Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Evolution of Mario - Super Nintendo into 3D

Last time I went through what created the foundation of Mario games. Each one is a classic in its own right but that didn't stop Nintendo from improving the winning formula.

Super Mario World

A launch game for the SNES and still one of the best looking games for the system. Super Mario World took the basic ideas behind Super Mario Bros 3 and enhanced them. The over world was now much larger with many more pathways through them. It was a deep game with nearly 92 levels (much of them hidden) making it one of the most robust platformers ever released (a fact that stands to this day)

The biggest change to the Mario franchise that Super Mario World brought was the introduction of Yoshi. Yoshi essentially brought vehicle gameplay to the Mario world. Yoshi changed the gameplay by adding the ability to eat your enemies (some of them even gave Yoshi special abilities). Later Yoshi became popular enough to star in his own games and become a stand alone character (Yoshi was even the central character to Super Mario World 2).

Super Mario 64

While it is not the first 3D platformer it was by far the most polished and easy to play. Before Super Mario 64, 3D platformers were clunky and had many issues. Super Mario 64 came along and reinvented gaming the same way the original Super Mario Bros did. Super Mario 64 is the blueprint for every 3D platforming game.

Many things were introduced and influenced the gaming world industry wide. Super Mario 64 had an open hub level (the castle and its grounds) with many different levels joining it (through paintings. This idea of a hub world was not new to gaming but it was new to platform games (hub worlds were typically only used in RPGs or Adventure games). The hub also provided the player with a safe area to explore and practice their new skills. Since Mario 64 was such a new game, and many players had not experienced a 3D game like it, it was useful to have this area. One of the most exciting experiences in the whole game was just running around and exploring the castle (which was full of secrets). Nearly every single 3D platforming game now uses a hub world and joining levels, just like in Super Mario 64.

The way you progressed in Super Mario 64 was by collecting stars. You needed a certain amount of stars to get to the next area of the castle. Stars were hidden in each level and could be acquired by completing specific missions. The idea of collecting stars has been transplated into many games ("Banjo Kazooie" has his puzzle pieces, "Ratchet and Clank" have their bolts, "Sonic" has his emeralds, Prize bubbles in "Little Big Planet" and this list goes on and on). Many game designers did take this idea to the extreme giving players too many things to collect which became overbearing for the player. Super Mario 64 used stars as a means to allow the player to explore each level and test their skills. It was a great idea at the time and when used properly can really hook a player to the game. Collecting stars also influenced games past the idea of collect-a-thons, since they introduced the idea of a mission structure to each level. For example, the FPS shooter Goldeneye got the idea for their mission based levels from Super Mario 64; Martin Hollis (designer on Goldeneye) stated that, "the idea for the huge variety of missions within a level came from Super Mario 64"

Super Mario 64 also changed around the core gameplay. Mario could still bounce on enemies to stop them but also had the butt-stomp which sent Mario down fast and hard. His jumping was also improved as he could now triple jump, backflip, and bounce off walls. He could also grab a hold of trees and poles and climb them, as well as hang on edges. Many of these gameplay tecniques were new to games in general and many games have copied these same moves (the double/triple jump is in many platformers now). One thing Mario borrowed from other games was the introduction of a health bar.

One of the simplist additions is also one of the most important. Mario had a little camera man following him where ever he went, and the player could control that camera with the C buttons. The idea of mapping the camera to a seperate set of buttons was a great idea and gave the player the ability to move the camera around to the best position. This is something that has been copied in every single 3D game since (except those with fixed cameras).

Super Mario Sunshine

Super Mario 64 was such a success that no 3D platforming game really topped it for a long time (some say nothing has yet). Even Nintendo shyed away from trying to improve on a perfect formula. It was not until the Gamecube came out that Nintendo gave it a shot (and it didn't come out until later in the Gamecube's lifespan). Super Mario Sunshine may be the biggest success and failure at the same time.

Nintendo has never been content with creating carbon copy Mario sequels (spin off games not with standing) and they have a drive to try and add something new to each game. Super Mario Sunshine kept a lot of the same gameplay from Super Mario 64 keeping the same skills and collecting "shines" (which were identical to collecting stars). However, Super Mario now had FLUDD a water based weapon, which he could use to perform attacks, fly through the air, and clean the environment. It complicated the controls but once the player got used to it, it was easy enough to use. Many players were turned off on this new aspect and wanted Mario to stay streamlined. Personally I had a lot of fun with FLUDD and found it added a new layer to the game. But, I also found Super Mario Sunshine to be the hardest Mario game I have ever played and part of that is thanks to the more complex gameplay. Sometimes it wasn't so much challenging as it was frustrating.

Nintendo has scrapped most of the things they brought up in Super Mario Sunshine, and even though it is one of the less influencial Mario games it is still a solid game. Being the least loved Mario game is kinda of like getting an A on a test when you are used to getting A+.

New Super Mario Bros

Before the next full 3D game (Super Mario Galaxy), Nintendo created a new 2D Mario game for the DS. This game took most of Mario's moves from Super Mario 64, but everything was pulled off on a 2D plane. This game was not as robust as Super Mario 3 or Super Mario World, and almost acted like a successor to the original Super Mario Bros. The gameplay was simple, and the levels were short. This game was an astounding success mostly because of how easy it was to play. The simplicity of the game also helped the fact that this game was on a portable system, and most player play the DS for short spurts of time (I play my DS on my bus ride to work so I appreciate being able to finish a level in a short period of time). Playing this game felt a lot like playing a updated NES game, which isn't really a bad thing.

Super Mario Galaxy

The last Mario game Nintendo released and easily the best one yet. It took the basic principals behind Super Mario 64 (collecting stars and having an open hub world with many hidden and unlockable areas) and kept the controls the same. Rather than updating the gameplay with something radical (like FLUDD) they decided to change that way the levels work. Most levels took place on a series of planets and Mario could travel all around them. Gravity would pull you from one planet to the next and at points Mario would be completely upside down. It was flipping the gameplay on its head literally. The gravity aspect of the game was a little confusing at first but after a little bit of time with the game it became easy to understand. Super Mario 64 took gameplay and level design to full 3D but Super Mario Galaxy took it all to the next level. It is currently one of the highest rated games of all time!

The Future

Now even though I have described the main Mario games there are many more Mario spin-offs, some of which are great games on their own right. Nintendo is always careful to give their full attention and time to Mario's core series, and right now they are working on 2 new games. Super Mario Galaxy 2 seems to be an extention of the first game, but adding new level ideas and power ups (it worked for Super Mario World). Super Mario Galaxy will also bring back Yoshi as a vehicle in the game (He has only been that role in Super Mario World, and Sunshine). They are also building New Super Mario Bros for the Wii, and it looks like a more complex and robust experience. In that game 4 players can place at once which should add a new layer of gameplay that Super Mario games have not seen yet. I am really excited about the future of the series and you can guarantee they will both be smash hits.


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