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Altum Videtur avatar 3:45 PM on 04.29.2012  (server time)
Mario Really Is Fantastic, and it's Not Just Nostalgia

I'm going to be breaking my usual once-a-week routine here to reply to this article by FrDougal9000, because, as the large comments thread would seem to indicate, it really needs one. For the purposes of this piece, I'm speaking about the platformers - comparing Mario Teaches Typing to Sonic '06 doesn't seem fair. FOR SONIC AHAHAHAAHAAHAA

If I were to pick one word to describe Mario - one word to encompass his style, his contributions to the medium, his very essence - it would have to be "creativity." Applying the description to a series that hasn't put out a non-sequel in nearly five years does seem odd, and let's be honest; we haven't moved away from the formula of jumping on, over, and around a sequence of obstacles since 1986.

Where Mario's genius lies, however - and where hundreds of other would-be imitators inevitably fall short - is in taking that incredibly simple concept, executing it to almost literal perfection, and applying it across a dizzyingly, dazzlingly diverse set of levels, environments, and secondary tools. Super Mario 64's very first three levels have you tossing a giant sentient bomb off a mountain, coaxing a killer eel out of a sunken ship to reach the treasure inside, launching yourself out of cannons, racing a huge turtle, and more. Super Mario Bros. 3 handed you powers of flight, and sent you across a hitherto-unseen array of moody forests, snowy peaks, labyrinthine castles, and scorching deserts where even the sun itself is after your head. Super Mario Galaxy sets itself into probably the softest science-fiction universe in existence, allowing it to completely throw out physical laws in its quest to provide the player new and interesting ways to leap over pits.

But their sequels? Super Mario World took the base concepts of "lots of powerups and a world map" and blew them to massive proportions, providing multiple paths and exits, f***ing Yoshi, and a huge amount of detail in the presentation thanks to the capabilities of the SNES. Super Mario Galaxy 2 contains more variety and ingenuity in a single world than you'll find in most full games, constantly flipping perspectives and gravity while introducing awesome things like the Bulb Berry to keep the variety constantly flowing. Even Super Mario Sunshine, probably the closest thing to a "mistake" the series has ever come close to (quite a few people actually find it their favorite), takes the Super Mario 64 formula and centers it around creative usage of a goddamn water-hose -and still manages to rarely repeat itself.

When you look at the pitiable floundering of, say, the Sonic franchise, whose first jump to 3D in Sonic Adventure practically sold itself on novelty before the series regressed into buggy, awkward, cumbersome mediocrity, the slick, superb polish and boundless originality of his Italian rival shines all the brighter. Castlevania lumbered along on life support for years, only finding reasonably firm footing after its umpteenth reinvention in Lords of Shadow; Crash Bandicoot and Spyro have all but disappeared; even Donkey Kong remains trapped in the second dimension and even Metroid has suffered painful blows in Prime: Hunters and Other M.

It's because that creativity - that earnest, expansive, almost child-like ability to conjure the fantastic out of the mundane - carries with it a kind of timeless magic and wonder that can reduce manly men to girlish giggling. Only Nintendo's own Legend of Zelda franchise comes close to possessing that kind of power, and even that series is far more guilty of retreading and rehashing, with its latest appearance in Skyward Sword frantically tossing in as many ancillary features and structural changes as it can muster to capture the same freshness that Mario seems to pull off so effortlessly.

To put it even more simply - Mario is fun. No; he's not just fun to play. He is fun. He represents that giddy delight, that enraptured smile, that reason video gaming as a medium appeals to so many different people in so many different places. I play Mario. My brother plays Mario. My 5-year-old cousin plays Mario. My parents play Mario. Nothing in gaming is as universally adored - very, very few things anywhere are as universally adored. As long as there's an audience for fun, there is an audience for Mario - because, in every meaning of the word, it's constantly, consistently, incredibly fantastic.

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