The first Mario games outclassed the competition because they felt amazing to run and jump. 3D Marios are inventive and I respect their evolution, but the movable camera and 3D movement has never been able to provide the same thrills of precise 2D platforming.
Nintendo understood the limitations of controlling in 3D and wisely made 64 less about action, and more about puzzles. They designed inviting sandboxes, let you see an interesting place in the environment, and dared you to get to it.
Sunshine looked and controlled like the polished 64 it was. It moved further away from the fast and furious platforming of old and introduced even bigger levels. The water pack was inventive but forced designers to implement long and slow jumps to justify the mechanic.
The Galaxy series receives an incredible amount of praise but I’d argue it’s overrated. Galaxy’s enemies were more aggressive than Sunshine and 64’s but were still a long way from the rewarding chaotic action of a 2D Mario.
I must give credit to Galaxy’s creative level and physics design. The developers did a wonderful job of pushing the series forward in mind-blowing yet logical ways. Playing with gravity and using the bottoms of platforms was a genius evolution.
There are so many elements of Galaxy that impress me on a creative and atheistic level, but the execution of actually playing them is often mundane and many times childishly simple.
It feels like Nintendo felt the pressure of pleasing the widespread market of Wii owners. The Wii is Nintendo’s best-selling home console and appealed to far more casual gamers with the runaway success of Wii Sports.
Perhaps due to the unremarkable sales of Galaxy 1 (11.36m compared to 29 million for New SMB), Nintendo included a patronizing tutorial DVD with Galaxy 2 (that the Wii hilariously could not play). The educational video covered movement and jumping as if the consumer had never played a game outside of Wii Sports.
I feel that mentality crept into the design of Galaxy. Mario’s movement is much slower than previous 3D games, and he loses momentum much quicker. I found it incredibly frustrating to lose speed when running off any ledge. His acceleration was equally aggravating, often resulting in jumping mostly straight up if the extra second wasn’t allowed to get him up to speed.
Mario games are at their best when embracing momentum and speed. The 2D games had levels built to reward players that ran full throttle. Blindly jumping at the last possible second would almost always result in a safe landing space or satisfying combo jump off enemies. Building a game in a straight, 2D line makes this much easier.
3D introduces too much freedom to effectively predict where the player will jump. The moving camera also makes it harder for the developer to know what the player will see. This means the platforming must be much more forgiving.
3D World is a great hybrid of Mario styles because of it’s fixed camera angle and 8-direction controls. This allows the level designer to craft more specific and challenging pathing.
Full 360 degree movement may seem more desirable, but if you’ve ever struggled to walk across a narrow ‘tightrope’ in a 3D Mario, you’ve probably experienced the wrong kind of challenge that’s more tedious than exhilarating.
3D World’s octo-control makes narrow pathways far easier, and allows for more precise communication between player control and level design. This is probably why Nintendo felt comfortable making 3D World much faster than Galaxy and included a two-tier speed boost.
Of course 2D Marios never have to worry about a tightrope scenario. They instead focus purely on timing. On a sidenote, I was blown away by how fun the timing-based platforming in Playdead’s INSIDE was, often feeling like a 2D Uncharted.
When it comes to platforming, 2D is king for a reason. It allows the developer to craft specific challenges that demand far more precise timing than a similar 3D game could pull off.
I still think Galaxy is a good game, but I feel little desire to return to it. I’d pop in Mario 1, 2, 3, World, New Mario U, and 3D World before it.
If Mario Odyssey puts an emphasis on speed and timing I’ll be much happier to play it. But until I see that, I’ll be more excited for the next New Super Mario Bros instead.