Let’s talk about Mario for a second. More specifically, his upcoming game and what it means in the context of both the Mario legacy and video games in general. Super Mario 3D World made a big splash recently, promising to add new ideas to a stagnant franchise. But it means much more than that.
Did you know that according to an old family legend, I beat Super Mario World when I was only two years old? Naturally, I don’t buy it. I do remember seeing the ending and credits, but I doubt I was the one who got there, as we often had over guests and cousins that also liked to play the game while I watched. I did play it of course; it was the first video game I’d ever played. But what would become my most important gaming memory would happen while I was a spectator, not a performer.
My cousin had descended into the Forest of Illusion, a dense labyrinth thicket populated with living trees and giant caterpillars that flew into a homicidal rage if, in a moment of reckless curiosity, the thought came to you to disturb them. About halfway through the forest’s opening stage, my cousin’s avatar, a mustached, blank-faced fellow in blue overalls and a red shirt and cap, Mario by name, discovered a strange item floating out of a box hanging in the air above the road, a little orange balloon with a capital “P” in white taking up most of the front. It wasn't clear what he did with it when he got it, but what happened when he did was spectacular: all of a sudden, Mario inflated until he was at least twice his size and very round, and drifted off the ground, wandering though the air for a while like a loose balloon, before landing on an isolated rock harboring a mysterious key and keyhole. He picked up the key, moved into the keyhole and like magic, the keyhole grew and grew with a bizarre yawning tone reminiscent of THX's Deep Note, until it had swallowed him whole.
I was shocked, then amazed, then mystified. Here was this tiny miniature world, where anything could happen and everything did, at just the press of a button. It was a black box, and I wondered what forces were at play here. But at the same time, I believed that the world on the other side of the screen was real, and fascinating too, and I think that was the moment I first decided that video games were really, really, cool. It was also the first time I’d ever be excited about a Mario game.
It’s been a while since Nintendo’s death-defying plumber made the sort of headlines he made in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or any headlines at all, for that matter. And it’s been the rest of my life since I'd had that same feeling of excitement over a Mario game. Super Mario Galaxy is about the closest I’d gotten, and given its reception and impact that’s no small statement. But little of particular interest has been heard from Mario since, and the games released in its aftermath are either nice-but-predictable or sub-par, depending on who you ask.
Actually, it’s even worse than that. The Mario franchise, once celebrated as the grand paragon of video game innovation, has begun to stagnate. Cue gaming crisis.
And then along comes a trailer for the latest addition to the Mario series, Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U. It seemed like interesting news, so I went on YouTube and watched it. And then I watched it again. And again. And again. And again. I must've watched it somewhere between 20 and 30 times over the course of a half hour, and would have continued to watch it on endless repeat had I nothing better to do. Something about it, something I couldn't explain, had caught my attention, and as I watched I struggled to articulate in my mind what that was. It was only over the next few days that I finally understood the thing that made this trailer so hypnotizing. But it wasn't just one thing. It was at least six.
Here's the trailer.
-1. This is Not a Repeat-
Stagnating is not something Mario simply does. Although there are many games that have done more to transform the medium than any individual Mario title, the series as a whole has a legendary track record of consistent large-scale innovation, from Donkey Kong’s invention of the platformer and breakthrough visual storytelling and charcterization to Super Mario Bros.’ then-unprecedented level of structural complexity and audiovisual diversity as well as its status as gaming’s first killer app, saving the industry from the Crash of ‘83. The aforementioned Super Mario 64 pioneered concepts like an adaptable camera, fully analog controls and free-roaming gameplay that would facilitate the transition of games in general from 2D to 3D, and influence even contemporary 3D games like the Grand Theft Auto series. Even spinoffs like Mario Kart and Super Mario RPG had subgenres to their name, and if a game didn't hit that mark, you could at least expect it to put a new spin on the series' core gameplay.
From the beginning, every Mario game was radically different both from the games before it and from the games around it, and players appreciated that idea in itself. In keeping with the famous dichotomy between Mario and erstwhile rival Sonic the Hedgehog, no one ever accused a Mario game of being too different. Case in point: Super Mario Bros. 2, which, among other blasphemies, replaced your Goomba Stomp with vegetable-throwing powers, threw out the traditional health system and 1oo-coin life, and switched the setting from the familiar Mushroom Kingdom to a desert world ripped straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights, doing away with Goombas, Koopas and other familiar faces in the process, up to and including King Bowser. It also pushed approximately 7,460,000 units and is universally revered as a classic.
People want Mario to change. Super Mario Sunshine disappointed on release because it wasn't different enough. Enter the "New" Super Mario Bros. series and Super Mario 3D Land, whose biggest hook is, in a twist of irony, a reintroduction of old features tied to 2D Mario games. Much weeping was had. And Super Mario 3D World wants to cuddle us, give us warm milk and tell us it loves us and it's gonna be alright.
