The Mario Series
Before you read, please note that this review was originally written for ScrewAttack.com. I do own the rights to this review as I am Buddy Kane, the ScrewAttack account who published this.
The Mario Series: My Perspective
Over-analyzed, over-praised and over-flamed:
Mario is the king of video games. He's been the king since 1985. Although other franchises (outside and inside of Nintendo) have challenged him for critical and commercial acclaim (and some have won), no one has really been the face of gaming the same way Mario has. His appeal has endured for nearly three decades. He's outlived every other major mascot except Pac-Man, and unlike the latter he continues to top sales charts and greatest games lists. But before I entice you to flame me some more (really, I think I'm doing quite a good job).
I plan to go back through major Mario titles in my possession and complete them, giving my perspective (OMG he used the title) on them. My opinions may differ from those and I may be inclined to give them the benefit of the time they were produced-or not. I won't be looking at graphics, sound etc (although they can be important) - I'm not reviewing the games, just giving my perspective on the series and the games within it.
Without further audeu, lets start with the best-selling game of the franchise, the one that started it all...
Super Mario Bros
Super Mario Bros is a classic; we all know it. Shigeru Miyamoto's multi-screen adventure was a breakthrough in gameplay depth. At the time, gamers had seen nothing play so smoothly in a game world that was so interactive. Super Mario Bros isn't just a critical success, by no means: Packaged with the NES, over 40 million copies of Super Mario Bros were shipped worldwide, a record unbroken through four consecutive console generations.
But does it stand up today? Being a New Zealand native, it's hard to get hold of video games at respectable prices, but I was able to snag a NES a few years back, complete with Super Mario Bros
First off, the game hasn't aged one bit. The controls are smooth. The challenge is fair. Gone are the wall jumps, holding items for later stages and forgiving continues. In Super Mario Bros, a game quarter a century old, I feel genuinely challenged the whole time.
Everything about the "no continues" mentality really ups the desire to do well in the game too: when you find a 1UP, you are truly grateful. Every decision is based on beating the level, going the one screen further, passing that Hammer Bro, jumping that gap, saving the princess. And on the second play-through, you are relieved of that mentality. You experiment. You can let your hair down, get fancy. All the while, you are never bored. Super Mario Bros is as close to perfect as you can get.
And maybe that's the appeal of the original Super Mario Bros: The fact that there's nothing really wrong with the game. The harder levels feel absolutely fine and never repetitive. The levels aren't exactly cut-throat, but the game's punishment for failure is in tune with its requirements for success.
After the success of the original Super Mario Bros, Shigeru Miyamoto worked on a sequel. Super Mario Bros 2: The Lost Levels was released in Japan, but the breaking difficulty of the game meant that it was never released during the NES's lifespan in America or Europe. Instead, we got something quite different:
Super Mario Bros 2
Super Mario Bros 2 shouldn't really even be here. "It's still part of the series.......cannon..........Birdo". To be honest, I never expected Super Mario bros 2 to be good, its just here because getting this thing in New Zealand was a pain in the ass, I might as well utilize it:
Super Mario Bros 2 is okay. Not really a well-aged game, nothing really special. I never felt as good as I did playing Super Mario Bros. Maybe that's to be expected in retrospect. Maybe knowing the games reputation meant I couldn't really give it a fair shot. But meh, this was never going to be all big flashing lights. In a way I feel cruel picking on this game, putting it against games it was never really meant to be compared to in its original conception.
Although met with commerical success, Nintendo knew they could do better. Running on a 2 year schedule, their next creation would be held back almost 3 years while Nintendo of America built up the hype and resources needed for the swan song of the NES:
Super Mario Bros 3
Released in 1988 to Japan and 1990 elsewhere, Super Mario Bros was the swan song for the NES and is widely considered the best game on the system. Smb3 has more levels, secrets, power-ups, bosses, everything than Super Mario Bros. Not to mention it sold 18 million copies: the biggest selling game not bundled with a console of the time.
Smb3 is a big task to finish without the utilization of two of the three warp whistles, which take you straight from whichever world you are at to World 8. Without prior training on the GBA (The port has a save feature), I doubt I would be able to charge right through all 8 worlds.
