Super Mario World, the launch title for the SNES, turns 25 years old on November 21. That’s right: it can no longer mooch off its parents’ insurance. In honor of this momentous quarter-century, Cheese & Pixels takes a quick peek at almost every level in the game. (Excluded: Yoshi’s House and the Top Secret Area, which aren’t really levels in the traditional sense.)
Each link contains a YouTube video of that level, in case you don’t know or have forgotten how they go.
74. Back Door
Only cream puffs take the back door.
73. Yoshi’s Island 4
The only thing worse than a hot mess is a boring hot mess. Dry-land interlude with Pokey is somehow both bizarre and bland, and serves to highlight that there are, astoundingly, no desert levels in this game. Big 1-up potential in this level if you play your cards right.
72. Forest of Illusion 2
Very cramped. Lots of treading water waiting to move forward. Clever hidden exit, but mostly this level is a drag, and because of the key/hole, you have to do it twice.
71. Green Switch Palace
After Yellow, they tend to blur together.
70. Morton’s Castle (#2)
Arguably the lamest boss fight in the game. The bonus room at the beginning is really hard to reach.
69. Forest Ghost House
Both of this level’s exits are in the same general area; you just explore a little farther to get to one than the other. Lame.
68. Blue Switch Palace
Too much prep work for too little reward. At least it’s the last one.
67. Valley of Bowser 2
Not only does this level moves slower than a tortoise with a hernia, but worse, there are no real stakes to it either, unless you’ve somehow managed to make it this far without knowing how to run. And imagine how many times a person has to slog through this level trying to find the secret exit if they don’t know where it is (and it’s pretty well hidden)! At least you can bail out early if you have a Yoshi (via Yoshi’s Wings).
66. Star World 5
Too easy to bypass the P-Switch/block-chain shenanigans. Both the cape and Blue Yoshi handily break this level. I can’t tell, do you think they want you to have found all the Switch Palaces by this point?
65. Donut Secret House
Big Boo is somehow less effective as a boss than as a regular enemy.
64. Star World 3
As clever a puzzle as this level presents, I’m not sure it should comprise the entirety of the level. Even certain inanimate objects can reach the regular exit.
63. Donut Plains 2
Another glacially paced cave level, this one an autoscroller. It is nifty that there are multiple ways to reach the secret exit.
62. Star World 4
Crazy that it takes this long into the Star Road to get to some actual platforming. Unfortunately, easy access to Yoshi-based flight makes it a little too simple, including finding the secret exit.
61. Donut Secret 2
One of the few ice levels in the game. Underrealized. If you get all the secrets as you go along, you get your first glimpse of the Valley of Bowser heading into this level, which is surprisingly intimidating from the periphery.
60. Butter Bridge 2
Though it’s loaded to the hilt with Super Koopas, it can’t hold a candle to the manic frenzy of its immediate predecessor.
59. Vanilla Dome 1
For some reason, I find this an odd level to start the world out on. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t scream “vanilla” to me. Though I suppose that’s not fair, since none of the previous world’s levels scream “donut”.
58. Star World 2
a.k.a. Here, Have a Free Game-Breaking Blue Baby Yoshi, Which You Can Instantly Turn Into an Adult by Letting It Eat the Free Invincibility Star We Dropped In, and We’ll Even Let You Keep It If You Bail Out of the Level Early by Pressing Start+Select, Oh, and We Forgot to Design a Level After the First Screen, We’ll Fill It with Some Random Fish and Hopefully You Won’t Notice.
The rising/falling tide is more of a nuisance than a challenge. If you can hang onto your Yoshi, it doesn’t get as hairy as the Special World levels normally tend to.
56. Red Switch Palace
Bit of an element of danger due to the rainbow shell chasing you. It gets easier to die as you reach each new Switch Palace, but never exactly hard.
55. Chocolate Island 5
Surprisingly short. There’s some fun to be had at the start, but this one flies by like a breeze, even compared to other, rompier SMW levels.
