Discovery in Super Mario 64

Posted: 2014-01-07 20:26:29
Last edited: 2014-01-28 20:05:37
I wrote this in July 2008. It argues that Super Mario 64 has the strongest exploration of any Mario game because it requires forethought and offers satisfying rewards. It could use more hard evidence and closer analysis, but there are key examples provided.

It gets loosey goosey with definitions, but there is at least an outline for the process of discovery.
Games discussed: Super Mario 64, Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Sunshine

Discovery is something key in almost all Nintendo products. Just think of Zelda and Metroid, two of Nintendo’s most popular franchises–a large part of both is the discovery of items and energy extensions. The argument made here is simple: within the Super Mario series, the sense of discovery peaks at Super Mario 64.

2D Games

Super Mario Bros. sets the standard for discoveries Mario makes in later games; one can uncover hidden areas by finding ? blocks with beanstalks or entering certain pipes. However, most ? block discoveries aren’t noteworthy–it doesn’t take long to realize that most ? blocks contain either a coin or a powerup.

This sets the formula: in Mario games, discoveries are always well within your power; they don’t require any large amount of knowledge or ability that you don’t enter the stage with. That is to say, no one has to tell you where a secret is, nor will you need an ability to find a secret.

I’ll admit that this isn’t entirely true.

For instance, the Warp Whistles in Super Mario Bros. 3 are nearly impossible to find without assistance outside of the game itself. How would you know to hold down on the white block in 1-3 for five seconds if no one told you? However, the Warp Whistles are really flukes in the Mario series–things are hardly ever hidden so well. Often, you’ll find a secret entrance simply by straying off the beaten path, as is the case with taking pipes.

Also, there are moments in the 2D games where an ability is required.  For example, in Super Mario World, a number of secrets require either the cape or Yoshi. 2D Super Mario games, however, generally don’t hide crucial powers from you. The Hammer Bros. suit in SMB3 may be hidden, but it isn’t necessary for finding any secrets. The Raccoon powerup, on the other hand, is necessary for finding secrets because he can fly and reach more places–but it is abundant within the game. Both Yoshi and the cape are easy to find within Super Mario World, as well.

So, in 2D Marios, you have yourself bumping into hidden blocks, growing beanstalks, and uncovering hidden exits at your own pace, not at the pace the game sets.  Hidden paths are very often within the player’s reach.

Super Mario Galaxy

Galaxy, though, has nearly none of this. Luigi aside, the game is bereft of any discoveries. In Super Mario World, if a level has an extra exit, the level will appear as a red dot on the world map (the only time this isn’t the case is when a ghost house has an extra exit). However, the extra exit is still left to you to find. Galaxy, on the other hand, uses a cutscene to show you where to go to claim your star before the start of each level. Even if it didn’t have this cutscene, level design is fairly straightforward–there’s really only one direction you can go in most times. This is understandable, given the game’s design. Stages often consist of Mario hopping between small platforms suspended in space.  Think of the Gusty Garden Galaxy; the planets you reach are much smaller than the space between them.  Because the planets are so small, there is of course nowhere to explore; there’s no room to hide anything.

??? stars are the exception here, since they are off the beaten path, and the game doesn’t tell you where to get them. It’s a nice bit of exploration thrown into the game every now and then.

Super Mario Sunshine

…prevents the player from reaching certain areas by hiding certain FLUDD nozzles from the player. You can only access some shines after unlocking the Rocket or Turbo Nozzle, both of which are unlocked after a good bit of progress into the game. However, the shines that require Rocket or Turbo nozzles are few and far between.

Most shines require more exploration than the stars in Galaxy.  Areas in Sunshine allow for much more exploration. Bianca Hills, for instance, offers a wide open plain for the player to roam–a sharp contrast to the sparse amount of land in Gusty Garden. There is a cutscene that shows you where to go to get the shine, but because Sunshine isn’t totally linear in its level design, the cutscene just gives you a general idea rather than setting you on the path to the shine. Also, the cutscene will at times cut off short, such as the hotel shines on Sirena Beach. This cutscene tells you that a given shine is inside the hotel, but beyond that, you’re on your own. Other times, it zooms in on a mysterious cave. How surprising is it when you walk through one of those for the first time and discover your trusty FLUDD is gone?

