Luigi’s Mansion Review

Nintendo was in an interesting place in 2001. Though the Nintendo 64 helped revolutionize gaming (namely due to Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time), its sales numbers paled in comparison to the Sony Playstation. And with the Playstation 2 releasing in 2000, it’s safe to say that the GameCube was in a hurry to get out the door as soon as possible. As such, this meant that the GameCube’s signature Mario game, Super Mario Sunshine, would miss the console’s launch, marking the first time Mario wasn’t present to cut the ribbon on the dawning of a new Nintendo console.

To fill that void, however, Nintendo had a separate game set within the Mario universe to make the GameCube’s launch. But it ended up being quite different from any other game set in the world of the Mushroom Kingdom. The game in question was Luigi’s Mansion, a kind of spoof on the survival-horror genre that marked the first official game in which Luigi received the starring role (wiseacres are quick to point out the existence of Mario is Missing from years earlier, but that title was an edutainment game that wasn’t developed by Nintendo, so it doesn’t count). Although Luigi’s Mansion never boasted the depth of Mario’s adventures, Luigi’s first proper solo outing nonetheless provided enough unique ideas and personality that it retains a charm of its own.

The initial concept for what would later become Luigi’s Mansion at first starred the more famous Mario brother, with the idea being to place Mario in a singular indoor setting. Originally conceived as a Japanese-style castle, the setting eventually became an American-style haunted house. With the change in setting, Nintendo decided to promote Luigi to be the star of the game for one very simple reason: Mario was known for being brave and adventurous, but now was the time to showcase Luigi’s personality, whose constance presence in his brother’s shadow made him easy fodder for a ‘reluctant hero’ character.

Though audiences saw glimpses of distinct personalities between the Mario Bros. through their television series and books, there was never any official, concrete characterizations between Mario and Luigi by Nintendo themselves in the formative years for the video game series. If Mario was the brave hero who would leap into action at the first chance, then it just made sense that Luigi would be the series’ ‘Cowardly Lion,’ as he shares a similar heroic spirit as his brother, but it’s buried far, far deeper. So it was a natural fit to have Luigi be the one to traverse a haunted mansion, facing his many fears as he tries to rescue Mario.

Luigi’s Mansion might be the first Nintendo game to be centered around one of their character’s personalities, and it remains one of their most successful attempts (the less said of Metroid: Other M, the better). Nintendo’s critics often deride the developer for a supposed “lack of character,” but that’s a gross misconception. While it’s true Nintendo rarely prioritizes actual storytelling and their characters tend to not have complex backstories (probably for the better. I again refer you to Other M), many of their characters are bursting with personality in a similar vein to classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Popeye the Sailor Man. Luigi’s Mansion is a fine example of this. Between Luigi’s constantly chattering teeth (which kind of makes him look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit), shaky knees, and nervous humming of the game’s catchy theme tune, Luigi’s Mansion showcases its lead character’s personality – while simple and exaggerated – to be thoroughly entertaining.

It simply wouldn’t have been as good if it were Mario braving the haunted halls of its mansion. The game and its lead character both benefit one another in such a way that you wish more of the story-focused games of today would attempt to replicate that connection, as to avoid the common pitfall of gameplay conflicting with narratives and character motivation.

Even with Luigi’s personality leading the charge, gameplay is still at the forefront of Nintendo’s designs. And although it shows its age in certain areas, for the most part, Luigi’s Mansion remains a uniquely fun and charming game even today.

As mentioned, the game is all about Luigi trying to save Mario, who has gone missing in the new mansion Luigi supposedly won in a contest he never even entered (red flag there, Luigi). The mansion is, of course, littered with ghosts. Luckily for Luigi, Professor E. Gadd – a lifetime researcher of ghosts – has been studying the mansion, and gives Luigi his ghost-catching vacuum, the Poltergust 3000.

Yes, the gameplay is more reminiscent of the 1984 Ghostbusters film than it is any of its Mario series predecessors (Luigi can’t even jump in the game). Equipped with only the Poltergust and a flashlight, Luigi traverses the mansion fighting ghosts. The flashlight will stun ghosts, exposing their heart, which allows Luigi to suck them up into the Poltergust.

One of the most fun things about Luigi’s Mansion is the act of catching ghosts itself. The player of course moves Luigi with the standard joystick. But Luigi aims the Poltergust and flashlight with the GameCube controller’s ‘C-stick.’ If a ghost caught in the Poltergust’s whirlwind changes direction, the player will have to accommodate and pull the direction opposite to that which the ghost is heading, occasionally cutting some slack so Luigi can avoid a potential hazard in his way as the ghost pulls him along the ground. Essentially, it’s like an elaborate fishing game used as a combat mechanic.

It’s simple fun with the standard enemies, but the real treat comes in the form of the “Portrait Ghosts;” unique mini-boss-like specters whom the mansion’s many chambers are built around. Each Portrait Ghost has different tells and weaknesses, and can provide real tests of endurance for the player.

The Portrait Ghosts are memorable not just for how each one provides their own little puzzle for the player to solve, but also in their personalities and design. Most of the Portrait Ghosts are more humanoid than what we usually see in the Mario universe (keep in mind this was sixteen years before Odyssey brought realistic-looking humans into the fold), and although it would be difficult to call the game truly scary, the Portrait Ghosts’ appearances do make the game feel appropriately spooky and (relatively) darker than the usual Mario title. The mansion itself could be considered a character in its own right, given its strong sense of place.

It may not match the combination of cartoony characters with a dark and dreary atmosphere of Donkey Kong Country 2, but Luigi’s Mansion is probably the only other game I can think of that warrants a comparison in that regard. Luigi’s Mansion’s eventual 3DS sequel, though arguably an improvement in certain respects, lacks the original’s sense of atmosphere and character.

Luigi’s Mansion could be described as a “Diet Metroidvania,” with Luigi gaining access to more chambers of the mansion as he continues to capture Portrait Ghosts. Though perhaps one of the game’s drawbacks is that it could have taken an extra page from the Metroidvania sub-genre and had Luigi (or the Poltergust, as it were) gain new abilities to access more of the mansion, instead of it merely being a case of defeating sub-bosses for keys. The Poltergust does gain the ability to emit fire, water and ice, but they unfortunately never get utilized in any substantial way.

