with the game’s most challenging levels. Completing them uncovers the last of Super Mario World’s secrets: the world has turned, time has passed and autumn has set on Dinosaur Land.

SUPER MARIO WORLD ENDING

DEVELOPER: Nintendo EAD
PLATFORMS: SNES, GBA
1991