The 3D Mario We Forgot We Wanted

_When The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released, it was pretty much what everybody wanted and asked for. Zelda…just in 3D. Aside from being in 3D, it was pretty much your typical Zelda fare: Numerous dungeons, each with a new sub-weapon to find, each with a boss at the end who would be totally unbeatable without the very tool found minutes earlier in the same dungeon, triple forces, fishing, rupees, heart pieces, bottles, all of that jazz. It’s pretty much Zelda in 3D. Cool.

_Now let’s go back and look at Super Mario 64, Mario’s first foray into the Z-axis. The princess invites you over to her castle for some delicious cake…only she gets kidnapped by Bowser. Kay, all of the main players are here. To save the princess, you go through a multitude of worlds…ok, still sounds similar. Well, how about the castle serving as a hub world? That’s a little different from previous Mario games…how about Mario having a life bar? …that’s also different. How about needing to breathe underwater? Or collecting stars to unlock different parts of the castle? No 2 player mode? The ability to punch, kick and dive into enemies? Interacting with NPC’s in stages? Mario remaining one size all game long?

_All of these things aren’t meant to say that SM64 isn’t good. For its time, it was great. It was long the gold standard for which 3D platformers to be held against. These things are merely meant to demonstrate how radically different SM64 was from the previous games in the series. I remember playing it for the first time, jumping into the first painting…and seeing friendly pink bob-ombs? OK…then a 3D goomba, and things were ok. And a normal bad bob-omb and a giant chain chomp, and things seemed familiar and Mario-esque. But a lot of the familiar goes out the window after that. Hat stealing vultures, chasing rabbits, punching horned balls into lava, butt stomping boo ghosts…again, you get the idea. From there, we got Super Mario Sunshine and the Super Mario Galaxy games. Good games in their own right and not far removed from SM64, but still not quite cut from the same cloth as the original SMB series.

_15 years after SM64 was originally released, Nintendo made Super Mario 3D Land.

I just finished it this past week.

It feels like the game everybody was expecting back in 1996.

Fire Mario. Raccoon/Tanuki Mario. Spiney shelled thingies. Goombas. Koopa Troopas. Hammer Bros. Boomerang Bros. Invincibility stars. Flag poles at the end of stages. Defeating Bowser by destroying the bridge underneath him and dumping him into a lake of lava. Airships. Magikoopas. Auto-scrolling levels. Those mole guys from World. Invincible Boos. Those goofy eyed non-Boo ghosts rotate around in circle patterns. Thwomps. Those guys that pop up from those manhole things and throw wrenches at you. Piranha plants that spit fire. Dry Bones. Giant lava monsters that look suspiciously like Blarggs. Fireballs that inexplicably shoot up from lava in timed intervals. Those lame ass guys at the end of mid-world castles from SMB3. Bullet Bills. Those…fuzzy black googly eyed things that move on mysterious floating lines.

Sure…you might say that many, if not most or possibly all of these things appeared in other Mario games since SM64. And maybe you’re right. But…it’s the first 3D Mario game to not be a pure collect-a-thon. You progress through the game by just…completing stages. Linear stages. 3D stages designed to always make it obvious which way if “Forward” and not stages where you’re dropped into a stage and implied to go wander around and explore and shit.

_I give Nintendo a lot of flack. A lot of flack that, admittedly, isn’t always deserved. Most of the flack I give them is due to people hailing them as this revolutionary, forever forward thinking company, and I don’t think they’re as revolutionary and forward thinking and infallible and can-do-no-wrong as some people make them out to be. Nintendo is often content to take baby steps with their franchises instead of giant leaps [Example: Pokemon is entering it’s 6th generation later this year. It’s introducing the Fairy type pokemon, the THIRD new pokemon type since the original game. Keep reinventing that wheel, Game Freak.] They come off as too content to stay the course or rely on nostalgia and don’t try to push the medium enough for a company of their standing in the industry. In my humble opinion, of course.

_I think Super Mario 3D Land is really, really good. SM3DL, while following the disturbing trend Nintendo has for naming their games that form the most hideous acronyms humanly possible, is pretty much everything the New Super Mario Bros. games wish they were: A fresh take on the classic series so many gamers grew up with. NSMB too often relied on “Hey, remember this from the old side scrollers? We brought it back!” nostalgia trips, SM3DL balances the nostalgia with a fresh take on the classic series staples by putting it in 3D, while simultaneously being unique from the rest of the 3D Mario games by straying from the “Collect the Stars/Shines” formula and sticking to linear stage progression. It’s actually such a mind blowingly simple, obvious and all-around awesome premise, the fact that it took 15 years after the first 3D Mario game for this to happen is a sign of how oblivious Nintendo can be sometimes.

But the strangest thing about SM3DL is that it’s caused me to think more about SM64 and the gaming landscape in general. While I still think Nintendo is too often content to go “Hey…new Mario Kart. We didn’t really change much except for some superficial shit, enjoy,” and it drives me batshit, it’s really easy to forget all of the times where they did things that were simultaneously unexpected, unnecessary, and also a good idea [I added the “good idea” bit so as to be able to not count the Wiimote among these things]. I already mentioned earlier all of the things that made SM64 a downright strange entry into the series. They could’ve called it “Doki Doki Mario 3D 64” with how disconnected from earlier entries it was [Not they they should have, the SMB2 we got in the US based off of Doki Doki Panic is probably my favorite 2D Mario game and could really use a proper sequel]. Granted, there was no real uproar from anybody that “Mario games are supposed to 2D and more goombas and pipes!” at the time, but given the complainy nature of the contemporary gamer, it’s easy to imagine, isn’t it? Remember the way gamers reacted to early screenshots of Metroid Prime and Wind Waker? Yeah, I can see it.

_I generally think that SM64 was a ground breaking game, although playing it now, its extremely dated. The platformer collect-a-thon isn’t really a genre that has gotten better with age, and it’s hard to go back and play something that has janky a camera as SM64 after you’ve gotten a taste of what dual thumbsticks can do for a game. But I gained a new appreciation for how far it strayed from the path that was Mario after playing SM3DL, which wasn’t really something I was expecting from playing a 3DS game in the year 2013.

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