Another fun aspect of Luigi’s Mansion is finding the many treasures hidden throughout the titular abode. While Mario is always grabbing coins, here, Luigi is on a quest for coins, pearls, dollar bills, gemstones and diamonds. Though gaining these riches does little more than effect your score at the end of the game, it still proves to be a fun diversion to see how much treasure you can collect.

The biggest complaint most people seem to have with Luigi’s Mansion is its short length. If you know what you’re doing, the game can be completed in about the time it takes to watch a movie. Luigi’s Mansion could have done with just a couple more hours of gameplay, as some of its ideas don’t meet their full potential with the little time they’re allowed to have. On the plus side, I suppose the game’s brief time makes it one of the few titles in the medium that can be seen as a holiday tradition with annual playthroughs (Halloween in this instance, obviously).

Luigi’s Mansion was one of the earlier Nintendo titles to feature a New Game Plus mode after completing the campaign. Unfortunately in both its Japanese and US release, the differences between the main game and New Game Plus are little more than some stronger enemies and a weaker Luigi. The PAL version of the game (released well after the other versions) rectified this somewhat by making the post-game version of the mansion mirrored and changing the locations of certain treasures, but even that only goes so far. So unless you missed out on some treasures, or just really want to beat your high score, there’s not a whole lot of reason to play through the “Hidden Mansion” mode.

The short running time of the campaign is unfortunate, but it’s not the game’s biggest issue. Though the GameCube has aged better than the Nintendo 64 on the whole, it’s earlier titles still suffer a bit from the same kind of technical hiccups that plagued its 64-bit predecessor. And Luigi’s Mansion is no exception.

Some of the controls feel a little clunky, particularly in regards to handling the flashlight in conjunction with everything else. The flashlight is turned on by default, and pressing the B button turns it off. You turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust with the C-stick, and you suck up ghosts with a press of the R button. And while the flashlight stuns the ghosts, you have to stun them at the opportune time, or else they’ll disappear. It can feel a bit awkward to turn Luigi around and aim the Poltergust while holding the B button to keep the light off and then release it to turn the light on when the time is right, especially in rooms with multiple ghosts.

Along with the standard enemies and the Portrait Ghosts, the Mario series’ classic ‘Boo’ enemies show up as the primary baddies. While seeing these secondary foes get a promotion in the same vein as Luigi is nice, there are some issues with the Boos’ presence in Luigi’s Mansion. The game features fifty Boos hidden throughout the mansion. But unlike the other ghosts in the game, Boos ignore the aforementioned “fishing” aspects of the catching process, with Luigi simply focusing the vortex of the Poltergust on Boos to drain their hit points.

That may not sound too bad, and at first it isn’t when the Boos have less hit points. But once you you realize Boos can travel from room to room, and they start getting more hit points, thus giving them more opportunities to do so, it gets a bit tedious chasing a Boo from one room to another, and downright frustrating when they exit a room to go into the hallway and back again repeatedly. It’s also a bit disappointing that, despite the game claiming there are 50 Boos in the mansion to be captured, there are technically only 35, since 15 of them are automatically captured as part of a single boss fight.

Another note Luigi’s Mansion should have taken from Metroidvanias is the implementation of fast-traveling. The game can only be saved by talking to Toads (who are perhaps a bit too far spread out from one another), or after catching a Boo. While the Toads save your game, they don’t act as checkpoints. Every time you reload your game, or defeat a boss, or die, you start back at the foyer of the mansion. Although you can return to the foyer by scanning mirrors, there’s no means to fast-travel anywhere else in the mansion. As you might imagine, backtracking to different sections of the mansion can quickly feel arduous.

Though these aspect do show that the game has aged a bit, the core gameplay, along with its undeniable sense of character, have helped Luigi’s Mansion remain a fun and delightful experience nearly two decades later. It is perhaps the perfect launch game the GameCube could have hoped for (if maybe not the one it sorely needed), as Luigi’s Mansion echoes the console itself in many ways. The GameCube may not have been the success story Nintendo was hoping for in the Playstation dominated market of the time, nor is it one of Nintendo’s more iconic or innovative consoles. But it has a unique appeal of its own, a small-scale charm that’s aberrant  among Nintendo systems.

Just the same, Luigi’s Mansion – though far, far away from being one of the best games set in the Super Mario universe – remains a unique and appealing offshoot of Nintendo’s flagship franchise. We may not have realized it in 2001, but in hindsight, Luigi’s Mansion seems to have encompassed the GameCube’s place in Nintendo’s history right out of the gate.

 

7

Advertisements

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review

Before Mario entered the Mushroom Kingdom, met Princess Peach and found an archnemesis in Bowser, there was Donkey Kong. Before Luigi was introduced to the world, before Mario was even named Mario, there was Donkey Kong. Mario and Donkey Kong were gaming’s first legendary rivalry, the dynamic in which all of Nintendo was built on.

But it was not to last. Though they were enemies in the early 80s, as Mario joined up with his brother and began having adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, Donkey Kong was phased out. It wasn’t until 1994 that Donkey Kong saw a complete reinvention, turning a new leaf and becoming the hero of his own adventures starting with Donkey Kong Country (of course, this is actually a different Donkey Kong, so I guess the name is like a title that gets passed down or something). However, earlier in that very same year, the Nintendo Gameboy saw a supposed re-release of the original 1981 Donkey Kong arcade game. But after besting the original four levels from the arcade classic, this version of Donkey Kong (unofficially dubbed “Donkey Kong Gameboy” or “Donkey Kong ’94” by fans) unraveled into a brand new adventure, with nearly a hundred new levels all modeled after the single screen platforming of the classic game, with additional puzzle elements added into the mix.

With Donkey Kong Country becoming a big hit, that served as the foundation of the Donkey Kong series from that point onward (something I very much appreciate, being a DKC fan myself). The downside to this was that Mario and DK’s rivalry was once again put on hold. That is until 2004, when Nintendo released Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on the Gameboy Advance, which was created as a kind of spiritual successor to the original Gameboy’s cult classic.

