Blow the dust off your SNES mouse and strap on your thinking caps, because it’s time to learn. Specifically, it’s time for some preschool-level English. What, you’re not excited by that prospect? What if I told you the lessons were brought to you by everyone’s favourite turtle-crushing jack-of-all-trades, Super Mario himself? Oh, you’re still not interested. That’s probably fair enough. I’m going to write about Software Toolworks’ 1994 SNES edutainment title Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Letters anyway, though. I mean, I’ve played it now. It’d be a waste to not write about it.
All your favourite Super Mario friends are here: Mario, of course, and Luigi, as well as Yoshi (who has orange arms for some reason) and Princess Peach. Princess Peach does not look very well. In fact, she looks like she fell forty feet and landed directly on her head, completely obliterating her neck.
Theses familiar faces will be helping us learn all about letters. There were also Mario’s Early Years games released that dealt with numbers and “preschool fun,” but I’ll be sticking with the letters variant because my intense personal hatred of maths even extends to cheap educational games.
Seven minigames await those brave enough to attempt mastery of the English language, each more fiendish than the last! Okay, so they’re not fiendish at all, which is a good thing for a game aimed at four-year-olds. You can play as either Mario, Princess Peach or Yoshi, although there’s no difference between the characters aside from their sprites. Luigi is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he thinks all this is beneath him.
The first stop is Last Letter World. Drink it in, folks – this is probably as close to a Lego Super Mario game as you’re ever likely to see. The goal is simple: click on the blocks showing words that end with the specified letter. Get all three and you’ll be given a new set of words, and might even move on to the next screen.
The next screen is more of the same thing, only with a slightly different layout. I did find Luigi, though. He’s always having a nap at the bottom of the screen, grabbing what precious little rest he can during one of the rare moments when Princess Peach isn't being kidnapped. You can click on Luigi to wake him up, but that doesn’t do much. He just wakes up and stares out of the screen at you, silently judging you when you make a mistake in this preschool educational game. Not that I ever made a mistake, of course.
As a game, it works. I don’t know what else to tell you about it, really. I played it for long enough that eventually the game decided “okay, buddy, you’ve had enough” and kicked me back to the selection screen. I suppose I’ll play another game, then?
The next one I picked was First Letter World. Having just come from Last Letter World, I think both you and I will have a pretty good handle on how this works. Princess Peach still doesn’t look quite right, mind you. She’s giving the back of Mario’s head the crazy eyes. The whole game’s got that slight bootleg-y feel to it – you can see where the original Mario sprites were used, and you can definitely see where they weren’t and the art styles don’t match up quite correctly. Things like the Princess’ coked-out expressions and Luigi’s stubby-legged sitting pose grate on the eye because they don’t look Nintendo enough, if you get my meaning. That said, it’s probably only because I’ve wasted my life jumping on Koopa Troopas that it bothered me.
For instance, look at this Goomba. He’s almost identical to a regular Super Mario Goomba, but not quite. He’s very slightly the wrong shade of brown, leaning towards “unfortunate trouser stain” rather than “rich chestnut” on the spectrum of browns. His teeth don’t look quite right. But he’s definitely a Goomba, very much appropriate for a Super Mario-related game, and as a kid who loved all things Super Mario I probably would have eaten this game up if I’d had it is a kid. Okay, maybe not – I was already well past this stage of language development when my Mario obsession was in full swing – but a Super Mario themed educational game would have held my interest much longer than a similar game starring, I dunno, Mickey Mouse or the members of Ocean Colour Scene.
What… what are you digging that hole for, Peach? Don’t you have mushroom slaves to do that kind of thing for you? Unless it’s a secret and you didn’t want anyone to see you digging. You know what, never mind. I didn’t see anything, your highness.
Also of note is the appearance of one of the Koopa Kids. They aren’t all in the game – I think Ludwig is the only other one to be featured – but Iggy is quite prominent throughout the game. His name has been extended to “Icky Iggy.” The reasons for this sobriquet are not explained, but dark and disturbing possibilities were suggest by my mind every time I saw the rainbow-haired freak.
And now, Vowel World. That’s Vowel World, for all your vowel needs. Huge bargains on vowels. This week only, Us are half-price!