54. Way Cool
I would say only a coward would take the Yoshi’s Wings route out of here, but getting the Yoshi the level provides is enough of a puzzle that if you manage it, you kind of earned it. (Going back and grabbing a Yoshi from the Star Road, however, is 100 percent cowardly, no question.) Otherwise, this is a pretty nasty level, requiring some major calisthenics to avoid the Fuzzies if you’re not caped up.
53. Chocolate Secret
The real chocolate secret of Dinosaur Land? Bowser’s minions really really like American football.
52. Forest of Illusion 4
Oh, Fishin’ Lakitu, how can I resist your life-bestowing green fungus bait? Trick question–I can’t. I like how the bluish-green background gives the stage a humid feeling. Secret exit’s too easy to find, considering the possibilities.
51. Valley of Bowser 1
Good claustrophobic use of Chargin’ Chucks and Mega Moles, especially the latter. Though it’s never mandatory, it’s fun to seek out all the Dragon Coins in this level. There’s a 3-Up Moon in plain sight here–perhaps a mea culpa for the rough times ahead?
50. Donut Secret 1
Agreeable, as water levels go. Fun P-Balloon interlude. Love the physics of swimming with an item in hand.
49. Forest of Illusion 1
Love that Starman run. Love barreling through Wigglers for 2-ups. Nice measured P-Balloon use.
48. Chocolate Island 4
When I was a kid, I wanted to eat this level. Something about a chocolate cave just sounds so delicious.
47. Yoshi’s Island 3
This was the first time I noticed that the music contains an extra conga track if you’re riding Yoshi. First occurrence of the Star Block, which gives you a 1-up if you collected 30 coins in the level before hitting it.
46. Vanilla Ghost House
Green gas bubbles, woOoOoOoOoOo
45. Donut Plains 3
To get to this level on the map, you have to cross a bridge, and every time you do, a fish jumps out of the water. When I was little, my cousin Chris told me that if that fish ate you, you went to a special bonus level. I spent HOURS trying to get that fish to eat me before I realized I had been trolled. THANKS, CHRIS.
44. Iggy’s Castle (#1)
I’ve always loved the first half of the level with the fences; the plodding smasher section, not so much. If you think I will not take the time to squeeze every last 1-up out of that fence segment, you don’t know anything about me. Raise your hand if you wait at the door to Iggy’s lair for the last smasher to come down and enter right before it crushes you. Now raise your hand if you didn’t know there was a smasher there. My best friend in elementary school tattled on me to his mom when I beat Iggy instead of him.
I bet a lot of people think this level is not awesome, but it’s far from the worst, though it does make one kind of glad there’s not a snow world, and also that it’s the only level that generates projectile Cheep-Cheeps. The star in the second half makes for maximum run ‘n’ gun fun, but you have to have some discipline with it too.
42. Vanilla Secret 2
The green cliff aesthetic is unique to this level. If you have a cape and your turtle-pouncing game is on point, you and Yoshi can rack up quite a few extra lives, the opportunity to do so again shortly afterward with Spinys and a silver P-Switch notwithstanding.
41. Roy’s Castle (#5)
Debut of the block snake, i.e. the moving platform that consumes its own hind end as it moves forward. These, along with the giant spikes, would be used to greater, sometimes excessive effect in the New Super Mario Bros. series; here, it’s amazing they made it work at all. Roy’s shades and contracting walls make him slightly cooler than his bossmate Morton, but only by a fraction.
40. Cookie Mountain
Surely I’m not the only person who in 2006 highly suspected TV on the Radio were closet Nintendo fans.
39. Star World 1
The joy of spin-jumping, the agony of missing cool rewards because you couldn’t see them. Careful with the cape here.
I.e., the level on the title screen. I always get a little wigged out when I get past the point the demo reaches. Something in my brain rebels against it, like “There shouldn’t be any more! It should fade out here!” It’s easy to see why they chose it for the title screen–it is a pretty tidy elevator pitch for what the game is all about. That second half, though–woof.