Mario Vs. Donkey adopts much of the same style as the 1994 Gameboy title, with stages that are comprised of two, single-screen segments (some of the later stages are only slightly larger). Each of these screens serves as a platforming puzzle. In the first screen of a level, Mario must find a key and take it to the door to the second screen, in which the goal is to grab a “Mini-Mario Toy” that’s incased in a glass bubble. And for completionists, each stage also houses three presents (one or two on a screen) that will require extra thinking and acrobatics to collect.

The first six stages of every world work this way, with the seventh stage of a world seeing Mario guide the six collected Mini-Mario Toys to their toy box – which will only open if the Mini-Marios collect the T-O-Y letters scattered about – avoiding dangerous obstacles along the way. The eighth and final stage of each world is a boss fight against Donkey Kong. For most of the stages, a single hit from an enemy or obstacle will do Mario in. During the boss stages, however, Mario’s hit points will be determined by the number of Mini-Mario Toys the player managed to guide to the toy box on the previous stage (for an obvious maximum of six hit points).

It’s a really simple setup, but it works thanks to some fun puzzle design and Mario’s acrobatics. Not only does Mario partake in his usual jumping here, but he can also do handstands, backflips and swing on bars like a gymnast. The levels feature puzzles built around mechanics like red/yellow/blue switches that coincide with similarly colored platforms, timed electrical barriers, and other such trinkets and traps that will test the player’s reflexes and skill.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong is a fun game, but it has admittedly aged a bit. The structure of the game eventually becomes repetitious, and you may find yourself wishing the game would deviate from itself after a while (does every world need the same amount of levels here?). Additionally, the aforementioned Mini-Mario stages can become a bit tedious, and even some of the worlds can overstay their welcome when they lean too heavily on a specific gameplay gimmick (the best Mario games are acclaimed for never letting any idea linger longer than they need. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong didn’t get the memo, I suppose).

I just think there needed to be more variety within the stages and puzzles. When you think of how massively the 1994 Gameboy Donkey Kong expanded the original arcade game, it feels a tad underwhelming that the Gameboy Advance successor released a decade later doesn’t really feel like it adds to the formula all that much. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still provides a fun time in the same vein as the arcade original and the Gameboy remake, but you know the GBA could’ve done more with the gameplay.

The aesthetics might also be a mixed bag for some. Mario Vs. Donkey Kong utilizes pre-rendered character sprites (a nod to DKC’s influence to the Donkey Kong series), which admittedly look unique for the system, and Mario’s animations are surprisingly fluid. The music and sound, on the other hand, might quickly wear on you. The music isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable (which seems like a sin for a Mario game, doesn’t it?), and the sound effects are mostly recycled sound clips from previous games (Super Mario 64 for Mario, Donkey Kong 64 for DK, and Super Mario Sunshine for Toads). And while the Mini-Marios’ cry for “Mario” may be cute the first time one of them gets lost, it may start to get on your nerves when you start constantly hearing it as they stop following Mario due to the tiniest obstruction in their path.

Mario Vs. Donkey Kong remains a fun game in its own right, but one that you can’t help but feel could have been better. It lacks the variety and challenge that could have made it more engrossing (though again, completionists will have a bit of a challenge trying to claim high scores and unlock the secret ‘Expert’ stages). And sadly, this is the current end-of-the-line for Mario and DK’s age-old rivalry. Sure, Mario Vs. Donkey Kong spawned its own sub-series (some of which included level editors, a feature that was originally planned for this title and really would have benefitted the finish product), but each sequel put more focus on the Mini-Marios and gameplay associated with them, and less on its titular rivalry (one entry even replaced the “Vs.” in the title with “and,” which really hit home the change to the series). So as far as the gameplay produced by the original Donkey Kong goes, it has now been on its longest hiatus (if you can believe it), with the original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong still being its most recent offering.

That’s a real shame. Even though Mario Vs. Donkey Kong has unraveled a bit with age, it still shows that the formula originally conceived in 1981 still has something to give.

 

6

Something About Mario RPGs

Earlier this year, I picked up the 3DS remake of Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. But before I play through it, I remembered I (strangely) never beat the 2017 3DS remake of Superstar Saga. So I recently started a new file on that game (and have since beat it, and will review it once I play more of the remake’s exclusive “Minion Quest” mode). Not only did returning to Superstar Saga end up being an utter joy, but it also really, really made me miss what the Mario RPGs used to be.

It’s been ten years since the original release of Bowser’s Inside Story on the DS, and not counting the aforementioned 3DS remakes, that was the last time the Mario RPGs were truly great (I did enjoy Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle a great deal, but seeing as that was both a crossover and a strategy RPG, I guess it’s not quite what I’m talking about). And I really, really miss the days when the Mario RPGs were among the best things Nintendo had going for them.

Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars remains my favorite RPG of all time, and arguably my favorite game period. It perfectly combined the accessibility and fun of Mario with the depth and turn-based gameplay of RPGs, without sacrificing the quality of either of its halves. Although it tragically never received a proper sequel, the Square developed title did receive two spiritual successors created by Nintendo’s own internal studios.

Paper Mario simplified the formula a bit, but still made for a hefty adventure that boasted a unique art style, and saw Mario team up with party members based on the series’ iconic enemies. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was more focused on fast-paced action, and featured genuinely hilarious writing. Both of these Super Mario RPG spiritual successors would wind up becoming their own sub-series.

Paper Mario was followed-up by the critically-acclaimed Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the GameCube, while two Mario & Luigi sequels were released on the Nintendo DS: 2005’s Partners in Time, and 2009’s Bowser’s Inside Story. Of the lot, Partners in Time is the only one that fell short of the rest, though even it was still a good game in its own right (though I’m not complaining that the 3DS remakes went directly for the best M&L entries).

While it’s usually the Mario platformers and The Legend of Zelda that are held in the highest regard in Nintendo’s canon, the Mario RPGs were, more quietly, delivering experiences that were often just as good. And with their Nintendo mentality of “fun at all costs,” the Mario RPGs provided some of the most timeless games in the genre (Final Fantasy hasn’t aged so gracefully).

