What I'm working on:

Various write-ups.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Way I See It: Super Mario 3D World

The Way I See It is a category of pieces that represent my personal opinions or reasoning on subjects I enjoy or have a lot to say about. Though at times the write-ups may be built on well-researched and verified information, as a general statement, I do not speak with absolute authority on any given matter covered. Thank you for your time.

So for the first one of these, I wanted to talk about Super Mario 3D World, a game in the Super Mario series released back in 2013 on the Wii U. More specifically, I wanted to address a topic that I've seen come and go often on forums and discussions in the Mario fan-base:

Is Super Mario 3D World a true 3D Mario game?

I'll start off clearly and say that my perspective on the matter is that 3D World is definitely a mainline 3D Mario game.

It's a game that observes and reframes the well-trodden conventions of 2D Mario games in a 3D context, translating those core fundamentals into a 'true' 3D successor to the 2D games and their design philosophies while taking into consideration the important lessons they've learned in making the less controversial 3D titles over the years.

Even though I don't agree with the alternative view on this matter, over time, I've come to empathize with it and acknowledge that 3D World doesn't necessarily provide what a number of folks are looking for in a 3D Mario experience in as full a capacity as they might prefer. The return of flagpoles as a universal primary goal point and linear level design makes the game much more overtly directed even with the exploratory opportunities on offer; there's a lack of complete openness or even the illusion of it that existed in the preceding games which seems to have been where the line's been crossed with expectations.

Since the inception of 3D Mario, Nintendo has been subtly and incrementally making sequels that trend away from the game preceding them to the ends of ensuring that all Mario fans can enjoy the title at hand. Over time, this path has proven to be one of a growing linearity, which many fans are not fond of. The underlying core of this progression seems to have been in service of overcoming the challenges of navigating 3D space.

In making the jump to 3D, Nintendo wholeheartedly embraced the change and crafted a game that recognized the advantage of the new frontier, providing an experience that is looked back upon fondly for its masterful design and polish. Unfortunately, the inherently more complex nature of 3D platforming and exploratory core were not typical of the Mario experiences seen up until that point. In other words, because of the lack of familiarity and the abandonment of core aspects of the original Mario experience, Nintendo has split its player base. This is a gap they want to bridge and is why such a major effort is dedicated to streamlining and simplifying 3D navigation in the series.

Instead of continuing with this careful balancing and tweaking act as they had up until Galaxy 2, Nintendo built 3D World from the ground up as an experience that follows traditional 2D series conventions with 3D Mario mechanics/Principles in mind. This is essentially a reversal of how things have been done up until this point and has culminated in a game built on novelty and variety, designed in such a way as to ensure that players always know where to go but are free to explore and are rewarded for making the effort.

The design decisions that facilitate this result come together with the less open world to provide those that say this isn't a true 3D Mario game their arguments.

I respect that the experience is fairly different and that it isn't the 3D Mario game some people want, but I don't think that not meeting certain expectations or norms disqualifies a game from its series, especially a series as experimental in nature as Mario.

But let's really dig into the heart of these doubts.

An Elaboration

In order to more effectively communicate my perspective while humoring the other side of things, I thought it might be constructive to list the more common reasons against 3D World being a 3D Mario and refute them or elaborate on why those changes were introduced.

It's has smaller/shorter stages

The stages on offer aren't actually much smaller if at all when compared to the Galaxy titles, but there are various things that come together to give this impression:

  • The camera is fairly far away from the character. This makes most things within frame look generally smaller than they otherwise would seem.
  • The consistently flat shapes and simple layouts used in the levels make for much less inherent visual spectacle and provide a less impressive sense of scope.
  • While the more direct level design in 3D World focuses on establishing a singular principle concept and engaging with it in each stage, Galaxy, for example, provided various smaller objectives in succession separated by planetoids. That sort of design is something that I think makes an experience feel "fuller" in a way that may contribute to the impression of size.
  • On the topic of planetoids, the transition between each one may have been visually enjoyable but took time and control away from the player. It did have a use in terms of the modular level design as it was a very functional way of giving players a wider view of their next objective, but the fact of the matter is that it contributes to the amount of time it takes to complete a given level, as opposed to increasing the playable area.
  • Mario’s general movement speed in 3D World is the fastest it has ever been in a 3D Mario game. This is also something that contributes to the sense of shrinkage due to quicker completion time and faster moment-to-moment traversal.
  • The count-down timer also plays a role by setting a strict limit on how long a player can be in a stage. This is a big contrast to games like 64 and Sunshine where Stars are individually gathered in a sizable, open space on the player's own time. There are reasons for this design choice that I'll go into later, but I'll say now that it is noteworthy in driving home how long a level can take when previous 3D entries simply let the player roam, usually without a sense of urgency.
While all these things come together to provide what is essentially a Mario experience that has seemingly shorter levels, they are that way because they're distilled into the least padded form possible. I think that represents an immense respect for our time as players and a great deal of confidence in the principle design of each level on display, but I can see and appreciate how that also serves to take away from the sense of freedom relative to the earlier 3D titles in the series.

