I must open this with an admission. I am guilty. Guilty of one of gaming’s greatest crimes. I have not played Super Mario 64. I am ashamed, repentant even, but this is the truth. I know it’s an incredible game, one that revolutionized 3D platforming. It is often held upon the pedestal of the greatest game ever. The nostalgia that a generation feels for this game is powerful. It guides their love of gaming to this day and holds not only Super Mario 64 but the Nintendo 64 entirely, in what can only be described as sacred ground. As a child, I didn’t have the Nintendo 64. The only one I had access to was at an afterschool care program; where the only game that the kids ever played was Super Smash Bros (anything else would have ignited the powder keg of prepubescent rage that 40 fifth graders hold inside). Even when Super Mario 64 DS was released, I didn’t play it. I couldn’t afford it nor could I convince my parents to buy me a copy.
Missing out on an experience that helped define a generation, I feel I have missed an incredible adventure. However, I did not miss all of Mario’s 3D platforming adventures. To this day, one of my favorite games of all time is Super Mario Sunshine. The controls are airtight, the gameplay is incredibly interesting, and the visuals are immensely colorful; this is where my nostalgia leads me to. A bright, beautiful game that set the standard for my love of video games. Sunshine is holy to me, it affects how I choose what to play to this day. It was indeed my revolution in gaming. Never before had I felt so challenged by a game, yet so taunted to continue playing. The next level always felt close at hand.
Then, I met my end with The Sand Bird is Born. This level, this singular platforming challenge, pushed me over the edge and I could not bring myself to beat it in my youth. Hours upon hours were put into that damned bird, yet it never yielded. It was only years later that I returned to the game and was able to complete it, and still, the wave of pride lasted only minutes. The Sand Bird was felled, but my years of anticipation led to a sudden falling out in my interest. This was the insurmountable obstacle I couldn’t overcome; yet here I was on the other side. I found myself unable to finish the game. It was bittersweet in the way that only Super Mario Sunshine could be. The feeling was that of finishing the last item on a bucket list; an achievement long desired, but what was there left to do? Sunshine is beautifully made, especially innovative, but still savage. There were more levels to play, Bowser was waiting for me, but I had reached the end of my journey with Sunshine. At least until Super Mario Sunshine HD.
I am aware that there are those who would call me a coward, a casual, a plebian. Those with a different philosophy on difficulty than myself, and who would ridicule me for my failings. Gamers who finish a game and then try to make it harder, reaching higher and higher towards an unreachable goal. They desire to master their games. These players exist in every game, and they can be somewhat elitist about their high tier gaming. I am not one of these gamers. I haven’t beaten a Dark Souls game, I couldn’t conquer almost any of the Metal Gear games, I never finished Super Mario Galaxy. Even still, I slogged my way through Bloodborne, I completed Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and I nearly perfected Super Mario World.
I have my own strengths and weaknesses in gaming, just like everyone else. I enjoy the lore of a game more often than the challenge. I prefer a demanding but reasonable experience in a game. Bloodborne was brutal, but never had that sense of unfair mechanics that Dark Souls has. Peace Walker was honestly abhorrent to play at times, but that is the PSP’s fault, not Metal Gear’s. These games have been labeled by some as “retro difficulty” games. They are often indifferent to the player, and they are intentionally obtuse at times. This is not the worst thing in the world for a game. These types of games have an almost puzzle-like aspect to them.
They necessitate the creation of communities that can come together to learn more about the game. The lore and gameplay of the Dark Souls series have inspired one of the most intensely loyal communities in the history of gaming, akin to the old school communities of people who would discuss Battletoads or the kids in the arcade who would swap strategies for Donkey Kong religiously. If I had really wanted to beat Dark Souls, I would have and should have, joined this community. The community is for all intents and purposes part of the game. To try and play let alone understand the Metal Gear series without the help of others is ludicrous. The story is convoluted as all hell, and the gameplay is unforgiving at times, never holding your hand or giving you a free pass. The classic boss battles of Metal Gear, especially The End in MGS3: Snake Eater, is absolutely ruthless. I’d personally say it rivals Ornstein and Smough. But through the communities of these games, the years-worth of man hours put into them, these games can be broken; reduced to simplicity. Speedrunners have gone as far as to complete the game on Guitar Hero controllers, and racing game steering rigs in search of that next seemingly impossible challenge. Each new step up in difficulty inspires three more people to take it a step further. This sense of community bred by difficulty carries with it another nostalgia.