But then, in a creative move that truly defies all logic and reason, Nintendo decided to begin stripping away many of the elements that made the Mario RPGs so memorable. The third Paper Mario title, 2007’s Super Paper Mario, was still a fun game, but it removed the series’ turn-based structure in favor of a platformer that featured RPG elements. Not a bad idea in itself, and Super Paper Mario still retained an RPG-like story, but considering the main Mario series are platformers, did Nintendo really have to sacrifice Paper Mario to test out this idea?

Hey, at least Super Paper Mario was still a good game. And it was followed up by the aforementioned Bowser’s Inside Story. Little did we know that Bowser’s Inside Story would be a one-time return to form. A “last hoorah” if you will. Because after that we got the 3DS’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the first Mario RPG that could be considered a flat-out bad game.

Not that you could truly call Sticker Star an RPG. Sure, turn-based battles were back, but they were dictated entirely by consumable ‘sticker’ items. Every action you used in battle required these consumable items. And for victory, you didn’t get experience points and level up.

For winning battles, you were rewarded with either A) more stickers, or B) coins…to buy more stickers. It was a self-defeating concept. Why should I bother fighting and spending my stickers if the only reward is more stickers? And if you think you’re supposed to save up stickers for boss fights, that’s not it either. Bosses required specific stickers to be defeated, so it’s not like conserving and strategizing the stickers you’ve saved up even meant anything.

You know what’s even worse? Sticker Star not only had virtually no story to speak of, and no party members, but it removed the humorous writing the Mario RPGs were known for (Bowser, of all characters, never even spoke). Sticker Star also marked the beginning of the bizarre trend of Nintendo not allowing the Mario RPGs to feature original enemies, with only established baddies from the platformers showing up. Perhaps strangest of all, this was also when Nintendo started making every last Toad in the Mario RPGs just look like the generic “blue vest, red spots” Toads. When the previous RPGs gave us Toads of all shapes, sizes and crazy geddups, why take that away and effectively remove so much personality from the games?

And yet, this was the direction Nintendo decided to stick with. Sure, the next RPG in the Mario pipeline, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (released on 3DS in 2013) was a step up in many ways (for one, it actually felt like an RPG again). But it also was, by a considerable margin, the most creatively bland M&L game up to that point. It did have some original enemies again, but the “Generic Toad” epidemic was still in full effect.

Then, in early 2016, the 3DS also saw the release of Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam. In concept, Paper Jam sounds like it should have been the shot in the arm the Mario RPGs needed, being a crossover between the two continuing Mario RPG series.

Sadly, the concept is the best part of the game, as Paper Jam was really just a watered down Mario & Luigi sequel that doubled down on Dream Team’s faults (Toads with zero distinction and personality, no more original enemies whatsoever). It just so happened to feature Paper Mario as a third party member. Considering how great the Mario & Luigi games once were, it was sad to see the series fall this far from grace.

To sum it up simply, Superstar Saga remains one of the funniest, most quotable games I’ve ever played, but I honestly can’t remember any bit of writing that came out of Paper Jam.

Later in 2016, we’d get the last new Mario RPG so far (again, unless we count Mario + Rabbids), Paper Mario: Color Splash on Wii U. Despite fans wanting Nintendo to return to the turn-based, actually-an-RPG style of the first two Paper Marios for years, Nintendo decided to go all WWE and turn a def ear on fans. They actually made the game a follow-up to Sticker Star’s gameplay.

Yeah, no kidding. I miss unique Toads.

To its credit, at least Color Splash had some humor and personality to it (though the Toads remain generic, and new enemies still weren’t allowed), and some of the gameplay could be fun. But there still weren’t any party members, and the battle system remained largely pointless (though the game’s “cards” were an improvement over their sticker predecessors, seeing as you could power up cards by painting them, and you could gradually increase your maximum paint through battles, so there was some semblance of progression). So Color Splash was essentially a version of Sticker Star that wasn’t completely broken. But that’s not exactly “on par with the Mario platformers and The Legend of Zelda” now, is it?

Again, one could argue that Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle set things in a right direction for Mario RPGs (and it’s certainly a better game than anything involving the Rabbids has any right to be), but you could also argue it should go in a whole other category. Even still, as enjoyable as Mario + Rabbids is, I still wouldn’t put it on the same level as the Mario RPGs of old.

Thankfully, the fact that the 3DS now houses Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story means we have access to brilliant Mario RPGs on contemporary hardware. But it’s kind of sad that Nintendo had to resort to past success in order to do so. Don’t get me wrong, the remakes are great, but it would be great if we could also get a brand new Mario RPG that could live up to its legacy.

Super Mario RPG, Paper Mario, Superstar Saga, Thousand-Year Door and Bowser’s Inside Story are widely (and wisely) considered the top-tier Mario RPGs. But the sad thing is it seems like Nintendo has no plans on making a Mario RPG like they used to.

What’s particularly sad about that scenario is that the Mario franchise on the whole has really never been better. The release of Super Mario Galaxy in 2007 began a Mario renaissance that continues to this day. Between it, Galaxy 2, 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Super Mario Maker and Odyssey, the Mario franchise hasn’t lost any steam. And while Bowser’s Inside Story was released within this timeframe, that was it for the RPGs.

For whatever reason, Nintendo decided to strip away the things that made Mario RPGs so memorable in the first place. And instead of listening to fans and changing course (as they have in other areas in recent years), they’ve just gone into overdrive in regards to watering down the once great sub-genre. If one were only to have played Color Splash and Paper Jam, they’d never know that Mario RPGs were, at one point, among Nintendo’s finest achievements.

Here’s hoping that the recent remakes of Superstar Saga and Bowser’s Inside Story remind Nintendo of what Mario RPGs once were, and help them figure out how they can recreate that magic.

Whether its a worthwhile Mario & Luigi, a Paper Mario that returns to its roots, doing the impossible and teaming with Square to make a direct sequel to Super Mario RPG, or something new entirely, a new Mario RPG that can live up to the legacy of its best predecessors is something Nintendo sorely needs.

