Mario games. So much to say about them, so much to discuss and debate, and not just “What’s the best?” or “What’s the worst (aside from the edutainment / Hotel Mario)?”, but much, much much more. And with such fervent discussions, it comes as a natural consequence that there are more sour discussions or opinions; certainly, among the most recent ones, “Is Super Mario 3D World a “main” 3D Mario game?” is still running. I’ll be honest here, and I’m probably going to upset many people around but…really…why the angst for 3D World. “Bu-bu it’s a 3D Land port!11!!” So off the road that even a blind man driving in the wrong direction has a better sense of direction “The levelsh aren’t that special and diverse” So off the road that even Zoro can reach a place faster than you. “Fuck, Bloodborne got fucking robbed!” so off the road that…it’s not even in topic, and 2015 GOTYs awards have long passed (even if still a great game). I love 3D World for its amazing level design (in my opinion, on par with Galaxy games -that tightness and sheer amount of ideas), the beautiful soundtrack and the enjoybale multiplayer component, even if it can be too chaotic sometimes. And I might mock at people angry for 3D World, but while the debate if the game is a “main” 3D Mario game is way too often taken to extreme levels, those who criticise it have some points, like the difference between 3D World’s aesthetics to the grand spectacle in the sky that is Galaxy, or the feeling that all the levels, even if amazingly built both visual and gameplay-wise, feel disjointed between each others and not like, again, a great adventure. Looking at this discussion in a more civil way (so, no “Wii U is teh doomedh!!!, I HATE THIS MARIO CUS’ THIS AND THAT!, U can’t comprehend SLAYtendo *pop music gif*, or, basically, no walls throwing at bricks at each others, sorry guys), it could be considered more like a discussion between a pure-gameplay-focused school of thought and the adventure-focused school of thought, an interesting discussion I have to admit. And one of the debates that can spring from it is the importance of the hub world in a Mario game, comparisons between the hub world and the more classic world map. And this is the main focus of this post.
World maps and hub worlds are two different (although not that unrelated…quite the opposite) ways of presenting levels and the different areas to the players, and they can be both effective and lacking trying to follow their purpose. But, in the end, what approach could be considered “better” for a Mario game? The former, more gameplay-focused or the latter, more adventure-focused? Let’s try to analyse strengths and weaknesses of both in Mario games.
The world map, one of the features that made Super Mario Bros. 3 an incredible game, and one of the best Mario games of all time for a great amount of fans even today. Thanks to the world map, you don’t just see the levels you have completed and the ones that you’re going to play next, you can actually see the world itself in which they’re located, the general theme (despite level-specific differencies) that permeates these levels. Also, a world map means that there are different routes you can follow in several parts of the game, or routes that aren’t unlocked immediatley, which alerts the player that, among the levels nearby the closed route, there’s something he/she missed and that unlocks it. Also, the map doesn’t necessairly have to be a simple map, with no movement inside it…quite the contrary: Mario games have maps filled with moving bushes (or clouds, the two can be easily confused), plants and enemies on the field itself, representing danger elements outside of levels. The possibility to select levels quickly is another major plus for the world map: if you just want to play the game for a few minutes, for pure fun, just start the game, go in the world you want, go to the level you want, enjoy.
People who have clear preferencies for more adventure-focused games, could say that world maps, while alive and capable of immersing the player in the game, have a core concept still very near to the more classic “select the level” menu. Just with a widly more alive coat. But…that’s not necessairly true.
Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U are examples of world maps displaying the entire “world” (sorry, the repetition is unavoidable), the connections between each part, the immersion is quite higher, and the sense of playing more and adventure than a game increases significantly. In these games, worlds aren’t just separate screens, they’re just areas of a big, intriguing field, there’s something magic (and possibly childish, but in the best way possible) in entering a new zone literally by creating a bridge, or freeing a route from some strange obstacle. The sense of achievement is higher than just going from a screen to another.
