Sunday, March 15, 2015

3D Mario - Then vs Now

Not too long ago I played through Super Mario 64 for the first time in a few years. Then last fall I picked up a Wii-U and it came with Super Mario 3D World. I've been wanting to do a retrospective on Mario 64 for a while but with the addition of 3D World I figured doing a back to back double feature would work even better! Here we go!

Part 1: Super Mario 64

History: Actual development took less than two years, but the idea was conceived over five years before release while Shigeru Miyamoto was working on the first Star Fox. This early conception originally intended it to be on the Super Nintendo and would have utilized the FX chip to create the 3D world. It was eventually moved to the Nintendo 64 and not entirely because of technical reasons. But because the 64 controller had more buttons and a joystick.
The developers put a special focus on character movement and camera work before designing the rest of the game. This core focus on one of the most important details is what made the game so successful. It introduced and/or perfected new and old 3D gaming ideas that would influence countless other games, making it a constant go to reference for great 3D world gaming.
The game was a huge success. It was released as a launch title exclusively for the Nintento 64 in June 1996 in Japan with a release in the US in September the same year, and Europe in March the following year. It was one of the best selling and best reviewed games for the console. It was also one of the highest rated games of that console generation and one of the top selling games of all time!
While the next game in the Mario 'main storyline' would be Super Mario Sunshine on Gamecube six years later there were plans for a more direct sequel to Mario 64. It was planned for the Nintendo 64DD add on. Little to no information is available but it was eventually cancelled due to the failure of the 64DD add on.

Personal History: I've put countless hours into the original Nintendo 64 version, playing it from start to finish more times than most other games I had as a kid. I eventually picked up the Wii Virtual Console version where I'm sure I'll play it over again and again and again like before.

Availability: Since Nintendo doesn't port terribly often the game stayed exclusive for years despite selling over eleven million copies worldwide. It would eventually be ported to the Wii's Virtual Console in 2006.
Before that the closest thing to a port was a remake for the Nintendo DS in 2004. While mostly an enhancement of the original game, it also featured new characters, multiplayer, and mini-games separate from the main game. It sold almost as many copies as the original game so that should be an easy alternative to pick up if you don't have an N64 or Wii/Wii-U.

Version I Played: For this review I played through the digital download release via Wii's Virtual Console.

Review: I went nuts when the Nintendo 64 came out. It is easily in my top three console launch memories to date, mostly because of the timing in my life. While I didn't get it right away because I wasn't even ten yet and had no money I gazed in from the sidelines. I remember the first game I played for the system was Wave Race 64 at the neighbors house. It didn't take long to play the classic I'm talking about here, and shortly thereafter getting the console and game itself. All despite the fact I'm a bigger Sega fan (already had a Saturn at the time) and despite the fact people told me the Playstation was a better investment because I could actually afford the games I didn't care. The N64 was on my mind and I wanted it more than anything else at the time. This game was one of those reasons.
Funny how things work out. After getting it I never built that big a collection, later selling it off in favor of other consoles. While I liked bits of the N64 here and there it was easily one of Nintendo's weakest consoles overall. It just so happened to have some of their best and most well put together games. Irony.

I don't always like doing popular game and movie reviews because what else can be said that hasn't already been said? Especially in this case? Mario is one of the most recognized characters in pop culture, not just gaming. On top of that this is one of his most popular games. What's the point in telling you my opinion? Probably because it's just that... my opinion.
Chances are I liked or noticed things you didn't notice. Or you'll finally have someone to connect with on those quirky notes. Who knows? But one thing I do know is I'll be talking about it's age. The game is already legal, can buy cigarettes, and is close to being able to drink. A lot has happened in gaming the last twenty years so it's cool to look back on what we once considered, and I quote, "mind-blowing!"