However, the truth of the matter is that most discoveries in Sunshine aren’t too enthralling. Sunshine often offers boring, even if pleasant, locations; a theme park, a beach, a hotel, and so on.  Occasionally an element of the fantastical appears, such as the appearance of boos or the mysterious FLUDD-less levels (where do they take place?), but for the most part, Sunshine’s atmosphere is nothing surprising. The atmosphere isn’t mixed up enough to make discoveries satisfying. In short, you mostly discover more of the same.

I should mention here–even if it is somewhat obvious–that surprise is key to discoveries. A discovery goes like this: 1) you do something unsuspectingly or see something suspicious and act upon it, 2) the hidden thing is revealed, and 3) you are surprised. Discoveries may involve more or less of 1 and 3. Uncovering a beanstalk in SMB, in large part, evokes 3. You have no idea that a block will have a beanstalk, so revealing one is utterly random and takes little to no forethought. As a result the surprise in revealing a hidden sky world is large. It’s not what you expected. The discovery also provides satisfaction because you know it’s off the beaten path; the beanstalk detour allows you to skip part of the quest that you thought was required. You’re also likely to gain lives in the process if the beanstalk leads you to coins.

Super Mario 64,

then, happily combines the 1 and 3, then makes discoveries a prevalent part of gameplay. There are no cutscenes to hint to where a star might be. You only get a text hint, such as “Wall Kicks Will Work.” Admittedly, this gives you some very obscure stars (here’s lookin’ at you, “Blast Away the Wall”), but most of the time things are obvious enough–you’ve just got to run around and find what you can. You’re plopped in a world where you can wander almost anywhere and do almost anything; much like Sunshine, Super Mario 64 is constructed mostly of large plains where the player can freely explore. Powerups have to be activated at different points a good way through the game, but your progress does not hinge on these caps. You can get through the game without unlocking the Metal Cap. You won’t find all 120 stars, but you can defeat the final boss.

There are two stars that encapsulate SM64’s sense of discovery. One, the “Mysterious Mountainside” of Tall, Tall Mountain–the one where you find a slide hidden behind a wall on the mountain. When you uncover the slide, the shock is pretty big; there’s another slide in this game? There’s also a good deal of forethought–”Mysterious Mountainside” is a pretty good cue to finding what the game wants you to find. In addition, the entrance to the slide ripples in the same way a painting does; this serves as a cue to the player that the wall isn’t normal, but instead, functions as a painting does.  ”Mysterious Mountainside,” then, rewards the player for forethought and provides a good deal of surprise.

“Go to Town for Red Coins” in Wet-Dry World is another such star. You explore a suspicious corner of the stage, walled off from everything else. The forethought is greater here, since it requires the player to notice that suspicious corner rather than thinking about the hint for the star. The surprise is greater, too, since nowhere else in the game do you find anything like you do here. This star shows you a barren city which begs a few unanswered questions.  Who lived here?  Why is it underwater?  The underwater city is a mystery.

Being 3D, SM64 allows for exploration–no longer in two dimensions, the game can offer wide plains to roam. You’re left largely to your own devices, unlike Galaxy, and the environments are interesting enough that what you find is worth finding, unlike Sunshine. By being in three dimensions, the discoveries in SM64 outshine those in the 2D games. For one, it’s cooler to behold them in three dimensions rather than two–it’s much more immersive. Second, finding them is much more satisfying as a result of the freedom allowed by wide open plains; it takes more effort on your part to find them.

In short, Super Mario 64 employs discoveries most effectively of all Mario games. The game lets you explore itself on your own without telling you where to go, and what you find is generally pretty exciting.
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All original content on VG Thought was written by Greg Livingston AKA Golem.