Mariology, Part One
A new Mario game just came out. Yes, it’s on the Wii U. Yes, it’s phenomenal. But when I look at the game, the truly compelling thing of its design is how it manages to be a homage to so many games in the series at once while still being its own thing. Mario games, more than almost any other series, are a genealogy. They inherit things from themselves. From the previous games, from the contemporary games, from the games that we forgot and the ones we’ll always remember. Mario is constantly reinventing itself, but in doing so, it’s looking at its history every time.
This week I’m going to be looking at Super Mario 3D World, in order to take close notes of what it is that this Mario keeps from his ancestors, what he left behind, and why he’s taken more from some games than from others.
NOT A SMALL WORLD
The most obvious place to start on the most recent game is with the name. We see a World in there, obviously hearkening back to the SNES classic, Super Mario World. And it’s no accident that the game has that word in its title; there is a lot of Super Mario World here.
Super Mario 3D World (SM3W) abandons the sort of inventory structure for items that the New series has, and instead takes the system from World of giving you a spot to keep an item in your pocket in case of emergencies. One item at a time, cycled when you pick up a new one, that you can call into the playing field at any time. It gives you essentially a nice “break glass in case of” kind of fallback to fix your screw-ups, and it can change the pacing of the levels by bringing in a single item from elsewhere in the game to approach things differently.
Also returning from Super Mario World is a lot of the enemy design philosophy. The SMW Goombas actually appear alongside their more recognizable counterparts, and still stubbornly refuse to die after being hopped on. That carries over to a lot of the enemies in SM3W; there is a difference in philosophy here in that Super Mario 3D World believes in making everything killable, it just might take a few hits. The feel of the way you handle the enemies on the field is more akin to World or even Super Mario Bros. 2, the other major influence here; enemies can remain as obstacles in many ways after being dealt with. Other recurring alumni like the Chargin’ Chuck and Pokey appear, albeit with some twists in some cases.
There’s also an emphasis on using powerups and lateral thinking to find hidden aspects of levels that the game shares with its namesake. The three green stars present in every level utilize the same sort of clever obfuscation that the old secret exits in SMW did, and the feel of the levels in general has that same sort of atmosphere of discovery that Super Mario World brought to the series.
THE MIDDLE CHILDREN
Of course, there’s a fair amount to be taken from Super Mario Bros. 2 in this game as well, despite the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t even a Mario game in Japan on its release. The four character structure from that game has returned, at any rate, and the characters retain their abilities largely as they existed in SMB2.
On top of that, much of the game is owed to Super Mario Bros. 3 as well. When I looked back on Mario 3 in my Retrospection feature on it a few weeks ago, I remarked on how much the modern Mario games borrowed from it, and that’s no different in this entry. The way the world map is put together is still far more 3 than World, and the varied situational powerups harken back to those days as well.
It gives the game a more sequential feel, a straight 1-2-3 progression that Super Mario World moved away from and the later games in the series nearly abandoned entirely in favor of open ended hub worlds. The levels are a fusion of end-oriented challenges and exploratory sandboxes, but it’s pretty hard to say that the former isn’t more emphasized.
In this, then, the game retains the New Super Mario Bros. feel of segmented, discrete challenges, rather than explorable worlds. Nintendo seems to move the series toward this kind of pick up and play challenge, and it’s clear from the way the Miiverse is integrated into this game that they want specific levels, segments, and worlds to stick out in people’s minds as they share their experiences.
It’s interesting to see how much of the modern 3D Mario game is derived from the old days rather than the new ones. With both the Mario Galaxy team and the New Super Mario Bros. team working on games that owe largely more to the old than the new, it leads us to wonder what the legacy of the grand 3D adventures of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy have left us.
Super Mario 3D World doesn’t owe much to its pre-Galaxy predecessors, but when it comes to Galaxy, there is more here than meets the eye. I feel like a lot of the meat of the gameplay and the design of the levels themselves evokes Super Mario Galaxy in a very strong way. The way that each new challenge manages to be both completely fresh and reassuringly familiar at the same time, and the way that each level’s challenge becomes almost a game unto itself, these things are more Mario Galaxy than anything.
On top of that, the grandness and love for the experience is present in this game in a way that only Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel exhibited out of the past Mario games. Like Galaxy, this new Mario knows what it is, and knows just how damn magical of an experience it presents to its players. The vibrant orchestral soundtrack, the pure beauty and joy expressed in each level, and the stark difference in design between levels are all pure Galaxy in the end, and prove that the legacy of the 3D Mario games is expressed here in a significant way.
Super Mario 3D World represents more of a fusion of old and new than it appeared, and its title is well thought out. The design of the Mario series evolves and shifts in new directions and old ones at the same time with each new entry, and no game in the series is more proof of that than this one. Next week, though, I’ll look at the contemporary in the series, New Super Mario Bros. U, and talk about how the pure sidescrollers carry more of the 3D into them than they appear to.