I still like the way the game looks all these years later. It's a colored and varied world and easy to see the simplicity in it's design. Its perfect, actually. Since this was a re-birth of Mario bringing him to 3D it was nice to see the game go back to it's roots in a way. It feels like I'm playing the NES Super Mario Brothers but of the 3D era. Simple, straightforward, not trying to do anything too revolutionary yet setting a new standard. It's got charm in it's simplicity.
And this charm has not worn off. Seriously, how many games have you looked back on and thought, "wow... we thought that looked good once?" I'm sure quite a bit. Even looking at some games I loved and adored I've looked back on and felt they were cringeworthy. Mario 64 is not one of those. Visually I feel it has aged well for a 3D game. Even the mix of polygons and sprites is well done in a retrospective perspective. While not perfectly aged it has minimum cringe moments.

Blocky? Yes. But it still looks great!

While visuals tend to age poorly (again, not here) it is more likely for controls to age poorly. Thankfully this is another thing Mario 64 gets right and makes it timeless. This could be years of experience talking but even playing it recently, using a non-N64 controller, it flowed so well and had only a little age to the mechanics. Come to think of it there are only two things I felt aged poorly. The camera, using a very limited and very primitive jerky mechanic, and the joystick, that isn't a smooth 360 movement like modern games have now. Despite these issues the game still flows almost as smooth as silk. Even running around the castle hub is crazy good fun!

Now this is when I would talk about how fun and varied the levels are, which they are. But I'm more interested in talking about the castle.
This is one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite hub world in all of gaming. The previous and later Mario games are similar to Mario 3 or Super Mario World, using a map to select levels. Those aren't the same. In Mario 64 the hub world feels like a level in and of itself only without enemies. There's so much variety and areas to explore that have no real purpose other than running from level to level. While not as easy to keep track it provides a unique experience that really adds to the immersion. Even if you can't figure out a logical reason how and why Mario can jump through magic paintings to another land.
The hub castle is the icing on the cake that makes Mario 64 so delicious. When I was younger there were times where I would just run around having fun in this castle despite the large number of levels to play through.

As I stated before the levels are fun and varied. There's not much else to say about them other than that. However this is where one of my biggest criticisms come for the game.
In a franchise that has spent a lot of time being as linear as linear gets, it was nice to see more a 'mission based' style of gameplay, if you can call it that. Instead of running from one end of the map to another, every level offers you a different objective. Sometimes that objective is as simple as climbing to the top of a tower. While other times it requires you to find deep secrets so you can access previously hidden areas to find what you need. Very cool, makes you think, and I like it.

The big problem, though, is how vague some of the objectives can be. I would say many are pretty clear, and even if you don't get the title it's nothing a little bit of exploring won't figure out. The levels feel huge but are technically not that big so you can make it through the whole game without getting too confused. Still, it can be easy to find yourself stuck just trying to figure out where to go and what to do based on a cleverly titled clue at the start of the level.
In later Mario games like Sunshine and Galaxy they would have a similar approach, but in those they pan the camera to where you want to go or at least give a clue. This game doesn't do that. It just gives you the one clue and BOOM you're at the start of the level.
On the plus side all you need are a select number of stars to proceed. You don't actually have to beat EVERY level along the way.

My other problem with this is it can add a rough difficulty curve because of the 'choose your own path' formula of playing. Some levels are easy to finish in a minute or two, whereas others are insanely cryptic or fill you with controller breaking frustration. A much better challenge not seen in later Mario games, but definitely unbalanced in retrospect.
Ironically this is sandwiched in with the common trend of easy and disappointing boss battles in the Mario franchise. The only boss here, technically, is Bowser, with a few simple sub bosses along the way. It's the same method of kill as with most platformers. Hit them a few times and they're done, at least in the sub bosses. Admittedly the Bowser fights are more creative because you have to grab him by the tail and swing him into one of the bombs surrounding the arena you fight him in (all three times you fight him.)

Which brings me to the point that counteracts some of my comments. I understand this franchise always has been and always will be family friendly. Not "just for kids" but fun for everyone. I love and respect Nintendo for being strong in their stance on appealing to as many people as possible, which is why I was able to enjoy this game nearly twenty years ago in many of the same ways I enjoy it today.
The game has aged so well in so many ways. I still firmly believe it has plenty of flaws, especially in the occasional vagueness and difficulty curve because of the way it presents it's levels, but the easier portions are they're because it's appealing and approachable. It still retains a lot of that old school challenge in the level design as is and that you have to work to earn the power ups like the flying cap and invisibility cap.

