The idea that Nintendo rests on its laurels, that Nintendo regurgitates old concepts, refuses to innovate – I’ve always resented this idea. I can’t think of another developer that takes more risks with its most valuable IP. This is the company that put Mario into space. The developer that followed Ocarina of Time, the most celebrated video game in history, with a hyper stylised sailing simulator. These are the men and women who plunked a water jetpack on Mario and sent him to a weird holiday resort to scrub off graffiti.
That’s what Nintendo do. They create. They give zero fucks about the masterpieces they’ve just built, and display a haphazard disrespect towards the characters and games we hold dear. When you think about it, it’s glorious.
The hallmark of Nintendo’s greatest games has been a sense of controlled anarchy. A designed anarchy. A playground where rules are broken but there are always rules. This idea is exemplified best in the 3D iterations of Mario.
Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy – these games are mind bogglingly radical, linked only by a sense of delirious chaos. Mario 64 was a game that basically invented how platform games worked in a 3D space. Sunshine was a brave (some would say failed) experiment. Galaxy? That may be the most revolutionary of them all: a video game that took an almost childish glee in inventing mind-bending ideas, exploiting them for one magical level, before tossing them in the trash like a spoiled child-genius. ‘Here, you have this idea,’ it seems to say. ‘I’ve got a shit tonne where that came from.’
‘Fuck rules, fuck gravity, fuck everything’. It’s been the mantra of every 3D Mario game released on a home console since Mario 64.
Why then, is Super Mario 3D World so conservative?
Super Mario 3D World is the first 3D Mario game that feels like it is coasting. Instead of embracing the anarchic spirit of its 3D predecessors, it appears dulled by the hubris of the 2D New Super Mario Bros. series. It bears all those hallmarks: a lack of innovative ideas, a samey approach to ‘worlds’ (here’s the ice level, the water level, the lava level). Worst of all, it commits the cardinal sin we’ve seen in every 2D Mario released in the last decade: it attempts to sell itself by virtue of a new single power-up.
Guys, Mario turns into a cat in this one! MEOW!
I spent the majority of my time playing Super Mario 3D World waiting for those moments. The levels that tugged and pulled at the fleshy part of my brain, the levels that stimulated me. Moments that seemed almost commonplace in Super Mario Galaxy. The levels that flung game design principles on their head, or the levels that followed those same principles so tightly that you could only marvel at the high level of craft.
Sure, they came. Eventually. But they came sporadically. The exception rather than the norm. Padded with the forgettable, squished uncomfortably between the banal. For every level like the Mario Kart themed level there are at least six I simply can’t remember, because they flew past in a dull, uninterested blur. That’s not the level of originality and dazzle that I’ve come to expect from Mario in the third dimension.
Super Mario 3D World is conservative. How did that happen? It’s a well-made video game by every possible measurement, but it also represents Nintendo at its worst: painting by numbers, Nintendo by rote. It’s a game that can be played on auto pilot. A game that lives up to all the worst things detractors believe Nintendo represents. They make the same game over and over, they don’t innovate.
Well, that’s not even close to being true — but if the only Nintendo game you played this year was Super Mario 3D World, you’d be forgiven for believing it.
Super Mario 3D Worldis a very good video game, but it also represents the Nintendo that terrifies us. A relaxed Nintendo. A Nintendo resting on its laurels. A Nintendo afraid to experiment. A Nintendo that panders to its audience. A Nintendo terrified of change.
Fuck rules, fuck gravity. Fuck everything. For the next Mario game, we need that Nintendo back.