What the next 3D Mario game needs to get right
The 3D Mario games have maintained a high-standard since Super Mario 64, consistently offering a tight and polished platforming experience.There are however certain elements that makes Mario games great, which more recent installments of the series have lost. There are also some aspects of the 2D games that I’d like to see brought into the 3D series.
A feature of the games that has waned drastically since Super Mario Sunshine is the open, non-linear nature of the levels. In Mario 64 and Sunshine, a level had multiple goals and objectives that could be achieved at any time, and a player would be free to explore the level and discover new challenges as they went. Of course there were some exceptions, and choosing an objective at the start of a level in Super Mario 64 would sometimes have an impact on how the level was laid out (e.g. a penguin might be ready to race you, or the water level might be raised to a certain point), however the game didn’t restrict the player from deviating from this set objective and going off to find another star. The red coin star or 100 gold coin star could be achieved at any time.
The Galaxy games saw this element streamlined, with levels and objectives within those levels becoming much more linear. The route to a star was often the same – shoot to a planet, defeat the enemies or solve a puzzle on that planet to unlock the launcher, then shoot to another one. Whilst the craft and design of these levels and planets were ingenious and a lot of fun to play, it did feel like a step back from 64 and Sunshine’s vast expanses. Levels became much more akin to Sunshine’s ‘bonus levels’ and 64’s Bowser-approach levels – fun to navigate but restricted.
It would be good to see the next game open up its levels a bit more and grant the player the freedom it gave in the earlier games.
One of the best features of Mario 64 was the variety of Mario’s movements, and Nintendo admitted to spending a sizeable chunk of the game’s development time on Mario’s moveset alone. This was then expanded upon in Sunshine, with the Fludd giving Mario a new dimension to his usual moveset – adding hovering and double-jumps, similarly to how Kazooie augmented Banjo’s moves in Banjo Kazooie.
It was disappointing to see Mario’s moves scaled back in Mario Galaxy – Mario actually has a smaller variety of moves than his 64 incarnation, which is a shame. Gone are the ‘breakdance kick’, the crouching fly-kick, the punching, the crouching backflip; the only addition being the Wii-mote-aided ‘twirl’, which feels less satisfying than any of the former moves. Mario feels less maluable by the player as a result.
An engaging hub
Mario 64’s castle and Sunshine’s Delfino Plaza was expansive playgrounds full of their own secrets and mysteries. Unlocking different sections and discovering hidden areas were a key source of satisfaction for the player. In the first Galaxy, the hub was minimized, with the spaceship being little more than a deck for players to unlock sections of, and access the galaxies. In Galaxy 2, the player is reduced to a mini-Mario head – with no progression or unlocking involved. The 3D games seem to have come full circle with 3D land, with the Mario Bros. 3/Mario World overworld maps making a return.
It’s a shame to see the games devolve in this way. Mario 64’s castle even had its own secret stars to be found, and unlocking higher floors of the castle provided the player with a much richer and organic sense of satisfaction than an arbitrary new world on a map. Something Sunshine’s Plaza did well was to show the levels in the distance from certain vantage points on the island – reinforcing the sense that it was one connected land you were exploring.
I hope the next Mario game brings back the idea of a prominent hub world, and doesn’t continue the trend of diminishing its importance in favour of the levels themselves.
Don’t ring-fence the suits or Yoshi
Something none of the 3D games have done as well as their 2D counterparts is give the player the freedom to use the various tools and powerups across different levels. Super Mario World and SMB3 really excelled here – with the latter even letting the player store up a certain amount of powerups and use them in whichever level they choose. In SMW, levels had secret areas and shortcuts that could be accessed by having a specific coloured Yoshi, or a cape, and there was a satisfaction in going and getting the right powerup from another level, surviving with that powerup intact, and coming back to the first level and using it to discover the secret.
This entire element has been lost in the 3D games. Powerups have become ring-fenced and reduced to set-pieces, being used for specific objectives. The criminally restricted use of Yoshi in Sunshine is probably the best example, but the Galaxy games were praised heavily for their inventive suits – the bee suit and spring suit in particular – and they were great powerups in their own right; but in my view they were wasted by only being usable in specific areas at specific times. Why not let me take the bee suit to a non-bee planet to discover something there? Let me take the spring suit back to the home world.
It’s harder in the more complex 3D environments to facilitate this freedom, but its something the games should at least try to encourage.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the 3D Mario titles, but I hope Nintendo can pull the franchise back in the direction the first couple were going in. With the power of the NX, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Mario’s last 3D adventure on the Wii U, Super Mario 3D World, is $19.99 from Amazon.