In the hub that is Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64, there is a garden. A mysteriously empty garden. Here, as in the castle grounds, you can try out Mario’s myriad manoeuvres relatively risk-free. A shallow pond allows for swimming practice. The many trees can be climbed, handstood (handstanded?) on, and vaulted from. There’s enough room to long jump, triple jump, and try out all the other ARGHWHATTHEHELLARETHOSE.
People who have played the game will know exactly what ‘those’ are. But few will have been of the age, or of the particularly cowardly demeanour, to run screaming from the room when they showed up.
I did. Seven at the time, I paused the game and ran to my parents. ‘There are BOOS in the garden!’
It’s something most modern Mario games wouldn’t allow. Your first encounter with Mario’s undead is likely to be in a place called Ghost House 1, or Boo Boo Galaxy. The joy of discovery is limited to set-pieces within levels, rather than anything like this.
I look back on that example of supreme cowardice with glee. And that, above all other reasons, is why I’m so excited about Super Mario Odyssey.
I’m going to try and explain why, especially to those who thought that Super Mario Galaxy was/is the best game in the world. I’ll most likely fail, but damn it I’m going to have a stab. But it’s going to take a while. Super Mario 64 hasn’t aged well, so I’m going to have to ask the reader to use a little imagination, do a lot of reading, and allow me my self-centredness. Just for a bit. Thank you.
Sweet Child of Mine
Imagine you are me in early 1997 (which is going some if you’re not an upper middle-class white bloke, but play along, alright?). You’re a shy, clumsy kid. Your friends at school are people you want to be friends with, not people who want to be friends with you. You are inevitably the last pick on the football team. You’re terrified of everything and everyone.
(Self-pity? Nah. I was cosseted to within an inch of my life by my parents. But I think this helps explain why I chose the hobbies I did, and why at first I wasn’t great at them.)
You get away from the difficulties of socialising by playing your Game Boy. Specifically Super Mario Land, although you’ve dabbled in other 2D platformers. You’re fairly bad at games, so you haven’t actually finished it. Not even when your parents chip in (although you'll find out later that they’re even worse at games than you, right now they’re better). But you love it. A whole world inside that screen, where you are the centre of attention. Where you have abilities far outstripping your meagre real-world frame. Where you can be the hero. In theory. If you didn’t keep dying so much.
One day in a newsagent (for millennials, that’s a high street shop that sold print journalism. And made a profit doing so. Yes, that was a thing!) you chance across issue one of N64 Magazine. And there’s the hero of your favourite game, splayed across the cover, in glorious colour. ‘Mario Go! Go!’ the text proclaims. How very Japlish.
You flip to the review in which he’s featured. 96%. Even at this early age you love numbers, and you know that’s a good one. ‘Swahili holds the only word to sum it up,’ writes Zy Nicholson, in the sort of quote that’d be labelled ‘pretentious’ nowadays. ‘SM64 is absolutely tsufufum.’
Well. No way your doting parents aren’t buying you this machine/game. You’ll see to that.
A month, and a holding back for disciplinary reasons (you’re the sort of kid who will let other people’s dogs off leashes just to see what happens), and you’re given the machine as a belated Easter present. You set it up, turn it on, and are greeted by something...
...how do you describe it? Language has never been your strong point. You can’t. It’s so far removed from your only points of comparison, Super Mario Lands 1 & 2, even beyond the extra dimension.
Let’s start with ‘big’. The castle and its grounds are ‘big’. Bigger than your front garden, your house, your street. Bigger than the world your childbrain can currently process. You may not be able to explore it all at this point, but that’s fine. You’re just amazed at all the things Mario can do. (See top of this article – swim, climb, jump etc.) And you’re happy to try them out.
Then you hit the first level. And that’s bigger.
It’s just familiar enough. That toddling Goomba? It reminds you of when your mum ran into the first enemy in SML over and over again, before realising she could jump over it. Those cork blocks? You may not hit your head on them (although what’s that faded red cube...?), but you still break them and coins still fly out.
But my goodness does it feel freeing.
