Last year’s great new Mario and Zelda games reinvigorated two series that seem to have finally found nostalgia for parts of their past they neglected. Super Mario Odyssey, especially, offered a tribute to Super Mario 64 that’s been overdue.
Nearly two decades of Zelda games that followed the release of 1998’s landmark Ocarina of Time chased and referenced that game’s greatness to a fault, focusing on complex dungeons and an epic but mostly scripted quest that delighted some fans (myself included) but narrowed the series’ appeal.
Last year’s Breath of the Wild, plumbed an older game, the original 1986 Legend of Zelda, to focus on putting players in a mysterious world full of opportunity, guided with little direction.
The Mario games, however, have largely been chasing the greatness of 1980s and early 1990s entries in that series for at least a dozen years moreso than they’ve been mining the magnificence of 1996’s 3D breakthrough Super Mario 64.
For the Mario franchise, Nintendo has been in better touch with the series’ initial appeal: the pleasure of simple side-scrolling 2D action in which each jump is an opportunity to find a coin, span a chasm, crush an enemy or even accomplish two of those things at once. That’s resulted in a raft of 2D Mario games, including 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. and a trio of other side-scrollers for 3DS, Wii and Wii U along with the blockbuster Super Mario Maker, which let people make their own 2D Mario adventures.
Along the way, weirdo fans like me who prefer 3D Mario have been a little left out. We got our Mario 64 sequel in 2002’s Super Mario Sunshine and then got a pair of 3D Mario Galaxy games on Wii. But with even 3D Mario getting funnelled into quasi-2D experiences for the likes of Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World, it’s been easy to conclude that Nintendo sees more value, more commercial appeal and potentially even more design promise in Mario games that play in a more narrow lane than the liberating, exhilarating, go-anywhere, do-a-handstand-on-a-tree-and-then-jump-from-it Super Mario 64.
Spoilers for Super Mario Odyssey follow.
That’s why it’s such a thrill to finally see the credits roll in Super Mario Odyssey, as I did late last week, and wind up in a recreation of Mario 64’s grounds outside of Princess Peach’s castle. That’s why it’s so exciting to climb a tree on those grounds, do a handstand on it and leap from it. That’s why it’s such a delight to go inside the castle, stand at the foot of the staircase, wonder if they remember that what you do there in Mario 64 is go into first-person mode to look at the beam of sunlight, do it in Odyssey and realise, hey, they did remember!
Nostalgia can be a selfish thing. We want new things that reference old things to specifically reference the old things we liked best. We may get grumpy if they reference a different old thing. It’s silly. It shouldn’t matter. But it also does, because it is a marker for inspiration. Of course, I didn’t really need to get to Peach’s castle in Mario Odyssey to know that the makers of that game were inspired by 64. It’s obvious from the joyful way Mario leaps through the game’s environments. It’s clear from the use of coins as breadcrumbs to delightful new surprises. It’s evident in the occasional enjoyable moments where momentum just takes Mario away into another joyful slide. For some, 2D Mario is the most gleeful game they can play. For me, the more free movement of Mario 64 made it my high point of gaming happiness.
I almost worried Nintendo forgot Mario 64. Of course they didn’t. And, wow, was it nice to not just see it but feel its presence again in something new.