Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we will be flying through the clear blue skies of Mario‘s 3D history. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Note that much of Nintendo’s background history is skipped here as it’s present in the Donkey Kong (Classic) article. Where two dates are indicated, the first is Japan and the second is North America.
This article would not be possible without a few key sources. Most are linked below where appropriate, but I would like to draw particular attention to the Mario Wiki, Nintendo’s illuminating Iwata Asks series of interviews, and Commonwealth Realm’s Nintendo History series of videos. Please check these resources out if you like the article and want to learn more!
One final note – I’ve set up the soundtrack links to open in new windows so you can listen to each game’s soundtrack while you read about it if you desire. The soundtracks have been generously compiled and made available online by YouTubers GilvaSunner and DeoxysPrime.
Table of Contents
- Super Mario 64
- Super Mario Sunshine
- Super Mario Galaxy
- Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Super Mario 3D Land
- Super Mario 3D World
- Super Mario Odyssey
Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka had been collaborating on Nintendo’s Mario series since 1985’s Super Mario Bros. By the mid-1990s, though, the medium was moving beyond two-dimensional experiences. 3D had been possible for years – 1980’s Battlezone, 1981’s 3D Monster Maze, and 1982’s Pole Position are early pioneers – but 3D games had tended to suffer from either poor performance or limited scope. True textured polygons were rarely possible in the 1980s, so the aforementioned Battlezone utilized wireframe art while Pole Position and others tricked the player into perceiving 2D space as 3D through the use of scaling sprites.
This visual palette changed with the rise of advanced processing in arcade and PC software during the early 1990s. id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992), SEGA’s Virtua Fighter (1993), and Namco’s Ridge Racer (1993) all set the tone for this next phase of graphical design as their contemporaries were perfecting highly detailed 2D sprites. 2D visuals reached a new peak in the 16-bit era of video games before being surpassed and, for a time, seemingly rendered obsolete by advancements in computing power.
Many long-time developers were able to transition from 2D to 3D design, but this was facilitated through the integration of young staffers who had grown up around the new technology. Nintendo turned to the UK’s Argonaut Software for its earliest experiments with 3D games, including X (1992) and Star Fox (1993). Argonaut developed the SuperFX chip, making possible the pseudo-3D of late Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) games.
Simultaneously, a relative newcomer named Yoshiaki Koizumi had been rising through Nintendo’s ranks in the early 1990s. Koizumi joined Nintendo in 1991 working on the instructional booklet for The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past (1991/1992) and the background story for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993) before being asked to develop a polygonal SuperFX-based remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1987/1988) for the SNES. This project would be abandoned, but proved that Koizumi had a natural talent for designing games with 3D elements. He would be one of the studio’s greatest assets as it moved forward into the 64-bit era and beyond.
Super Mario 64
Soundtrack – YouTube
Development began on Super Mario 64 as early as 1993. Inspired by Star Fox, Shigeru Miyamoto was excited about the possibility of a Mario title in which the player navigated Mario around fully 3D spaces. This concept originally took the form of a fixed-camera isometric game – likely something along the lines of Sonic 3D Blast (1996) – but that idea was scrapped when the 15-person team concluded that it didn’t represent enough of an evolution from previous 2D releases.
Another abandoned thread from the game’s three years in development was a cooperative multiplayer mode. Harkening back to Miyamoto’s goal for the game that would eventually become Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic and then the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2, he and Takashi Tezuka intended to include Luigi as a playable character. The camera angle would remain fixed once the two characters joined one another, so two players would need to cooperate to keep both Mario and Luigi in view as they went about platforming challenges. This promising concept was dropped long before the final build, however, for technical and gameplay reasons.
Yoshiaki Koizumi was brought onto a Mario game as assistant director for the first time after contributing CG elements to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995). Among his major impacts on Super Mario 64 are the camera system and the use of shadows to indicate character positions in a 3D space. The largely free-roaming player-controlled camera in the final game is diegetically explained as a Lakitu cameraman dispatched to record Mario’s adventure. Shadows were mandated to appear directly beneath every interactive character by Koizumi to ensure that players would easily grasp Mario’s distance from enemies.
Though the camera would prove to be the most difficult aspect of designing the world’s most innovative 3D game, early development focused primarily on how to make Mario’s movement engaging. 2D titles had featured a comparatively limited set of verbs, as the player could navigate his or her avatar right or left, jump, and (depending on the game) use power-ups, throw items sideways, or suck up foes while riding a dinosaur companion. Once the play space became 3D, Nintendo needed to re-establish how movement could be fun.
Part of this process involved the creation of the Nintendo 64’s distinctive controller. The Nintendo Entertainment System’s (NES) controller had defined the overall shape of input devices from 1985 to 1995, and its successors throughout the industry had iterated only slightly on this basic model. Smooth 3D movement would depend heavily on shifting controls away from the previous generation’s reliance on eight-directional digital input. Consequently, Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo’s engineers worked hand in hand on the creation of a new controller tailor-made for Mario’s first Nintendo 64 title. The result was a peculiar three-pronged input device which featured, at its center, an analog joystick capable of detecting 360 directions. Earlier analog joysticks had existed, but none had been small enough to be manipulated only by the player’s thumb and free up the player’s remaining fingers to manipulate other buttons.