The entire game revolves around the collection of spare lives, with a majority of the secrets revolving around collecting extra lives (and selling Nintendo Power). The game definitely feels like a step-up from Super Mario Bros: Every aspect that made Super Mario Bros good has been identified by Shigeru Miyamoto and his team and exemplified. The games abundance 1UPS of definitely gives room for creative play for seasoned pros, while allowing others to hang in there as they plow through the game.
However, in moving forward Smb3 has missed some of the charm of the original, if only minor. The game does appear to have less charm than its predecessor, if not that it feels like less of a challenge. The abundance of extra lives and crazy power-ups (which can be stored for use at any time in the game) makes the game seem safer. However, I see this to be a minor drawback in a see of increased greatness. Super Mario Bros 3 is, in my opinion, the best game of the series.
As we know, Nintendo released the Gameboy in 1989, starting a run of handhelds that would pay for some of Nintendo's biggest products, in good times and bad. To headline the system, Nintendo looked to their plumbing icon...
Super Mario Land 1 & 2
Heading the handheld wave which Nintendo would go on to rule virtually unopposed ever since, the original Gameboy had Tetris as its bundled game. However, Gunpei Yokoi knew that to beat Sega and Atari in the true gamers market, that they would have to port their most successful NES franchises over to the tiny monochrome screen. Busy at work on Super Mario World, Shigeru Miyamoto lended his star creations to Yokoi as he crafted two Mario games, Super Mario Land and its sequel
Similar to Super Mario Bros 2, these games are obviously not as good as the big boys that were around on the consoles at the time. Both games were good for their time and are still playable today, but with the console versions available on the handhelds today, there is no real incentive to play them after the first couple of run-throughs.
The 1990 release of Sega's new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog put even more pressure on the new 16 bit Mario to be the best game yet. Whether they succeeded is still debatable...
Super Mario World
Bundled with the Super NES on launch, Mario was no longer the undisputed king of video games. Sonic the Hedgehog was out for the Sega Genesis, and already the system had a large traction in the Western World. Super Mario World was a game created in the fires of urgency: Shigeru Miyamoto's newest franchise installment had to be ready for the already seriously delayed Super NES and its holiday season release. Acting as a demonstration for what the new hardware could do, Super Mario
World was definitely a step forwards in presentation....
.....but not necessarily in gameplay, at least in my opinion. Super Mario World has good design, its levels are creative, zany and out-there. But I see Super Mario World as a step back, in some cases.
First off, the game isn't as challenging as its predecessors. The save feature may have something to do with it, maybe its the item holding feature (though this was possible in 3, you couldn't access an item during the level). It certainly wasn't Yoshi, as he wasn't allowed in the Ghost Houses or Castles. Super Mario World doesn't seem as challenging to me. When I lose a level, its not a big deal like it was in the NES games. Because I'll only be set back 3 stages.
Not that this is game breaking, or some might argue, a bad thing. The lack of fear for failure and save feature means that Super Mario World can be explored in much greater depth and be truly appreciated. The secret levels couldn't be as great a success in Super Mario World as in its predecessors. While the power-up roster has diminished, I always believed that this makes you appreciate the power ups more: Super Mario Bros is a great game because the mushrooms, fire flowers and 1UPS are so rare. In a way, this does make Super Mario World a superior game to Super Mario Bros 3, although I still maintain that Super Mario Bros 3 is superior.
A whole new world of video games:
While Nintendo was making a step forwards (or backwards) with their 16-bit Mario titles, the world that Mario's first console outing had created was changing. Advances in technology, both inside and outside the gaming world, was pushing the medium in new directions and towards new gamers - for better or for worse.
Shigeru Miyamoto originally had plans for a new Super Mario game on the Super NES utilizing chips located inside the cartridge to enhance processing power of the console itself (The most notable example of this is Star Fox, a 3D space fights composing entirely of simple polygons). When the technology proved to be too constricting for his vision, he delayed the game until Nintendo purchased MIPS, the operating system and foundation of the Nintendo 64. Super Mario 64 would find itself in completely new territory with a game philosophy new to the Mario series. The aftermath of the game (and of the console that was built around it) were interesting, to say the least....
Super Mario 64
Super Mario 64 was considered the best game of all time when it was released, with IGN claiming the game as "The greatest 3D world ever created.....the game that every game, regardless of genre will be judged against henceforth". Hearty claims, by anyone's measures.