Replaying: Super Mario 3D World

The Super Mario Maker 2 trailer that launched back in February not only got me hyped for the upcoming Switch title, but its addition of the Super Mario 3D World play style had me feeling nostalgic for the 2013 Wii U platformer. And seeing as I previously stated I wanted to start replaying games more and writing more gaming articles besides reviews, now seemed as good a time as any to revisit Super Mario 3D World. Besides, after trudging through the overly-long and tedious Kingdom Hearts 3, and its mishandling of franchises I like, I needed to play something more fun, rewarding, charming, and that did justice to a franchise I like. Thus, replaying Super Mario 3D World was a no-brainer (it sure would be great if they could make a Disney game this good).

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: No, Super Mario 3D World is not as good as the Super Mario Galaxy titles that preceded it, nor is it as good as Super Mario Odyssey that followed. But considering the Galaxy duo and Odyssey are among the greatest games ever created, not being as good as them pretty much refers to most games that aren’t them. On its own merits, however, Super Mario 3D World is still one of the most consistently fun and creative games of the 2010s.

Yeah, it seems like I praise Mario games a lot. But while not every Mario game is good (New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, both released a year prior to 3D World, were creatively empty and flat-out boring, respectively), I will say that Super Mario is the only series in which a game as great as 3D World could be considered one of its smaller achievements. It may not have the revolutionary factor of Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario 64, nor is it as great as the trio mentioned in the above paragraph or games like Super Mario World. And yet, it’s hard to find much fault in Super Mario 3D World other than “it’s not as good as some other Mario games.” The Legend of Zelda is probably the only other series that can boast equal quality, though maybe not quite at the same level of consistency (and maybe Dark Souls/Bloodborne, but that has far fewer entries).

“One level combines a shadow aesthetic with the gameplay quirk of carrying around a hungry Piranha Plant.”

What makes Super Mario 3D World so good? It all boils down to the two qualities that best define a good game: great gameplay, and a terrific sense of creativity. 3D World may not be the most innovative Mario game, but the gameplay and design is as polished as any of the heroic plumber’s entries, and each stage is a showcase of one playful idea after another. It’s the kind of game where the simple act of controlling your character is a joy (which is actually pretty rare, though seemingly less so with this series).

Many fans were at first disappointed with Super Mario 3D World’s initial E3 reveal, as it followed in the footsteps of the 2011 3DS title, Super Mario 3D Land. This raised fans’ eyebrows for two reasons: The first was that 3D Land was a solid game, but not a particularly standout one which, again, given the pedigree of the Mario series, is tantamount to a massive disappointment. The other reason is that, like 3D Land, 3D World seemed to be aiming more for the feel of a 2D Mario entry than a 3D one with its linear level design, with most fans protesting that the 3D Mario titles were losing their distinct identity due to the ludicrous sales of the New Super Mario Bros. side scrolling series.

While I admit I too at the time had some doubts about seeing a “proper” follow-up to 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy duo (we would eventually get just that with Odyssey), I was hardly disappointed with what 3D World promised. After all, we were ‘only’ three years removed from Galaxy 2 at the time (most “proper” 3D Marios had much longer gaps in between releases), so it didn’t really feel like the necessary time for another Mario title of that scale. Secondly, while the New Super Mario Bros. games were competently fun, they never really felt like the worthy continuations of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World that they wanted to be. 3D Land introduced the style and feeling of 2D Marios into the world of 3D Marios (linear stages with clear end goals, time limits, etc.) and felt like a step in the right direction. But again, didn’t quite hit the mark.

Super Mario 3D World, however, quickly reveals itself as the worthy successor to games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and World that we had been waiting for, despite being a 3D title. It took the foundations of 3D Land, and combined it with the sense of invention and polish that we expect from Mario’s best titles (which, again, was lacking from New Super Mario Bros. and 3D Land). The Galaxy games had refined what 64 started, so it was cool to get something that felt like a fitting continuation to the Mario games that predated 64 (now if only the Mario RPGs could get a worthy follow-up).

There are so many things that make Super Mario 3D World work so well: the level design is a constant delight, with each stage presenting something new, and always fun. The power-ups – from perennial favorites the Fire Flower and Tanooki Leaf, 3D Land’s Boomerang Suit, and 3D World’s own Double Cherry (which duplicates your character) and the surprisingly powerful and versatile Cat Suit – are all a joy, and add so much to the gameplay (the Cat Suit, in particular, has to join the ranks of Mario’s best power-ups). And you get to play as not only Mario, but Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad as well, each coming with their abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Luigi jumps highest, Peach floats, and Toad is fastest, with Mario being well-rounded). And of course you can unlock Rosalina, who comes equipped with the spin attack from Super Mario Galaxy. It’s a Mario platformer where you get to play as Rosalina! That alone makes it a winner (Rosalina is best girl).

Oh yeah, I almost forgot that Super Mario 3D World is also the only four-player entry in the 3D Mario canon. And unlike many games that add co-op multiplayer to a traditionally single-player formula, the level design of Super Mario 3D World compliments playing alone or with friends.

“The Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster.”

If there’s any downside to Super Mario 3D World, it’s that the boss fights are an utter cakewalk. Yeah yeah, people claim Mario bosses tend to be easy, but the series often finds ways to make the boss battles feel creative, which makes it easy to look past a lack of difficulty. But aside from the final fight against Bowser and two other recurring bosses (a monarch snake and a Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster), the boss fights of 3D World feel tacked on and rushed (Boom Boom should never serve as a world boss). But aside from the underwhelming boss battles, just about everything else about Super Mario 3D World is a constant barrage of fun and inspiration.

“Six years later, and the game still looks great!”

Along with gameplay and creativity, Super Mario 3D World also boasts what I consider to be the third key ingredient to a great game: a fantastic musical score. Again, the music may not quite be on Galaxy or Odyssey’s level, but 3D World still provides one of the most memorable scores in the Mario canon. Even the sound effects of the game seem to reinforce the game’s “fun at all costs” mentality.