You’re meant to go up the path in front of you, but that isn’t the attitude of a child who’ll see what happens when you let a dog off a leash. What about those swivelling platforms over there? Yup, go on – you’re even rewarded with a red coin and a musical jingle for doing so. What about going all the way over that grassy plain? You’re bombarded with water bombs, but go right ahead. Treasures await. What happens if you go into that flowerbed? What the...! A secret warp, getting you past the frightening barking ball of teeth? You have been rewarded for your inquisitiveness! Or for reading N64 Magazine.
Most of this, you (i.e. I) didn’t do yourself. Not at first. You were too scared of the threats, now in colour on a larger screen. You got chased by bombs! That’s scary! (And sadly topical.) Mucking about in the castle gardens was more your style. So you sat sandwiched between your parents, indulging in the worst sort of backseat driving, as they expressed the same shock and awe.
But it inspired you. This was what games should be, an entire world for you to visit in your screen. Who needed international holidays? Travel was just on the other side of that glass.
Eventually you are brave enough, at least to potter around the first level. And that’s when the freedom gut-punches you properly. Your parents have already taken out the first boss, King Bob-Omb (after hours of misunderstanding what to do and of chucking him off the mountain). So what now? You’re meant to race the big tortoise standing there. But you’ve also opened up a system of cannons that can fire you around the level. The tortoise can wait. Several misfires later (you can’t aim, and hate FPSes to this day for that reason), you land on a floating island in the sky, holding its own mcguffin.
Going back into the level, you find you’ve cheated. You’ve got star 3 before star 2! You haven’t cheated, of course. But you feel like your rule-breaking approach, that usually gets you into trouble, has rewarded you for once. Now, you wonder if there are any dogs that need de-leashing...
That’s before you find that you can fly. The third dimension, previously just for jumping through and falling through, opens up. Your parents gather around the game to celebrate the miracle of flight. Not much later, the three of you do the same to curse the miracle of flightless birds, as you fail to beat the fat penguin race again and again and again.
If I’ve dwelled for too long on SM64, I apologise. But it was a huge element in my life: my first real videogame. SML, much though I played it, was merely a prelude. SM64 was the game that caught my imagination, and in doing so, made me the gamer I still am. It felt like I ploughed months into it. I, we, probably did.
Back to the... More Recent Past Actually
Back to imagining now: you’re me again. Fast forward six years or so, and a new 3D Mario is coming out. You’ve been following it in NGC Magazine (What? N64 Magazine is evolving!). You’re excited all over again. But you’re a bit older, a bit (you feel) more discerning.
And the precious formula has been dabbled with. The levels are limited to tropical themes. You’re mucking about with a water pistol. Classic enemies are replaced with big-nosed blobs in underwear. All that you could excuse, particularly for a first chance to ride Yoshi in 3D.
But they’ve linearised the stars. The bastards! They’ve linearised the stars!
Every level allows you to explore, yes, and you can find blue coins if you’re rigorous enough. But enter a level and you’re shown exactly where the star – sorry, Shine – is, and you can’t get another one until you have it. No firing to a secret island for you, apart from in a small handful of cases. Super Mario Sunshine has taken the first step away from the freedom granted you by SM64, and you don’t like it.
Well, okay. You still quite like the game, but it’s in a distant second. You hope they’ll go back to type next time around.
Maybe you – by which I mean you the reader, not you me (this second person business definitely isn’t confusing is it?) – can take a guess at how I felt when Super Mario Galaxy was first announced. Except you can’t.
You can’t guess how, as press and friends (online friends – I was still cowardly and shy at 17) drooled over the gravitational pull and stomping caterpillars out of apples, you (back to that meaning me again!) worried over the linear floating chains of blocks. How, whenever a larger landmass like the Honeyhive Galaxy was shown, you prayed it was as large as a SM64 world. How, when the game landed and everybody lauded it the best thing ever, you gave that smile you give a well-meaning relative who’s got you a present you’ll never use again.
You do a review post on an online forum, in which you give it 91%. That’s like giving any other game 70%. (You look back as you’re writing this, and think how pathetic your feeling of ‘take that’ was.)