And for the time, Super Mario 64 was the greatest game of all time. To dispute that at the time of its release that Super Mario 64 was simply in a league of its own, with its completely groundbreaking take on the jump to 3D, would be completely and without doubt incorrect. Super Mario 64 was the biggest wow gamers had experienced since Mario brought gaming back to America 11 years prior. Super Mario 64 had a complete overhaul in gameplay, controls and style.
The question, from my perspective, is how the game has aged.
Super Mario 64 has definitely been aged by the rest of the gaming world catching up with all the technical upgrades that made SM64 so groundbreaking in the first place. Shigeru Miyamoto definitely took Super Mario 64 as a new perspective on the series, and this showed in the style of the gameplay. Even though the over worlds had given the games a less-direct feel, Mario at the dawn of 3D gaming was still a somewhat linear experience. Starting with Super Mario 64 and continuing for 13 years, all major console Mario titles would follow the formula created by Super Mario 64.
Super Mario 64's exploration style wasn't just being tried on for fit by the fat plumber: Castlevania fans also experienced a change in formula in Symphony of the Night that some claim ruined their beloved series. But it was the monumental change in the presentation, control and feel of the Mario games with Super Mario 64 that cuts such a deep trench between the pre-64 Mario games and the ones that followed.
As for its critical reception today, Super Mario 64 is the Mario title which appears the most on "best games of all time" lists, often near the top with it 64-bit counterpart, Ocarina of Time. I personally believe that while not the best game in the series, Super Mario 64 is definitely the most important in the history of the series, and along with Super Mario Bros, one of the most important games in the history of the medium.
The Nintendo 64 era, while kind to Mario (for the third time in a row, the major Mario title was the best selling game of the generation), was not as kind to his creators. The Nintendo 64 lost Nintendo her dominance on the console scene, and while the Gameboy entered a Pokemon-fueled renaissance, Mario was no where to be seen. When Sega's console dynasty collapsed in 2001, Nintendo was the last console manufacturer from the pre-3D era remaining. And many argued that the run of the Nintendo GameCube (GCN) made this more evident than ever, with a backward Nintendo making more bad decisions. The portable market was still their jewel, but Nintendo on the console scene was looking more backward by the day. Their attempt to remedy this just fueled the fires...
Super Mario Sunshine
Super Mario Sunshine received what can only be described as a good smacking by a lot of people once the gaming community realized that Mario's latest adventure contained what (once again) can only be described as an unbalanced game with (sorry for these folks) what can only be described as a gimmick attached to his back.
Critics of the game have called the game mundane, the level of challenge unfair and the water gun an unnecessary game mechanic. All of which is completely true.
From my opinion, SMS is simply a game that did not excite me as Mario games of the past did. I never considered SMS to be as compelling as Super Mario 64. The game brought nothing new to the table. SMS was not inspiring. And to be honest, there's not much more to it than that.
After the GCN concluded an entire generation of error from Nintendo, the Nintendo DS and Wii both brought Nintendo back on top of the gaming world. While an entirely new Mario title was not on the cards for the launch of either system, Super Mario 64 DS helped fill the void for a new handheld Mario title. The newest edition to the series, released in 2006, looked the most like its oldest
New Super Mario Bros
For many gamers, NSMB was a breath of fresh (yet very stale air). I couldn't agree more. Although it doesn't hold up to the big 3 2D Mario titles mentioned previously, New Super Mario Bros didn't need to be. If the brainstorming sessions occurring at Nintendo's Research and Development team during NSMB's inception didn't include '"fan service" in big bold letters, I'll happily eat my hat.
But for the sake of comparison, as I've said, NSMB doesn't hold a candle to the 2D Mario epics of old. The game is too easy, with the power ups uninspired. The 3 golden coin system does add replay to the game, but never serves as a genuine challenge. In short, the game possesses all of Super Mario World's powerup options, but none of the difficulty. But the best handheld game in the series, by far. I find myself hungry for more challenge, more inspired level design, but the whole game throws me tiblits, never a good roast of genuine challenge.
The epitome of the forgiving nature of the game can be found in one power up, the mega mushroom:
The Mega Mushroom can be deployed at any time during a level to effectively smash through to the end. Easily collected at power-up houses specifically designated for the powerful item, the Megan Mushroom can be held and deployed at any time of the game, including the final boss. The games were back to their roots, but the challenge and sense of achievement had vanished. Nintendo was feeding the starved with biscuits. And when you're starving, every food is a perfect 10.
