Mario’s 3D odyssey- evolution, revolution and how the future can learn from the past.

3D Mario games. An evolution of a series and character that’s about as linear as a Quentin Tarantino Film. Or at least, as referential and as just plain “out there” as one.

As a 16 year old, going to my local games store and just watching someone play Super Mario 64 was an almost trance-like experience. My N64 magazine launch VHS tape worn out by picking up every little detail from gazing at Hazy Maze Cave. The level of exploration and going down a rabbit hole (or more specifically, underground caverns) to gain new abilities was the purest and most accurate translation and transition from 2D to 3D platforming that I or anyone could have hoped for.

From using Peach’s castle hub world as a level in of itself, and it’s grounds as the perfect place to discover and practice acrobatic skills, there was a rich, vibrant environment brimming with geographical intrigue, before the game proper was introduced, and that’s without even mentioning the sadistic manipulation of the poor plumbers face on the title screen.

At the time Mario not only experienced an evolution from 2D to 3D, it would set a blueprint for level design, camera control and gameplay loops that would be vital for the series, the genre and the industry in the years to come.

In hindsight, I didn’t think it was supposed to happen like this. Well, not so drastically, anyway. I always saw Super Mario 3D land (or it’s home console counterpart- 3D world) as the next logical step for the series, if only referencing the contemporaries such as Sony’s marsupial mascot- liner movement in a 3D space, but Mario wouldn’t be Mario without being a few steps ahead of the game.

The platformer needed to go in a different direction (or ironically, multiple directions), as Bug! on the Sega Saturn would allow for limited axis movement and while hardware capabilities were improving, even 3D games such as Resident Evil and Tomb Raider struggled with optimum viewing angles, spatial understanding and directional movement, but were slower paced, more atmospheric and cinematic experiences.

Mario 64 changed everything, yet paradoxically changed hardly anything. Precision jumping, coin collecting, goomba stomping, lush fields, under water levels, pyramids, warp pipes, Boos, secrets, they are all there. The sandbox levels, freedom of movement and objective based structure was truly brilliant at the time and is something 3D mario games have variably stuck to to this day, almost to their detriment (but I’ll get to that later). I have so many fond memories of Mario 64, there’s a link to them here.

The green, green grass of home.

Upon playing Mario 64s Bob-omb battlefield for the first time, a fair proportion of my time was spent figuring out what I could do, rather than consciously deciding where to go, which in 2D Mario games went without saying. Gradual, organic and just joyful progression of ability and abilities very rarely deviated from logical or natural, yet being able to travel to different levels almost at will relieved any sense of frustration. Racing through to open levels like Tick Tock Clock told me that I could try, but I probably wasn’t ready, such is the level of precision and skill needed to successfully navigate those pesky jolting platforms. The lush, safe plains gradually making way for harmful lava, toxic mist or bottomless pits.

The mutual reliability between Mario 64 and the N64s controller has happened a few times, more out of a reaction than from the ground up by everyone other than Nintendo. The PlayStation introduced the Dual Analog (and later the DualShock) with Ape Escape being the first game to require the new controller. Nintendo’s approach to every console and therefore its input method has been so radically different, that when they try to best themselves, they still make the odd misstep.

With the release of the GameCube came the first sequel to a 3D Mario game, and my hype was through the roof. It seemed like refinements were the priority, as well as Nintendo peeking over Sony’s back yard fence this time round, with more ports appearing on Nintendos purple box than the 64 had. The “C stick” replaced the rudimentary 4 camera buttons, which in effect was Nintendo’s answer to the twin stick configuration that would go on to define the PS2, and the controller as a whole was much more ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing (especially the lovely wireless Wavebird), and it seemed things would get only bigger and better. Except… they didn’t.

Sunshine of your love.

It’s become a bit of a cliche to pound on Super Mario Sunshine these days and who knows, with the 3D All Stars re release I might be able to have my mind changed, but at the moment I’m going on what I remember at the time and I did not enjoy my time with it. At all.

Why? The setting, the structure, the objectives, the camera, the controls…

Something didn’t sit well, and after Delfino, I wondered where Mario in a 3D space would or even could go. Turns out it would literally go to space. Super Mario Galaxy took one thing Mario was good at and turned it round. It launched higher than ever before.

A glorious orchestral score, vastly improved (yet not HD) visuals and seemingly (at the time) infinite possibility to explore the cosmos on a new frontier and new (ish, the Wii had been out for about a year by this point but was difficult to get hold of) console.

Galaxy refined but also redefined the idea of a 3D Mario game. Grander in scope, yet more self contained and compartmentalized. The sprawling comet observatory acting as the new castle, yet the balance of exploration and objective based structure hitting the sweet spot akin to 64, without the linearity of Sunshine, and using a genuinely interesting kinetic mechanic rather than a gimmicky tool.

Gravity’s rainbow.

Gravity is a cruel, yet predictable mistress, but in Super Mario Galaxy, I had to adapt, predict and manipulate my previously (not even remotely) mastered platforming skills. Scooting round asteroids and jumping through nothingness was terrifying and wonderful in equal measure. A swirling black hole tantalizingly far enough away from the next collectible I desired to risk a well timed long jump.

More satisfying, more frustrating and more gleefully absorbing, Galaxy was brilliant, but it’s hub world was a little convoluted for me. “Fear not!” I heard Nintendo shout, and within three short years, my grumbles were answered with a sequel superior in every way- Galaxy 2. Recently I have drawn parallels with the legend of Zelda tears of the kingdom and its seminal prequel Breath of the Wild in that while Galaxy 2 and (TotK) is the better game- more streamlined yet somehow more expansive, more ingenious, more imaginative and just more fun, I can’t deny that the original created a new blueprint for the 3D games in the series.

