Hey everbody! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted but I am finally back. In the last article (which you can find here) I started talking about some of the early Mario games and the design lessons that could be learned from them. This week’s article is going to be a continuation of that one. Last time we focused on the NES era of Mario games, and today we are going to move on to the SNES, the N64 and beyond!
For those who haven’t read part 1 (or those who have, but have forgotten because it was so long ago), we mainly talked about 3 games from Nintendo’s arcade/NES era. These three games were the original Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros, and Super Mario Bros 3. All three of these games were revolutionary for the time and were the source of a number of game design lessons.
- Donkey Kong
- First platformer to use jumping as a mechanic
- Dense level design
- Bonus point scoring items to promote replayability
- Super Mario Bros
- First Mario game with scrolling levels
- Uses game and level design as an invisible tutorial
- Use of secrets and mysteries promotes exploration
- Super Mario Bros 3
- Much larger variety of levels, gameplay, enemies and power-ups
- Levels can now scroll in more than one direction
- Introduces non-platforming mini-games
Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let’s jump in to Mario’s SNES era!
A Whole New World
The first game that we are going to be looking at today is Mario’s first game on the SNES – Super Mario World. In many ways, Super Mario World is an evolution of the Super Mario formula rather than a revolution. This game doesn’t introduce anything radically new to the formula, but instead simply uses the additional technical abilities of the Super Nintendo to expand on what previous games have done.
That being said, Super Mario World is still a fantastic game. While not necessarily as revolutionary as the previous games we have talked about, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned from this game. With greater hardware capabilities came better graphics, more expansive levels, and more gameplay options.
In addition to a brand new power-up (the cape feather, allowing Mario to fly), Mario gains a number of new abilities in this game. Up until this point Mario has had basically two abilities – running and jumping. Now, Mario can dash and perform a spin jump, which expands his movement capabilities by allowing him to traverse certain types of terrain that would otherwise be impassable. While this is a small step, it marks the beginning of a trend towards expanding Mario’s jumping abilities.
Finally, perhaps the biggest change in Super Mario World is the addition of Mario’s trusty dinosaur pal, Yoshi.
Riding on Yoshi is the first time in a major Mario game that you get to play as a different character with a completely different set of mechanics. Yoshi can swallow enemies, shoot shells as projectiles, and hold different shells in it’s mouth to gain different powers. There are also several different colors of Yoshi in this game, each with it’s own abilities. Red yoshis shoot fireballs, blue yoshis can fly, and yellow yoshis can use a special attack against enemies.
A sequel to Super Mario World – known as Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island – was also later released on the SNES. This game had an original (and adorable) art style and has Yoshi as it’s main playable character. While this game is technically part of the Super Mario series, it shares a lot more with other Yoshi centric games (such as Yoshi’s Woolly World) than other games in the main series Mario games. While this game is one of my personal favorites, it doesn’t do a lot to innovate on previous Mario titles and it’s questionable whether or not it even counts as a core series Mario title at all.
Reinventing the Wheel
Where Super Mario World was a gradual evolution of the series, Super Mario 64 completely reinvented what it meant to be a Mario game. Not only is Super Mario 64 the first Mario game to be in 3d, but it was one of the first 3D platforming games, period. This meant that designing this game was uncharted territory, and Nintendo completely blew it out of the water.
Designing a game in 3 dimensions requires a completely different design philosophy than designing in 2D, something that Nintendo clearly recognized when designing this game. Instead of trying to simply adapt the traditional 2D Mario formula directly, Super Mario 64 takes a totally different approach. Instead of linear levels where the only goal is to get from one end to the other, Super Mario 64 is made up of a smaller number of worlds, each with a number of different missions to achieve.
Each of these worlds was unique, and was full of secrets that encouraged exploration and experimentation. Exploration was further encouraged by Mario’s massively expanded movement options. Mario can now perform long jumps, triple jumps, back-flips, ground pounds, wall jumps and more. It’s only be making careful use of Mario’s full range of abilities that players can fully explore each of the game’s 17 massive (for the time) levels and collect all 120 power stars.