Under my original “.5” scoring system, I awarded Super Mario 3D World a 9.0 out of 10. But now, under my current whole number system, I’ve flip-flopped between an 8 and a 9 (flip-flopping more than perhaps any other game). Unlike other games where I’ve been indecisive with its score, it’s my ‘heart’ that rates the game lower and my ‘mind’ that rates it higher. In terms of ‘heart,’ I can say I don’t feel quite as strongly for 3D World as some other games I would rate highly. After all, I gave both Red Dead Redemption 2 and 2018’s God of War a score of 8/10, as I’m trying to make that the exceptional score that most games would strive for. In that sense, 3D World makes sense with that score. But in terms of ‘mind,’ I would say that Super Mario 3D World doesn’t really have many notable faults. Aside from the boss fights and “not being as good as other Mario games,” there’s really not much to gripe about with Super Mario 3D World. As great as Red Dead 2 and God of War are – and yes, they are undeniably ‘bigger’ games than 3D World – they also have more notable flaws than Mario’s Wii U outing. Super Mario 3D World doesn’t feature an obnoxiously sidetracked trip to Guarma, for example. So I’m still undecided on which score to settle on.

As of this writing, I’ve beaten the “main game” of my current playthrough of Super Mario 3D World, and am currently playing through the post-game secret worlds. And after recently playing through lengthy games (including the aforementioned tediousness of Kingdom Hearts 3), revisiting Super Mario 3D World is exactly what I needed. Its constant sense of fun and invention, combined with its polished execution makes Super Mario 3D World an easy game to pick up and play, and a delight to revisit again and again.

Super Mario 3D World may not be the most groundbreaking Mario game, but it’s an undeniable blast from start to finish. And while my favorite Wii U game will always be Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World is just about the only Wii U game left that hasn’t either been ported to the Nintendo Switch, or have an improved sequel for Nintendo’s hybrid console (even Super Mario Maker, once believed to be the justification of the Wii U’s gamepad, is getting a Switch sequel). So along with the Virtual Console, Super Mario 3D World is basically the reason to keep your Wii U at the ready… at least until it gets ported to the Switch.

Is Super Mario 3D World worth a replay? Oh, hell yeah!

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins Review

Despite Mario and friends being the most recognizable characters in gaming, the franchise has very rarely received new mainstay additions to its character roster after Super Mario Bros. Super Mario World brought the biggest addition in the form of Yoshi, while Super Mario Sunshine introduced Bowser Jr., and Galaxy brought fan favorite Rosalina into the mix (we still have yet to see if the parade of oddities introduced in Odyssey will frequently reemerge). But in between Yoshi and Bowser Jr. the series received perhaps its strangest character in the form of Wario, who was introduced as the villain of Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

When Super Mario Land became a massive success on the Game Boy, it only made sense that a sequel would follow up eventually. And in 1992 – the same year the Game Boy introduced the world to Kirby – Super Mario Land not only got a sequel, but Nintendo received another iconic character in its bizarre, anti-Mario villain, who has gone on to star in a number of his own series.

Along with the introduction of Wario, Super Mario Land 2 is notable for feeling more like a Mario game than its predecessor. The Fire Flower is back, Goombas return, Koopa shells no longer explode, and the game as a whole just feels more inspired. If Super Mario Land’s goal was simply to bring Mario to a handheld console, than Super Mario Land 2 sought to make a handheld entry that could live up to its home console brethren. And although Mario Land 2 may not have aged quite as well as those aforementioned home console Mario adventures of yesteryear, it’s still a good deal of fun while it lasts.

The story here is a rare instance of a Mario game actually tying into the plot of its predecessor. While Mario was busy rescuing Princess Daisy from Tatanga the spaceman in Super Mario Land, Wario took control of Mario’s castle (damn, I knew plumbers charged a lot, but a whole castle?). Wario has placed a magic spell on the castle, and Mario cannot enter unless he’s received the Six Golden Coins, which are in the hands of Wario’s minions. Mario must venture to six different lands to wrest the coins away from the bosses so that he might take back his castle from Wario. It’s an interesting change of pace from the usual princess kidnapping, though the idea of Mario having a castle still seems pretty weird (and apparently Nintendo thought so as well, as any and all other Mario games ignore this and depict Mario living in a more appropriately humble home).

The level design is solid and fun. It may not be up to the platforming perfection of Super Mario Bros. 3 or World, but for a Game Boy title it’s pretty impressive that it holds up as well as it does. There are two key ingredients that set Mario Land 2’s worlds apart from other entries in the series, however.

The first is that the themes of each world differ from the usual “grass, fire, ice, etc.” motifs usually found in platformers. Instead, the worlds here range from being based around toys, Halloween, outer space, a tree, a turtle, and – in a fun twist on Super Mario Bros. 3’s Giant Land – a world where Mario shrinks, with everyday creatures like ants and grasshoppers serving as enemies. The second, and bigger twist, is that these worlds can be completed in any order. Seemingly taking inspiration from Mega Man, Mario can traverse the game’s world map and enter any of these six worlds in any order the player chooses. This gives Super Mario Land 2 a unique sense of openness that the series strangely hasn’t revisited in subsequent 2D entries.

Along with the usual Super Mushroom and the aforementioned Fire Flower, a power-up exclusive to this game shows up in the form of the Super Carrot, which grants Mario rabbit ears that allow him to hover for a prolonged period of time.

“The graphics are just a wee bit better than the first game. And by that I mean they look way better.”

Overall, the gameplay is fun, if maybe unambitious compared to other Mario titles (the open-world map being Land 2’s best innovation to the series). It should also be noted that, with the exception of Wario’s Castle, the levels are all pretty easy, with the boss fights even more so. And the whole game can be completed in a little under two hours. Given the time the game was originally released – when the convenience of gaming on the go meant sacrificing some of the depth and quality of the experience – these aspects make sense. Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins was an almost ideal handheld game back in the day. And when you consider the graphics and music are a marked improvement over those of its predecessor, it felt more like a proper Mario adventure.

The downside is that, though the game is still a lot of fun in its own right, handheld gaming has come so far since 1992 that the limitations of its placement as an early handheld classic stand out all the more. While it certainly holds up a lot better than the first Super Mario Land, it’s still hard to argue why you would play Six Golden Coins over one of Mario’s more iconic retro adventures (which are readily available on pretty much every Nintendo device these days).

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins is still fun, and serves as an interesting piece of Mario’s history, but it falls considerably short of the plumber’s finest.

Still, we got Wario out of it. I guess for that alone we should all be grateful.