With the console’s controller and basic design for the game established, Miyamoto, Tezuka, and Koizumi were free to work on ensuring that Super Mario 64 was the most expansive title in the series so far. The team worked up plans for over thirty sprawling stages but these were condensed to just fifteen in the final game. Voice acting was brought in to enhance the immersion for players in the North American version (this was later introduced to the game’s original Japanese market in a re-released enhanced edition). Charles Martinet reprised the voice of Mario, which he had originally debuted in Mario’s Game Gallery (1995), while Peach was voiced by Leslie Swan, Senior Editor at North America’s Nintendo Power magazine and author of Super Mario 64’s English localization.
Super Mario 64 would be released as a launch title for the Nintendo 64 in Japan and North America in 1996. Players immediately took to the game, adapting handily to its unique approach to 3D game design. Nothing in the Mario series so far had resembled it, but that didn’t stop Super Mario 64 from becoming the console’s best-selling title.
The relative ease of this transition from 2D to 3D platforming is likely down to an opening sequence as elegant as Super Mario Bros.’ masterful Stage 1-1. Following a brief spoken-word introduction by Princess Peach, players take on the role of Mario as he explores Peach’s castle grounds. The area is devoid of any enemies, but does include trees, hills, and water. Before encountering a single foe, the player has the opportunity to freely explore a 3D space for the first time in a Mario game.
Given Mario’s expanded moveset, this early freedom from enemies is critical. Mario can now punch, kick, dive, tip-toe, long-jump, backflip, perform a series of three successively higher standard jumps, climb poles or trees, hang on ledges, and instantly plunge towards the ground from mid-air. The final technique is typically referred to as a ‘ground pound,’ though some early promotional materials call it a ‘hip drop.’ One new power-up, in the form of a cap, allows Mario to fly in three dimensions for limited periods of time. All require a finer degree of control in one’s relationship with the surrounding environment than earlier games had done; punching and kicking, in particular, are likely included here as a concession to the fact that leaping onto enemies to defeat them is trickier in three dimensions than it had previously been.
As players move from the outside of Peach’s castle to its interior, they are introduced to several other new features for the series. Mario can interact with friendly non-playable characters, freely explore a hub-world rather than move between levels using a rigid overworld map, and collect stars to open up new areas. The final point forms the basis of the game’s progression and difficulty curve, as players must complete specific tasks in early stages to acquire stars and open up more challenging stages.
As an example, the player is introduced to the star concept by visiting the only initially unlocked stage: Bob-Omb Battlefield. Once Mario accesses this isolated area by leaping through a painting hung up in Peach’s castle, he is informed by a nearby NPC that he must ascend the area’s central mountain and defeat a boss. The player can navigate to and defeat this enemy – Big Bob-Omb – or can opt to explore the surrounding environment. Once the boss is defeated, Mario acquires a star and has the option to either visit the game’s now-unlocked next stage or return to Bob-Omb Battlefield in pursuit of a second star. Each stage is unlocked by a different and irregular number of stars, so the player will need to revisit courses to continue moving through the castle. Some stars can also be found at secret areas within the hub world.
Three Bowser encounters break up the flow of exploratory stages. These take the form of a linear obstacle course followed by a one-on-one showdown with Mario’s nemesis in a closed-off arena. In a nod to the characters’ new freedom of motion, Mario must now circle around Bowser, grab him by the tail, spin him around to build up momentum, and hurl him into spiked balls floating around the arena’s periphery. For his part, Bowser can now rotate his flame breath in all directions and leap through the air to Mario’s position.
Most of the game’s enemies return from earlier titles, but some new faces are present. Bob-Omb Buddies represent a non-hostile variant of the roaming explosives introduced in the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2. Dorrie the plesiosaur makes her series debut as a means of conveyance across an underground lake. Whomps appear in the second stage, slowly approaching Mario and then hurling their massive brick-like forms down at him. In one of the game’s most terrifying moments, as he explores a sunken ship in the third stage, Mario is introduced to Unagi the giant eel. These and other creatures first encountered in Super Mario 64 would go on to become fan favorites.
In spite of its status as a leap into uncharted waters, Super Mario 64 would remain one of Nintendo’s most celebrated games decades after initial publication. A Nintendo DS remake in 2004 would improve the textures and offer three additional characters to play as – finally restoring Luigi’s role after his conspicuous absence in the original game – but would otherwise be regarded as a misstep due to the lack of an analog joystick on that hardware. The original Super Mario 64 would remain the most memorable version, inspiring an entire generation of game developers and ushering in the age of the 3D platformer.
Super Mario Sunshine (2002)
Soundtrack – YouTube
In spite of Super Mario 64’s popularity, or perhaps because of it, six years would pass before a sequel emerged. This period included numerous spinoff titles, including Mario Party and Paper Mario, but no true successor to the studio’s 1996 masterpiece. Work on a sequel provisionally titled Super Mario 64 2 was abandoned due to the commercial failure of its intended hardware, the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive. A single demo level was produced, though never publicly revealed, tantalizing fans with the potential for a two-player 3D platformer; there remains some ambiguity over whether this lost sequel was simply a version with improved textures (a copy of which finally began to circulate among collectors in 2014), slowly evolved into 2004’s Super Mario 64 DS, or was something else entirely.
