When we think about Mario's glory years, it's easy to get lost in nostalgia. We might think back to the first time we played Super Mario Bros. and learned what a platform game was really capable of. We might think back to Super Mario World, which expanded upon the ideas of its predecessors in so many ways that felt natural and correct. We might even think back to Super Mario 64, which ushered in the third dimension of gaming with an outstanding and unforgettable fanfare. All of these — and others that Mario has starred in — are fantastic games, and will live on forever as crucial milestones in the world of gaming.
But wherever our minds go when we think of Mario's biggest triumphs, the odds are that we're looking backwards. That, we feel here at Nintendo Life, might be a mistake, as the most recent console generation has left gamers positively swimming in excellent Mario titles. Most importantly, for the first time ever, the franchise is delivering the goods to both fans of vintage 2D Mario, and the more exploratory three-dimensional incarnations.
Not since the original NES did more than one core 'Super' Mario game appear on the same system apart from, of course, the Super Nintendo's Yoshi's Island, which was a sequel to Super Mario World in name only. At least, not until Wii came along.
The Wii and DS titles have allowed Nintendo unprecedented freedom to explore and broaden the limits of what Mario games can do — and how we define them.
The Wii and DS titles have allowed Nintendo unprecedented freedom to explore and broaden the limits of what Mario games can do — and how we define them. While previous Mario titles can seem to have been made as responses to previous ones — largely by piling on the powerups or abilities, and refining the expected areas of gameplay — the Wii brought us Super Mario Galaxy, which turned our perception of Nintendo's flagship franchise upside down. And then right side up again. And then sent it soaring sideways along the gravitational arc of a small planetoid. Mario had experienced an evolution on a larger scale than we'd known for a long, long time.
Mario felt bigger, more expansive, and less limited than ever before. The experience of playing Super Mario Galaxy is one of endless discovery, where worlds unfold beneath your feet and surprises lurk around every corner. New galaxies are available for access long before any previous ones have lost their sense of wonder, and the game always seems to be pulling you ahead, calling out for more experimentation and more exploration; it rewards players with both striking innovation and an ongoing sense of satisfaction as challenges are accomplished one by one. On the Wii, therefore, Mario started off by shooting himself into space, and then only went further from there.
On the DS, however, Mario's big triumph was New Super Mario Bros., a decidedly retro throwback to a simpler time in gaming when your primary weapons were the shoes on your feet, and exploration took a back seat to devious platforming challenges over bottomless pits. While the graphics and sound were far advanced from Mario's humble beginnings, the gaming experience itself belonged unmistakably to the original NES. And thus did the Mario franchise simultaneously diverge into two separate directions, possibly for good.
Sure, we've had, and continue to have, plenty of spinoff games, sports titles, RPGs and so on, but now Nintendo is giving us two distinct evolutionary lines for Super Mario to follow; gamers seem only too happy to keep pace with both of them. On the one hand, the 3D games continue to become larger and more inventive as they go, and on the other the 2D games flit into view and challenge us to the two-button ruthlessness of a time long gone. Both Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros. received sequels that furthered their own separate mission statements, and both directions appear to be here to stay.
Here at Nintendo Life we couldn't be happier. More Mario is clearly a good thing for his fans, but before this generation, it was always one or the other. Once Mario dipped a toe into the third dimension, the thought of another flat, 2D sidescroller was only a fantasy. Now we have two distinct futures for the core Super Mario games that we can't wait to see him fulfill, and that wouldn't be the case if the games mentioned above were not of such unquestionable quality. Both New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy were critical and commercial smashes, and their sequels tended to rate, impressively, even better. The amount of love, care and attention Nintendo is pouring into this franchise shows us that it's not content to rest on its laurels: it wants to continue challenging gamers — and itself — to do better and better, and the 3DS masterpiece Super Mario 3D Land is just further proof of that.
We can look backwards, of course. We can pick out our favourite Mario title and hold it up and say that no matter what comes next, this one will always be our top choice. That's one of the great things about growing up and experiencing new things; it gives you such greater appreciation for the things that made you so happy long ago.
But it's important not to lose sight of what we have today, when fans of both styles of Super Mario games are being so well served with some of the best titles the franchise — and video gaming in general — has ever seen. After all, we just may all be in the middle of a Super Mario Renaissance.