Before I go into my thoughts regarding the current state of Mario games, I've noticed that several Destructoid writers (namely, Jonathan Holmes and Hamza Aziz) have lamented about how Americans never got a chance to play the "lost" levels of Super Mario Advance 4, as can be seen in the following links:
I was always certain that someone else would post about them, but in the months since these posts, I have not seen a single person say anything to Holmes or Aziz, though if someone has, I apologize in advance for reposting said information.
The e-Reader dot codes for the levels that never made it to America can mostly be found here thanks to the efforts of Caitsith2 and Tim Schuerewegen, two programmers who managed to crack the encoding for e-Reader dot codes back in 2007:
(Note: I am pretty sure this is legal as these cards were never made available outside of Japan, and the link does not contain any of the e-Cards that were released to the rest of the world)
These dot codes can be printed out and scanned into an e-Reader linked to Super Mario Advance 4, though this process is somewhat cumbersome, but can also be read through emulation, as Caitsith made an emulator available specifically to read these codes(For those who want to try their luck at printing, use photo paper and set DPI to 600. I'm not sure if laser technology has improved enough to print these properly, as I myself went through several inkjet printers to get these codes to work):
That is all for the PSA, so those of you who were only curious about what this PSA was can leave. It has been a while since I last printed these out, so I may or may not be able to help you out any further.
I will say this, however: the hassle is worth it. These levels were made lovingly by the minds at Nintendo, combining elements from previous games to create some really fun and original levels.
One of the many reasons why I love Destructoid is how balanced and it is. Usually, if an editor posts an original article expressing certain thoughts about video games, a response will pop up taking an opposite stance (Aside from Jim's posts and Jimquisitions, as most of his opponents seem to thrive in the comments section). So when I saw Tony Ponce expressing concerns about the New Super Mario Bros. series (http://www.destructoid.com/why-does-new-super-mario-bros-2-look-so-bland--226709.phtml), I had expected someone else to take the lead and write an article supporting Nintendo's side.
It never came. Instead, two days ago, Matthew Razak posted an article trying to explain why the New Super Mario Bros. series just doesn't cut it as "true" games in the Mario series, claiming that they are spin-off titles Nintendo publishes "regularly while they work on the "actual" Mario games in the background." Finally, a comment by the founder of the site, Niero, compelled me to write this piece:
"I'd like to see a future Mario games have procedurally generated levels ... and also contain Creeper-Gombas."
This comment may have been made in jest (Come on, there were Koopas that exploded back in Super Mario Land!), but it also raised certain concerns within me about what people are expecting from the fat plumber's antics.
Before I continue, I would just like to say that I respect the three aforementioned people, and actually sympathize with many of their concerns. However, I just wanted to express what I feel about the "main" Mario games as a whole.
First of all, do you recognize any of these names?
These are the people responsible for the level design in the New Super Mario Bros. titles. If you take a closer look at the credits of recent Mario games (I wouldn't blame you if you don't), the Level Designer positions hold rather prominent spots near the top of the list, above Charles Martinet (voice of Mario), Koji Kondo (the music composer), and the countless programmers who are responsible for creating the backbone of the game, designing the visual elements of the titles, the engine, etc.
This should remind you how integral level design is to a Mario game, that it is the main ingredient that determines an awesome Mario game (I know that Ponce was mainly talking about style, but I'll get back to that in a bit). This is also why I feel that it is important to note that these people are relative newcomers to the field. Almost all of these people began their careers at Nintendo in level design with New Super Mario Bros. DS, as one started with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and another two who started with the Galaxy series.
I have noticed over the past few years that many on the internet always refer to Nintendo as the company the rehashes, the unoriginal developer who churns out the same Mario game over and over again, never willing to innovate with the platformer. This, I feel, is an exaggerated, gross error. If one plays both New Super Mario Bros. DS and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, one can obviously see that all the levels are different, though Nintendo are still guilty of referring back to previous titles for graphical and musical inspiration.
It is more than likely that most people who are judging these Mario games only look at screenshots of the various iterations of the New Super Mario Bros. series before crying out how Nintendo are obviously just trying to make a quick buck, with some commenters even declaring that Mario is just like Call of Duty, one game a year. Though I will not disagree that Nintendo is indeed trying to make money, I understand why many are somewhat aggravated by how there is barely any innovation in graphics within these games.
Yup, they do look pretty bland.
In fact, this somewhat leads to the crux of the argument. Razak urges people to forget about viewing the New Super Mario Bros. titles as series staples, that they are the "quality filler" in the years without "main" Mario games. I believe that they are actually "initiative titles," games that are meant to usher in a new era of Mario game creators. The "New" in the title isn't just a symbolic gesture, it is a reminder to all of us that, eventually, people will have to be replaced. Shigeru Miyamoto, sad as it may be, will not be at Nintendo forever, and the same goes for all of the other significant figures at Nintendo.
Perhaps that is why when I played New Super Mario Bros., I was rather disappointed. Though the game had the typical trio (Mario, Bowser, Peach) and the series's mainstay mechanics, it felt "off." In fact, three years later, when New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out, I was hesitant to purchase it. However, three years makes quite a difference when it comes to experience, and when I finally decided to get it, I was pleasantly surprised: the difficulty was nicely balanced (BRUTAL with three other people) and, more importantly, the level designs felt tighter, more expansive and original (For those of you who claim that these games are too easy, I'd advise trying to get all three star coins within each level in one go).
These level designers will eventually supplant the veterans at Nintendo, and it's already starting to happen. Most prominently, Ms. Kakinuma was involved in Galaxy, Galaxy 2, and 3D Land, and all of the others have played at least some sort of role in the development of later Mario games. Though this idea of "initiative titles" does not excuse the lack of innovation when it comes to graphics, it at least partially explains why Nintendo has not really added much in that department aside from the standard "Money grubbing pigs!" response. In fact, they seem eager to experiment with new mechanics, as can be seen with the baby Yoshis in New Super Mario Bros. U and the plethora of coins in New Super Mario Bros. 2.
At the same time, I feel that experimenting too much with graphics at this point would upset a delicate balance with the Mario games. Though Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros. 2 (Doki Doki Panic), Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World all look like different games, as Ponce said, they also tried to maintain a simplistic style that would not clash with the platforming. Rayman Origins is indeed gorgeous, but in my experience with the game, I felt that the certain graphical elements were a bit unnecessary, actually preventing me from enjoying the game to the fullest. The graphics, as they are, are good enough such that the level designers can feel free to experiment without worrying about such visual clashes.
This, finally, brings me to my final point: Procedurally generated levels will never work in Mario titles. Yes, this process results in amazing results in Minecraft and Spelunky!, but the levels in Mario games will always need to be fine-tuned, crafted from the minds of people rather than relatively random algorithms. Mario without static levels, in essence, would not be Mario.
Though Razak does make a good point in saying that the New Super Mario Bros. titles are a bit too conservative, I do not think that warrants calling them mere spin-off titles, as these titles not only contain all the elements of previous Mario platformers, but are also helping the future generation of Nintendo's employees grow, hopefully into new big names that will define a new era of gaming.
I may have made errors in judgment when writing this piece, and if so, please tell me in the comments below or through messaging. I welcome all discussion of this topic.