A second project debuted as a tech demo at Nintendo’s SpaceWorld trade show in 2000. Super Mario 128 revealed the processing power of Nintendo’s new Gamecube console, as 128 individual 3D Mario models roam around a large saucer-shaped object. Shigeru Miyamoto would claim in a 2007 Game Developers Conference keynote address that this was only ever intended to be a promotional video, though earlier comments by Miyamoto and a 2005 interview with Nintendo of America then-Vice President of Sales and Marketing Reggie Fils-Aime suggest that it was indeed a game undergoing development. Whatever the case, elements of Super Mario 128 would eventually serve as the foundation for Pikmin, Metroid Prime, and Super Mario Galaxy.
Yet another new Mario title was on the horizon by 2001, however, as Super Mario Sunshine made its debut at that year’s SpaceWorld event. Unlike the two aforementioned projects, Super Mario Sunshine would indeed make it into players’ hands after going through an uncharacteristically brief development cycle. At fewer than eighteen months, the Super Mario Sunshine development period had focused on iterating upon the groundwork laid by Super Mario 64. Co-directors Yoshiaki Koizumi and Kenta Usui would primarily explore how they could work a water-spewing device into the game as its central mechanic.
A variety of aesthetic flights of fancy were cut out at this stage in development. Humans intended to populate the game’s central hub of Delfino Plaza were replaced with Piantas, pear-shaped humanoids with bulbous noses, while Yoshi’s ability to vomit out water he’d ingested was mercifully removed. Mario’s dinosaur companion would go on to become one of Super Mario Sunshine’s most celebrated additions to the 3D Mario palette. Yoshi had been absent from Super Mario 64 – save a cameo on top of Peach’s castle if the player is able to acquire all 120 Power Stars included in the game – so fans were overjoyed to discover that he was rideable again in Super Mario Sunshine.
The setting, Isle Delfino, would be one of the design elements most emphasized by Koizumi and his team during development. Koizumi sought to shape the game’s identity around youthful summer recreation, animating both the water pistol-like gameplay mechanic and the game’s island resort backdrop. At the same time, the use of water to clean up graffiti has its origins in the developers exploring what purpose Mario’s cannon might serve; when combined with the need for walls to jump off of and Koizumi’s recollections of leaving muddy footprints during childhood water gun fights, the central presence of pollution and graffiti was a natural next step.
Isle Delfino and Super Mario Sunshine’s narrative are fairly radical departures for the franchise. The former is more aesthetically cohesive than any other series entry, though it is also four times larger than the space available to explore in Super Mario 64. Isle Delfino’s comparatively grounded architecture was inspired by Koizumi’s desire to see what Mario would look like when carrying out his acrobatic chicanery in a less explicitly fantastical environment. No typical Mario worlds are included here, as each of the stages players can access from the central hub of Delfino Plaza instead represents a district of the island.
The narrative is conveyed through full-motion video (FMV) cutscenes for the first time. The development of these non-interactive sequences was closely overseen by Koizumi, as he had a background in CG visual design extending back to his work on Yoshi’s Island. Shigeru Miyamoto rather bluntly indicated in a contemporary promotional press conference that these FMVs were intended to prevent competitors from suggesting that the Gamecube could not produce pre-rendered cutscenes; the Nintendo 64 had lacked this capacity, causing many developers to move their projects to other platforms.
In the game’s introductory cutscene, Mario and his friends are traveling to Isle Delfino for a well-deserved vacation. Upon arrival, however, Mario is jailed for crimes committed by a shadowy Mario-shaped prankster. Shadow Mario has been filling up the tropical paradise with pollution and graffiti, a problem compounded by the disappearance of the island’s Shine Sprites. These floating gold orbs must be recovered from their positions around the island to restore Isle Delfino to its former glory. At the same time, Mario is assigned the community service task of cleaning up Isle Delfino’s pollution and graffiti using a chatty water cannon called FLUDD.
In the course of his adventure – aided by Princess Peach and her elderly retainer Toadsworth – Mario meets a bevy of new enemies. A massive, mobile piranha plant called Petey Piranha makes his debut as Super Mario Sunshine’s first boss. Enemy variants classified as Stus (including Smolderin’ Stus, Strollin’ Stus, Swoopin’ Stus, and Winged Strollin’ Stus) take the role of the series’ recurring Goombas. Most standard Mushroom Kingdom foes are absent from Super Mario Sunshine, including Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and Hammer Bros. The ones that remain have received sometimes-jarring reinterpretations.
Aside from Petey Piranha, Super Mario Sunshine’s most significant contribution to the ongoing series cast of characters is the introduction of Bowser Jr. This diminutive Koopa is the son of Bowser and masquerades as Shadow Mario for much of the game’s narrative. He would go on to appear in numerous other games, supplanting the Koopalings as Bowser’s lieutenant in the 3D Mario franchise.
Gameplay is overall similar to Super Mario 64. Camera controls are smoother than those of its direct predecessor but remain less responsive than the camera control of later games; cameraman Lakitu is absent, suggesting that free-roaming cameras had become common enough in the wider medium to render diegetic explanations unnecessary. Mario’s moveset is likewise a refinement on his most recent adventure: he can run, dive, jump, triple-jump, wall-jump, and backflip in three dimensions, though he can no longer punch or kick. These methods of attack are replaced by the ability to manually target and fire water at enemies from either a distant or over-the-shoulder perspective. Mario can also use FLUDD to blast water at the ground and hover in mid-air for a time, improving the player’s ability to precisely land on foes.
Lest the player become too comfortable with the safety net represented by FLUDD’s hovering ability, some challenges require Mario to ditch his water cannon and complete a platforming gauntlet alone. These sub-stages, hidden within Isle Delfino’s seven environments, replace the game’s comparatively grounded aesthetic with an abstract rendering of platforms floating in an infinite void. A cover of Koji Kondo’s iconic Super Mario Bros. theme plays in the background as a nod to these areas’ similarity to fantastical settings of past Mario games.