The camera is fixed

The specific nature of the Camera in 3D World is mostly a carryover from the Galaxy games' more automated implementation back in the Wii era, so the application isn't majorly unique in a 3D Mario title; in fact, counting 3D World, a majority of the 3D Mario games have a functionally independent camera during active play.

Set at a fixed angle and distance from the player at default, the camera is only free within a margin. This is something that has a number of advantages worth considering:

  • It informs level design and allows the developers to more deliberately place and adjust platforms, secrets, enemies, and items with a more definite understanding of how and where the player will approach them.
  • It means that camera adjustment isn't actually necessary to complete the game, which not only facilitates the use of any controller that can be connected to your console, but also single-screen multiplayer in a way that I can't imagine many other configurations managing to allow for. After all, it wouldn't make all that much sense to invite players to fight for preference of visibility now would it? That'd be the wrong kind of competitive element to bring to this particular table.
  • The way the camera is set up comes together with the subtle restriction in directional movement and the more geometrically clear level design to ensure that jumps aren't missed due to errant twitches or a misjudgment of the placement of platforms; this configuration majorly reduces the prevalence of the difficulties that come with 3D platforming to inexperienced players.
  • Though the camera is restrictive, it isn't entirely fixed, allowing for adjustments in most situations. I believe that this also exists as a measure to provide further clarity for jumps and help out less experienced players.
As you can probably tell, there's a whole lot that likely went into the selection of camera design for this game.

There's a count-down timer

Ahh, the count-down timer. 

This one's fairly interesting, as it feels like it puts a nice little bow on the embracing of more linear level design for 3D World. Fortunately, I don't think this was a blind addition simply for familiarity's sake.

The return of the count-down timer allows for an added dimension to tune with regards to challenge in boss-rushes, puzzles, or even certain levels in full later down the line. It certainly has great value when used in tandem with Ghost Houses, a level type that I think wouldn't have as much of a sense of foreboding, if at all, without a time-limit looming overhead.

Some may argue that a larger timer comes up and is more prominent for some of the situations I've presented, and so should be left out generally, but I believe that keeping the usually generous timer constantly on display ensures that players have a sense of it in mind and keep a forward-driven pace. This can be particularly valuable in multiplayer.

There isn't a triple jump

Here's an interesting bit of trivia: the first form of the triple jump didn't make its debut in Mario 64, but Donkey Kong on the Gameboy. It also features as a primary movement mechanic in the New Super Mario Brothers series of games. Because of these things, disqualifying 3D World as a 3D Mario game for excluding the triple jump is the same as disqualifying it as a mainline Mario game outright, so I don't agree with this as a metric.

I'm of the opinion that a big reason for the exclusion of the triple jump is to highlight the value of the cat-suit, which provides the player with climbing for simple, effective vertical traversal. The triple jump would not reasonably meet the same heights that the cat-suit would allow Mario to reach by climbing, and no platforms are spaced out in a way that would make the triple jump ideal for any situation.

I also believe that the lack of a triple or even double jump is a platforming consideration; I think it's likely that having varying jump heights and distances based on a singular input was something Nintendo looked at as a bit too complicated to keep on the table.  You might say that less skilled players could just avoid using it, but that's exactly the problem: it's extremely easy to execute.

