Editorial: A Plumb Comparison

Mario Odyssey was the right game at the right time for Nintendo as a business. After Breath of the Wild proved that Zelda was able to do some things differently and thus bring back attention and sales to the series, all eyes were on Mario to do the same. In that way, Odyssey was a major success. Odyssey has a welcoming structure that moves away from the many worlds with fewer missions of Mario Galaxy 2 and leans back toward the larger worlds and more numerous objectives of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. This focus made it easier for both new fans and wary old ones to jump into Odyssey’s colourful universe. But while it was the correct direction for reputation and sales and while Mario Odyssey is – like all Mario games – at very worst well designed and tight to control, it is ultimately an artistic and mechanical step back from the single player series’ high point: Super Mario Galaxy 2.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is something of an anomaly. It was not only released during the same console lifecycle as its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy, but it is a rare direct sequel in the long-running series. In that way it shares some unexpected similarities with another high point in another series, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Both serve to prove that perhaps Nintendo’s method of constantly needing to find new hooks and angles on their properties is not as desperate as they believe. But while Majora’s Mask acts as a profound counterpoint to the Zelda formula with Ocarina of Time as its subject, Mario Galaxy 2 is distilled near-perfection of the 3D Mario formula.

It seems Ethos liked Mario Galaxy 2.

Mario… in spaaaaceeeee! (add sci-fi voice.)

Super Mario 64 was a turning point for many gamers. It seemed unbelievable to be able to explore a world of such magnitude that would also reward players with a naturally evolving mastery of control over the world’s red-capped explorer, Mario. Stuffed with secrets and a mysterious air, Super Mario 64 usurped a sense of adventure normally left to other games in other franchises. But mood aside, the gameplay in Super Mario 64 involves conquering environments by way of following power stars placed by the designers in order to get players to test their mastery of Mario and mental mapping of each area.

Super Mario Sunshine was a well-intentioned and confused attempt at expanding this gameplay philosophy. Nintendo gave Mario an expanded moveset by means of a talking watergun jetpack, and added more area and methods of collecting power stars, or shines, or whatever. But while the game has plenty of highlights, it ultimately feels like a less focused, more tiresome, and more clinical version of Super Mario 64.

Super Mario Galaxy attempts to peel some of this fluff away and is largely successful. It is a strong, focused game, but it still had too much pointless exploring of worlds that Mario-style gameplay was only ever incidentally connected to in Super Mario 64.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 finally sheds the veneer and makes Mario gameplay into a simple and elegant conversation between environment and mastery. Worlds are abundant and different challenges on the same world either take Mario down a different path or shed a new challenging angle on an old task. Mario gameplay is exposed and can be directly communicated with, revealing the artistry of interaction in the micro scale in the tradition of 2D Mario, 2D Zelda, or (so I hear) the best Mega Man games. Skilled Mario players might need to sink some time in before the challenge comes to the surface, but that is something that skilled Mario players will run into from 64 to Odyssey anyway and while challenge can enhance an experience, a lack of it does not dissuade appreciation of form.

He may be alone in that regard...

Mario appreciates Ethos’ long-winded self-indulgence

Super Mario Odyssey takes what is interesting about the contrapuntal expanding inventiveness of Galaxy 2 and waters it down to make it accessible. Exploration makes a return when it is not only no longer necessary to enhance Mario gameplay but – as Sunshine proved – only dilutes it. Odyssey masks this facts better than Sunshine did, and there is something innately satisfying to collecting power moons in Odyssey, but it is still an often meaningless task. Collecting all the stars in Galaxy 2 is a slow ramp up to an intimate knowledge of its form. Collecting all the moons in Odyssey eventually becomes a very dull list of sidequests.

3D Mario games are not meant for operatic gameplay strokes like a true adventure exploration game or else they would lose their identity, but adopting some inviting and aesthetically satisfying elements of the genre make good business sense and it appears to have been the right call for Nintendo as a company. Plus, the company’s best games are built on the backs of others and there is no way to avoid growing pains. Perhaps Odyssey was necessary, but it was not a peak.

2 comments on “Editorial: A Plumb Comparison”

  1. Oh no! Not another Mario Galaxy 2 fanpost! It’s like you never left!

    “Mario gameplay is exposed and can be directly communicated with, revealing the artistry of interaction in the micro scale in the tradition of 2D Mario, 2D Zelda, or (so I hear) the best Mega Man games.”