37. Vanilla Fortress
The first of four sorta-castles featuring the four dinos known collectively as Reznor (no relation) as an end boss, and wouldn’t you know, it’s an underwater stage. The Fishbones’ combination of implacable and obstructive can be quite irritating. There’s an alternate path that forces you to be small to take it—rather unusual for this game, which normally doesn’t force you to make such sacrifices, especially for such inconsequential gain.
36. Vanilla Secret 1
THIS is the level that should be Vanilla Dome 1, rather than inhabiting the secret path. I can’t explain why it fits better, I just think it does. Literal LOL at the Blue Switch tease in this level–like anyone with a cape and half a brain isn’t making it up to that secret pipe.
35. Chocolate Island 3
One of a handful of “find the secret exit or you’re not going anywhere” levels. There’s a wide berth underneath the goal and arrow signs pointing beyond it. It isn’t a subtle hint by any means, but it might help you make a mental connection to a much earlier stage…
Also contains one of the most purely fun bonus areas in the game.
34. Valley of Bowser 4
a.k.a. the Diggin’ Chuck level, where he hucks rocks at you with a hockey stick. Clever that you have to keep your Yoshi all the way through to be able to access the secret exit; not so great that you have to play literally the entire level twice. This is where I learned you can break turn blocks while riding Yoshi if you mount him while spin-jumping. There’s a pipe leading to an ice segment that takes you slightly backwards, yet is fascinating as a geographical link to Donut Secret 2.
33. Donut Plains 4
You can touch Morton’s castle from here if you stretch your arm a little. Is this really a necessary stop? Still, lots of nifty elements debut here, such as growing/shrinking pipes, parachuting Goombas, and the Amazing Flying Hammer Brother.
32. Lemmy’s Castle (#3)
Alas, poor Lemmy, we hardly knew ye, before thy skin was melted off in boiling lava, verily. Debut of Kamek, here called Magikoopa, in the role of a more-annoying-than-average mook rather than the ward of the infant Bowser.
31. Vanilla Dome 2
Kicking the beached fish at the beginning is more fun than it has any right to be. Regular path substantially tougher than secret path.
30. Choco-Ghost House
More neat premieres here, including moving pits and Boos that turn into concrete blocks. Amazing that the game continues to introduce fresh ideas and technical feats as far as world six (and beyond). Fishin’ Boo, your fire sacrifice ain’t appeasing this gaming god. So why are the two most yin/yang ghost houses, Chocolate and Vanilla, the only two with only one exit? Coincidence—or co-conspirators?
29. Chocolate Island 1
Love the Dino-Rhinos—the big lumbering ones and the little ones with the purposeful stride and the fire breath. Wish they were in more levels, but Nintendo’s always been good about having restraint with the cooler elements of their games. Some excellent cannon pipe work in this one.
28. Larry’s Castle (#7)
This level must have been an inspiration to many a New Super Mario Bros. castle designer. I like that you can ride the block snake’s descent at the end to a hidden lower area with goodies, though it’s a little mean that they stowed the midpoint down there as well. Magikoopa returns, though not in nearly as threatening a capacity. Arguably the best victory cutscene: Mario PICKS UP THE CASTLE AND DROPKICKS IT OFF-SCREEN LIKE A FRIGGIN’ BOSS, then faces the camera and does a V-for-victory mic drop. No one could touch Mario back then. People thought Sonic could, but he couldn’t. NO ONE could.
27. Yoshi’s Island 1
Solid “1-1” type level. Hits bullet points of bigger and better while managing several amazing technical feats. By the midpoint alone, we see: diagonal platforms, giant enemies, flying question blocks, spin-jumping to break turn blocks, and a diagonal pipe that fires you out like a cannonball. Maybe a little more telling than showing with the -POINT OF ADVICE- blocks, but it was a new console and times were changing.
26. Valley of Bowser 3
After some pretty harrowing levels, this one’s a breather, despite mostly being situated over bottomless pits. The only level to feature Timed Lifts. (Hey! You better watch out! He knows about Timed Lifts!) If you still have the blue Yoshi you can get in Valley of Bowser 1, you can easily beast-mode this level.
