Super Mario’s 35th Anniversary, Part 1: Building a Sandbox

As I write the next few posts, I imagine I’m crafting a luxurious anniversary cake for Mario with my words. I’m taking on the role of Princess Peach in thanking Mario (and by extension, Nintendo) for giving me and many others so much joy through Mario’s games.

Thank you, Nintendo, and thank you, Mario! You have given me so much joy over the years.

As we look back through the 3D Mario titles, and as I once again examine Shigeru Miyamoto’s game design, I’m still amazed at how his team defined movement in 3D space. When Super Mario 64 released, we discovered not only a new graphical frontier with polygons, but a new sense of fun existing in a more immersive virtual space.

The first Super Mario Bros. set the precedent for 2D Platformers by creating linear obstacle courses for the player to overcome. As the sequels came out, Nintendo started experimenting and borrowing here and there from other games. You can see a growing emphasis on exploration, using powerups as navigation tools, and finding secrets / alternate paths. However, the main objective was still to get to the flagpole at the end of the course.

When Nintendo translated Mario’s platforming into 3D, they created a whole new creature. It’s like how, in the 1940s, the experiments to make synthetic rubber ended up with Silly Putty instead. It reminds you of rubber, but it’s definitely not rubber.

Playing Super Mario 64 for the second time this year, I realize that the game is rather flawed if you look at it strictly as a Platformer. For its time, it was revolutionary to control a character with an analog stick and a camera separately. And the moveset is expressive, just like any Mario game should be; however, there are several problems that come with laying the groundwork for 3D games. The camera is never quite in the right place, making the linear gauntlets like Rainbow Ride more tedious than necessary. A veteran like myself can live with it, but a newcomer might find it obtuse. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if said newcomer dismissed Super Mario 64 entirely if they saw the game as just overcoming an obstacle course in 3D. But thankfully, this game isn’t just a Platformer, and it’s not why this is one of the most important games ever made. It’s true historical contribution is how it uses 3D space to make an open-ended sandbox.

It’s not good plastic, but it is good Silly Putty.

In other words, if Super Mario 64 didn’t exist, devs would’ve still probably made 3D Platformers, but they might’ve never made open world games. We would’ve still gotten Crash Bandicoot and Croc, but we might’ve never gotten Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, or even Fortnite.

No matter how many times I boot up Super Mario 64, it’s always fun to just mess around in the field outside Peach’s Castle before going in. It’s no secret that this area was designed to help new players learn moving with an analog stick, but it’s also just a fantastic way to set the scene. Peach’s Castle becomes an interconnected world, with separate themed areas and secrets galore. Platforming then becomes a means to an end — I’m not just playing through World 1-1, I’m traversing Bob-omb Battlefield. While there’s a path you can follow, you can ignore the objective for hours, or complete a different one. Super Mario 64, above all else, gives you unbridled freedom and lets you relish in it.

This dramatic shift from linear 2D Mario to nonlinear 3D makes more sense when considering that Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were being developed at the same time, and ideas from one game often influenced the other. In fact, Peach’s Castle was originally an idea for Ocarina of Time, until it shifted over. If it weren’t for this vast castle, Hyrule wouldn’t have been designed the way it was. Rare wouldn’t have designed their collect-a-thon levels to be so boundless in Banjo Kazooie, and Insomniac wouldn’t have followed suit with Spyro the Dragon. I imagine 3D platformers would’ve remained more linear like Crash Bandicoot, and as great as that game is, Peach’s Castle laid important groundwork for 3D exploration in the open-world games to come.

So it only makes sense that Isle Delphino takes the concept to the next level.

As the 5th console generation (PS1 and N64) came to a close, game designers became interested in other ways to use 3D space outside of platforming, and it seemed like their audiences were as well. It was an exciting time, but it also meant that many 3D “Platformers” lost their focus. Nintendo was among these experimenters. Nintendo must have been going through an Inspector Gadget phase or something during the GameCube era, because not only did they give Luigi a ghost-sucking vacuum in Luigi’s Mansion, they also slapped a high-pressure waterpack onto Mario for Super Mario Sunshine.

F.L.U.D.D. is a Swiss Army Knife for video game exploration. Whether or not you love Sunshine will boil down to whether or not you like F.L.U.D.D.. Some of its features help with platforming, sure, but it has dozens of other uses, too. You can spray in front of you and slide on the ground, or spin jump and become a floating sprinkler, or shotgun blast as you do a backflip. You can clean up tourists, fire rockets while riding a roller coaster, drown giant piranha plants… anything!

However, as with Super Mario 64, some of this experimentation feels dated. The most useful skills such as over-the-shoulder aiming are hidden behind looking at the controls page, making the game once again a bit obtuse for newcomers. And not every mission is fun — all I need to do is see a boat in lava, or hear the phrase, “I’m a chuckster,” and I get horror flashbacks. Super Mario 64 set the precedent with its variety of stars, some of which were frustrating, but Sunshine‘s mission quality is even more scattered. Some Shines reach higher than 64, and others fall lower. 64 was frustrating to 100% complete, but Sunshine was nigh impossible.

Every Mario game has that special move that’s just so satisfying to use — in Super Mario 64 it was the long jump, and in Sunshine it was the water slide / somersault. I can just do these moves over and over again…

However, I think it was all worth it, because with a tool so expressive and versatile, Nintendo invested heavily on making a sandbox around F.L.U.D.D. that made sense. The result was Delphino Island.

The view from the Pinna Park Ferris Wheel is embedded in my childhood memory.

Delphino Island is one of the best video game settings ever made, and it’s the glorious #1 reason to return to this game. In the Plaza itself, there are secrets everywhere, and every level feels like it has a purpose for being there. I’m still amazed that Nintendo managed to make all the levels feel so cohesive within the tropical island theme, and it never got boring. And the attention to detail — the water glistens in the sun, sand shoots into the air when hit, and heat rises from the pavement. Distant levels like Ricco Harbor and Pinna Park can be seen from the Plaza, convincing you that this this place is truly an island. Sunshine set an astounding measuring bar for atmosphere and setting for video games.

As creative as Sunshine was, the writing was on the wall for Collect-a-Thons. The experimentation and lack of focus was divisive for players. Games like Grand Theft Auto III shook the gaming landscape, and eventually action/adventure games like Assassin’s Creed and Minecraft became the new mascots for open worlds and sandboxes. It wasn’t until Super Mario Odyssey that Nintendo would finally return to 64 and Sunshine’s approach. In the meantime, they decided to backtrack and work on Mario’s platforming elements in a more linear manner. But that’s a post for another time.

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