Super Mario Sunshine would prove to be a divisive entry in Nintendo’s most popular franchise. It is among the series’ least conservative titles, emphasizing water-based projectile combat and a voice-acted narrative over the movement-first design ethos typical of preceding Mario games. Centering the action on a single, relatively cohesive island environment contrasts sharply with Nintendo’s tendency to send its mascot to a variety of fantasy settings in each adventure; though this would disappoint some fans, others applauded the unique tone and consistent sense of place that Isle Delfino introduced to the series. Whether due to this mixed critical response or simply due to an interest in pursuing new ideas, the open sandbox approach to level design which characterized Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine would be abandoned for a time following Mario’s second 3D platformer. Nintendo would move in a very different direction with its next Mario game.
Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Soundtrack – YouTube
Development on Super Mario Galaxy began in 2004, shortly after Yoshiaki Koizumi finished directing Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. The inspiration for the game’s core concept – exploring spherical planetoids in space – was inspired by Koizumi’s experience developing the aforementioned Super Mario 128 tech demo for SpaceWorld 2000. Though the ability to render fully spherical platforms with their own gravitational pull had been impossible on the Gamecube due to technical limitations, the concept could be fulfilled on Nintendo’s new Wii platform.
An even more significant cultural shift was simultaneously underway at Nintendo during the first decade of the 21st Century. Company President Hiroshi Yamauchi stepped down from his role in 2002, a position which he had occupied since 1949, and was succeeded by Satoru Iwata. Iwata’s presidency would be animated by the same passion for inclusivity that had characterized his time running game studio HAL Laboratory from 1993 to 1999. Nintendo shifted focus away from developing complex, challenging software and toward creating games and consoles which could more easily be enjoyed by audiences who lacked experience with the medium.
With this in mind, Super Mario Galaxy director Yoshiaki Koizumi sought to craft a 3D Mario game that could be enjoyed by series veterans and newcomers alike. The first challenge was the implementation of simple camera controls. These had come under criticism in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, as the former was too rigid and the latter was too complex. Nintendo itself had implemented reliable camera inputs during The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (2002) and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006), but would face two unique issues in Super Mario Galaxy: (1) the absence of a second control stick on the WiiMote controller and (2) the potential for motion sickness due to rapidly inverting sources of gravity. Both would be resolved by largely taking camera controls away from the player. Koizumi and his team carefully playtested the game to ensure that the camera reliably kept Mario in-frame without player input while also reducing the chance for motion sickness.
The second major development hurdle was Mario’s moveset. Precision had been lost in the transition from 2D to 3D, but still more precision would be lost without even the ground as a consistent frame of reference. As Mario battles enemies while moving around spherical planetoids and floating platforms, the developers experimented with methods to improve the player’s sense of control. The most important design element to arise out of this discussion was Mario’s new spin move. By shaking the WiiMote, players could now activate a spin to defeat foes and hover slightly longer in mid-air. This mitigated the potential frustration that would have been felt by players who failed to successfully complete a jump while also opening up the potential for more complex platforming challenges.
Super Mario Galaxy was planned to launch alongside Nintendo’s new hardware in late 2006, but a delay pushed the release date back into 2007. The slightly longer development time proved to be a prudent decision, however, as the game launched to near-universal critical acclaim. Koizumi and his team had managed to craft a 3D Mario game which captured the experimental thrills of prior 3D titles while also integrating the comparatively simple controls of Mario’s 2D outings.
The game opens with a sequence set in the Mushroom Kingdom, as Bowser kidnaps Peach amid an event called the Star Festival and spirits her away to the center of the galaxy. Mario attempts to follow but is cast into another region of space by Kamek the Magikoopa. Saved by a friendly star-shaped Luma and a mysterious woman named Rosalina, Mario is whisked to a hub world called the Comet Observatory and begins his adventure. The player must help Mario collect at least 60 Power Stars across 42 galaxies in an effort to find and save Peach.
Each stage is accessed from the Comet Observatory’s assorted domes, each of which is unlocked as Mario accumulates Power Stars. Stages are comprised of floating planetoids and objects which Mario can navigate between through a combination of jumps and Launch Stars. Launch Stars are semi-transparent small stars which fling Mario through space along a pre-defined path, and constitute only one of the game’s numerous new features.
While Mario’s basic moveset is similar to past 3D titles, the spin move replaces earlier offensive techniques like punching and spraying water. Several new power-ups are introduced, including Bee Mushrooms, Boo Mushrooms, Spring Mushrooms, Ice Flowers, and Red Stars. Bee Mushrooms give Mario a bee costume, allow him to climb honeycomb walls, and hover for a limited time. Boo Mushrooms transform Mario into a mustachioed ghost that can move through physical barriers. Spring Mushrooms allow Mario to bounce high into the air. Red Stars confer the power to fly through the air using the spin command. The Ice Flower, which lets Mario skate and create ice platforms on hot surfaces, makes its first appearance in a core Mario title after having debuted in Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005). Fire Flowers return from the 2D Mario series and Rainbow Stars function identically to the 2D series’ Super Stars, turning Mario invincible for a time.
