Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Linearity in 3D Mario Isn't a Bad Thing

I've written before about linearity in gaming and how it isn't necessarily the bad thing that many believe it to be. The gist of that article was that when done right, both linear and nonlinear games can be fun and good games. Rather than one style being "good" and the other "bad", they're more like different subgenres which can be more or less fun based on one's own personal preference. I also wrote that I believe that much of the hate directed toward so-called linear games occurs when said games break the expectations of fans and diverge from the style of previous games in the series.

The situation with 3D Mario games is much the same way. Super Mario 64 brought Mario into the 3D world in the form of an adventure-platforming game. The platforming from Mario's 2D days carried over, but now there was also an emphasis on exploring large, open levels in search of stars. In many cases, each level's multiple stars could be found in any order and through a variety of paths by utilizing Mario's new repertoire acrobatic moves. In some cases, the star would only be available when it was selected upon entering the level, causing minor changes in the stage. 

Out of all the 3D Mario games, Super Mario 64 placed the biggest focus on adventure and exploration. Since then, each game in the series has shifted the focus little by little, back towards Mario's roots of linear platforming. Super Mario Sunshine retained Super Mario 64's wide open levels, but had more objectives that required level altering changes, which resulted in most cases in a set order within each level. It also expanded upon Super Mario 64's pre-level hints by showing a short video of the goal's location, thus reducing the amount of exploration required. The Super Mario Galaxy games took Mario even further in the direction of linearity by mostly having levels that were less open and explorable, but which had clear objectives and focused platforming. Finally, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World are the culmination of these trends, retaining no semblance of the adventure genre and focusing entirely on 3D platforming.
Not bad, just different.
But this isn't a bad thing. Yes, it differs from what fans of Super Mario 64 expect from a 3D Mario game and leaves a void of first party adventure games, but that doesn't mean that the new style of 3D Mario is "bad". In fact, this more linear 3D interpretation of Mario's 2D roots brings with it some advantages over the adventure focused games in the series. The truth is that both kinds of 3D Mario games have their pros, cons, and differences that are neither good nor bad except within one's personal preferences.

One advantage of linear level design is that the objective is clear, though this is also a matter of personal preference. What is described as "exploring" by some players could be described as "wandering around" by others. With linear levels, you know exactly where you're going and can focus on platforming at a faster pace. Also, with less possible routes, the challenge and experience in each level can be better tailored to the designer's wishes, since they know exactly where the player will be at any given point. Since most levels have only one or two objectives, there can also be a wider variety and greater number of levels. That also means that you won't spend as much time retracing your steps by exploring each level multiple times like you would in more nonlinear Mario games. Of course, linear level design also means that you won't be able to be as creative with how you get to the goal.
Super Mario 64's nonlinear design meant going through the same areas
multiple times; even more so if you didn't know where you were going.
On the other hand, multiple routes were possible.
My aim in writing this is for you, the reader, to understand that while each style of 3D Mario has its minor advantages and disadvantages, the differences are, for the most part, neither good nor bad, but simply different. It's understandable why fans of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine would be upset by the change in formula, but "3D Mario" is not a unified series. Super Mario 64 is different from Super Mario Sunshine which is different from the Galaxy games which are different from the Super Mario 3D games, and none hold any obligation to follow the patterns set by the others. It's fine to prefer one kind of 3D Mario over another - it would be strange if you didn't - but know that personal preference does not determine a game's overall quality.

I'd also like to note, now that Mario has returned to his platforming roots and Rare isn't developing N64 games any more, it sure would be nice if another franchise picked up the adventure-genre slack. Make it happen, Nintendo!

3 comments:

  1. To be honest, while I see the fuss about 3d world not being another Galaxy, I am kinda sad that the whole internet mentality of only seeing things as black or white may trash down some of the good aspects this game has to offer. Heck, for me, the fact that it´s a 3d Mario game with 4 player co-op and that it has playable Peach instead of that yellow Toad clone guy is enough to sell it for me.

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  2. Yeah I agree both kinds have their pros and cons..

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  3. Maybe there isn't nothing necessarily "wrong" with linear platform games, us open-world Mario fans have been sitting and waiting for a new open-world Mario game for 12 years. Meanwhile, Mario's becoming an almost yearly release (Within the last 8 years, there have been 8 different main series games) and every single one of them was linear.

    I'd like Nintendo to acknowledge me for once is all.

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