The trailer was wonderful. It was twists upon twists followed by twists. It's almost as if the game was Nintendo's way of saying sorry for its past transgressions. When did Mario get cat ears? Did he just split himself in two? Are there four players at the same time? (Something I've been dreaming of since adolescence, coincidentally.) Is he running around on the world map? There are secrets there too? OMFGISTHATPEACH?!
Of course that all happened. You were just watching it. Next question.
The number of new twists added to the game is staggering. There's also sledding and disguises and projectile soccer balls, but if I went any further than that I don't know when I'd stop. Plus, there are signs of more subtle yet equally important changes. Looking at the trailer again, you'll notice that you no longer get an automatic extra life for scurrying up the flagpole, and in most segments the player only has around 5 lives or less. Could this be a sign that they're reconsidering how easily lives are handed out? Who knows, but let's keep our fingers crossed.
And it doesn't just stop at gameplay concepts; 3D World's creativity bleeds into the level design too. There are corridors taken up by snakelike, overgrown Piranha Plants, and invisible floors and walls that can only be revealed by a ground pound, assuming you're not too preoccupied with the Bullet Bills on your tail. There are giant flamingos with sharp beaks and long necks that swing down at the slightest sense of movement, and fake flagpoles that vanish if you get too close. And, most interesting of all, there's one level played only using shadows.
There's a lot to look forward to in what may be as many as 300 levels if the rumors hold out, brought to you by the graduates of the Mario Cram School of Level Design, which is, in yet another Mario-style twist, a real program, headed by veteran designer Takashi Tezuka. And if the sheer chaos unfolding on-screen is anything to go by, they must be having the time of their lives right now.
-2. 3D to the Next Degree-
With the exception of Sonic the Hedgehog, 3D platformers have never been as swift as their 2D counterparts. But here you see Mario and company dive, scurry, climb, dash, and hop from platform to platform with an amazing degree of nimbleness and finesse. 3D platformers have always been a little tricky to pull off, with problems ranging from depth perception to having to keep track of three axes instead of two and getting lost in open three-dimensional worlds. Until Super Mario 64 came around, most attempts at making a 3D platformer was a bust for any one of these reasons and more, and even years afterward developers were left to puzzle over why their game wasn't anywhere near as good. Even today, legendary franchises like Metroid and Sonic are struggling to find their footing.
But most of all, 3D changes things. The transition of a popular series to 3D can be messy business, and the ones that succeed often feel like completely different games. When Mario took the jump to 3D, the emphasis shifted from action to exploration, and it stayed that way until Super Mario Galaxy started the pendulum swinging in the other direction, bringing the series back to its roots as a no-holds-barred action game and refining the controls to accommodate this And Super Mario 3D World seems to be taking that idea to its extreme, returning to the traditional level-based structure and further tweaking the controls to taste, reviving the dash technique and switching the swimming controls from the old "Swim forward with A" setup, great for covering large areas and exploring detailed environments, to the even older "Swim up with A" setup, more fine-tuned for precision in dangerous situations, both techniques that were first reintroduced in Super Mario 3D Land not too long ago.
Galaxy and 3D World also mark a return to Magritte-grade environmental weirdness, with the latter sporting worlds that look more like giant Fisher-Price playsets than anything remotely capable of supporting intelligent life.
Mario has, for better or for worse (and I say this because I know some of you miss the old non-linear 3D Mario, myself included,) come full circle, and it goes to show that, even for a series that leapt so gracefully into 3D, there's always improvements to be made.
-3. The Day the Music Died-
So there's a promising new Mario game coming out. Did I mention I hate the music? Not the music in the trailer, no, that was excellent, but the game's main theme itself. Soundtracks in Mario games have been going through a state of slow decay for the last few years, and it doesn't show any signs of stopping. Didn't you notice? No? Didn't think so. It's subtle.
Remember, we started here, with a song so iconic Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu suggested it become Japan's national anthem:
While it would be unfair to expect every Mario game to live up to it, the music stayed pretty solid for a long time afterward. But somewhere down the line, we went from this:
Over to this:
...And all the way to stuff like this:
Something seems off here. Whereas earlier Mario songs were cheerful and motivating, this just seems...goofy. And what's more, you can tell they were trying to go for that Mario feel, but only seemed to be able to recreate the surface elements of that feel, leading to songs that sound more and more like hollow parodies of the ones before them. You can tell New Super Mario Bros. U was trying to be like Mario by copying the game that came before it, and the same thing goes for Super Mario 3D Land.