 

6

Super Mario Odyssey Review

Reach for the moon…

The Super Mario series requires no introduction; to say that it is synonymous with the video game medium would be an immense understatement. Its cadence to this unanimous praise is heavily warranted as the Super Mario series is game development at its finest. One staple and undisputed fact that has remained a constant of sorts for the legendary series is its profound sense of unadulterated fun; no other series is able to emit an equivalent sense of elation or wonder. However, Mario’s strongest backbone and alluring element is its ability to adapt and evolve.  The core ingenious structure has remained intact for over three decades, with innovative ideas and constructs implemented into each new iteration of Mario. It’s a successful formula that rightfully acknowledges and respects the past, but also leaves way for innovation and improvement, encompassing a disposition for unpredictability and audacity. Super Mario Odyssey is a prime example of Nintendo’s pristine ability to take the familiar and beautifully mold it into something brilliantly exotic. In a lot of ways, Super Mario Odyssey is a renascence of the 3D sandbox platformer, however this magical adventure is far more than the sum of its parts. It redefines the structure of the series in terms of its gameplay variance, level design, and progression structure, while paying homage to its roots and acting as a celebration of sorts for the beloved franchise. It’s a delicious adventure that is equally parts exploration and platforming, and is chockful of enticing secrets and goodies to discover. Super Mario Odyssey is an amalgamation of each minute element that validates the series’ perfect standing; this foundation is enhanced considerably through Nintendo’s ingenious use of inventive concepts and implementations, crafting an experience that is constantly evolving in surprisingly brilliant ways. It’s an unabashed masterpiece that surpasses the insurmountable standards set by the Mario franchise. Super Mario Odyssey is the definition of perfection and is a glorified testament to Nintendo’s unparalleled sense of creativity and innovation.

Continue reading “Super Mario Odyssey Review”

Super Mario Odyssey Review

Much has been said of how Super Mario Odyssey is the return to the “sandbox style” of Mario game found in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. But the truth is it’s much more than that. This is the latest evolution in a series that is no stranger to evolving, as it feels like a  culmination of everything Mario has learned up to this point, all tied together with a bag of tricks that are entirely its own. World ensured Mario was an icon to endure past the 8-bit NES, 64 brought Mario into the third dimension and changed the way platformers are played, and Galaxy turned the very nature of the series on its head (often literally). Odyssey is the latest continuation of Mario’s progression, as it contorts and redefines the very foundations of gaming’s greatest icon.

From the get-go, it’s easy to tell that Odyssey is something special. Though the story is the tale as old as time – with the fiendish Bowser absconding with Princess Peach in an attempt to force her to be his bride – there are new twists here that make things feel fresh. The first, and most apparent, is the new cinematic quality given to the game’s events. The story this time around  begins with what would be the end of another Mario adventure, with the mustachioed hero coming face-to-face with the King Koopa to rescue Princess Peach.

Bowser, now decked out in a wedding tux, has hired a band of evil bunny wedding planners called the Broodals to aide him in his schemes, which all revolve around the forced nuptials. Bowser manages to get the upper hand in the scuffle, and soon Mario is sent plummeting from Bowser’s airship. Mario awakes not in the sunshine covered grassy hills that would signify the first level of virtually every previous Mario title, but in the Nightmare Before Christmas-esque world of the Cap Kingdom, which is inhabited by spectral hats.

Bowser is traveling the world, stealing different items from various kingdoms to ensure his ceremony is perfect: Flowers from the Wooded Kingdom, sparkling water from the Seaside Kingdom, and a mystic wedding ring from the Sand Kingdom, to name a few of the objects Bowser has apprehended. One of these items happens to be a sentient tiara from the Cap Kingdom (aptly named Tiara), whose brother Cappy is on a mission to rescue her. Mario and Cappy join forces, and soon the duo set off on a globetrotting adventure to save the day.

“Even more esoteric Mario characters, such as Pauline from the original Donkey Kong, show up during the adventure.”

Being a Mario title, of course the plot is simple stuff, but its cinematic presentation is a new high for the series, with many moments feeling like extravagant set pieces ripped out of Uncharted. And though it’s minimal, a travel brochure that serves as the player’s map contributes a bit of world building, with each kingdom getting some little details given to their environment, citizens, and local industries. Odyssey’s world may never pull at the heartstrings like Rosalina’s storybook, but Mario’s world has never felt more alive.

This is perhaps a bit ironic, because Mario’s world has also never been weirder. The realistically-proportioned humans of New Donk City (the Metro Kingdom) have already gained internet infamy for how they hilariously clash with Mario’s cartoonish self. But that’s far from the end of it, with Odyssey seemingly having a ball implementing whatever art directions and world themes tickle its fancy. The Sand Kingdom is home to sugar skull people inspired by Dia de los Muertos, while the Cascade Kingdom houses a T-rex that looks like it was ripped out of Jurassic Park. There are many other wonderful diversities in Odyssey’s visuals, including one boss who – along with its world – looks more like something from Dark Souls or Skyrim than Super Mario.

Of course, with Mario, it’s the gameplay that always comes first, and that’s as true here as ever. The best part is Odyssey’s distinct sense of weirdness is found even in its gameplay.

Describing the gameplay as weird certainly isn’t a knock on the game’s controls – Odyssey is as much a sequel to the Galaxy duo as it is to 64, as Mario himself retains all his classic acrobatics from those games, and controls just as fluidly as he did in his space ventures – but this weirdness is found in the form of Odyssey’s key new feature: the capture mechanic.

By throwing Cappy, Mario can effectively possess creatures and his classic enemies via his ghostly headwear (think of it like Oddjob from Goldfinger meets Bob from Twin Peaks), with each capture-able character bringing its own gameplay.

Some creatures provide small changes, such as the Cheap Cheap allowing for faster swimming without the need to take a break for air, while Goombas can stack on top of each other to reach higher places. Others are a bit more drastic, with the notorious Hammer Bros. having their own sense of movement, and can rapidly throw projectiles to fell enemies and break objects.

“Mario can even become a tank, turning things into all-out warfare.”