The perils of being in 3D.

Then, something strange happened. Nintendo had a new handheld on the horizon and it obviously needed a Mario game. Not one to stand on their laurels in either the hardware or the software department, and especially vexing since 64 had launched with the original DS in 2004, the stereoscopic 3D had to be showcased and had to dazzle (in a good way), however the last decade or so had been dominated by Mario bursting into the third dimension.

While arguably a parallax scrolling reissue of the “New Super Mario” series may have been less resource intensive (especially at a time when Japan was rocked by the massive Tohoku earthquake and now, more recently a global pandemic), the series took what I thought was the logical step for the series, but about 15 years late.

But of course, Nintendo wouldn’t be Nintendo if they did things logically. Bold, bright and beautiful, but relatively linear paths and clear goals set in a multi dimensional space taking advantage of a non glasses fad (thanks, Avatar, yes I said it), Super Mario 3D Land arrived at a time when the 3DS was in a bad way. An ambassador program implemented to stem the bleeding of an early adopter fan base fuming from a massive console price cut, the mutual reliance of Mario and consoles became evident. A self confessed bridge between the 2D and 3D Mario games, there were 12.86 million non Pokemon reasons why a 3D Mario game was necessary for the success of the system, especially as the next game would return to 2D on both handheld and home consoles.

Cool Cats.

Shortly after the release of 3D Land, development began on Super Mario 3D World which would come out a year in to the similarly ill fated Wii U. While Nintendo may or may not have secretly relied on the consoles backwards compatibility to bide themselves some time, especially as revisions of the Wii were released as late as 2013, those, (of which I am one), took the one two punch underwhelming (to put it politely) and yet another 2D Mario in 2012 not personally, but with a degree of aforementioned pragmatism that while always immensely successful (not to mention, fun), there was always that yearning…

And yes, Super Mario 3D world is undeniably and unbearably charming, bold, colorful and probably my son’s most played game (until Kirby came along). Quirky use of the “new controller” (whoever green-lit that marketing is stealing a living in my opinion but anyway), regular multi player chaos and reaching that apex of deceptively accessible yet devilishly challenging, 3D world is only second to MK8 in terms of Wii U sales on a console where the company said “screw it, we’ll release a game where make your own damn Mario levels!” Ok, they didn’t say that, but 2D or 3D, Mario games have an invention in their mechanics and a genius in their level design that is unmatched, and while the seeming regurgitation of the 2D titles combined with the relative but superficial step backwards from the Galaxy games to 3D Land/ World, it would be the arrival of another console before Mario’s next 3D magnum opus would arrive, and oh man, did it deliver.

Such was Nintendos philosophy with the Switch after the relative flop that was the Wii U, considering that any Mario game would sell by the bucketload, and how super Mario 3D land and world (to an extent) saved the 3DS and Wii U respectfully, they threw the kitchen sink at it. From rereleasing the best driving game ever (OBVIOUSLY in my opinion, and something that at the time I thought was a soulless cash grab, which it invariably is and isn’t), to saying the immortal words “everyone is here!” to THAT Breath of the wild trailer, not only did Nintendo take what made their home consoles and handhelds close to ubiquitous before the PlayStation, they made the aforementioned games a lover letter to their respective franchises, which reached an impossibly new high with…

Super Mario Odyssey.

Despite all the love I have for Odyssey (and it is a lot), I have one criticism. There’s too much of it. I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but the balance of risk, reward and achievement is diluted and replicated to its detriment. Changing costume to access an area goes from a fun diversion to mindless busywork quickly and and while the opening tyrannosaurus set piece and the New Donk city retrospective had me jaw-achingly grinning, meticulously stacking goombas or memory drawing dragged the experience down a little, especially when progressing relies more heavily on celestial currency.

That aside, one thing I wasn’t expecting was the somewhat ironic transition from 3D to short 2D sections. Ta da! What goes around, comes around, right?!

Super Mario Odyssey is an exceptional video game, and I reviewed it. As I’ve thought with Mario Kart, Smash Brothers and Zelda (although that particular example has been answered to an extent for the time being, but if anything makes this question more relevant), where does he go from here (in video game land, at least)?

We are coming up on six years since Odyssey’s release, with Tears of the kingdom only just missing BOTWs same anniversary. We got the 3D collection, as well as a sequel to Super Mario Maker and super Mario 3D World + Bowsers Fury, but after Odyssey, as I have said at least on five occasions and been proved mostly spectacularly wrong/ amazed, what can they possibly do to top it? But maybe the more important question is when?

Understandably things have been affected massively in the previous three years, yet Mario and Nintendo console launches have had a very close relationship historically, with a mainline title either launching directly alongside or within a year (ish) so the next one is a big one. A swan song or a new frontier. A celebration or a new revolution. In the past I wanted Super Mario 64 to look like (SPOILERS), I wanted Galaxy 3 and Odyssey 2 is the most likely in all but name, but Nintendo are masters of pure creativity- things I couldn’t even imagine.

You can take frame rates, ray tracing, processing power and whatever else and lob it out of the window. If Nintendo can make me feel the way I did when I got chased by a giant dinosaur that I had controlled (possessed?!) previously, or climbing to the top of a skyscraper to see the city below me, I’ll take it, but more importantly, I can not wait to see what they cook up.


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