This exploration extends even beyond the levels themselves to the hub-world – Princess Peach’s castle. Instead of selecting levels from a map like previous games in the series, Mario discovers new levels by jumping through paintings on the wall. While most of the levels are obvious, some can only be found by carefully exploring the castle. This game makes even the simple act of going to the next level fun – one level is disguised as a blank wall, while another can only be seen by looking in a mirror. There is even a level hidden inside a stained glass window, and one hidden inside a ghost!
Despite the huge amount of content in the game, however, much attention was still paid to the small details. Super Mario 64’s controls feel incredibly intuitive, and Mario has a sense of momentum that you can practically feel. Every level has little touches that provide for an incredibly immersive experience, from the way that Mario lounges about if left alone too long to the way he gets stuck if you jump into the snow from too high. It is this attention to detail that helps make Super Mario 64 a true masterpiece.
Perhaps this game’s biggest innovation, however, was its interactive camera. This game was one of the first games to have a 3D camera that the player could manually adjust and move, which was very important for some of the trickier jumps and segments of the game (especially in the Bowser levels). This feature is ubiquitous in modern games, and while in-game camera technology has improved a lot since 1996 it still owes much of it’s start to Super Mario 64.
The new model put forth in Super Mario 64 became the blueprint for most 3D Mario games that have come after it. A massive hub world that connects to numerous different levels, each of which has several different missions that must be completed. It also led the way for a huge revolution of 3D platformers, including Spyro, Rayman, and Banjo Kazooie. After the release of Super Mario 64 3D platformers dominated the gaming market for several years.
The effects of this game can even be felt today. While 3D platform games are not nearly as popular as they once were, many of the principles of 3D game design that originated in Super Mario 64 are still felt today. The use of the free-floating camera is everywhere, and the exploration and mission-based approach of the game may be a predecessor to today’s open-world games.
A Game You Oughta See
Super Mario 64 laid the groundwork that most of Mario’s following 3D adventures followed. Super Mario Sunshine added a twist to the formula through the FLUDD device, which gave Mario new movement and combat abilities, while Mario Galaxy innovated by introducing a much larger variety of clever and interesting planets to challenge the player. Despite this, there has never been a direct follow up to the original Super Mario 64…until now.
The legacy of Super Mario 64 can be felt especially strongly in Super Mario Odyssey. In many ways, Odyssey seems to be a direct evolution of the formula first created in Mario 64. Mario has many of the same moves, and feels incredibly similar to control. Mario Odyssey has almost the same number of different worlds to explore, but due to technical advancements the worlds are much larger. Much like it’s predecessor Mario Odyssey contains some linear elements, but is primarily focused on exploring and experimenting it’s massive open worlds full of secrets and surprises.
Despite these many similarities, however, Super Mario Odyssey still seems incredibly new. Odyssey’s main innovation is the new Capture ability, in which Mario can throw his hat and take control of a different character or enemy. There are dozens of captures in the game, each of which have a variety of different movement and combat abilities. While Mario himself has an impressive range of moves in this game, it is only by taking on all of these different forms that you can truly navigate the many worlds of Mario Odyssey. This mechanic is unlike anything that I have seen in games, and adds an entirely new level of depth to the game.
Overall, this game truly feels like a culmination of all of the Mario games that have come before it. It has 2D platforming sections that pay homage to Mario’s classic roots, and never loses sight of the principles of using the game itself as a tutorial to teach the player everything they need to know. The levels are designed to challenge the player, but always giving them just enough information to figure out the solution. The game gives players the option to complete it relatively easily if they choose, but rewards further exploration and creativity. Every world feels unique, and Nintendo’s signature attention to detail can be seen around every corner. In summary, it is a fitting addition to one of the greatest and most enduring game series of all time.
Until Next Week
Two articles is not enough space to say everything about these games, but I hope that I have covered most of the major innovations and lessons that have been pioneered by this series. If you are interested in reading more about this series, let me know in the comments below! I had to skim over a lot of things, and I would love to know what you want to hear more about. If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe on to the blog on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, leave a comment below letting me know what I can do better next time. And join me next week, where I will be talking about video game currency and payment systems!