I definitely believe that anyone interested in this franchise, young or old, could pick this game up today and get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Again, you don't have to get everything to beat the game so you can bypass a lot of the more annoying bits. But you'd still be missing out on some great stuff if you take the time to figure it out or look up a guide online.
In many ways this Mario game has been surpassed in some aspects but still stands above others in other ways. And I can't think of any better comparison than the most recent entry in the 3D Mario games. That being...

Part 2: Super Mario 3D World

History: This direct sequel/companion piece to the 2011 Nintendo 3DS game Super Mario 3D Land was announced in January 2013 and was under development by the same team that did Super Mario Galaxy.
Much like New Super Mario Bros Wii and its sequel it features four different Mario characters and can be played from one to four players at once. However, unlike the New Bros games this one features Peach as a playable character instead of two different colored Toads like before. Peach was originally not intended to be a playable character but the developers thought it would add more variety and satisfy many fans. In a similar way Rosalina from the Super Mario Galaxy games is an unlockable character after you beat the game the first time through.
The game was released November 22, 2013 to very high praise. It received near perfect reviews across the board. It was also a financial success having sold over two million copies since release. A number I'm sure has increased quite a bit since it's included with the Wii-U console in some bundles.
While no direct sequel or similar game has been announced yet, a spin-off game was released. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is an expansion of a puzzle mini-game that appears a few times in 3D World.

Personal History: This review marks my first full playthrough. Before this all I played was the demo at a display at Target.

Availability: As a newer, exclusive title for the Wii-U the only way to play it is there. It is currently part of a bundle with the console, which is how I got it.

Version I Played: American release that came in a Wii-U bundle.

Review: When Mario 64 set a new standard almost twenty years ago it instantly sent developers on a road to replicate what it did so well, even Nintendo. People have mixed feelings of Sunshine, but I think everyone can agree Galaxy is an incredible experience and currently does the best job of replicating that success. Regardless of how good or bad Mario games have been it can't be denied that all the 3D Mario games have their roots with Mario 64. Don't fix what isn't broken I suppose.

Super Mario 3D World is part sequel, part companion piece to Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. While I've only played 3D Land a little bit (I don't have a 3DS) it definitely looks and feels similar to 3D World, with World feeling much bigger because of it being a console game.
And really the game is quite huge! Each level, while very linear, are all quite lengthy and provide replayability with multiple paths, some filled with secrets. Also, since you'll need a certain number of stars to progress it gives you even more reason to go back and explore these large levels, sometimes using different power ups to access certain areas.
Even some of the boss battles are huge. Easy like other Mario games? Yes, but much bigger and more creative than before. The unique design and fun that goes into some of those boss battles or the sections before the boss battles are great. Like running after Bowser while he's in a large vehicle, throwing balls of fire at you that you need to deflect back at him. Or battling through a moving train of enemies and obstacles before getting to one of the Koopa kids at the end.
On top of this each section has multiple bonus stages. Sometimes these are simply slots to get you bonus coins/lives, while other times they're mini challenges to get you up to ten more stars! But my favorite are the Toad treasure challenge stages that eventually spun off to become their own game in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

I've got to pick you up someday.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed at first when I saw there were only five worlds. After cranking through all five suddenly another world opened up. I played through that and another one opened! I played through that and ANOTHER one opened! Then I "beat" the game by going through that last world... then... you guessed it... yet another bonus world opened up as a post-game bonus. Essentially the game came close to doubling in size from what I initially thought it would be.

So this game has oodles and oodles of levels to play through that kept me busy for hours upon hours. And what makes this experience even better is the option to choose from four different characters, with a secret character unlocked after playing through a few of the bonus stages after you beat the game the first time around. It's a fun way to bring variety to the game when there's already a ton of variety we've come to know and expect from this franchise, despite the seemingly repetitive nature of it.