Okay, so vowel world is exactly the same as First Letter World, except the first letter is always a vowel. I think you could have gotten away with combining the two, chaps. In lieu of there being anything more insightful for me to say, I’ll direct your attention to that incredibly shifty elephant. It’s up to something, that elephant, and the secret knowledge that only it possess gives it an illicit thrill. My theory is that the elephant is secretly delighted to have replaced its elephant ears with huge, grey human ears without anyone noticing.
I mentioned the not-quite-right look of Mario’s Early Years, and here’s a good example. When you get an answer correct, sometimes a character will pop up and offer some words of encouragement. Mario might stick his head up and say “Super!” for instance. Because he’s Super Mario, you see. Actually, now I think about it, I think these little phrases only appear once you’ve woken Luigi up, so now we know what he’s there for besides making the place look untidy. Anyway, some other characters also appear. Non-Mario characters, like the strange brown thing emerging from that blue pipe. What the hell is that thing? I feel like I’m rather well-versed in the fauna of the Mushroom Kingdom, but that creature is something different. It possesses a certain monkey-like quality, but without the usual cartoon signifiers of monkeyhood. No prehensile tail, no prominent ears, no bananas. It’s also got a harrowed look on its face, as though it should be screaming rather than congratulating me for knowing that Egg starts with E. It’s those dark circles under its eyes that do it. If it is a monkey, it’s one that was forced to smoke five packs of cigarettes a day while scientists clipped electrodes to its brain. Wait, never mind, I’ve figured it out. This is a monkey. It has no ears because the elephant used it's powerful trunk to tear them off and attach them to its own head. This theory explain everything.
Next up is Sound World, which you’ll be shocked to learn is a lot like all the preceding worlds. This time you’ve got to click the right picture based on the sound it starts with. I know it sounds like I’m giving it short shrift, but it’s not a bad set-up for teaching very young kids about phonics. To this end, Mario’s Early Years is absolutely packed with voice clips. The most digitised speech I’ve ever heard in a SNES game, possibly, although International Superstar Soccer Deluxe had quite a lot. The entire game is narrated by a child who repeats whatever you do out loud, such as saying “you picked dinosaur, that starts with D.” I think you can guess what action makes the kid say that. There are also, as mentioned, the encouraging voice clips from the likes of Mario. After so many years of Mario having the same voice, I was taken aback when he started talking and it wasn’t Charles Martinet doing his usual cheerful yelping. Instead, it’s the same Brooklyn accent that Mario had in the Super Mario cartoons, the voice that made him sound like he was going to have the boys over to play poker and complain about his wife’s cooking once he’d dealt with Bowser. It makes sense, in a way. This game is supposed to be teaching children about English and I don’t think that modern Mario would be the best person to learn from. The most complex sentence he ever utters is the grammatically incorrect “It’s-a me, Mario!” and mostly he just whoops and hollers. His vocabulary is ninety percent overexcited trapeze artist on his first day at work and ten percent Italian stereotype. As I say, probably not the best English teacher.
Next comes Sentence World, where you must find the correct word to complete the sentence. Here, Luigi is sitting in the mud like the slovenly beast he is. No self-respect, that’s Luigi’s problem.
Like all the other games, this is a perfectly acceptable learning tool for the young ‘uns, but it suffers from the same problem that hampers the rest of Mario’s Early Years: there’s just not enough of it. There’s only a very limited selection of different word combinations, so few that you’ll see them all in a single play session, and as a result the game's ability to keep kids engaged is hampered. Maybe the developers could have included a wider range of possibilities if they hadn’t crammed the cartridge full of speech samples, but they did and so I’m stuck repeatedly confirming that yes, Luigi is in the mud.
At least this mode offers some nicer (and more on-model) artwork, even if I did struggle to realise that Mario is carrying a frying pan and not a magnifying glass. He could be a detective, all right? He’s been every other bloody thing.
On the subject of this screenshot, check out Princess Peach. She has a box over her crotch. I’m ninety-nine percent certain that is is a simple coincidence and not a crude joke on the part of the developers, but having read a lot of TCRF and seen some of the secret developer messages hidden in games I still have that one percent of doubt.
