The Future Form of 3D Mario Requires a New Holistic Approach

The original Super Mario Bros. had a fairly straightfoward premise: run and jump past obstacles and enemies on your way to a goalpost at the end of each level. It was this simplicity that made the game so easy to pick up and play and thus propelled it to unprecedented popularity. With the jump to 3D and the advent of more open worlds, that premise became a bit more complicated to realize. Open 3D worlds are more predisposed towards free exploration and investigation than to goal-point based progression.

As a result, Super Mario 64 took a different direction. Platforming and obstacles still played a role, but the levels and objectives were largely composed of puzzle-solving, exploration, and collection elements. Pound the post to release the Chomp; shoot yourself out of the cannon to reach the Star; gather the eight Red Coins. Power-ups were less about giving yourself a boost to survive the tough levels and more about using special abilities to reach hidden Stars. This approach really wowed a whole generation of gamers – Super Mario 64 is still one of the most beloved games of all time.

Super Mario Galaxy came along and attempted to incorporate some more linear levels alongside the open-world 3D design, and to great success. A 3DS game taken on by the same team, Super Mario 3D Land took the melding of the two approaches even further, bringing back the power-up system from the 2D games.

Each of these pieces of 3D Mario history offer ideas that I think should play an important role in the development of the next entry in the franchise. The right combination of both existing elements and fresh, unprecedented new content might just be able to satisfy Mario fans of every persuasion.

3D Mario: A Diverse History

I’ve found a lot to love with each of the three flavors of gameplay and level design we’ve seen from the Mario series so far, so I think each of them is worth reevaluating in anticipation of the next evolution of the 3D franchise.

Super Mario 64‘s open courses were fun to comb through and featured tons of interesting and quirky secrets and sub-areas to discover, such as the Secret Slide in Princess Peach’s Castle, the creepy carousel buried beneath Big Boo’s Haunt, and the sunken city in Wet-Dry World. Recent Mario games have never quite matched the Nintendo 64 edition in terms of hidden places like these – I’d even go so far as to say that they haven’t even really tried. There’s a lot of potential in this department if Nintendo wants to turn 3D Mario‘s first glorious HD step into another modern milestone for the franchise.

Even outside of finding “hidden areas,” basic exploration elements like heading towards and climbing the mountain in Bob-omb Battlefield, diving to the bottom of the lake in Jolly Roger Bay, and seeking out all the various maze passageways in Hazy Maze Cave all effectively stimulated and rewarded curiosity and the primal drive to go have an adventure.

I don’t think it’ll quite be as simple as trying to emulate Super Mario 64, though. Copying another game’s style can be successful when significant enough improvements are made; focusing too much on repeating past successes can lead to a sense of derivative staleness. There’s a delicate balance to be struck – that’s why I think it might be a good idea to leverage the strength of the open world approach in a new and different way.

In Super Mario Galaxy, courses sacrificed a good bit of that openness in favor of tighter, more punishing platforming that stuck more faithfully to the series’ 2D roots. This also resulted in less “logical” courses, with more random floating platforms, pitfalls, and level fragmentation in order to achieve the desired results. That’s not to say that this was a bad direction – Super Mario Galaxy sits at the top of my personal series favorites list, after all. What was gained offered value that was able to replace what was set aside – the trick is going to be finding ways to include content to satisfy both tastes going forward.

Super Mario 3D Land brought the 3D gameplay back even closer to the originals with its approach to enemies, power-ups, and pseudo-side-scrolling level design. Mushrooms, Fire Flowers, and Super Leaves now go back to their traditional roles as “power-ups” that exist to, well, power you up. Out with the health meter and in with the stackable upgrades that let you shoulder an additional hit from enemies or obstacles as well as offering new powers and skills like fireballs, boomerangs, and a jump-lengthening flutter kick.

