For this week’s Debate Day, we’re going 16-bit with Mario versus Sonic. There aren’t many video game characters more recognizable than these two, but I think it’s safe to say that at the end of the day, Mario is better. Some people (coughaaronwilsoncaugh) beg to differ. Those people are pathetically wrong, and I’m going to explain why.
We’re only going to be comparing SNES versus Genesis, the era of the real competition between the two. If we looked at the franchises as a whole, things would be a bit one-sided, since Sonic’s had some real stinkers in recent years while Mario’s stayed more or less consistent. That means we’re only going to look at Super Mario World and the four Genesis Sonic games (Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, and 3, and Sonic & Knuckles). I don’t include Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island since you only play as Mario about 1% of the time. We’re gonna pretend stuff like Mario is Missing doesn’t exist. This might seem a bit unfair, since Sonic has four games and Mario has one, but Super Mario World is so sublimely perfect that it doesn’t even matter.
1. Faster isn’t always better. Sonic’s claim to fame is his speed, and I’ll grant him that: no one does speed better than Sonic. It’s exhilarating to zip through loop-de-loops and crash through dozens of hapless enemies, but sometimes you want to stop and smell the roses. Sonic’s biggest strength is also his biggest weakness. The controls are designed so that you really feel the inertia. Sonic takes a bit to get going (unless you do a spin dash in Sonic 2 onward), and once he gets moving it’s tough to stop. Often times he runs full tilt into spikes like a big drunken idiot.
Mario, on the other hand, handles like a dream. He controls better than any game character has a right to, and every button press gets the desired response. Mario’s like a well-tuned musical instrument. No platforming character has ever felt better. It doesn’t take long to a get a feel for how Mario plays, and there’s plenty of advanced techniques to master involving building up speed and spin jumping. Even tricky maneuvers are a breeze to pull off once you get a feel for it, and you never feel like you’ve been robbed by shoddy controls or poor level design.
2. Pow-pow-power ups. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that had better power-ups than Super Mario World. The awesome power of fire flower, the limitless mobility of the cape, and the ability to store one for an emergency. Even these pale before Yoshi, though. The adorable dinosaur reassures you with his rollicking percussion and insatiable appetite, and he comes in four colors. Depending on the color, or the type of shell he has in his mouth, Yoshi can fly, breath fire, or do an earthquake stomp. Sonic gets some neat power-ups, particularly the Lightning Shield in 3 & Knuckles, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Mario’s amazing arsenal. With a cape, a Yoshi, and an item in reserve, Mario is an unstoppable murder machine.
3. Ooo, secret! Sonic games have their share of secrets, especially 3 & Knuckles, but they just don’t compare to the truly fascinating and rewarding secrets in Super Mario World. For me, SMW is the gold standard for secrets in games. About half the levels in the game are optional, requiring you to discover ingeniously hidden secret exits that open up neat new areas on the map. Forest of Illusion sticks out as being particularly puzzling to unravel. The secret levels are just the tip of the iceberg, though.
The four switch palaces which cause colored blocks to appear all over the game, a nifty global change adds a lot of replay value. There’s even two entire secret worlds: Star World, which includes some of the most interesting levels in the game and allows access to later stages much earlier than normally possible; and Special, which features the game’s hardest levels, and rewards you by altering the color pallette of the game to autumn and changing the models of a lot of the game’s basic enemies. That’s just rad, no matter who you ask.
The best secret, though is a small one: the legendary Top Secret Area. It’s very tricky to find, requiring a blind upward flight through a ceiling of boos at the start of the first Ghost House. The reward is a one-screen stage containing every power-up in the game. This is infinitely convenient for arming oneself before tackling tough levels.
4. Bosses. One word: Koopalings. I could really just stop there. While Sonic ends every stage with a Robotnik fight, Mario has some of the greatest bosses in history. They’re colorful, they’re insane, and they’re the perfect amount of challenge. They all only take three hits, but Mario can only take about three himself, even with a full complement of power ups. The battles were pretty creative for the time period, with gimmicks like a seesaw over lava and a Koopaling that pops out of one of several pipes with a couple decoys to throw you off. Some of the gimmicks get re-used, but always with a new twist to shake things up.
The fight against Bowser himself at the end is a really memorable fight for me, and one that took a lot of tries to get right in my childhood. It actually requires a lot of dexterity to win the day and save the princess. Not only do you have to avoid all kinds of hazards, but to actually deal damage Mario has to toss stunned enemies into the air to strike Bowser on his head while he flies back and forth in his clown car. It’s a pretty intimidating fight and a great capstone to a great game.
For an overweight plumber from Brooklyn, Mario’s got a lot going for him. Sonic’s pretty damn cool; no one’s gonna deny that. Aaron and I have had a lot of nights (often times involving rum) when we played Sonic till we couldn’t hold the control anymore, but it’s pretty clear to me who won the 16-bit console war, and it’s not the blue hedgehog. Mario was number one when I was a kid, and he’ll be number one till the day I die.