Yoshi is not featured, though players can control Luigi for the first time in an original 3D Mario game. Mario’s brother had been entirely absent from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, though he had been playable in Super Mario 64 DS. As in that 2004 remake, Luigi can jump higher than Mario but has reduced traction on the ground. The ability to play as Luigi is only unlocked if the player is able to collect all 120 Power Stars hidden throughout the game.
A score composed by Koji Kondo and Mahito Yokota represents one of the series’ most immediately apparent leaps forward. Rather than creating the score using electronic keyboards, as had been done in all prior Mario games, Kondo and Yokota’s arrangements would be recorded by a 50-person orchestra. Tension existed between collaborators Kondo and Yokota, as the latter’s initial Latin-influenced score was rejected outright by the series’ long-time composer, but this challenging start led to a partnership which would produce one of Mario’s most memorable soundtracks.
Super Mario Galaxy would prove to be a resounding critical and commercial triumph. Level design had been significantly tightened up, and some fans were disappointed by the franchise’s abandonment of sandbox-style stages, but most players were thrilled to have such a straightforward new release in Nintendo’s biggest series. The inclusion of improved camera controls, and a two-player mode that allowed less experienced players to fire projectiles using an on-screen cursor, ensured that even people who had not previously played a Mario game would enjoy Super Mario Galaxy. The game’s enduring popularity would see it made available to download on Nintendo’s Wii U and, rather surprisingly, re-released in an HD format on Nvidia’s Shield Tablet in 2018 (exclusively in China). Perhaps even more surprising is Nintendo’s decision to follow Super Mario Galaxy with a direct sequel for the first time in the 3D series’ history.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
Soundtrack – YouTube
Following a precedent established when the studio created The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000), Shigeru Miyamoto successfully lobbied Nintendo to create a second game using the same engine and art assets from Super Mario Galaxy. Yoshiaki Koizumi was assigned the role of producer while Koichi Hayashida took on the role of director for the first time. Development was relatively quick, since so much of the foundation was already in place.
The team was initially reluctant to revisit the same concepts explored in Super Mario Galaxy, however. Most of the developers believed that they had already exhausted their best ideas. With this in mind, programmer Takeshi Hayakawa suggested reintegrating Yoshi as a rideable character. Yoshi had been cut from Super Mario Galaxy during development because it was believed that he would distract from the game’s central focus on spherical stages. To facilitate the incorporation of entirely new level ideas, the development team solicited prototypes from anybody working on the game rather than relying strictly on its programmers.
While the resulting experience is certainly “more Super Mario Galaxy,” it has a variety of new features spread across 49 new galaxies. The player is able to command Yoshi to grab items and enemies by pointing at them using the WiiMote and tapping a button. In addition to Yoshi, several new power-ups make their Mario debut. The Cloud Flower lets Mario generate cloud platforms in mid-air, the Spin Drill lets Mario dig into a planetoid and emerge on the other side, and the Rock Mushroom lets Mario roll around as an invulnerable boulder. Yoshi also has power-ups for the first time since Super Mario World, gaining the ability to dash after consuming a hot pepper, float through the sky after consuming a Blimp Fruit, or illuminate dark spaces after consuming a Bulb Berry.
The narrative is toned down from Mario’s two preceding 3D adventures. Shigeru Miyamoto had come to the conclusion that story was too prominent in Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, so he instructed Yoshiaki Koizumi to reduce this element in Super Mario Galaxy 2. The result is a game that lacks some of the emotional resonance of its immediate predecessor but compensates by moving quickly from one galaxy to another. For the first time in a 3D Mario title, the player would navigate from stage to stage on an overworld map rather than through a hub world. Mario’s means of conveyance between galaxies is an explorable home base called the Starship Mario; though Mario is the captain, he is aided in this role by a charming oversized Luma named Lubba. Rosalina only appears at the end of Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 would experience widespread critical acclaim upon its release in 2010 on the Wii. Its predecessor had been the plumber’s most popular adventure since the series’ introduction of 3D in 1996, yet Nintendo had managed to follow this with an equally strong game. Its success among a wider group of players than any earlier 3D entry confirmed the artistic and commercial viability of linear level designs and a camera with less player control. These elements would come to define Nintendo’s next two 3D Mario releases, for better and for worse.
Super Mario 3D Land (2011)
Soundtrack – YouTube
The next 3D Mario game would be the first time an original 3D series entry launched on a portable console. 2D Mario titles had been appearing on the Game Boy and its successors since 1989’s Super Mario Land, but the only 3D series entry that had been published outside of Nintendo’s home consoles was the 2004 DS remake of Super Mario 64. Super Mario 3D Land would be designed from the ground up for the Nintendo 3DS.
To that end, director Koichi Hayashida reduced the scale of stages from Super Mario Galaxy 2. He believed that the ideal way to play Super Mario 3D Land would be in bite-size chunks. Hayashida similarly argued for the first appearance of Super Mario Bros.’ goal pole in the series’ 3D titles. The concept of a landmark denoting the end of a level had been abandoned when the franchise made the leap to 3D, but it was believed that the goal pole would entice casual players who were put off by the series’ reliance on a mission-based structure. Star Coins would be added, along with devious stages available after the player completes the base game, to reward longtime fans who enjoyed the challenge of poking around stages’ periphery and completing difficult platforming gauntlets. Hayashida and his team were attempting to bridge the gap that had existed between 2D and 3D Mario titles for more than a decade.