It’s Galaxy’s over-celebrating (in your opinion) that drives you to go back to SM64 and get all 120 stars for the first time. You find those extra eight coins you never quite could in Dire Dire Docks, which has only 106. You’re finally good enough to meet Yoshi on the roof. This memory will stay with you, somewhat twisted.
From then on, it only gets worse. The New Super Mario Bros. series signals a shift back to the 2D style of Mario games, a series largely before your time. You play the games, you quite enjoy them, but they don’t scratch the same itch. They don’t even have the Easter Island enemies of SML, just dull ol’ Goombas.
You largely prefer Galaxy 2 to Galaxy 1 because you know what it’ll be, and so aren’t disappointed. As for 3D Land and 3D World... a sorry state of affairs indeed, when Mario games that are 3D in dimensions but 2D in style are the best two consecutive consoles have to offer.
Nothing Beside Remains
And throughout this time, you defend your beloved SM64. Because people are starting to look back on it critically. The game that defined your childhood, the 96%-er, is being criticised.
How dare they.
You played it not so long ago, actually, and it still holds up. It’s nowhere near as bad-looking as Ocarina of Time! Sure the polygons are rough, but they’re not as bad as that pre-rendered filth. And the level design’s still great, it still plays well!
Eventually you go back to it on the Wii U Virtual Console. It doesn’t still play well.
What was once great level design is still there. But it’s ugly as sin, what you can see anyway: the abominable camera limits that. It’s also quite easy, in this day and age, especially compared to the Galaxies. And the levels, unsurprisingly perhaps, are smaller than they felt when you were a child.
You don’t finish it this time.
You admit it. SM64 has aged. It is a much-loved game, but in this era, nowhere near the top of the pile. No longer tsufufum, or even wunfufum. Galaxy becomes your favourite 3D Mario, almost by default (actually it’s Galaxy 2, but who’s counting). You sigh, and hope for better down the road, but think it unlikely. Nintendo has made their direction of focus for Mario’s adventures clear.
Enter Super Mario Odyssey.
Like Thomas, you doubt. SMO is seen at first as a clip in the Switch reveal trailer: the Amélie-esque Karen is negotiating her way through what looks like Mario & the Secret Rings in Mexico, before her similarly aesthetic friends invite her for a rooftop party, and don’t immediately evict her for dragging the attention over to her nerdmachine. The clip looks decidedly linear, and that’s in keeping with the aforementioned direction.
That big big Switch showcase thing happens on the 13th January, and focuses overly on HD Rumble. You’ve never been happier to be utterly wrong.
Because it’s going to be great, yes. Because it’s going to bring back childhood memories, and enhance them. But also because all those times you talked up SM64, and people who didn’t play it at the time gave you blank looks? Finally, they’ll know what you were on about. This is what SM64 was for you back then.
Exploration. Sprawling non-linear levels. Exploration. Moons to collect in any order. Exploration. Power-ups that let you fly (if you can call possessing Bullet Bills that). EXPLORATION.
Moe-Eye Told You So
Back to the first person now – I’ve never been happier to see a game revealed. Never since Boos terrified me have I seen a Mario game and felt I had, or will have, so much freedom.
It won’t quite be the same as SM64 was for me and those around me. We’ve had 3D games before, we’ve had exploratory games before, we’ve even had exploratory 3D platformers before. SM64 was followed up by Rare’s efforts, and now Yooka-Laylee is doing its slightly wonky thing.
But one side-eye at SMO tells you that this is going to be the best of the bunch. And why shouldn’t it? With his twenty-foot leaps, wall kicks, and power-ups, when he’s given the chance, nobody does freedom and exploration of 3D space like Mario. Not even Link.
For children just getting into gaming, especially shy nervous children, SMO will likely be what SM64 was for me. Lucky beggars. For those closer to my own age, probably not. They grew up with SMG as their exemplar of everything Mario games should be. Zero-gravity, flying through space, sling star set-pieces are their exploration. And for those older than me, who grew up with 2D Mario, SMG was that in 3D. It perfected the nostalgia of their childhoods, as SMO will do for me.
But if they can get a kick out of this, a completely different style of game, as I couldn’t out of SMG, then I’ll be happy enough.
Nintendo have let their level design off the leash. And I can’t wait for everyone else to see what all my fuss was about.