My current spate of video game playing began in grad school when my friend Wayne gave me his old NES, together with Super Mario Bros.. If I’m remembering correctly, Jordan later found a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 at a yard scale, after which I was doomed to several years of platforming addiction. Not that they were the only NES games I played—I was rather fond of Solomon’s Key, and Jordan will be pleased to hear that Blades of Steel was just rereleased on the Virtual Console—but I sunk by far the most hours into the two SMB games. I loved running, jumping, and stomping my way through the levels; I loved the way the focus was on the level design, with combat largely there to keep you on your toes; I loved the way you could explore every nook and cranny of the levels and find hidden stuff; I loved it that, even when I died, I knew it was my fault, and if I just tried the level again (and sometimes again and again and again) and just, you know, didn’t screw up, I’d get past it eventually!

So, when I got a job offer, I celebrated by buying a Nintendo 64, and one of the first games I got for it was Super Mario 64. (It was temporarily out of stock, else it would have been the first N64 game I bought; that honor fell to Extreme-G instead.) And it was great! All the crazy jumping and lightweight combat that I liked, just in 3D, but there were these huge areas for you to explore, with stuff all over the place. In fact, the environmental design in some ways took even more pride of place in Super Mario 64 than in the 2D Mario games: there were goals (stars) for you to accomplish, should you choose, but, unlike the persistent forward drive of the 2D games, you could simply wander around the levels if you wished, just poking your nose in places and having fun. There wasn’t even a strict correspondence between levels and stars: each level was big enough to have six different stars in it. (Plus a seventh that you could get by collecting 100 coins.)

I was blown away, and I wasn’t the only one: this wasn’t just the natural evolution of the platforming genre, this way a statement about how 3D games should be made, with lessons for the entire industry in its transition to the first generation of consoles that could really support 3D gaming. I collected all 120 stars, and would happily have collected twice as many; fortunately, Rare released Banjo-Kazooie a few months later. (I didn’t buy an N64 until a year and a half after launch, so they’d had almost two years to learn the lessons from Super Mario 64.)

Again, I played straight through that one, collecting every puzzle piece, finding all 100 notes on each level, and so forth. Those notes are worth mention: one aspect of 2D platformers that turned out not to translate quite as well to 3D platformers is the “find a way to hit every block to uncover secrets” part of the gameplay. I’m not sure entirely why, but my guess is that, in a 2D world, it’s easy to have constricted areas with multiple levels, which means that it’s easy to place lots of blocks that you can jump up to hit. In a 3D world, however, you need many more open spaces, otherwise the camera can’t see anything; while they still have a lot of vertical exploration, they come more in the form of hills (perhaps with paths cut in the side), trees, or just mounds with no open space between. This means that you don’t have as much freedom to place blocks to break open; Banjo-Kazooie‘s solution to this, which I think is as good as any, is to scatter 100 musical notes lying on the ground (or on hills or in trees or in caves or …) in each level. This is great for the game player who, like myself, wants to prove that he can explore every nook and cranny; if I can get all 100 on a single play through a level, I know I’ve mastered exploring that level. (I’d remembered that as unlocking a puzzle piece, but googling shows that I was wrong, so it really is quite optional.)

More platformers followed, but they didn’t have nearly the same spark for me. I finished them, but I didn’t track down every loose end, and they felt like a slog by the end. They kept the same core gameplay design; that was great the first couple of times, but it was getting stale. Levels got larger; at first, I thought this was a blessing, but at times it started to feel like a slog. Also, part of the core platformer tradition is giving your character access to a range of different abilities (the most prominent example of this being the suits in Super Mario Bros. 3); each new game experimented with new vehicles for delivering abilities, but none of them worked very well. (Rare was going through a “let the player switch between multiple characters” phase at this time, and Donkey Kong 64 showed that at its worst.)

The one shining bulwark against the rising tide of platformer mediocrity was Conker’s Bad Fur Day: it was one of the last games on the N64, and one of the best. The reasons, however, had nothing to do with the platforming gameplay, but rather had everything to do with the humor of the game. (And the pop culture references, though I probably didn’t get as much out of those as most people, since I basically hadn’t watched any new movies since moving to California.) The best example, one of my single favorite video game sequences of all time, is the “Great Mighty Poo” song; YouTube has this version with non-singing gameplay edited out, and this longer version without cuts. Please go watch one of them (warning: quite possibly NSFW) and come back. Basically, the main character in the game is a quite profane squirrel; I still laugh when I see a button described as “context-sensitive”, because of a sequence in that game involving such buttons after Conker’s been drinking rather heavily.

Conker was a glorious end to platformers on that generation of consoles, but there’s only so much that the industry could have taken from it as a model going forward. By this time, I was pretty burned out on the genre; in the next generation (Dreamcast/PS2/Gamecube/Xbox), I played almost none, and I don’t think I missed much. I did, of course, play Super Mario Sunshine, and it was pretty good, but nothing special: the core level design was solid, but the new gameplay mechanic wasn’t anything to write home about (in fact, in some ways, it weakened the traditional jumping mechanic), and I thought the “explore every nook and cranny” mechanism (blue coins) was actively annoying.

