We recognize theme with all our senses: the sights, the sounds, the heavy rumble in our hands, the font used to display text. Forgotten in this equation are the game’s mechanics. What the buttons you press do determines how the game talks to you.
In the four and a half years since I first played Super Mario Galaxy, I’ve never replayed it except for reference. I’ve never replayed any of the modern Marios. In this time, I’ve replayed many of the older titles upwards of a half dozen times. Apologists might say this is because the modern games are longer, that I have less emotional connection to them. I offer an alternate thesis: these games have no mechanical theme. Modern Mario has gotten too precise, gone from a happy machine gun to a sonorous sniper rifle.
What the early Mario games, the pre-Mario 64 titles, have in common is a loose, floaty sense of fun. Super Mario Brothers feels this way not because of its aesthetics but instead because of its mechanical theme. Its jumping feels fast and loose enough to entice; later titles like 3 and Super Mario World added in a running animation, adding visual feedback to this loose sense of fun. It’s hard to not have fun when you’re running like an airplane.
I play those old Mario games not for nostalgia but for that instant of looseness, where you move too quickly for the camera, barrel across the map, Mario becoming the world’s least aerodynamic airplane. Or for those moments where you land on a tiny platform and are forced by inertia to jump again, this time with less forethought. They are quick, loose moments where you can feel the wind against your face.
The series shifted with Super Mario 64; it was an incredibly earthy game. While Super Mario World involved running like an airplane, Mario 64 was all about running, ducking, then jumping—long jumping. You hug the ground, achieve minimal lift, and return to the earth in one of gaming’s meatiest gestures. Everything about Mario 64 loves the ground: even its airiest move—the ducking kick down the stairs—hugs you so close to the ground. Mario 64 is a run through the forest: joyous but decidedly earthbound. It worked—it still felt like a Mario game—but it did so in a different way from its predecessors.
Then Nintendo had a learning experience.
Super Mario Sunshine was a game whose atmospherics were about the beach. This was a game to play on the beach, it cooed to you. Its aesthetic feedback were wind and water: floaty and fluid, quick movements and long, exaggerated jumps.
Its mechanical feedback differed. Like Mario 64 before it, Sunshine was an incredibly earthbound game. More than that, though, it played like an entirely different title: it didn’t feel like a Mario game. Instead of earth-hugging jumps with enough float, Sunshine gave you a water cannon, which enabled you to solve puzzles and beat bosses but removed all of the float and a lot of previous games’ fluid motions. It tugged airplane Mario too far afield, and left him crashed, smoldering, on the ground. This doesn’t make Sunshine a failure as a game (it’s a pretty okay game), but it was a failure as a Mario game.
What followed Sunshine was a resurgence both of old and new: both the two dimensional New Super Mario Brothers and the three dimensional Super Mario Galaxy tried to retrace the series’ steps, to build on the bones of the series’ successful titles. What happened, though, is too much a marriage between the classic’s float and 64′s heft: between the two extremes lies the boring morass of precision.
Super Mario Galaxy represents the thrust of these compromise mechanics: it is at once heavy and floaty. Long jumping in Galaxy does not feel heavy: it feels floatier than it does in 64, leaving it a precise video game gesture that allows for near-exact specificity in your movement. In truth, it reminds you of the jumping-only sections of Super Mario Sunshine, or the belly slide, where you have too much control. The joy of a good platformer is being forced to adapt because your initial action wasn’t perfect. If your first action gets you where you need to go, the game isn’t as interesting: why are you going to travel when you’re already there? This sort of utility, function conscious design might work when building a car, but in a video game each movement needs to make us feel like a star: we want to feel at risk because we’re jumping, not because horrible things are happening all around us.
To put it another way: in Mario 64 you were the star. In Mario Galaxy, the levels are.
New Super Mario Brothers puts out the same story: it looks like the old Mario titles, it quacks like them, but instead of Mario’s airplane run you have ultra-precision and levels that star. New is precise, unyieldingly so. When the game first came out some people complained of a gentle dumbing down: Mario neophytes were beating the game, were finding all its secrets. This wasn’t because the game was easier than its predecessors: in fact, many of its levels are more diabolical.
Precision, the kind found in New Super Mario Bros, makes your actions rote. Mario Galaxy is an incredibly “safe” game: yes, its levels are chock full of hazards, but if you jump, you’ll end up exactly where you want to be. Where you want to be is somewhere safe, so once you’ve learned the basics of its mechanics (and it gives you plenty of worlds to do this in), you will always know how to make yourself safe.
Contrast the experience of Galaxy and Super Mario 64. In Galaxy you’re faced with challenging worlds, but you’re overpowered: all your tools function to immediately pull you away from danger. The long jump is precise and far reaching, and it’s made even bigger by the waggle-induced spin, which lets you save yourself easily. 64, meanwhile, provided you with simple tasks, but its slipperiness and weight made it sometimes difficult to accomplish these things.
One of these titles, Galaxy, feels like an obviously superior video game: it has well designed (if thematically broken) levels, it impresses you at every turn with its visuals, and it has a soundtrack that brings you to your childhood dreams. But Mario 64 produces more exciting moments: when you stick a perfect jump, when you slide off a cliff and manage to pull off a perfect butt stomp landing. Mario 64 is sillier. Rather than being tools, its mechanics are conveying a specific sense of world to you: Mario is inherently nonsensical, whimsical, and fun, rather than being a work of platforming art. It wants you to touch it, rather than ogle it like a painting of your childhood home.