Camera controls were similarly refined. The player no longer needs to apply any manual input to the camera, as stages have been designed to be viewed from a specific angle. Fences and arrows direct players clearly towards each stage’s end goal. This moves the 3D series still further away from the open sandboxes of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, but was believed to be necessary if stages were to entice players on the 3DS.
The final game would be released in November 2011. Players take on the role of Mario as he navigates obstacle courses across 96 stages. In a nod to the new game’s strongest influence, Super Mario Bros. 3, the character can now transform into Tanooki Mario if he acquires a leaf. This reduces the speed at which Mario descends from a jump, lets him transform into an invulnerable yet immobile statue, and confers the ability to slap enemies with a striped tail, though Tanooki Mario can no longer fly as he could in Super Mario Bros. 3. Other power-ups newly introduced to the 3D Mario franchise include a Propeller Box, which functions similarly to the Propeller Mushroom of New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009); Boomerang Flower, which gives Mario a projectile attack inspired by Super Mario Bros. 3’s Boomerang Bros.; and a White Tanooki Suit, which grants invulnerability and is made available when players fail five times in a single stage.
Enemies are fairly conservative by 3D Mario standards, largely adhering to the template established by the 2D New Super Mario Bros. sub-series. The most significant new enemies are the Biddybuds, which appear in large coordinated groups on the ground or in the air. Another new enemy which requires the player to change up his or her play technique is Wallop, a brick-like figure (similar to Whomp) which mimics Mario’s movement. Other new enemies tend to be variants on previously introduced foes, especially as most classic Mario enemy types are presented here wearing their own Tanooki Suit power-ups. Even Bowser sprouts a tail at the end of Worlds 1 and 5, though players soon discover that these are only dopplegangers.
Play mechanics are similar to earlier 3D Mario games but feature several key differences. Mario can no longer spin or triple-jump, though he can still backflip, ground pound, and wall-jump. A roll move has been added to his repertoire, allowing players to smash blocks from the side. Mario no longer has a life meter, as he had in every preceding 3D adventure, but instead returns to the size-based health system of Nintendo’s 2D Mario releases: Mario shrinks if he sustains one point of damage and dies if he sustains damage while in his miniature form, through acquiring a power-up confers one additional hit point along with its associated ability. In keeping with this throwback approach to health mechanics, the stage timer makes its debut in a 3D Mario game. A timer in the upper-right corner of the screen ticks down once a stage begins and the player will need to restart the stage if it runs out, though small floating clocks can sometimes be acquired to extend the available time.
Super Mario 3D Land’s greatest innovation is the integration of stereoscopic 3D. Previous titles had been rendered in a 3D engine, but were necessarily viewed in two dimensions by players. The 3DS could produce real 3D images for the first time in the studio’s history, however, and Satoru Iwata encouraged the Super Mario 3D Land team to fully exploit this technology. The result was a game that finally resolved the precision issue which had bedeviled Mario’s creators since he first leapt into the third dimension.
Critics received the game positively, though some naturally lamented the simplification of a series that had historically been more experimental than its 2D counterparts. The development team included a second layer of more challenging stages only accessible once the first 48 are finished, though, mitigating some fans’ accusation that this was a game compromised too heavily by its appeal to casual players. Super Mario 3D Land was a commercial success, too, which fit in well with Nintendo’s plans. The studio was not yet done with its attempt to unify Mario’s formerly disparate 2D and 3D worlds.
Super Mario 3D World (2013)
Soundtrack – YouTube
Producer Koizumi and director Hayashida, along with newly promoted co-director Kenta Motokura, followed Super Mario 3D Land by scaling that game’s concept up to a home console environment. The development team doubled to more than 100 staff members, each of whom contributed ideas on how the franchise could evolve in its next entry. By casting a wider net than ever, Nintendo was able to ensure that Super Mario 3D World avoided being a disappointing recapitulation of past ideas.
The first elements designed were Mario’s newly expanded moveset and four-player multiplayer functionality. Mario and his friends would be able to run on all four limbs and scale walls, though this feature’s initial design alarmed the development team. To get around the jarring appearance of the main characters behaving like animals, the development team introduced a new power-up which clothes Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Peach in a cat suit. This Super Bell would be such a core piece of the game’s eventual identity that the cast’s cat forms would prominently appear on the its cover and promotional materials.
Players would need to explore the game to discover Super Mario 3D World’s other noteworthy new power-up. For the first time, the player can generate up to five clones of his or her chosen character by collecting a Double Cherry. This multiples the rate at which the player character can collect coins or attack multiple enemies. Clones all move in sync, ensuring that the player does not get hung up on the complexities of controlling multiple avatars. Surprisingly, this power-up is actually the result of a programming error that the development team ended up enjoying.
Super Mario 3D World represents Peach’s first playable appearance in a core Mario game since the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988). This decision was made by Yoshiaki Koizumi, who believed that the series had formerly been overly focused on male character representation. With regard to how the characters differ, Mario features balanced performance, Luigi jumps high and lacks traction, Toad is quick but lacks jump height, and Peach is slow but has the ability to briefly hover. Rosalina becomes accessible after the completion of the first eight worlds, and is differentiated from the other four characters by the ability to perform a spin move. Players must complete every stage with every character to access all of the game’s bonus content.
Since Peach is playable, the developers needed to introduce a new character to serve as the source of the conflict. This would come in the form of the Sprixies, a small race of fairies who are kidnapped by Bowser in Super Mario 3D World’s introductory sequence. Mario and his friends spring into action to recover the Sprixies from imprisonment across the Mushroom Kingdom.