    This warrants explanation. In what way is the gameplay “exposed”? More importantly, the implication here is that direct communication with gameplay is something lacking in the other Mario games you mention, Odyssey inclusive. Unless we’re operating under totally different understandings of the words “direct,” “communication,” and “gameplay,” I don’t see how you can possibly substantiate this in any way meaningful enough to support the grand conclusion at which you are driving. It’s not as though Galaxy 2 reads my mind and allows me unmediated access to the gameplay in a way that the mere controller-bound alternatives do not.

    “Skilled Mario players might need to sink some time in before the challenge comes to the surface, but that is something that skilled Mario players will run into from 64 to Odyssey anyway”

    The games included in that range all have widely varying difficulty curves. You are eliding that fact in deliberate support of an untrue implication: that because they all have increasing difficulty curves, they are consequently curved in a way so similar that their effects will be the same on experienced players. You know that this is patently false: consistent presence of a curve is not the same thing as consistent nature of a curve. Mario 64 starts out more difficult than the others, by comparison, and becomes more difficult more quickly: it will, therefore, justly be more satisfying for the experienced player who primarily values challenge than Galaxy 2 (or Odyssey, etc.).

    “Super Mario Odyssey takes what is interesting about the contrapuntal expanding inventiveness of Galaxy 2 and waters it down to make it accessible.

    Contrapuntal expanding inventiveness? Moreover, a contrapuntal expanding inventiveness that has been watered down in order to facilitate accessibility? I understand that probably felt great to type, but it doesn’t mean anything in the scope of this discussion, which is about inter-medium mechanics that exist in a form well beyond a discussion of counterpoint or even contrasting themes (let alone somehow watering such a thing down for the purpose of “accessibility”).

    “Exploration makes a return when it is not only no longer necessary to enhance Mario gameplay but – as Sunshine proved – only dilutes it.”

    If you don’t get your theory, your theory gets you. The quote above is exposing some of your unstated assumptions which, I suspect, warrant examination. Certainly it would help me to know the conditions under which you believe exploration enhances gameplay, and when it does not; and how it can be ‘diluted’ (dilute exploration/10% by volume?).

    “there is something innately satisfying to collecting power moons in Odyssey, but it is still an often meaningless task. Collecting all the stars in Galaxy 2 is a slow ramp up to an intimate knowledge of its form. Collecting all the moons in Odyssey eventually becomes a very dull list of sidequests.”

    You seem to be suggesting here that Galaxy 2 is constantly increasing in terms of difficulty whilst Odyssey is not. I don’t think either of those things is the case: some of the moons in Odyssey are fiendishly complex, others not; some of the stars in Galaxy 2 are fiendishly complex; others not. The sense that Galaxy 2 starts easier and gets harder, whereas Odyssey remains at a static fairly unchallenging, even rote, difficulty level, is not, I think, a true contention. Given Odyssey’s surplus of moons (there are a lot more of them than stars in Galaxy 2), and its general lack of difficulty-based organisation (they aren’t numbered in any way related to difficulty) I understand how it might seem that way. But that is mostly a matter of organisation and, in fact, a closer inspection of Galaxy 2 will probably show that its stars-per-stage are not on a linear track upwards, either.

    “but adopting some inviting and aesthetically satisfying elements of the genre make good business sense and it appears to have been the right call for Nintendo as a company.”

    Obviously. It has made and continues to make buckets of money, even if you and I both think it is structurally weak (for different reasons).

    “Perhaps Odyssey was necessary, but it was not a peak.”

    Necessary from a business standpoint? Absolutely. That it’s not a peak is probably indisputable from a variety of angles, save aesthetically or technically, where there is grounds to contest it. More important to this editorial, however, is your focus on gameplay differences and development choices, which I believe would have made for a more interesting discussion, especially in your conclusion. I, for one, would like to see a deconstruction of your evaluative criteria, or at the very least a positivistic defining of your operative terms.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking column!

  2. There’s a lot of game titles in this post. That’s an awful lot italics tags that needed to be placed in post. Thanks, Ethos!
    Thanks to Nintendo adding game sharing to the Switch, I now have access to Odyssey. It joins three other games that I *could* play, but haven’t.
    The last 3D Mario game I played was Sunshine, but as it was my brother’s I didn’t get to play it much. I preferred Mario 64 anyway.

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