It is no controversial statement to say that the Super Mario franchise is one of the greatest of all time, and also one that has been around longer than most. Since Super Mario Bros. really launched our plumber into his own, the series redefined our understanding and appreciation of 2D gaming before transitioning to the 3D space just to reset the bar for an entirely new era of video games. So many franchises peak, sputter and die, yet Super Mario Odyssey is proof that Nintendo and Mario are as robust and talented as they have ever been. How is it then, that the Super Mario series has maintained such reverence and relevance decades later?
Super Mario Bros. is a deceptively simple series. Since the beginning, every core entry lets you jump on a goomba to defeat it. There is no upgrade tree littered with perks or an RPG-style progression system in place to mark progress. Instead, the player’s skill controlling Mario is the test of growth, where getting better is represented by the success in various platforming scenarios. At the end of any Super Mario platformer. he can jump no higher or longer than from the outset of the game, yet you may be able to make him reach something you could not before, thanks to your own growing skill.
This simplicity is what keeps the games feeling razor sharp from beginning to end. More and more, video games are entrenched in RPG mechanics, requiring the player to spend skill points to progress and do new things, but Mario manages to avoid all of this, leaving the focus strictly on the gameplay. Changes over they years have altered the core simplicity, more or less, adding a bevy of new power-ups, enemies, and level designs, but never is the game held back by menu navigation, and in the end, all you really need to worry about is running and jumping.
How do you reinvent the wheel with one as well worn as Super Mario? Against all odds Nintendo ceaselessly does it. Game after game, Super Mario proves to be one of the most creative series while maintaining coherence to the foundation it was built upon. From wonderfully bizarre levels to odd characters and monsters, every piece of a Super Mario game is unique and plays a role in the experience. A key feature in the Super Mario series are the power-ups Mario collects along the way, doubling also as a benchmark for the creativity behind Super Mario’s design. From the classic fire flower to taking control of a full-sized Tyrannosaurs Rex, Mario hasten counties forms.
Controls in a Super Mario game, even the 3D entries, are relatively easy to grasp. Run and jump. Variables in the formula come in the form of the FLUDD in Super Mario Sunshine, and Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey, but the tenets of running and jumping are sacred, and treated as such. Level design may flux to include each game’s unique feature set, but the platforming is omnipresent. The value of these controls is the nuance in which they provide. Simply running and jumping may get you through a Super Mario game, but to truly see everything, you will need to master these controls; again, the delightful deception.
A late-game star may necessitate a triple long jump across falling platforms that are also disappearing, demanding pinpoint precision and timing. To effectively win a race against a Koopa in Super Mario Odyssey, you may need to do a running sideways flip onto a wall, wall jumps off and then throw Cappy in the right direction before doing a belly dive to reach the ledge — if done successfully the result is a euphoric endorphin burst. Super Mario games to hand out rewards for simplistic actions, but the difficult objectives require the player to thread the needle, providing the most satisfying challenges the games hold.
The Super Mario series’ long life has provided it with a legacy richer than any other video games series, and Nintendo wields this nostalgia as a good-willed weapon. Super Mario Odyssey plays with fans adoration of their previous games in countless ways. Certain pipes turn Mario into a 2D sprite, regaining his Super Mario Bros. aesthetic and mechanics — blocks can be smashed and the button previously used to control Cappy now allows Mario to sprint, just like the NES classic. Reverence is also tossed toward Super Mario 64 late-game in unbelievable ways. Not only acknowledging their past but utilizing it for gameplay and content rewards longtime players with fond memories, but also new challenges to overcome. Pitch perfect nostalgia will continue to serve Nintendo for years to come.
In a landscape cluttered with rocky releases and buggy games, the Super Mario series has consistently avoided this plague. The Nintendo polish is somewhat of an understatement, but ultimately what separates a great game from becoming a masterpiece. Super Mario games never ship broken. No power up is going to make Mario fall through the level to his death. Nowhere is Mario going to snag on a piece of geometry and miss a jump. and there will never be a vital character mysteriously vanishing that requires the player to restart a level. Mario’s perfectly tuned gameplay is polished to a lustrous sheen, and no player will need to worry about a corrupt save.
Combined, all these pieces that Nintendo does so well amalgamate to why the Super Mario franchise is so good, year after year. The creative design, tight controls, and outstanding quality push the series above their competition, making each new release a fascinating observation of where the platforming genre currently resides. Moving forward, Nintendo’s next move is hard to read. Super Mario Odyssey is a landmark release in the franchises’ history and wholly excellent, but also an enormous game that obviously took years to create. To hope for something so grand and magical in the near future seems greedy. I am certain that this won’t be the plumber’s last outing, and it certainly won’t be his last great game — something wonderful is certain to be lingering on the horizon.