But the Mario games, by and large, have never been defined by any particular style. The songs may have been energetic, but they've also ranged from ragtime to salsa to jazz to calypso and everything in between. The blazing orchestra in Super Mario Galaxy is just as Mario as anything on the NES. It's not about the particulars of how the song sounds as much as how it makes you feel. And lately it's been making me feel like I should be throwing pies in peoples faces, not jumping for joy.
By the way, here's where we are now:
You know, I'd actually hoped the music in the trailer was the new overworld theme. That was very Mario.
-4. Return of the Princess-
I'm not going to not mention this. Princess Peach is back in action now. That's nice. And she was, in fact, brought back due to demand from the female audience. Just goes to show if you're vocal enough, it does pay off. That should be encouraging. It also helps that the director of this game was the same guy who directed Super Mario Bros. 2, and was already itching to make a callback.
On the other hand, though, she she seems to have found a replacement. Forget Daisy, that little green fairy is the Luigi to Peach's Mario.
I'm not sure if they realize that scenarios like these are a large part of the reason that we were so sad to see Peach out of commission. I'm also not sure why they couldn't just come up with a different story. Once Peach is out of trouble, you have to go out of your way to adapt a non-plot originally designated for another character.
Are they trying to stick to some tradition? Bear in mind that that "tradition" only started because Miyamoto didn't have enough time to develop a better story during the production of Super Mario World, which even he considered rushed in its final months of production, hoping that later games for the system would do better.
We'll file this one under "half-baked". But hey, we managed to get Peach back into the fray, didn't we? Lady gamers, you know what to do.
-5. Mario Minus Miyamoto-
In the years since Super Mario 64, series' creator and master game designer Shigeru Miyamoto has been growing less and less involved with the production of Mario games, due his status as the head of Nintendo's Entertainment Analysis and Development, a time-consuming administrative job, and while it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that this may have something to do with the recent dip in innovation, it's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it might a very important transitional period for Nintendo.
After all, we know Miyamoto can't go on making Mario games forever. (Alas, neither can longtime series composer Koji Kondo. See heading #3.) Eventually, he'll have to retire. Or die. And Nintendo will be left to fend for themselves. The last few years, though have seen Miyamoto working in the background to keep things in check while guiding newer directors into his beloved creations. Under his supervision, a new generation of developers are getting a feel for Mario, and seeing how this next game is turning out without his direct input, they may soon be ready to leave his wing and fly solo, allowing him to step down from supervising games and get back to making games.
Now all we need is a new Charles Martinet...
-6. Mario is a Symbol of Gaming's Past, but Not It's Future.-
There was a time decades ago when Mario was the biggest show in town. That's not true now, and that's partially because the platform genre has declined for a number of reasons. As I mentioned earlier, 3D platformers are particularly hard to get right from a design viewpoint, and that has made it difficult for them to edge into our modern world of AAA blockbusters, not to mention that that makes it so that an elite set of ultra-talented developers are able to ship out anything worth playing, drastically lowering the number of offerings available in comparison with other genres. Also, these other genres have developed a long way since the days of the SNES, and now we have more alternatives to Mega Man and Adventure Island than we used to. It's not about any one particular genre losing the spotlight so much as all genres getting to share our attention. And as a result, most players have found their niche. We don't really have a "biggest show in town" anymore. Not even Call of Duty can claim that level of ubiquity.
But there's another reason. If Mario can be summed up in one word, it's "fun". Mario is fun. Wholesome, carefree fun. And although there will always be room for pure fun in our medium, we're going through a strange phase right now where we're just beginning to figure out what else is out there. We're demanding a whole bunch out of our games in addition to fun. We want empathy, intelligence, expression, and most of all, diversity. Ideally, want a gaming landscape where there are innumerable different kinds of experiences to enjoy, and in a place like that, no one game should rule. Not even Mario.
But he doesn't have to. Even if fun isn't the end-all-be-all of video games, it will always important, and so will Mario. I'll always get a little excited over the next big game in the everlasting series and whatever coverage it gets, and it will always deserve that coverage. Although the amount of energy we see Nintendo pouring into this new is ultimately a sign of the difficulty of keeping Mario and games like it relevant in a time when most developers are at least attempting one form or another of pseudo-maturity, It is impossible to kill him off or even remove him from the forefront of gaming as long as there is a place in our hearts for joy and whimsy.
Besides, he must have at least a hundred lives by now, or more.
I was going to post this later tonight, but it isn't saving and I don't want to lose anything. Also, this was posted a few minutes ago on my blog. Also-also, do you think this next Mario game will deliver on expectations, or are you predicting a disappointment? Sound off in the comments below.
Edit: Removed something that wasn't supposed to stay in the final draft.