The yearning for a time when games were beaten by the cooperation of their players is strong in these communities. At release Dark Souls was praised for its “retro difficulty” and subtle, world based storytelling. You piece together what happened to this world through item text, and visual cues in the environment. The Metal Gear series has been around since the “retro” gaming days and has never really seen a dip in quality or gameplay experience. Kojima’s emphasis on stealth-based combat and intricate storytelling led to hundreds of theories on the games over the years, and hundreds more speedruns and “challenges” such as the no-kill runs. Difficulty breeds community; especially when the adversity in the game is hidden behind complex stats and concealed game mechanics.
The Dark Souls series has many clandestine game functions that are only apparent after intense trial and error. Roll speed, invincibility frames, and illusory walls are not thoroughly explained in the game. The community has uncovered all of them and comprehensively studied them; sharing their findings with each other to more fully understand the game. This community of gamers is often brimming with a desire for the time before games were “mainstream”. In my youth I was part of one community like this, even if it was on a smaller scale than our modern, internet-powered communities, it was a community in a daycare center, revolving around the only console that we had. A Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and one game; Super Mario World.
Super Mario World, what I consider to be the best game of all time (certainly my favorite), was such a cohesive experience, such an incredible adventure. The impeccable sprite-work, the effortless controls, and the variety of environments told a story of hope and let us in the daycare center bond over its finely tuned difficulty curve. We would sit and play all summer long, talking about certain levels, feeling awe at a smooth speedrun, sharing our hatred of certain boss battles and this little community of ours was the first time I felt accepted as a gamer, and as an individual. Super Mario World made me feel validated. Even now there are times when I yearn for the community and acceptance that this era of my life held. This is a nostalgia that I am not alone in feeling. Super Mario World paved the way for my love of Super Mario Sunshine, and eventually opened the door to my love for Super Mario Odyssey.
Super Mario Odyssey is a beautifully animated, superbly programmed game with near limitless potential for the player to explore the environment. What truly grabbed me in Odyssey was how it seemed to resurrect that younger me. A boy who wasn’t so jaded, not so beaten down by the world. It made me feel like I did when I was 10 years old playing Super Mario World at my daycare; childish in the best way. However, I don’t think I would have appreciated Odyssey when I was 10, or even 15 years old. I wasn’t particularly skilled when it came to video games. I hadn’t put in the thousands of hours that I have by now. If Odyssey was released 10 years ago, I feel I would have run into another Sand Bird. Odyssey would have ended the same way Sunshine did. That game would have sat in my collection for years only for me to eventually overcome that obstacle, and find the fire would be gone. I wouldn’t have beaten it, I wouldn’t have truly appreciated it.
Nevertheless, that’s just a hypothetical. I’m still playing Odyssey, months after beating the game, and I’m still finding little ways to improve, to play better. This is exactly how it was with Super Mario World as a child, and by the time I had beaten the game 50 or 60 times, I had racked up over 90 extra lives. I would start new saves just to see how fast I could complete the game. I was too young to understand or attempt glitch runs, so I would simply take the star road shortcuts, plowing my way through the game in under an hour. The other kids in my daycare would sit and watch, observing what I was doing differently than them. We would talk about how to make certain jumps, locations of secret power-ups. Anything and everything in that game was part of our discussion, and by extension, our community. Odyssey takes me back to this simpler time. A time when friends would take turns showing each other shortcuts or advanced moves. When bills were just for ducks, and when the world felt so much smaller.
Now the crux of my love for Super Mario Odyssey, is this nostalgia? And is that bad? To feel youthful, even hopeful again must be good, at least for the soul. But I ask myself if you were to take every piece of Mario out of this game, every star, every coin, every Goomba, would I still love it? I think I wouldn’t care about it as much. One of the biggest surprise hits this year has been A Hat in Time. Critically acclaimed as a fantastic modern platformer, it checks all my boxes on paper. Lovely artwork, interesting mechanics, challenging but fair gameplay. However, I don’t think I’ll ever buy it. As an adult and a student I have to commit so much of my time to work and school, that I have very little time for gaming these days. I still manage to sneak in maybe five hours a week, but I don’t see myself wanting to play a game that I have no emotional investment in. But that’s the problem with Odyssey. I love it, I want to play it for a long time, maybe even share it with my children someday, but will they ever be able to love it the way I do? Is this game just for the kids who grew up on Nintendo, who know Mario? I can’t say one way or the other. All I can say is regardless of whether or not I am blinded by nostalgia, I’ll keep playing this series, and I’ll keep loving it.