Games. Culture.

Super Mario Odyssey: Understanding 3D Platforming

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Super Mario Odyssey poises itself to be the most true to form 3D Mario game to date. Let’s talk about it.

Script: One of the first games I ever owned was Super Mario 64, a game that defined exploration in the 3D space. It was a launch title for the Nintendo 64 and Mario’s first foray into the third dimension. For many, it signified a shift from 2D to 3D. However for me, as a kid born in 1994 whose first console was the N64, Mario 64 was something else. For me, jumping into Mario 64 was jumping into the video game medium and much like Mario jumping into those paintings, I jumped into a world that was new, foreign, and vast. Despite my own personal connection with the game, gaming origins doesn’t affect the case that many of our shared experiences with Super Mario 64 all culminate with the concept of adventure.

Adventure in video games has evolved alongside Super Mario. Starting from Super Mario Bros in 1985, we’ve seen the Mushroom Kingdom grow in size and detail. In the original game, we’re void of context. Walking mushrooms, giant tubes, and underground worlds solidified what the Mushroom Kingdom was but the 2D Mario games have always been about platforming and execution even though the setting and premise implied adventure. The shift to 3D provided a shift in capability as it opened up the opportunity for openness like never before. As a kid playing Mario 64 for the first time, Peach’s Castle might as well have been Skyrim’s open world. It was filled with mystery and intrigue, things to do, places to discover, and secrets to find.

One of the biggest misconceptions about 3D platformers is that they are about platforming. The best ones aren’t. Games like Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie have elements of platforming and execution but the bulk of these games is spent exploring various worlds and discovering what these worlds have to offer. The main goal of Mario is to discover stars while Banjo has the player uncovering puzzle pieces. Collectable items like stars, puzzle pieces, or even the glut of bananas in Donkey Kong 64 or the Dragon eggs in Spyro act as the conduit through which gameplay meaning is given to exploration. Much like the Korok Seeds in Zelda: Breath of The Wild, these items exist just to give the player something to discover. These games are set in open environments that don’t telegraph the next steps the player needs to take. These worlds are designed for choice in activity. This is true for both the large scale open world of Breath of The Wild and the smaller scale, yet still open and activity filled worlds of Mario Odyssey.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild is a game that furthers the mission statement of the original Zelda and the proceeding titles by solely enhancing the feeling of discovery and exploration. In a similar way, Mario Odyssey, the latest installment into the Mario franchise, aims to do this for 3D Mario but not for the obvious reasons you may expect. It’s easy to see the way this game harkens back to games like Mario 64 and Sunshine with the sandbox style setup and free camera. It also takes inspiration from Banjo Kazooie in the way it allows players to stay in the worlds after they discover a power moon which encourages a continuous feeling of exploration. Everything about its design is pulling from 3D Mario’s roots of exploration and discovery, but Nintendo takes it a step further and acknowledges these roots with the game’s overall themes.

The name of the game is Super Mario Odyssey. Odyssey being the key-word here. And at first impression, I admit, I thought the name was slightly gimmicky. The idea of a Super Mario game that takes inspiration from Indiana Jones or Sir Francis Drake was a little corny in the most “Nintendo” way possible. Yet, when looking at the history and etymology of this franchise, Super Mario Odyssey poises itself to be the most true to form 3D Mario game to date. You explore beyond the Mushroom Kingdom, stepping into various lands that are new, foreign, and vast. The open playgrounds of weird, unique locations like New Donk City and The Sand Kingdom provide mystery and intrigue, things to do, places to discover, and secrets to find. Themes of exploration and discovery tie in with what these games are about in structure and that fulfills the promise of what a 3D Mario game is. Super Mario Odyssey is 3D Mario looking into the mirror and understanding its calling. Its function and appeal is understood in Odyssey.

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