However, this is clearly the best of the games because I got the narrating kid to say “The Princess got a big can” and I’m definitely immature enough to get a laugh out of that. You might also enjoy the idea of Luigi giving Bowser a tug. Hey, whatever, man. If that’s your bag, I’m not here to judge.
This is Building World. Your goal: to find the missing part of the displayed word. This is easily the most tedious of all the minigames, because there are only three words to complete. There’s “red”, there’s “mop” and there’s “bus.” That’s it. I played this game for longer than anyone has in the past twenty years, I changed characters, I even reset the game, but those were the only three words that would appear. If you want prepare your child for a future career of mopping red buses, this is the game to give them. Otherwise, read them a goddamn book or something, you lazy get.
It goes on and on and on, too. I managed to get the first stage, Last Letter World, to end after a while by answering correctly enough times, but in every other game this refused. I’m sure I played each game for as long as Last Letter World, but I was trapped in a loop of endlessly repeating the same questions until I gave up and quit back to the main menu. There’s no sense of reward to Mario’s Early Years, unless you count that weird monkey-creature popping up and saying “I like your choice!” every now and then, which seems like a mis-step. Give the player a little cutscene of Mario and friends running around, or maybe even a short Super Mario level to play through, or something to keep them engaged. The gameplay isn’t enough of a draw on its own, that’s for sure.
The final stop on our whirlwind tour of the alphabet is, appropriately enough, Alphabet World. Alphabet World isn’t a game, it’s simply a slideshow with a different picture illustrating each letter. It didn’t get off to a great start. A is for apple, huh? Wow, how original. I wasn’t expecting anything excitingly avant-garde or anything, but c’mon.
Thankfully, things improved when I reached B and saw Bowser with a top hat, dancing down a staircase like Fred Astaire. My only complaint is that it’s not animated. Maybe that’s why Bowser keeps abducting Peach, he’s just after a dance partner.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through every letter of the alphabet, but there are a few I wanted to pick out. For instance, this cat. This seemingly normal, everyday cat that’s probably shedding hair all over the raspberry ripple. For some reason, the narrator describes it as “crazy cat.” What do you know about this cat that we don’t, Mr. Narrator? What shocking madness swirls within its feline brain? I’m disappointed that I’ll never know the answer to that question, just as I’m disappointed that the picture for “crazy cat” wasn’t a beatnik hammering away at some bongos.
M is for Mario, naturally, and we’re treated to the rare sight of Mario actually doing some plumbing. Some half-hearted wrench-twiddling, by the looks of it, for which he will no doubt charge an exorbitant fee.
I’m beginning to suspect that the developers had something against Princess Peach. Against her face, specifically. They’ve tried to capture her charming, regal nature but ended up with something that looks like a bowling ball wrapped in ham.
Finally there’s Yoshi. Not finally in the alphabet, obviously – I didn’t play through this game without learning something – but I don’t think the last picture is interesting enough to show you. It’s a zipper. If you really want to see a zipper, look at your trousers or something. No, Yoshi is where I’ll draw this article to a close. Yoshi, staring at himself with a judgemental look on his face. Recursive Yoshis. He’s probably thinking about eating himself.
With no ending to aim for and all the minigames played for longer than was safe for my boredom levels, Mario’s Early Years: Fun With Letters is over. The final verdict? It’s okay. The Super Mario license is one that seems a damn good choice for getting the kids of 1994 to play an educational game. It doesn’t have that unpleasant feeling of cynical exploitation that so many licensed kid’s games do, and the minigames are (for a kid) diverting and colourful enough that I could see it having some actual value as a teaching aid. The big problem is longevity: even the most studious of children are going to get bored after they’ve seen every single combination of answers multiple times after just a few hours play, and if this was a full-price release (which I assume it was) then it doesn’t represent good value for money. Then there’s the not-quite-right look of the graphics, which kids will certainly pick up on, because they’re not idiots when it comes to their beloved media characters. On the whole, then, it’s decent effort but there are far better ways to help your kid learn. Methods that don’t feature Princess Peach looking like she headbutted a meat grinder, for starters.