What’s going on here? The basic problem is that Super Mario 64 got so many things right that it’s hard to see what to do to incrementally improve on it. (Hmm, maybe I should spend more time thinking about lessons from completely different games with strong platforming elements, e.g. Shadow of the Colossus.) The idea of big, wide-open world that you can explore to your heart’s content is pretty compelling; Miranda has spent hours and hours over the last three or so years roaming through the environments of Super Mario Sunshine, not trying to get the stars at all, and she’s still not bored with it.

You can tweak this platforming/exploration design by adding new gameplay mechanics (which is inherently hit or miss, since jumping is always the core of platformer gameplay), you can make the worlds bigger (as happened every year), you can even stitch the worlds together so you have more one big world instead of a hub world that can magically transport you to other, distinct worlds. There’s a bit of the latter in Super Mario Sunshine, but to see where the idea of one big world leads you, it’s best to go outside of the genre entirely: if you stitch together all your worlds into one big world, keep the idea of multiple goals (“stars”) within this big world, and give up on the idea that the goals should have anything to do with jumping, then you’re led to the direction of GTA-style mission-based gameplay within a massive world. One of the biggest platformer series during the second 3D console generation was Jak and Daxter, on the PS2; by the time I got around to giving that series a try, in Jak 3, it was no longer a platformer, but had turned into a sort of GTA with furry animals and (much) less brutality.

So: was the platformer dead? Had we mined everything we could out of it, and had the time come for it to step aside and make way to the new genres that it had helped give birth to? I was wondering that myself, and I certainly wasn’t optimistic about Nintendo’s ability to do significantly advance the genre. (See my standard Nintendo review.) But then something funny happened: a year and a half, Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, bringing back old-school 2D platformer gameplay, and the world has lapped it up to the extent of more than12 million copies sold. Which is a staggering amount of sales (significantly more than any Final Fantasy or Halo game, for example), and this for a game that brings nothing new to the table, just revives a genre (2D platformers) that’s been rather out of fashion for a while.

So maybe there’s more to be mined from 2D platformers than we’d seen? Let’s go back and re-envision how the genre might have transitioned differently to 3D. In particular, as we’ve seen above, wide open levels with multiple goals evolved into mission-based gameplay; this is, in retrospect, a significant departure from the linear, independent levels that 2D platformers had. So what if we went back to lots of linear levels, and made sure to turn up the jumping knob even further?

This is exactly what Super Mario Galaxy did, and carried it off extraordinarily well. I’ve seen people say that it’s the Super Mario Bros. 3 of the 3D platformer genre, and I don’t agree: SMB3 is an evolution of the original Super Mario Bros. design, while Galaxy goes back to the 2D roots of the genre and imagines a different way in which the gameplay might have evolved. Like Super Mario 64, it is divided up into a collection of worlds, each with multiple stars in them; unlike its predecessor, however, you go on a linear path to each star, and those linear paths diverge almost immediately after entering the world, sharing only marginally more context than the different levels on one world of SMB3 did.

And gone are the wide open spaces, which are largely incompatible with linear gameplay. The “galaxy” notion isn’t an arbitrary choice of setting in the way that Super Mario Sunshine happened to be set on an island: instead, the astronomical setting lets Nintendo create a level out of a sequence of planetoids. (Or other random surfaces – they’re happy to plunk a water slide with no means of support floating in the middle of nowhere.) On each planetoid, you run around and accomplish a sub-goal (sometimes just reach a location, but frequently you beat a monster or hit a block which triggers an event or any number of other things) which opens up a transportation mechanism to the next planetoid. So you’re still moving in a 3D world, but at the same time the gameplay is always along a clear path, driving you towards the star at the end of the level.

The galaxy setting also lets them turn up the platforming mechanics to insane heights. They felt absolutely unconstrained by logic when designing the planetoids; in particular, if they wanted to have, say, a huge mesa rising out of nowhere that you’d run around the outside of, platforming your way up, they would freely do so, giving a very good approximation of a traditional 2D platforming mechanic in a 3D world. But they also used gravity to great effect, having levels where different regions have gravity tugging you in different directions (up, down, left, right), or having traditional “moving platform” segments where, in addition to jumping to avoid obstacles, you could walk around to the bottom of the platform to avoid them.

I could go on to describe the game in more detail; I think I’ll leave that to a separate blog post. Suffice it to say that Nintendo/Miyamoto have revisited the genre’s roots, rethought some very basic decisions that they made in the initial transition to 3D, and ended up with a very convincing alternate notion of the core concept of a 3D platformer. In fact, it’s rather more convincing a translation of the genre than Super Mario 64 was, and, partly because of that, I think it will ultimately be significantly less influential.

In retrospect, Super Mario 64 was an explanation of how to design a general 3D game, and happened to do that in a fashion that involved a lot of platforming. Whereas Super Mario Galaxy is a platformer through and through; I love that genre, a lot of other people love that genre, but I don’t expect to see a thousand flowers bloom from it.

But one beautiful flower has bloomed, which is ultimately all I want out of a game.

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