Something about these more familiar gameplay skeletons seems to have really resonated with players. Galaxy is one of the highest-rated games in the franchise, and 3D Land in particular enjoyed amazing initial as well as tail sales. Now that we know that the traditional Mario structure works just as well in three dimensions, can we ever justify leaving out more linear levels or going back to the coin-fueled health meter and puzzle-based powers of past 3D adventures? If only there was a way to reconcile elements from each approach…

Here’s an idea to chew on. Why not incorporate the “open-world” style levels as the game’s field hubs, with a series of linear-style courses accessed from within each of these worlds? Don’t take that to mean that I think those open-world levels should be sidelined, though. I still think they should definitely be worthy of consideration as full courses in and of themselves, complete with their own themes, obstacles and objectives, enemy ecosystems, and bosses. I just also see a lot of potential for exploration of a wide open world to lead to the kinds of traditional Mario levels popularized by Galaxy and 3D Land.

To get a good vision of what I’m talking about, there are actually a few examples from within Super Mario 64 that demonstrate the idea. The most blatant of these are the Inside the Volcano and Inside the Pyramid stages. You access the volcano by diving into it, only to find another decently-large area waiting for you inside. The same is true for the pyramid: there’s an entire level to explore amidst the swirling sands that surround it, but once you go inside, you’ll fall into what basically amounts to a secondary course.

Now take that concept and apply it on a grander scale.

Let’s say this hypothetical 3D Mario game starts off at Peach’s Castle, but then gives you the freedom to head out and explore the whole Mushroom Kingdom. You first travel to a world based on Grass Land from the Super Mario Bros. games, with those iconic spotted hills in the background. As you cross over a flower-filled field, a mountain comes into view – it’s Bob-omb Battlefield (for the sake of example, of course), complete with an intense struggle between the Black and Pink Bob-ombs! Those guys are exploding all over the place, making it difficult to move forward.

Once you defeat the Big Bob-omb who has taken over the mountain, you’ll see a series of giant mushrooms stretching out into a deep valley. Approach those fungal caps, and you’ll be whisked away to a full-blown level, ripe for the playing – a 3D take on the “mushroom heights” courses of past Mario games that finds a middle ground between the 3D Land and Galaxy level design styles.

Back in the field, you notice that pipes are scattered all about, often hidden in some tricky places. Some take you to small coin-filled caverns; others might lead to underground courses! Maybe after you’ve emerged from those dark depths, you’ll find yourself in an otherwise unreachable area, where you see a path leading to a fortress off in the distance. Once inside, you realize it’s a boss castle level based thematically on the ones we’ve seen since the franchise began.

The 3D field areas would replace the traditional world map in terms of their roles as hubs for those smaller levels, but they’d also function as more than just a series of glorified level select screens. Similar approaches have been taken before – games like Jak & Daxter featured seemingly-seamless transitions between hubs and levels. While that probably wouldn’t win Mario any awards in the originality department, re-imagining the whole of the Mushroom Kingdom as a continuous world, one that exists outside of self-contained painting worlds in Peach’s Castle, has been a wet dream of many fans since Mario first made the jump into the third dimension.

While that approach would be neat, just rehashing the same old eight worlds we’ve seen time and again in the New Super Mario Bros. in three-dee wouldn’t be enough to invigorate Mario‘s audience. It’s time for Nintendo to bring on a new expansion of Mushroom Land. What form would that take? After Super Mario Galaxy, I can’t exactly say, but I can say that Nintendo’s actually had plenty of great ideas for new worlds and environments over the last decade or so – they’ve just tended to show up in the spin-offs instead of the core franchise.

Why aren’t there any idyllic villages dotting the countryside, with windmills looming over them? How do we get to Wario’s secret gold mine? Where is Bowser’s hidden neo-urban dystopian metropolis? They’ve all been hiding out in the Mario Karts, the RPGs, the Party games. In the recent platformers, however, there hasn’t been much of an attempt at assembling new locales to form any kind of “world,” just bunches of “levels” based on traditional Mario environments. Pushing the series toward a more continuous world should encourage creativity.

In the end, though, whether the next Mario is accepted as a true evolution instead of an incremental improvement is going to depend not only on the gameplay skeleton, but on the passion the developers pour into making it feel like a new adventure in Mario’s world. I’ve loved every Mario to hit the stage, but while that consistent quality is critical, proving that the series has more to offer than consistency is going to be the key to avoiding franchise fatigue over the long haul.