Written by Jonathan Steele
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard the name “Super Mario.” Mario is many things to many people. He’s certainly responsible for many happy childhood moments and superb gaming experiences. Everyone has their own favorite Mario game as well as their own least-favorite. But what is Mario, exactly? Or more specifically, what is a Mario game supposed to be? Is it even “supposed” to be a certain kind of game at all? Many people might think that all Mario games follow pretty much the same formula, but this is actually not the case (with the possible exception of the plot. That never changes. But who plays Mario for the plot anyway?). Allow me to explain.
There are actually two types of Mario games in my opinion (excluding spin-offs): Type A and Type B.
Mario Game Type A Definition
There are multiple worlds, each with their own set of linear levels. Each level places you at a starting point, and your ultimate goal is to reach the end of the level before the time runs out, conquering enemies and overcoming obstacles along the way. When you get to the end of each world there is a final boss, and beating him opens up the next world. Rinse and repeat until you complete the game. The Mario games that fall into this category are:
– Super Mario Bros
– Super Mario Bros 2
– Super Mario Bros 3
– Super Mario World
– New Super Mario Bros
– New Super Mario Bros Wii
– New Super Mario Bros 2
– New Super Mario Bros U
– Super Mario 3D Land
– Super Mario 3D World
Mario Game Type B Definition
There is a single overworld, or “hub,” in which you start the game. From this overworld, multiple levels are accessible. Each of these levels are filled with collectible items and tasks to complete. When you enter a level you are placed at a starting point, and you’re free to roam the entire level with no time limit. For the most part, you can explore any part of a given level and collect items in any way you choose. There are sensible limitations to this freedom based power-up acquisition, item collection, or task completion. The Mario games that fall into this category are:
– Super Mario 64
– Super Mario Sunshine
Now that the stage is set, let’s get down to the main reason I am writing this article: the recently-released Super Mario 3D World was not the Mario game I wanted. At all.
“What!? But didn’t you just give it a very positive review??” Yup. And I still think that SM3DW is a fantastic game. You should play it. But it falls squarely into Mario game Type A, and there are already plenty of those. Conversely, there are only two Type B Mario games.
“Hold on a second. You completely forgot to include Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 in your lists. Those games were awesome.” Yes they were, attentive reader. And I almost included them in the Type B list. After all, they’re pretty much the same, right? There is an overworld that you start in, and the goal is to explore each 3D level with no time limit, collecting items and completing tasks. So what’s the difference?
Freedom. Freedom is the difference.
You see, Super Mario Galaxy started a very subtle change from the 64/Sunshine formula. It was able to create an illusion that you were exploring a huge area because you were in space. Unfortunately that was hardly the case. The Galaxy games forced you down a pretty narrow path, rarely letting you branch out and explore freely. At the end of that path was a star, but it may as well have been a flag pole. You could see great distances, yes. But the area you could actually explore was much smaller. The Galaxy games do give you a few rare glimpses of freedom by allowing you to collect certain stars out of order, or by letting you choose which worlds you entered to some degree, but once you entered the level, it was all about getting to the other end.
But for all of its virtues, freedom does force out one key gameplay mechanic: platforming.
Up until 1996, Mario was defined as a platformer. But in Super Mario 64, platforming was almost nowhere to be seen. Try to think of the levels within Mario 64 that really had lots of freedom and spaces to roam, like Level 1, Bob-omb Battlefield. You know what that place lacks? Platforming challenge. Conversely, what Mario 64 levels do have more platforming challenge? A top example is one of the Bowser stages. But do you know what every Bowser stage in Mario 64 had in common? That’s right. They were all linear.
See, you pretty much can’t have both at the same time. You are either free to explore big open areas, or you are crammed into a predetermined path full of platforming gold. With the Galaxy games, and especially the Super Mario 3D Land/World games, Nintendo has tried desperately to include both. It just isn’t working. Those games are a blast, but I felt claustrophobic in every last one. They leaned heavily on platforming, and they did it very well, but I think I’ve had enough platforming now.
So what do I want? I want a Super Mario game that sends me on an adventure across multiple massive three-dimensional worlds, all filled with enemies, collectibles, secrets, and power ups. I want it to let me explore and run around for hours with few limitations. It doesn’t even have to stick with the star-collecting idea. Maybe there could be a whole new set of goals to achieve. And maybe it could even have what Super Mario Sunshine had: a handful of small stages here and there throughout the game that offer a linear platforming challenge. But once you finish each one, it’s back to the big open world.
In an era of games that are becoming impressively huge, a Mario game of similar scope would be welcome. It might even pull some jaded Nintendo fans back into the Mario universe they once loved so much. Nintendo has been banking heavily on the familiar and the nostalgic lately, and they’ve made some great games, but I believe it’s time for them to venture out and make the Super Mario game that defines a new generation clearly and brazenly. A game that has freedom, enormity, and hours upon hours of adventure. That is the Mario game I want.
What do you think? Would you like to take Mario on a huge, free-roaming escapade as well? Or should he stick to the linear “Type A” platforming that made him famous? Let us know in the comments.