Super Mario 3D World: Mario’s two arch nemeses

Tom: So, okay World Six, not bad. You even took a few bits that I thought would be terrible — such as the constantly dropping level where you have to keep jumping up to survive, and the boss monster that keeps splitting into a thousand tiny pieces that swarm me — and turned them into something I liked by the time it was over. I was sitting there playing thinking “ugh, this is going to be awful” and then it was over and I thought “oh, that was pretty cool”.

But it’s time to talk about the elephants in the room. It’s time to talk about a couple of enemies that have a serious impact on this game. It’s time to talk about two of Mario’s arch nemeses.

After the jump, Bowser’s got nothing on these guys.

Tom: As much as I’m enjoying this game, I have to say that I don’t find it gratifying to master butt stomp targeting, hop physics, and Peach floating. This isn’t really a game where the mechanics are doing much for me. Instead, the main gratification comes from discovering the level design tricks, almost all of which exist in the context of Nintendo traditions. Bullet Bill, evil turtles, coins, 1-ups, and those brown guys that look like piles of poo are all nods to a few decades of videogames that I no longer care about. The switching platforms, the tubes, the trapezes, the bombs, the swimming bits are all matters of mechanics. They’re well done, to be sure, but they do nothing to create a sense of place, to world-build, to generate any style, to bring to life any aesthetic beyond the pleasantly candy coloring.

So no matter how clever the mechanics, as an overall game, Super Mario 3D World can’t hold a candle to the astonishing beauty and poignant meta-narrative of Media Molecule’s Tearaway, or the speed of Rayman Legends and the ebullience of its liberated teensies. My biggest problem with Super Mario 3D World is that, on the whole, I’d rather be in one of those other platformers that I’ve been playing lately. These are Nintendo’s competition, and Super Mario 3D World pales in comparison.

One of the things I appreciate in Rayman: Legends is that each level is a self-contained bundle of gameplay, entirely free of lives or retries or any mushroom in my pocket. Every time I start, it’s the same as every other time I started. Everyone starts the same as everyone else. Everyone is hunting for the same teensies, with the same reservoir of lums, on the same footing, able to jump the same distance and hurtle at the same speed. It’s pure and consistent. Every level is a self-contained island of level design with consistent rules for all. No pity power-up will appear if I can’t get to the end. I won’t be able to grind my way through with an abundance of lives.

I also like the pacing in the Rayman Legend levels. The excellently paced Super Mario 3D World consists of bite-sized chunks, but it rarely consists of speed, which has its own style and energy, reminiscent of Sonic at his best, another series that used to upstage the relatively staid Mario platformers. Furthermore, there’s something uniquely French and funky and possibly even adult in the Rayman design, weird in a way that the always and only family-friendly Mario wishes it was weird. Rayman is The Muppets to Mario’s blandly family Sesame Street.

As for Tearaway, it’s not entirely fair to compare it to Super Mario 3D World. Developer Media Molecule is reaching for something entirely more. They’re offering a different style of experience, with a different subtext, and a different ultimate point. They don’t even seem to care that much about mechanics (Tearaway can’t be bothered to fuss too much with gameplay). If Rayman is The Muppets and Mario is Sesame Street, Tearaway is Wes Anderson.

But since these are all platformers, they all jostle for the same corner of my gaming time. They’re different approaches, but they’re the same genre. And whereas Mario has to resort to its traditional gameplay, Tearaway can invent itself on the basis of unique Vita gimmicks. You, called You in the game, poke into the game world with your fingers, with your face, with your own colorful construction paper creations. How can a mere Mario game hope to compete with something that bravely punches through the fourth wall, that traditionally tissue-paper divide so often ignored when it should be acknowledged in a medium as interactive as videogames?

So, okay World Six, well done. But a Mario game can only go so far. To get further, it takes a Rayman or a Tearaway.

Scott: I’ve only played a few levels of Rayman Legends — where I had to tilt, poke, and swipe at the Wii U gamepad, gameplay indeed! — and maybe three or four hours of Tearaway, so I’m a little under gunned here Tom. But I do know my Mario and my Wes Anderson so picking up on your comparison — if Rayman is The Muppets and Mario is Sesame Street, Tearaway is Wes Anderson — comparing Wes Anderson to Sesame Street may not be setting the most level playing field. Who wouldn’t rather be watching Moonrise Kingdom or even Fantastic Mr. Fox than an old rerun of Sesame Street? But I see what you’re trying to do there.

Tearaway’s meta elements, world building, and mechanics contribute to a great game, but the fact that it’s a platformer is beside the point. The platforming parts of Tearaway, including the gimmicky 4th wall breaking use of the Vita’s touchpads, are the least interesting bits. What makes Tearaway come to life is the beautiful construction paper world, interacting with all the bizarro creature and characters, and in customizing, drawing, cutting, pasting, and photographing. That I keep seeing my ugly unshaven mug plastered all over the world and shining down from the sun is so weird and endearing you can tell those guys at Media Molecule care more about what they’re trying to say with this game, and the creativity they’re trying to foster, than they do about whatever platforming puzzles they’ve created. And that’s fantastic! I’m not speaking ill of Tearaway, but like the Wes Anderson comparison it may not fit into a conversation about a Mario game.

The inner workings of Nintendo are very hush hush but there’s always been this idea that they have a full time team constantly working on Mario levels. And it makes sense if you look at what goes on in any given Mario level. It also explains the lack of cohesive style and sense of place. It’s all well and good to grouse about Super Mario 3D World’s traditional gameplay and mechanics; as well as the green star grind, reliance on extra lives, disconnect between the themes of each world and the themes of the levels, boring boss battles, and punishing difficulty spikes, but to deny the sheer creativity, production value, and complexity of the individual levels is to cast aside what makes these games the genre defining masterpieces that they are. Level design is where all Mario games compete, and some of the most inventive levels in Super Mario 3D World are so good they could be the basis for entire games.

Super Mario 3D World doesn’t go as far as Tearaway in engendering a sense of world building besides being a Mario game in a Mario world, and that’s okay. So much of what Nintendo is doing is tapping into that deep well of past Mario mechanics, associations, and familiarity. Some of the impact is lost if you no longer care about those things, or if you feel these dynamics are played out. Overreliance on nostalgia and counting on positive associations may not be the best track to take to please non-Mario fans. But this stuff still resonates for quite a few of us; and when Super Mario 3D World is at its best it’s like having a conversation with your younger self. It feels good to come back to this world and to be rewarded with continued creativity and love. It takes a lot of balls to keep going back to that well, to a world and style and aesthetic wholly your own, and to keep executing at a high level. So, with that in mind, maybe Tom’s comparison is apt. Nintendo does have a lot in common with Wes Anderson.

And doesn’t it say something that Super Mario 3D World nearly cracked even the most diehard of Mario haters like you, Tom?

Tom: Well, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of that little doofus for worlds now. But I am enjoying my time with Super Princess Peach 3D World. And even though I’m not into it as much as Rayman or Tearaway, it’s certainly been a pleasant surprise. I’ve only done about half as much harumphing as I expected.

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