However, it’s not unfair to say that the sense of wonder, the feeling to be really immersed in an adventure…they could be more. There can still be the sense that, even if displaying a cohesive and connected field, the world map just can’t transmit fully adventure and “epicness”. But what if this isn’t just a map where you navigate from a point to another, with secrets here and there, but a level by itself, to play and to enjoy before entering differently themed levels? Well…
Yes, this is why I said earlier that world maps and hub worlds aren’t that unrelated. When you really think about it, hub worlds are a big, relevant step for world maps, world maps in a tridimensional space and evolved; games growing bigger and bigger with advancements in technology means evolution of concepts; back then, translation of concepts used in a 2D space to a space with a further dimension…it’s a well known story, a recurring story. And the world map’s first appearence in a Mario game was groundbreaking.
Everyone with several years of gaming behind remembers the first time they played Super Mario 64. The first ever view of Peach’s castle, controlling Mario in a 3D world, entering the castle…and the rest is history. It’s undeniable that hub worlds can create the feeling of adventure, of “living” the game much more than a classic world map (even more compared to Super Mario World / New Super Mario Bros. U). In world hubs, there are much more possible interactions…the mind goes to Toads in Peach’s castle, Piantas, Nokis and others in Super Mario Sunshine, comets in Galaxy games. And that’s not all, the hub world being a level means that…ehi, I can train my moves here! Yes, hub worlds become a useful training ground for players, especially first-time ones. A safe environment where anyone can try running, jumping, stomping, getting a grip to how Mario is controlled, and that’s a good thing. There’s another consequence for the hub world being a sort-of-level, and by that I mean the hub world hiding several secrets (like routes, doors, passages) that only by exploration can be discovered, not just by completing levels. Much higher feeling of “explore & reward”.
So, what would be the possible problem with hub worlds? They seem to be a major improvement on all fronts compared to classic world maps. And the improvements are undeniable…but it’s reasonable to think that hub worlds can make the selection of a level you just want to replay for whatever reason “tiring” if the intent is a quick session. Yes: in the same way world maps, despite the sense of presence in the game they give to the players and the possibility of quick games, lack in creating a full, 100% sense of adventure for some players, hub worlds can actually result too sparse for other players, even disorienting, despite the sense of adventure (here stronger with no doubts), the immersion, the ability to play while selecting levels, the bigger joy to discover secrets.
So, it seems it all goes down to the preference between the ability to play whenever you want, whatever level you want in just the span of mere seconds (immediacy) and the sense of wonder, of adventure and magic (immersion)…man, this really represents a facet of the debate between the two schools of thoughts more than I thought. Then, what’s my opinion?
…I’m really split here. I like both accessibility and immersion, damn it. But, i want to be honest: maybe it’s me, but between a map that maybe doesn’t look inspired, so much that it really doesn’t make the player think “Yeah, I want to go there, and now”, while allowing you to select levels in mere seconds, and a world that is fantastic to just wonder around and see all the small details, but it becomes a chore for quick selection of levels if you want to play just a specific level, I’ll always prefer accessibility. Again, it’s probably my mind that just doesn’t think that well, but I’ll always prefer substance over appearance. Despite loving greatness and epicness, I think that, first of all, Mario platformers must be great to play even in short burtst, which is something a world map does allow and a hub world, much less. It seems that I’m in the former camp, then, the gameplay-focused one, right…but actually not as much as you’d think.
I love immersion as well. All the details in Peach’s castle, the insane secrets, or the pure magic that just wondering in Rosalina’s Observatory could transmit…and how to forget Rosalina’s tale, probably way more charming than it had any right to be. These are things that get lost in a more classic world map, and it’s a shame, because they add to the charm of a game. In my opinion, considering the two sides in context, the two options that are discussed, if we try to go outside our personal preferencies, the real question could be “Is there a way to have both the accessibility of a world map and the immersion of hub worlds?”And I say that Nintendo has recently tried to find a compromise with the latest 3D console Mario games.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 not only was a result of the former EAD (now EPD) having so many ideas for the first Galaxy games that several of them couldn’t be put in the first game, but also tried to answer several gamer’s concerns about the disorientation they felt while playing the game, due to 3D levels. I’d say their answer can be found right from the way you access to levels: this time, there’s a much smaller hub area, where to enjoy testing moves, doing random stuff, talking with Patrick Star from Spongebob (a strange cameo). But, actually, it’s not that much an hub area, because levels aren’t selected on it, it’s the mean you use to select levels.