25. Donut Ghost House
What stands out to me about this level is the room with the big coin arrow. You can take its advice and follow it to a door where you get a bunch of coins and then reach the exit, or you can totally turn your back on it and find another exit. It’s hard to remember now, but that sort of thing didn’t happen in those days. In a different kind of game, one or the other direction might well have ended in a Sierra-type death trap. This would eventually grow into a more cohesive “gently screwing with you” Weltanschauung, though later games would sometimes take it to genuinely unnerving extremes.
24. Vanilla Dome 3
Home to one of my favorite subtle graphical touches: usually one skull of the skull raft vibrates harder than the others, giving the effect of a trolling motor. One of the few levels that rewards flying in more ways than just skipping over the whole thing.
23. Yoshi’s Island 2
Great 1-up setpiece at the beginning. The player is introduced to Yoshi here. Weird to see him speak English nowadays. What’s great about this level is that you can play it without doing the Yellow Switch Palace, but the blocks are dotted lines, suggesting that what should be there is missing, and in the process gently encouraging you to figure out how to fill them in. Nintendo’s impeccable design philosophy at work.
22. Vanilla Dome 4
I’ve always loved the starry night backdrop in this level despite it being in the dome world. Bullet Bill generators are lots of fun here.
21. Chocolate Fortress
Bowser’s greatest threat yet: LEAD POISONING.
It warms my heart to see Thwomp and Thwimp working together. Quite a father/son team dynamic they’ve got going there. It almost makes me a little sad when they’re trapped inside red or blue “!” blocks.
20. Yellow Switch Palace
Always good for two, usually three 1-ups. Seeing the island shift and grow to create the path to the Palace still makes my heart soar.
19. Wendy’s Castle (#6)
Introduction to the giant spikes, relentless in their crushing abilities. (You don’t even get invincibility frames!) They’re not quite as imposing here as in a near-future appearance, but they still demand to be felt. This level is quite stingy with power-ups; BYOP from the Top Secret Area if you have to, because you don’t get anything good until just shy of Wendy’s lair.
A gentle, yet architecturally intriguing introduction to the Special World. There’s a lot to unpack in this level if you’re willing to put in the exploration time, and you’ll get rewarded generously with 1-ups if you do, which you’re going to need. The message block teasing a “strange new world” for those who complete the Special levels makes me a little sad, since it always makes me wish it was actually a brand new world and not just a somewhat bizarre palette swap.
17. Donut Plains 1
Intro to both Cape Feathers and secret exits. This is where the game opens up wide. The isolated bonus area where you practice flying is one of the all-time great “learn by doing” segments in gaming history. Pitchin’ Chuck and Volcano Lotus are a scary combo, but did you know you can neutralize both his baseballs and its fireballs by hitting them with the cape?
16. Valley Ghost House
I forgot all about the brief return of the green ghost bubbles in this level, because there’s so much to wade through here with regard to finding the secret exit. It’s not so bad now, but when I was young, manipulating the block snake up to the top of the room and duck-sliding into the tiny gap before the P-Switch ran out and turned my hard-driven path back to coins was practically the thirteenth labor of Hercules. Not to mention you have to make a solid run with no margin for error in the room before just to get to the door that leads to that room—otherwise you get dumped at the goal, a hollow victory if ever this game had one. The difficulty both of finding the keyhole and maneuvering your way up to it hold up to this day; I can’t help but doff my cap to this maddening puzzle.
15. Forest of Illusion 3
Prepare for trouble, and make it bubble! A level better off rushed; it can really get out of control if you let it. Even to this day I adore the idea that you’re not leaving the forest unless you find that secret exit.
My vote for actual hardest Special World level, far more so than the infamous Tubular. Man, this one is a bear. Between the Bullet Bills, Wigglers, and the jumping Hot Foot flames, you have to be pretty incredible to get through this one unscathed. Yoshi is an absolute must for this one.