If a novice player began engaging with higher momentum platforming confidently in the game as it is now, they'd have a specific maximum jump distance to consider and nothing more. Putting the added consideration of the triple-jump mechanic on their plate might result in failures that dissuade them from making faster-paced jumps or taking other risks in the future, which isn't worth allowing when the level-design doesn't reward the usage of the move in a meaningful way to begin with. Indeed, even if levels were made with the triple jump in mind, the problem would still exist if it was still implemented in the form we all know and love so well, so I'm fairly doubtful that they'd have gone that route anyway.

Consistency is also a potential issue with the Triple Jump. With various playable characters in the game, each with their own handling and jump heights, the triple jump would have to be balanced between all of them. This would likely result in inconsistent input adjustments that make some characters feel less inviting to select.

It has a run button

Making running and walking binary isn't just some sort of return to 2D conventions for the sake of it, but effectively ensure that players can be far more deliberate about the pace they'd like to employ, not to mention that Mario's never moved faster than he has here. If you hold the run button and continue to run, you're given an even further boost in speed, rewarding those who commit to the challenge of maintaining momentum an increase in momentum. Those who want to be careful and take their time face no consequence and get a decent pace to work with that doesn't feel unreasonably sluggish.

On top of the more precise control, there's noted value in returning to this implementation because of the various input methods that are available for the Wii U. There's the Game-pad, pro controller, Wiimote and Nunchuck, and even just the Wiimote alone. This application means that even if you have just a single Wiimote, which doesn't have an analog stick, you can still play the game without concession. Anecdotally, this same solution was used for the primary control scheme of Super Mario 64 DS, a port/remake released on a system that also doesn't have an analog stick.

There's no exploration/Flagpoles return

The earlier 3D Mario games encouraged exploring a single large environment multiple times and meeting certain conditions to collect different stars. This was done because at the time, when asking what the most enjoyable aspect of playing in a 3D area was, the conclusion they came to was the novelty of searching around an open space. Though this is true, as time has gone on, the developers have recognized that this implementation posed the problem of players getting lost and being unable to effectively fulfill objective requirements. That's a part of why we've been seeing the design of titles get more and more linear in subtle and not so subtle ways. In the case of 3D World, the decision was made to return to using flagpoles as an overall goal to ensure that players always know exactly where to go to clear a level.

Make no mistake, however: exploration still exists in the game, though in a more condensed capacity.

Stars of some sort were the primary objectives of the past 3D Mario titles, and they make a return here. They aren't all necessary to get through the game, and earlier on some of them are clearly within reach, but as the game goes on we see that these stars serve a similar function to those in the other 3D games. There are stars that are hidden, there are some that require trickier platforming to get to, some require puzzle solving, some ask for a certain enemy to be defeated, and some that are a reward for timed challenges. In a way, the implementation of stars in this game leans more toward the type of experience seen in 3D Mario than getting the Star-Coins seen in more recent 2D outings, likely to satiate the more exploratory interests of players who find joy in that part of the experience.

This application of the Flagpole and stars could potentially be a great framework moving forward to satisfy all Mario players without compromise, guiding those who are daunted by exploration clearly towards a constant and well defined goal point in each stage and allowing the more adventurous players to jump off the directed path, exploring a large and diverse environment littered with stars as rewards for completing secondary objectives of various types, all without kicking you out between each one. This would likely require an additional core design element that ensures players know where the goal is at all times. More traditional suggestions would include a UI indicator or some sort of light-beacon. Regardless, I'm fairly sure that we'd likely see an unobtrusive, creative, and subtle solution if it were ever considered.


Taken individually, few of these concerns do well to discount 3D World as a 3D Mario game, but when considering all of them it becomes very clear that it's notably different from the titles that preceded it.

In summary, I'd say that while this is definitely a 3D Mario game, it's not one that gives everyone what they want or expect from their 3D Mario experience. This is a title that was designed by looking back at the origins of the Mario series, something that had yet to be seriously done in any of the 3D games with regards to principle design. It is meant to take what made the Mario games fun for the original audience and reintroduce it to them in a 3D context while also providing that traditional experience to fans of the 3D games. Indeed, 3D World reflects the nature of the original titles better than 64, which embraced the exploratory nature of 3D space, making it a very interesting and introspective step for the franchise. I can't say for sure where things will go from here for 3D Mario, and I hope that whatever comes next manages to please those that felt unsatisfied, but I think that it's safe to say that 3D World was an experiment worth making and an excellent addition to the masterfully designed series its a part of.

Thanks for reading!

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