And it leads you to the different world maps. Honestly, while this is a good attempt to have both accessibility and the charm that world hubs can have, I dare to say that, now that several years have passed, the world map really feels…stale. Yeah, we see a preview of the planets, and they’re welcome, but it doesn’t feel completely right to see just a yellow line connecting them, with different (great) backgrounds. It probably sacrifices way too much the immersion for the accessibility. Super Mario 3D Land resuses the world map concept, but without the Startship, and it’s much more streamlined. Surely very accessible and allows for very quick levels selection, but the immersion is still lacking. But what about 3D World?
Super Mario 3D World’s way to compromise is interesting. Earlier, I said that hub worlds are the evolution of world maps, and I stand by that, but 3D World’s world map is, actually, what world maps would’ve looked in HD era if Super Mario 64 never happened. Look at the personality: while there’s a clear yellow line to guide players towards the different levels, there are possiblities to go outside them, to explore. It’s dynamic, accessible, alive, more than a classic world map. But…it still lacks something for immersion. In fact, the amount of secrets or exploration, while present, doesn’t even compare to what was in Super Mario 64, and, for the most part, the only reward for exploring are one/two coins, not something more exciting like levels; also, characters have a limited set of moves compared to what they actually have, which means you can’t try stuff. The charm is there, but not completely, the possibilities are still limited while there’s more freedom than the classic world map. It just doesn’t completely satisfy the sense of adventure. Also, while there are connections between the different areas through the crystal pipes (by the way, a funny way to turn upside down one of the core concepts in Mario games, after all), I’d say that the worlds don’t feel that connected, it’s more like a World-like map but with Super Mario Bros. 3-like limited sight for other worlds (so, like New Super Mario Bros. Wii ).
The two most recent attempts from Nintendo ranged from decent to good, but the good one was still missing the mark in terms of giving the same immersion world hubs like the one in Super Mario 64 does.
So, here we are, the final question after all this discussion: is there an actual solution to this problem? Something that can satisfy both sides of the discussion? Personally, I don’t know. I have some ideas on the matter, but nothing so concrete to shout “Eureka!”. For example, I think that a refined version of 3D World’s overworld could be interesting: give the complete moveset, more secrets that involve in “playing” the world map. Heck, I wouldn’t despite a different take on Galaxy 2’s idea of world map, where the hub is the mean itself to go through the different levels, but with much more detail. Other ideas I thought about is the old classic “what about both”: you have a world hub where you discover the levels in the hub, just like in Super Mario 64, and also a more syntetic world map to use, always accessible. As you unlock levels / routes / secrets, these are unlocked on the world map too, making replays much more accessible and immediate. The world map could also act as a teleport not right into the level you select, but the entrance to the level, which could be useful if, by progressing into the game, there are things that you unlock in a different world from where you are currently. Yeah, basically an extended, map-esque version of the teleport option available for recent 2D and 3D Mario games, but now applied to actual world hubs.
In conclusion, this is an interesting topic that could be the foundation of great discussions (and I’m sure there are far more competent people than me, no really), one that finds its heart in the fact that lots of people love great Mario games, in one way or another. And it’s going to be even more interesting to see the answer from Nintendo itself. And we probably won’t have to wait that long.
See you soon, world
WATCH OUT: No, I have no insider infos. This is just a conclusion that can be reached by analysing EPD’s release schedule, and how it’s been 3 years since 3D World, and 2 since Captain To-err, I mean Capitan Todd. So, no overanalys, thanks. Otherwise, people will think I have actual infos and that would be bad, especially if Nintendo’s ninjas think that I’m re