The capture ability isn’t limited to Mario’s classic rogues gallery, however, and the former plumber can possess new creatures like the Gushen, a squid-like figure entrapped in a bubble of water which pays homage to Sunshine’s F.L.U.D.D. by means of using the water as a jetpack. The Tropical Wiggler can stretch like an accordion for some unique navigation, while the aforementioned T-rex proves to be an unstoppable behemoth. Mario can even capture some inanimate objects, like the poles of New Donk City, which fling Mario to great heights.

Being able to capture such a wide array of creatures and objects means that the gameplay is constantly changing, and Odyssey wisely incorporates the mechanic into a seemingly endless variety of objects both big and small. Traditional power-ups are nowhere to be found, but the capture ability is so robust and used so creatively that it’s a more than worthy alternative.

It’s all for the sake of collecting Power Moons, the new equivalent to Stars and Shines of 3D Marios past. These Power Moons are the energy source that fuels Mario and Cappy’s ship, the Odyssey, with more moons required to visit each subsequent kingdom.

“Power Moons come in different colors depending on the kingdom.”

Here’s where Super Mario Odyssey lives up to its monicker of an open-world Mario title more than 64 and Sunshine ever did. There is no hub world in Odyssey, instead, each stage is its own wide open sandbox. Without a hub to return to after a Moon is collected, Mario pulls a page out of Banjo-Kazooie’s playbook, and is free to comb through a stage finding as many Power Moons as he possibly can at the player’s own leisure. There is a small caveat in that Odyssey is slightly more story-dictated than other Mario titles, and most of the stages are unlocked in a subsequent order (with only a few instances of multiple levels opening up at once). This is ultimately minor, however, as each stage has so much to do at any given time – with more activities being unlocked as you progress through the adventure – that the sheer abundance of player choice is perhaps equalled solely by Breath of the Wild.

Odyssey’s stages can get pretty massive, but they never feel overwhelming. Checkpoint flags can be fast-traveled to on the map screen, and the capture ability often leads to faster means of exploration. Plus, there’s so much to do in any given space of Odyssey’s levels that you’ll never feel like your travels are for naught.

The story will take about fifteen hours to complete, but rest assured the game is far from over at that point, as postgame content opens the adventure up all the more, leaving every sandbox of a stage completely open for the player to traverse them like never before. With hundreds of Moons to acquire, there’s rarely ever an end in sight, unless the player so desires to move on.

There are other means in which Odyssey gleefully leaves the player in charge, with a host of different control options available. Though the motion controls may take a few minutes to get used to, once you do, they play like a dream, and I found myself actively wanting to play with a joycon in each hand. You can always dock the joycons or use a pro controller if you wish, but Nintendo really went all out in ensuring every control option feels so responsive.

Perhaps Odyssey’s most charming little customizable option is the ability to change Mario’s costume and hat. Coins play a larger role than ever, as they can be traded to a chain of shops known as the Crazy Cap to gain new costumes. Similarly, purple currency is different to each kingdom, and are used to unlock costumes based on or inspired by that region (often with ties to Mario’s past, such as New Donk City’s construction worker uniform being identical to that which Mario wore on the box art to Super Mario Maker).

For the most part, the costumes and hats are purely cosmetic, though there are a few instances of a particular costume set being required to enter specific doors or to get the proper reaction from an NPC. Though this may be Odyssey’s lone lacking element, as Mario is usually just granted a Moon for entering said doors or talking to said NPCs. It’s a minor quibble, but it would have been a bit more interesting if the sections that required specific costumes had more to them.

If one has to search really hard to find anything else to raise an eyebrow about, it’s simply that the penalty for defeat is a measly ten coins. Gone are 1-ups and game overs in an admittedly modernized approach. But seeing as coins are all over the place, and more prevalent than ever before, defeat seems to have very little consequence.

Another noteworthy aspect of Odyssey is its bombardment of memorable boss fights. Although the boss battles tend to be on the easy side, they deliver on the fronts of creativity which, for my money, is the more important area. The boss battles are varied and plentiful, with many of the best ones also taking advantage of different capture abilities.

Visually speaking, Odyssey is the best looking game on the Switch. Along with the aforementioned abundance of art directions, the game as a whole is just a beauty to look at. Every texture, surface and liquid to be found in Mario’s world is given a new sheen, so even the most absurd of creatures and locations have a sense of realism. Better still are the tiny little details that are littered all over the place, like Mario getting covered in soot if he jumps over a chimney, or small animals scurrying in the distance. Although Mario’s world is more surreal than the land of Hyrule, Odyssey evokes the same sense of love for attention to detail as Breath of the Wild.

Of course, what would a Mario game be without a great soundtrack? This is another area in which Odyssey seemingly sets a new highpoint for the series, expanding on the orchestrated wonderment of Galaxy and making it into something even more grandiose, while still sounding distinctly Mario. Odyssey’s soundtrack is as fun and epic as any in Nintendo’s history, and is nothing short of a joy to listen to.

Super Mario Odyssey is a phenomenal game. It never stops piquing the player’s curiosity, and consistently rewarding it with one brilliant idea after another. There’s simply never a dull moment in Super Mario Odyssey, as it displays a constant stream of inventiveness that few games could match. Even a second player can join in on the action, and take control of Cappy while player one takes up Mario’s mantle.

Mario is one of gaming’s oldest icons, and yet he’s also proven to be the medium’s most consistent source of new ideas time and again. That concept has maybe never been more apparent than it is here in Odyssey, as it combines so many aspects of Mario’s greatest adventures while simultaneously rewriting them. It’s the next step in Mario’s evolution, while also being a loving homage to the series’ peerless history.

If I didn’t know any better, I might even say that Odyssey feels like a fitting conclusion to gaming’s most iconic franchise. It won’t be, of course, but Odyssey feels like the crescendo of all things Mario. There were more than a few instance in which Odyssey had me misty-eyed. Some instances were due to personal nostalgia, others were because of how beautifully Odyssey pays tribute to its entire lineage.

Fitting that Super Mario Odyssey should be released ten years after Galaxy. In 2007, Super Mario Galaxy seemed to encapsulate the Super Mario series, and brought it all to such newfound heights that many wondered where Mario could possibly go next. Now, Odyssey has pulled it off all over again. Its restless imagination, non-stop surprises, and pitch-perfect gameplay will leave anyone wondering what the future holds for Mario and company.

 

10