That’s it. The title says it all. I don’t get it. I spend too much time at work, and on Twitter, talking to video game fanatics – people that, by their own admission, spend far too much time thinking about and talking about video games. That’s fine by itself, but when the conversation turns towards Super Mario – as all conversations with me inevitably do – some of these people confess that they’re just “not that into it,” and that doesn’t sit right with me at all.
Super Mario, for me, has for a long time been the epitome of what a condensed, focused vision for a video game should be. Nothing to hold it back, no compromises, just a video game. I could start right here and now, ranting about how the original Super Mario Bros. practically reinvented video games as we know them – can you imagine a 2D platformer that doesn’t smoothly scroll to the side? I can’t either, and that’s because Super Mario made that a staple of the genre. Heck, it practically invented the genre and left all other game developers at the time struggling to catch up. We like to think of Mario and Sonic as friendly rivals from the same era, but that ignores the fact that it took Sonic six years to release after Super Mario Bros. Oh, I guess I did end up ranting about the original Super Mario Bros.
I hear the complaints, I really do. For one, the 2D Mario games are looking long in the tooth these days. Yes, while they certainly created the genre, the New Super Mario Bros. games have seemingly run it into the ground. I must admit, in the modern day I would rather turn to Shovel Knight or Celeste than New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. It’s a damn good thing Nintendo was smart enough to let players create their own stages as of Super Mario Maker, otherwise I would be convinced that the 2D Mario games are better off being a thing of the past.
Forget what you know about Super Mario 64. Forget that it wrote the book on how 3D video games should be designed, forget that it redefined what it was to navigate a virtual world. One of the most important things that the game did was create a distinct and unique moveset for Mario. The backflip, the somersault, the long-jump, the ground pound; all of these moves have become iconic, and the team led by Shigeru Miyamoto understood that in order to embrace this brave new dimension, you have to embrace a bold new control scheme. The Nintendo 64 analog stick was one thing, but Mario’s expressive and expansive moveset was the true star, and once again it set a standard that other franchises struggled to reach.
But none of that truly explains why I love the Super Mario games, though we’re getting close. After all, being revolutionary 30 or even 20 years ago is laudable, but not exactly a reason why the franchise should be held in such high regard right now, in the year of our lord Mario 2021. My reasons for loving Mario are exemplified in Super Mario 3D World – not even Bowser’s Fury, just 3D World and the 3DS’ Super Mario 3D Land. These games took the linear structure of a 2D Mario game and transplanted it into full 3D, complete with Mario’s expanded moveset, and this is where the franchise shines as few others do.
In these games you’re tasked with getting to the flagpole at the end of the stage, and it’s not even necessarily difficult to do so. You run, jump, grab power-ups, collect some coins, and hit the goal. Easy, simple, straightforward, and it’s understandably hard to see what all the fuss is about when we cast a reductive lens over the proceedings. But these simplistic platforming challenges have depth. There are optional collectibles and items throughout every stage that you seek out if you want to prove your skill. After all, finishing a Mario game is hardly an achievement, but collecting every Star Coin or Green Star is something entirely different. These tasks will see you using Mario’s full moveset, and you will fail while attempting them a good few times. It’s hardly a Soul Level One run of your favourite FromSoftware game, but it’s a good, honest challenge.
My favourite thing about these games is the purity. We know that Super Mario games do not exactly have in-depth lore or a compelling narrative, it has only ever been there as a vague inciting incident. Peach is kidnapped, the castle is stolen, random fairies have been stuffed in jars: these “plots” don’t matter, what matters is what you do in the game. This isn’t about Mario facing his inner fears as he jumps across platforms with a bottomless chasm awaiting him – he’s cheering, wahoo-ing his way past certain death, and there are no distractions from the experience. Every Mario level introduces a gameplay concept, whether that’s wobbly platforms or swinging bridges, and it introduces that concept in a safe environment before slowly ramping up the stakes and sending you into a final gauntlet to hit the finish line. This is quite literally what game designers use as a reference when creating games that offer easy to understand level concepts for beginners and intricate challenges for experienced players.
But better than all of that is the likes of Super Mario Odyssey. While Odyssey ditches the linear stage structure, it doubles down on player agency. Where should you go, what should you do? Well, it’s your decision. You don’t even have to spend longer than a few minutes in each stage. If you wish, you can just collect enough Power Moons to move onto the next one. This way, you’ll be able to “beat” the game – and the final boss – in a few hours at most. But that really would be missing the forest for the trees.
Mario’s moveset is dynamic and fluid, and that’s the strength that these larger stages work with. Nothing in the game tells you to wall jump between skyscrapers in New Donk City, but you will inevitably do it because you understand Mario’s moveset and it looks fun. When you first start playing Super Mario Odyssey you will likely be following the gentle curves and paths of each stage as you slowly uncover the landscape and fill in the blanks in your knowledge about how Mario moves. By the end you will be skipping entire sections of levels with combinations of Mario’s spin jump, wall jump, cap throw, dive, backflip, ground pound jump, and more. This is a game that rewards you for being good at the game, but never forces you to be.
It’s a lot like Metal Gear Solid 5 – another game with a practically non-existent narrative, now that I think about it. When you first start playing the game you will slowly crawl through the grass and sneak up on opponents, panicking when they spot you and struggling to move a few feet through an enemy compound. By the end of the game you will be surfing down a sand dune in a cardboard box with an anime girl on the front, crashing through a group of guards distracted by an inflatable Big Boss, and then shooting any stragglers with bullet-time precision. Nothing in the game tells you to play this way, but the more you play and learn, the bigger your opportunities for fun become.
As of games like Super Mario Odyssey, it seems like Nintendo has finally begun to understand how far some players are willing to push the boundaries of a game like this. In Super Mario Sunshine, if you manage to use FLUDD to get to a location you’re not supposed to be, you will find nothing – most of the time you’ll just fall through the world and die. In Super Mario Odyssey, almost every platform – even the ones that seem truly insurmountable – is hiding a batch of coins. Again, this isn’t Nintendo telling you that this is the way to play. Instead, it’s just an acknowledgement that you can play this way, if you want to – a nice nod to those dedicated players that push the envelope, while never putting pressure on those not willing to take the risk.
These days I am keenly aware that not all game fans are playing for the same reasons I am. I am looking for a sense of accomplishment, whether that’s executing a perfectly precise set of jumps for a Super Mario shortcut, out-manoeuvring someone in Apex Legends, or anticipating a Shoryuken in Street Fighter, I want to feel like my knowledge of a game is increasing, and with it my skill. Some people don’t want to go through trials and tribulations to enjoy a game, some people just want a simple story to enjoy, a bunch of characters to hang around with, or an environment where they can relax with people they know online. That’s all fine. I will never judge someone for wanting something different from games than me. But if you’re going to tell me that you don’t like Mario games in any capacity, you best have a 1,500-word article explaining yourself, otherwise I’m about to go off. Happy Mar10.
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TheGamer Guides Editor.
Am I supposed to write this in the third-person? Do you know how awkward it is talking about yourself like you’re someone else? No one would ever believe someone else has this many nice things to say about me.
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