Gameplay itself is influenced directly by the mechanics of Super Mario 3D Land. Players take on the role of Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Peach as they navigate through 93 obstacle courses spread across 12 worlds. These worlds are navigated freely from an overworld map for the first time in a 3D Mario game. The result is largely the same as what players experienced in the 2D New Super Mario Bros. U (2012), albeit with slightly more freedom of motion.
In addition to standard exploration stages, in which the player(s) attempt to make their way to a goal pole, bonus stages can be accessed from the world maps. These include Enemy Blockades, Toad Houses, Sprixie Houses, Lucky Houses, Mystery Houses, and Captain Toad stages. Enemy Blockades see the player defeating waves of enemies, Toad Houses confer a power-up, Sprixie Houses grant the player a stamp that can be used in the Wii U’s MiiVerse social media community, Lucky Houses feature minigames which reward the player with coins or additional lives, Mystery Houses require the player to complete objectives in a very short time limit, and Captain Toad stages allow the player to take control of a treasure-hunting Toad as he explores rotating diorama-like environments.
Captain Toad had appeared in 3D Mario games since Super Mario Galaxy, but Super Mario 3D World represents his debut as a playable character. He can’t jump, diegetically justified by his possession of a heavy backpack, so Captain Toad is forced to creatively navigate his environment and avoid enemies. Diorama-like stages are viewed from an outside perspective that can be rotated using camera controls similar to those which had appeared in Super Mario Sunshine. The developers included Captain Toad sequences in an attempt to engage long-term 3D Mario players who might have been disappointed by the franchise’s shift to linear level design and a rigid camera perspective, but the character would prove popular enough to inspire an entire spinoff game in 2014.
Despite being designed initially as a strong single-player experience, Super Mario 3D World would be most noteworthy for its status as the (so far) only 3D Mario title to feature simultaneous multiplayer. Up to four local players can join one another to explore the game’s many stages. As in the 2D New Super Mario Bros. released on home consoles, players can either aid or sabotage one another in obtaining power-ups and navigating tricky platforming sections. This emphasis on multiplayer is only possible due to a hands-off parallel camera perspective which expands and contracts to keep all player characters in view.
Super Mario 3D World would be yet another commercial and critical success for Nintendo. It offered the approachable mechanics of Super Mario 3D Land while introducing an expanded set of power-ups, bonus stage types, and the simultaneous multiplayer of Mario’s 2D titles. Nintendo had fully integrated its 2D and 3D Mario series with Super Mario 3D World, leading fans to wonder where the studio might go next. Some fans even began to speculate that Nintendo had definitively abandoned the sandbox level design which had once characterized its flagship IP’s 3D releases. This conclusion would be proven premature in 2017.
Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
Soundtrack – YouTube
In the very first promotional video revealing Nintendo’s Switch hardware, fans glimpsed a fleeting clip of Mario running through a desert environment. YouTube exploded with analysis of this short video, as had become common for many new releases in the 2010s, but particular attention was drawn to the way that the camera seemed to follow along over Mario’s shoulder. What little could be seen suggested a game that lacked Super Mario 3D World’s highly restrictive design.
A full preview at E3 2017 would confirm what long-time fans had been hoping for: the open, sandbox-style level design of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine was back for the first time in 15 years. The expanded preview also identified the game’s new central mechanic, as Mario could be seen taking control of enemies and guiding them around lushly rendered settings. The rapidly expanding user base of Nintendo’s most popular console in a decade took to the internet to express their excitement for the plumber’s next adventure. The series’ last two releases had been competent, highly polished platformers, but Super Mario Odyssey was inspiring a level of passion that the series hadn’t seen since the original reveal of Super Mario Galaxy.
Surprisingly, the game had been developed by the same team that worked on Super Mario 3D World. Yoshiaki Koizumi continued to be the project leader, though he was joined by Koichi Hayashida in the role of co-producer. Kenta Motokura became the sole director after having been a co-director on Super Mario 3D World. The studio would be as committed as ever to discovering what new concepts could engage players on Nintendo’s newest piece of technology.
According to series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Odyssey was designed to appeal to longtime “core players.” The timer and size-based life system of Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World were eliminated, as were constrictive camera perspectives and goal poles. Despite hearkening back to the mission-based structure of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Odyssey would similarly drop objectives that kicked the player out of the stage once each was completed. A staggering 880 Power Moons – a collectible MacGuffin in the vein of Power Stars and Shine Sprites – can be discovered by completing challenges scattered throughout these kingdoms without requiring the player to re-enter a kingdom after obtaining each one.
These stages are quite inventive in their theming, moving away from the conservative level design philosophy which had characterized the 2D and 3D Mario series during the 2010s. Elements of this had begun to materialize in Super Mario 3D World, where players could explore a pagoda, and New Super Mario Bros. U (2012), where players could leap around a stage modeled on Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night,” but Nintendo’s newest platformer would foreground surprising environments throughout its lengthy campaign. These include a woodland dominated by robots, a tangle of skyscrapers, a Japanese fortress, a seaside resort, a low-gravity moon, a land largely made up of food, and even an abandoned medieval kingdom that seems to have been inspired by From Software’s popular Dark Souls series of games (2011-2017).