13. Forest Fortress
The first half of the level is much easier if you’ve unlocked all the Switch Palaces, and the second half is quite generous if you’ve mastered cape flight. This is the point where the game really begins to reward you for being on top of secret hunting.
12. Valley Fortress
Giant Spikes II: The Re-Crushening. This one’s a major toughie. No midpoint, either!
11. Ludwig’s Castle (#4)
Bonus points for being the only boss with attack mechanics unshared with one of his siblings, as well as the only boss with a chamber wider than a single screen. Another candidate for best victory cutscene, though the more I think about it, the more I think I like Larry’s the most. Did you know there’s a pipe leading to a bonus room in the black negative space outside the starting corridor? The short block in the ceiling just before the door with the mushroom sitting next to it is a fake. I had to look at Lunar Magic maps to learn that.
10. Forest Secret Area
Strap in: it’s about to be a fast ride! I’ve never figured out how to get the three 1-ups behind the goal.
9. Vanilla Secret 3
The dolphins are a blast, but young Jess found the Porcu-Puffer quite harrowing. If you don’t have Yoshi, stay out of the water! I like the line of giant coin arrows pointing to the right at the end—like I’m suddenly going to flake out and go back the way I came. “Well, I was thinking of turning around, but this giant horde of symbolically arranged treasure convinced me otherwise!”
Speaking of symbolically arranged treasure: YOU ARE A SUPER PLAYER !! This is usually the last level I play before heading off to Bowser’s Castle, and even here there’s something new to marvel at: the green berries, seen in no other level, which add 20 seconds to the clock. And you are going to need all that extra time, especially if you plan on dilly-dallying and/or taking in this level’s many charms.
7. Chocolate Island 2
The infamous time-based level, where the route you take depends both on how quickly you move and how many coins you get as well (there’s an excellent breakdown in the linked video). Blow through to get the secret exit; take a tad bit more time for the regular one. Might have been a more interesting gimmick in a castle or ghost house, but it’s astounding that they came up with it at all, much less successfully implemented it.
6. Soda Lake
Gets my vote for hardest level in the game. If not hardest, top three for sure. Nintendo is to be commended for exercising the restraint to only use Torpedo Ted in this level.
Here’s a fun literal interpretation of this level (warning: non sequitur-packed commentary).
5. Sunken Ghost Ship
By far the most atmospheric of the ghost houses. Swimming through the disappearing and reappearing Boos is tense, even with as much breathing room as they give you. Watching the gate to the Valley of Bowser rise from the sea is truly an epic moment.
3. Cheese Bridge Area
Without question, the best hidden secret exit in the game. Not even a contest. As in Chocolate Island 3, the game gives you extra lives JUST FOR FINDING IT. This game really loves to hand out treats for bypassing goal markers.
I’ve gone on at length about this level before, so I’ll just summarize what I said then: this level is just about perfect. No other level presents such a high degree of challenge with such elegance and brevity. It combines gameplay elements in a fresh and exciting way and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s hard but not close to impossible, and beating it gives you a satisfaction that many other levels don’t.
1. Bowser’s Castle
To the very last, Super Mario World throws new things at the player. New enemies abound here: the Mecha-Koopas, the living hopping variant of the fire-breathing statues, even Ninji from Super Mario Bros. 2 makes an appearance for no discernible reason. Plus, you get the dark room leading up to Bowser with the disco spotlight. The only thing that could have made this level cooler is having to play all the doors instead of just choosing two. (Best two choices: 2 and 8).
Then there’s the final boss fight, still one of the most intense, protracted battles in the series. Peals of thunder rip through the background, fire falls from the sky. Bowser appears in his now-famous Clown Car, a flying, bouncing monstrosity with an unsettling placid grin containing a pocket dimension that operates outside the laws of time and space (well, how else does he keep those all those giant balls in there?). Super Mario World carried the unenviable burden of showcasing the technical horsepower of a new console, and it cracked off new and impressive ideas in almost every level, rarely if ever missing a step, culminating in this incredible final showdown.
Boogie on, Super Mario World. Here’s to 25 more years of being a stone-cold classic.