The Nintendo Wii's revolutionary control scheme and wide market appeal reached out to a larger market than any console before it (except maybe the PlayStation 2). For the first time in 10 years, Nintendo was on top of the gaming world. Although Link was left to man the ship at the console's launch, Mario was definitely heading for a jump forward that would produce what has been considered, until recently, the console's defining masterpiece.
Super Mario Galaxy
Released in 2007 to a Nintendo audience experiencing the sweet taste success for the first time since 1996, Super Mario Galaxy was released to critical acclaim surpassed only by the Mario games of old. Bringing the idea of game worlds to a whole new ironic meaning, Super Mario Galaxy was quickly declared as the "worthy" successor to Super Mario 64.
Looking at the game, its everything right with what gaming was back in the 8 and 16-bit eras. The principles of Super Mario Galaxy are the principles that governed gaming's early roots: fun and discovery. Super Mario Galaxy is perhaps one of only a handful of games since the jump to 3D that has fully embraced this. Freed of a hardware and graphics race that had controlled the series since (arguably) Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario Galaxy experimented with concepts and created a world of discovery and pleasure. It takes a perspective on gaming that has been forgotten by many. It's heart warming to see the understanding that Shigeru Miyamoto has of his beloved series.
That being said, Super Mario Galaxy is just too damn easy
Although the game is an absolute joy to experience, the game is also by no means challenging and that, in my opinion, is the games only flaw, one remedied by Super Mario Galaxy 2, so I've heard (I have yet to play the game). Super Mario Galaxy simply doesn't give me the feeling of accomplishment I gain from defeating Super Mario Bros or Super Mario Bros 64. The game is definitely a step in a direction that is warranted for the series. But, for me personally, this prevents Super Mario Galaxy from being the greatest Mario game of them all.
My conclusion on the series? It's a tough call. Anything I say that everyone will agree with has already been heard before. But I'll try anyway.
Mario, I believe is an extension of Shigeru Miyamoto himself. Every major game in the series is a reflection of him at the time, his philosophies, his principles, what he believes about the medium, what he wants to challenge the medium to do. Every game in the series is different at its core. Every game, in my opinion, is Miyamoto's expression at its simplest form. Super Mario Bros is different than Super Mario 64. Super Mario Sunshine is different to Super Mario Galaxy. Think of how much we can change in two years, or five. The changes in Miyamoto are shown in his masterpieces.
The Mario series are part of the fondest memories of many people. In a world where people much cleverer than I can argue things that have no right or wrong answer, with or without preconceived answers before asking themselves about what each game of the series represents, I can only expect others to have their own opinions of the series and to be able to define them much better than I have here. Please don't take anything I say to heart if I disagree with you.
So which games my favorite? You already know, if you've been reading closely. Super Mario Bros 3 is my favourite game in the series and I was of that opinion before this. The challenge in this game is greater than in any other Mario title with "fair" challenge. I definitely consider the two Mario titles on the NES to be in the top 3 of the series. The challenge in those games was fair and real: I felt a sense of urgency desperation that eluded me in the sequels that followed. Some pople don't think that this is what makes the series special, in fact, I agree. But it is this sense of challenge that I somewhat demand of all games, and in a single player game this is paramount.
I have yet to play NSMB Wii, or Super Mario Galaxy 2. Problems I have talked about with their respective prequels may or may not have been resolved in these games. The main reason for this is purely financial: I'd like it for people to post saying if this has or has not been rectified
Finally, I'm not sure where Mario can go from here: There's no real frontier beyond the universe, so really I see time-travel as the final destination for Mario. Will the series suffer from this? Maybe. A time-traveling, space traveling Mario sounds a bit far-fetched compared to the Mushroom Kingdom of the series' origin.
Grand Theft Mario, perhaps?
Finally, I'd like to thank everyone for reading this article about a topic that has been tackled by so many people. I try to bring a sense of originality and analysis to everything I write about, and I'm sorry if this has not been achieved.
So, as I leave to cross the nether reaches of the blogmos (clever, no?), I leave you with my list of the best Mario games:
1. Super Mario Bros 3
2. Super Mario 64
3. Super Mario Bros
4. Super Mario Galaxy
5. Super Mario World