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Mario and Movement- The Evolution of a 3D Platformer

Movement in a platformer is probably something you don’t think about too much. Not necessarily things like how to make a jump, but rather how fun that jump is to make, or how that jump affects the design of the game world. Mario is one of the quintessential platformer franchises in both 2D and 3D, and Odyssey is one of the smoothest experiences I’ve had playing this genre, Mario or not. This is because Super Mario Odyssey builds itself on a 20 year legacy of experimentation, success, and failure in terms of design choices for 3D Mario titles. Each of the main 3D games brought something new or tried to experiment with things that previous iterations had not done yet. So, let’s take a quick look at how design and movement were used in the main 3D Mario games.

  1. Super Mario 64

super mario 64Super Mario 64 is like the Wild West for 3D platformers. It came out after many companies (including Nintendo) had already been experimenting with moving into the 3rd dimension. Classic franchises like Castlevania and Mega Man struggled to find their footing, but Mario made the leap into 3D with flying colors. 64 is one of the best games when it comes to control and fluid movement, which is funny since it was the first 3D Mario.

The biggest changes for the Mario formula are that our little Italian man can now dive, long jump, and wall jump. All of these add a lot to how you get around. Super Mario 64’s levels are not designed with linearity in mind, you’re meant to explore them, and sometimes you can find things off the path the game outlines for you. Mastering how to wall jump can get you into certain places early, or even let the adventurous push what boundaries the game tries to set. The long jump serves a similar purpose, and its most common application is to clear large gaps you normally couldn’t or to simply keep your momentum going.

Momentum is the keyword when thinking about movement in Mario games. Not stopping is pretty important, and you can beat a lot of older Mario games without halting your progression even the slightest. One of the worst feelings in a platformer is waiting, and Mario 64 tries to circumvent this by giving you ways to quickly travel across levels, and make you feel like you’re always going forward… unless it’s Rainbow Ride. Rainbow Ride feels horrible.

  1. Super Mario Sunshine

super mario sunshineSuper Mario Sunshine is the black sheep for the 3D Mario games. It did a lot at the time to try and push new ideas for Mario but at the cost of becoming a repetitive mess. The game’s starting gimmick is cleaning up messes with F.L.U.D.D, but I wouldn’t really call walking around and spritzing paint with water “platforming.” F.L.U.D.D does add a lot of new movement options to the game though, some of which are probably my favorite.

For starters, Mario can increase his ground speed by spraying water in front of him and diving onto it, giving him a short, frictionless, slide to get around faster. The rocket and boost nozzles for the F.L.U.D.D are also pretty cool and unique. Both give Mario a very crazy boost either vertically or horizontally. Stages are a lot bigger in Sunshine, mostly due to the amount of distance you can travel with F.L.U.D.D. It sounds great at first, but really this ends up slowing a lot of the game down. 64 is mostly compact levels that you can traverse in a few minutes, but you can spend 5-10 just scaling walls in Sunshine, and that’s if you don’t fall off.

If Mario 64 gives the player options to avoid awkward pausing, then Sunshine is built around it. The hover nozzle is by far one of the biggest offenders of this. It practically pauses you in mid-air if you don’t already have a decent amount of speed going. It’s primary platforming purpose is to serve as the early-game rocket nozzle and help you with jump height. It can also help you clear large gaps, but the more savvy Mario player will just make use of wall jumps or long jumps, which are still present in the game even though the F.L.U.D.D gives similar (but slower) options.

Sunshine offers a lot less independence to explore despite it being a much larger game. The shine sprites in Sunshine are tied to individual missions like the starts in 64. But 64 would often host multiple stars in a level, and you could accidentally find one early just exploring a stage. Sunshine will intentionally bar the player from areas until other requirements are met, and this is true at pretty much every stage in the game. There are a few outliers, but Sunshine corals the player to stick to its rules rather than give them the freedom they had before.

  1. Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2

super mario galaxyThe Galaxy games feel like a reboot in terms of movement. Sunshine slowed the series down, but Galaxy is meant to bring it back to where it started. Galaxy does a lot to separate itself from 64 and Sunshine mechanically. The game isn’t as “open-world,” as its predecessors, it’s a lot of going from point A to point B. It works out well here though. Levels are built to be linear and there’s there’s less to explore, but the challenges in each stage feel more fleshed out and less generic. There was a definitive pattern to the shine sprite missions in Sunshine, and neither Galaxy game feels that way.

Galaxy is also the first 3D game to feature traditional Mario power-ups like those in the NES games. A lot of the most memorable power-ups have to do with verticality. Most notable is the bee suit, which gives you the ability to quickly climb and also fly around. Yoshi also makes a comeback here as an interesting platform tool (He was in Sunshine as well, but his potential is squandered and he adds nothing). The tiny dino-companion can eat different kinds of fruit in Galaxy 2 to give him super speed or hovering capabilities.  Galaxy is a showy game, and it likes to make everything seem as big and grand as possible. That’s the main reason you’ll see Mario triumphantly fly from one plant to another when using a launch star.

  1. Super Mario Odyssey

super mario odysseySo, how does Super Mario Odyssey combine all of these things? Well, Mario’s basic jump skills from 64 are all still here, and they feel really tight and responsive. Cappy also adds a new way to jump in the game by giving Mario a free extra jump by using him as a platform. Being able to successfully scale a wall by using Cappy jumps is up there with diving in Super Mario 64 in how good it feels to do properly. You can sequence break a lot of things once you get this technique down, and Odyssey has the same open-world level design that 64 does. Power moons in Odyssey are hidden everywhere, and you’re not kicked back out to a hub after getting one. It’s obvious the design team wanted to make exploration and experimentation the most important parts of each level because they never want to break your flow while playing.

A lot of the experimental F.L.U.D.D stuff and Galaxy power-ups are level-exclusive now. This is a really good approach to this kind of stuff since it let the design team build whole levels around using a certain power-up rather than worrying about the player being able to use whatever they want. In particular, the Seaside Kingdom is the best example of this. The little squid enemies you can possess there have abilities very similar to F.L.U.D.D, and if you could use those powers everywhere it would make the game a lot less fun to interact with and slow it down. On the other hand, the Seaside Kingdom is built to make use of the power-up’s hovering abilities and even its boss battle is super fun to play (which was a thing that wasn’t always true in Sunshine).

Odyssey is without a doubt one of my favorite Mario games. I still think the polished and simple feel of 64 holds up the best, but Odyssey comes in a very close second. It’s a creative game, with lots of room to let the player just mess around in the world and have fun moving about. It’s hard to think of a game quite like Odyssey. It combines the simple freedom of Super Mario 64, the large sprawling levels of Super Mario Sunshine, and the odd and satisfying power-ups of the Galaxy games.

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