To fill these worlds, the team created a wide variety of new enemies. A handful of these, like Tropical Wiggler, are riffs on earlier games’ enemies which exhibit new skills and visual design. The rest of the new enemies tend to be radical departures for the series. Sherm is a tank which steadily rolls over terrain and fires missiles at Mario. Thorned Burbos swarm Mario in large masses. Pokio, a stocky sparrow enemy wearing a wide-brimmed hat, stabs out at Mario using an extendable beak. An oversized T-Rex makes its first appearance napping in the game’s second world but becomes a very serious threat by the time Mario reaches the dark depths of the Wooded Kingdom.
Super Mario Odyssey’s mechanics are similarly innovative. As in Super Mario Sunshine, power-ups are replaced with a new core gameplay feature. This takes the form of Cappy, a sentient hat that can be thrown at enemies to take control of them. Cappy can be thrown either through the tap of a button or a flick of the motion-sensitive Joycon controller. Once an enemy has been “captured,” players are free to navigate the stage in that form. Enemy forms confer any number of distinctive abilities, like flying through the air as a Bullet Bill or traveling through lava as a Podobo. This uniquely expansive moveset results in stages that are more complex than those in any earlier Mario game.
Without any power-ups to acquire, fans might have feared that Mario would not receive any fashion updates in Super Mario Odyssey. In fact, the opposite is true: Mario can customize his appearance through the combination of hats and shirt/pants combos bought from an in-game store using the coins that he gathers throughout his adventure. Given Super Mario Odyssey’s wholesale abandonment of a life system, this serves to give players a new reward for stockpiling coins. Some of the costumes are even reflected in a Mario sprite used to navigate certain 2D sections of the game which mimic the aesthetic of the original Super Mario Bros. (1985).
Unlike Super Mario Odyssey‘s experimental approach to gameplay and level design, its narrative has more in common with the low level of complexity found in series entries since Super Mario Galaxy 2. Peach is forcibly affianced to Bowser and Mario gives chase as his monstrous nemesis acquires the various components of a modern wedding ceremony. Mario befriends Cappy once his old hat is destroyed, but the allies are soon beset by a new group of enemies: Bowser’s wedding planners, the rabbit-like Broodals. A handful of brief cutscenes occur as the game progresses, and the ending is among the series’ most amusing moments, but this is a far cry from the voiced FMVs of Super Mario Sunshine or the storybook which shaded in Rosalina’s backstory in Super Mario Galaxy.
Super Mario Odyssey would be published on Nintendo Switch in October 2017. A handful of amusing updates, including a mode where the player can take part in a hide-and-seek minigame featuring Luigi, would be added for free following its launch. Fans and critics alike would hail it as one of the best titles in Mario’s 30 year history, and it also proved to be one of the most commercially successful, selling 13 million copies in less than two years. The resoundingly positive response would make a strong case that Mario games did not need to be simple to be loved by players all around the world.
Virtually all spinoffs of the 3D Mario series have become franchises in their own right. Most of these feature gameplay dissimilar to the core titles, with Mario and friends engaging in minigames, turn-based combat, or sports. Still, two games have been released which build on the aesthetic of 3D Mario without yet being given their own full series; one can only speculate that it’s a matter of time.
Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker would be released on the Wii U in 2014, expanding the gameplay concept first encountered by players in Super Mario 3D World. The lengthy campaign sees Captain Toad and Toadette overcoming various obstacles and defeating foes small and large through creative use of their environments. Unlike the action of a typical Mario game, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker slows things down and encourages players to luxuriate in meticulously rendered toybox stages. A port would later be produced for the 3DS and Switch consoles, with the latter receiving a cooperative mode and new stages in 2019.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (2017) represents a genuinely noteworthy chapter in Mario’s long story, as it is the first time that a third party studio has created a licensed Mario game since the 1990s. A passionate team at Ubisoft, led by the charismatic Davide Soliani, would craft what might be the only successful third party Mario title ever released. The game sees Mario and his friends joining Ubisoft’s Rabbid characters to take part in acrobatic turn-based tactical battles across a bizarrely transformed Mushroom Kingdom. Surprisingly, the gameplay of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle shares more in common with Firaxis Games’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2011) than any entry in the Mario or Rabbids franchises. The generous Donkey Kong Adventures expansion in 2018, which focuses on Donkey Kong and introduces still more unique mobility mechanics in a characteristically slow-paced genre, would be equally well received by fans. The franchise had finally transcended the long-held belief that only Nintendo could make a great Mario game.
Mario remains the mascot of an entire medium over 30 years after the character’s initial game. Much of this is down to the careful control of Nintendo, as the studio has alternately applied experimental and traditional approaches to the character’s core mechanics across thee three decades. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto has been responsible for much of this quality control, but Takashi Tezuka and Yoshiaki Koizumi have revealed themselves to be talented stewards of Mario’s legacy. Even as the studio, creators, and characters evolve in the future, fans can remain confident that the Mario series will always find a way to innovate without losing sight of its core value: fun.
What do you think? What’s your favorite 3D Mario game? How about your favorite Mario movement technique? Favorite or least favorite enemies? There’s so much to talk about in the comment below.
As for me, I’ll be taking a brief break from Franchise Festival. Worry ye not, though: the series will return with new entries in a few months. I just need a bit of time to build up a backlog and explore options for a physical edition of the first 50 entries (along with a proper version of Franchise Festival #1: The Legend of Zelda). This is a lot of work, haha. I’ll be sure to let you all know what’s going on as developments occur.
For now, I really hope you’ve enjoyed Season One of The Avocado’s Franchise Festival! See you all again real soon.