The 'Shroom:Issue LXXXI/Exploration in the Mario Series
Hello, 'Shroom readers! I'm Superchao, and I've been saying I've been gonna write a special section any day now for approximately the entire year at this point so this is my last chance to actually make good on it. So, since I've been wanting to talk about it the whole time, I'll just go ahead and discuss my thoughts on exploration in 3D Mario games and how I've felt about the various "main" exploring games because of it.
Super Mario Sunshine was one of my first Gamecube games, and that may be part of why it left the effect it did on me. I've always been a fan of it, even with FLUDD, and a big part of that comes from how open the world is. Rather than short levels, you get eight areas each with a large open area to explore; even Delfino Plaza has a lot to see and do.
That's also why I've always been a fan of the Blue Coins, even as annoying as some of them (i.e. Noki Bay and Corona Mountain) are. It basically offers a tangible reward for exploring the depths of the sea and the sky, and parts of the level that you wouldn't even check out, otherwise. For example, the Gelato Beach ropes, some of the Hotel Delfino rooms, or most of the Delfino Plaza rooftops.
Noki Bay and Corona Mountain are still terrible, though.
Even setting aside the Blue Coins, I always felt the way it was set up - with a handful of large numbers, instead of a number of small ones - makes the individual levels quite a bit more memorable! There's a lot more stuff to do in each one of the eight areas, as opposed to say Galaxy or Galaxy 2. The multiple Secret Shines... honestly don't really help too much, considering most of them were just "grab the red coins in the secret level!" But overall, I think Sunshine did a great job making a relatively explorable world.
The next of the 3D games I picked up would be Super Mario 64... or at least the DS version. Though, I prefer DS version to N64 version myself, so it all worked out in the end! While 64 has the more unique levels, some of them feel... small, for lack of a better term. Lethal Lava Land and Shifting Sand Land stand out in my mind as levels that feel like they could have used some more size to them.
Of course, at the same time, there were several levels that definitely did feel open and with things to do - even if they didn't have hidden rewards in the way that Sunshine handled it. Standout examples such as Hazy Maze Cave, Tick Tock Clock, and Cool Cool Mountain. ...Which I suppose creates the theory that building vertically is the key to success! Everyone does remember Bob-omb Battlefield and Whomp's Fortress, for example. Regardless, despite some levels having more to do than others, it was a generally good balance and provided me quite a bit of enjoyment.
Then along comes Galaxy! Which definitely placed more emphasis on number of levels than placing stars in levels. There were what, 40 levels in this game? But even so, some of the galaxies did keep that classic exploration feel. Not the bonus ones, though (except maybe Bigmouth and a couple others I can't think of right now), considering the majority of those were like Flipswitch or Hurry-Scurry - a single mission with a single gimmick.
Some of the large galaxies, though, those definitely fit what I wanted! Freezeflame, Dusty Dune, and Gold Leaf, among others, stand out as galaxies that I actually enjoyed looking around and finding the secrets - and it's no coincidence that the Purple Coin levels for the first two were of the "explore for 100" type instead of the "grab 100 in a time limit" type. I think only half or so of the Purple Coin missions were like that, which is really too bad.
I also enjoyed Galaxy 1's setup where each galaxy had a secret star (beyond the comet stars). That, again, granted reward to exploration! ...Well, some of the time. Rescuing Luigi didn't really count. Hungry Luma stuff, on the other hand, was a good way to handle things - again, it made you explore for star bits, as well. All in all, despite being kind of linear-ish compared to SMS and SM64, Galaxy still had some great exploration put into it.
Then, of course, along came Galaxy 2. While it was still a pretty good game (I'm up to like... 180 stars or so? Dunno anymore), it just doesn't have the same feel as the other 3D games. The main 120 stars don't have much exploration stuff; winnowing it all down to either 2 or 3 stars per galaxy has the effect of making every galaxy only have one or two actual missions. Plenty of them lack actual "secret stars" as such, too, just having the comets.
And while the green stars are sort of similar in concept to, say, the blue coins or secret stars, it doesn't really have the same effect. Rather than actually adding interesting areas to explore, they're just tacked on to all the existing missions. Honestly, the green stars are probably a lot less enjoyable, in my view, because of that.
That about sums it all up! I suppose the moral of the story is that I prefer Sunshine and 64-style collectathons, with a number of levels with several stars, to Galaxy and especially Galaxy 2 types where most of the stars are obtained through one-offs or comet missions. So basically what I really want is Super Mario Sunshine 3DS. Or another similar game, that works too. Hope you enjoyed my rambling torrent of words!