Super Mario 64 was a technological marvel, remembered by anyone as a revolution in controls and graphics, consecrated again and again by the “proper” Mario releases that feature yet another set of portals, another 150 stars (or suns or moons), and another missing girlfriend. But we’ve always been so bedazzled by the mechanical leaps that we often ignore the brilliance of the restraint that made Super Mario 64 possible in the first place. The levels were separated so they could be meticulously balanced against the shiny new engine; there were multiple stars per level, not just to engross completionists into unraveling puzzle quests, but so that fewer levels had to be designed in this scary new 3D land, making a good idea work in several dimensions. If Super Mario 64 was good at only one thing, it would be in this ability to replicate feelings of success and discovery within the same landscape repeatedly – its environment is beautiful but controlled.
Like all great games, Super Mario 64 utilized its limitations as much as its assets. It should be no surprise then that its game genre – the collectathon 3D platformer – has seemingly not survived technological progress. And since games are guided by limitations, they are made for their time – creating the style of a great game always begins with an acknowledgment of its limits. So the way a genre advances is often in releasing creative control from those limits. Doom gave way to Fallout 3, Ultima Underworld to Skyrim. If I wrote this article six months ago, it would have been a eulogy for the 3D platformer, an analogy with only one side. But Mario has kept the genre he made on life support for this long, and now I have an even more diffuse statement of purpose.
I want to explain why I believe 3D platformers are rarely made anymore, but there’s a deeper puzzle: why aren’t they made anymore, if every time one comes out it’s a commercial success?
The 90s were full of games woven from the Mario pattern: Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, Ape Escape, Banjo Kazooie. The birth of new popular genres in the 2000s – the 3rd person shooter, the 3D hack n’ slash – seemed to flush 3D platformers out with their collectibles. Here the process was begun which has turned in-game achievements into out-game ones. Finding 100% of the feathers and beads and coconuts has become a notification on XBOX Live and Steam. Regimented level-based worlds have become sandboxes.
The PS2 era contained attempts to integrate collectibles into the new millennium, which acquired new technology in the absence of the old limitations. The short span between Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Jak II changed a free-roaming collectathon with themed worlds into a sandbox with sidequests. It’s easy to say that the 3D platformer couldn’t survive changing designs, the pleas for more mature games and online multiplayer, but this would not explain the anticipation for Yooka-Laylee, the scandalous reception of Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, and the critical worship of Super Mario Odyssey, in all its antiquated freshness.
I believe the hidden orchestration behind all such changes, when technology demands Nuts and Bolts while everyone who cares wants Banzo Threeie, is a person that has yet to be acknowledged, a person whose grey featureless face changes as you look at it, whose features fade from memory the moment you turn away. I’m talking about the face of the public, the mass gamer, not even as such a person might exist but as the games industry as a whole perceives it.
This accounts for an industry directed more by capacity than intentions, which sees popularity as proof of artistic concept, which changes designs without ever minding the art as a wind changes direction never minding the trees. Since free-roaming games sell, every franchise has to become a sandbox. Since people who like 3D platformers are just driven by fandom, the genre has been relegated to HD remakes for the sake of nostalgia (something else the industry understands only in terms of marketing). Technology has reached a point where restraint is hardly an issue. For most games, the kind of tight control that made the old favorites memorable would only crimp the diaphanous structure of their questing.
Then look at Nintendo. Nintendo does not “bring back” the collectathon 3D platformer every time they make a main series Mario game. They just have a different view of their gamers. They still think of their player base as having the face of a child, still capable of seeing ones and zeroes for the caves outside your house, the spider’s nest in the embankment, the five more minutes of grass-stained sunset play-pretend. Look at Labo, Nintendo’s attempt to market everyone’s first DIY project: decorating an empty box, climbing in, and making Dad shake it until it’s moon-bound. Labo isn’t even a game really, but a perfect anthem to the public policy of a company that views its players, even if they are prone to package nostalgia so shamelessly that I’d call it a scheme, totally without contempt.
Yooka-Laylee had design flaws which were attributed to its fossilized genre – Odyssey had none and was regaled as a revolution. Neither is true. The difference is that Yooka-Laylee was made with the game riding shotgun to the driving concept that all anyone wanted out of it was a nostalgia high. Odyssey was made as though the genre never died, because for Nintendo, it hasn’t. Nothing has happened to the 3D platformer: something has happened to the industry’s perception of us.
So ask yourself what Bethesda thinks of you when it re-re-releases Skyrim without patching the bugs, what EA thinks of you when it turns Star Wars into a predatory casino. And ask yourself what Nintendo must think, when its designers sit around folding cardboard and laying out the collectibles again because they think someone must have thought this was fun once, and will again.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org