Which brings me to a mixed feeling I have on this game.
I never really know what to think when a new Mario game comes out since it's been almost the same plot and execution in story and aesthetic since the beginning of the franchise. Sure there's been big changes and experimentation in Mario Sunshine and Galaxy but that's only a couple entries in an otherwise huge lineup of games than span across three decades. Should I be upset because a lot of the games don't change or should I be happy because they don't fix what isn't broken?

Honestly I felt this game was a bit stagnant, at least in innovation and expansion of the franchise.
Is the world full of color and excitement? Yes. But it isn't anything that different than before. If anything it felt like a fully 3D version of Super Mario World, somewhat proving they're running out of ideas.
Does the choice of character add variety? Definitely! But since each character has a certain skill you're very likely to pick one and stick with them the entire time. For example, I started (naturally) as Mario but eventually settled on Peach. I then played as her through the rest of the game until I unlocked Rosalina. Now I can't decide if Rosalina is a worse character to play as than Peach because she actually is, or because I grew so used to Peach.
But the game still controls well, right? Oh, definitely. Like I mentioned earlier this still somewhat models itself after the Mario 64 approach in control and execution. What I didn't like were the tiny tweaks. I really liked the way Mario controlled in 64 because it felt a lot more solid, specifically starting and stopping while running. What I don't like here is it feels like Mario is running on the kitchen floor in his socks before he gets running. And honestly the first time I played this game at a demo kiosk at Target I didn't like it mainly because of this.

The last thing I wanted to complain about is my mixed feelings on the way it was put together as a whole.
Between the map hub world and the colorful 3D levels it's like Nintendo wanted to make a cross combination of Super Mario World and Super Mario 64. A good and a bad thing.
What I liked was it was easy to keep track of where you've been and where you're going. As much as I love the castle hub world of 64 it can be a pain running all over, whereas here it's more akin to a menu select with a little more freedom.
Also all the levels were easy to understand and provided a lot of secrets that, at times, were real challenges to get through. It's a good thing this game gives out lives like candy on Halloween because there were some levels that ate those lives up. Not to mention making it the traditional little Mario, big Mario, or special power Mario health 'bar' style was more appreciated a challenge like a classic game instead of the literal life bar of more recent 3D Mario games.
However the change from 'mission based' to a traditional 'run to the end of the level' approach hurt what this game could have been. There were a lot of areas I would have loved to explore more, but due to the forced forward nature of the level design I felt I missed out on a lot of cool things that would be too tedious to get back to.
Also, their new approach both does and doesn't make the game a lot easier. It does make it easier because of the bonus stages where you can get five to ten extra stars for doing simple (but sometimes challenging) tasks. Then in some stages it's a huge pain to find one, let alone all three stars each stage in order to progress. Making backtracking through old levels a tedious necessity, especially if they're only reachable by means of a special power up or hidden in an obscure area.

Still I grew used to the controls and the way the game presented it's goals and enjoyed it overall. I definitely like these 3D Mario games over the 2D 'New' series. The difference is staggering and I think Nintendo should focus on 3D because there one of the few companies doing 3D platformers well.
I haven't played New Mario Bros U but I did pay New Mario Bros Wii and I eventually grew bored of playing it, making the last few stages long and dull for the sake of completing it. Whereas 3D World and other 3D Mario games like Galaxy and (I'm sure if I played it) 3D Land are kicking big butt with few complaints. And really those complaints are just the game being the same over and over for the most part... but you can't blame them for that.

I'm glad I picked up the Wii U package I did because it got me this and Nintendo Land. Two games I've enjoyed a lot. If you have a Wii U I would recommend picking up 3D World because it is a blast despite the flaws. Still I can't imagine replaying it even a fraction of the amount of times I've replayed Mario 64... but that's more rose colored glasses than anything. I have heavy nostalgia for that but this new one is simply that... a newer game I'll finish and move onto the next title only to maybe go back and play it again later.

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