A friend of mine once told me that when Mario 64 came out, people became properly obsessed with Mario falling asleep. If you left him idling long enough, he’d drop off. A magazine or two started to ask for pictures of him sleeping in strange places – balanced on ledges, perched in trees, snoozing on a flagpole. I don’t think the enthusiasm was simply down to the animation. For years, Sonic had tapped his foot if you left him and the Bonanza Brothers had swatted away stray flies. With Mario it was more of an impulse thing. Mario’s world was suddenly a place. It was still levels and stages, but also fields and mountains and forests. The kinds of locations where, if the sun is just right, maybe you would want to go to sleep for a bit.
I know that feeling – of projecting yourself into Mario’s worlds and getting somewhat lost. For me, it wasn’t Mario 64 so much as the Mario Kart games. I like Mario Kart well enough – I had a solid 24 hours of Mario Kart 64 at university one term and since then I have been a little dimmed in my enthusiasm for them – but anyway, while I enjoy the racing, what really moves me are the worlds.
Those huge spaces, endless horizons, with wonderful details to spot. It always hits me the same way. I will round a bend on a Bowser’s castle circuit, lava bubbling and cobblestones underfoot, and I will suddenly think: I wish they made proper Mario games like this. By proper I mean platformers I guess. And they do, sort of. Since 64 Mario’s worlds have often been in three dimensions. Up until now I was never able to explain why they didn’t feel like this – why they didn’t feel like a Mario platforming adventure in a Mario Kart level. It was something, I think, to do with the sense of scope and scale – the sense of uninterrupted space, of something panoramic.
Now, of course, I could just say: oh, like Bowser’s Fury. Suddenly we do have games like this.
Bowser’s Fury is an add-on to Super Mario 3D World, and I am currently obsessed by it. I don’t think it’s that big, so I am portioning it out to myself, rationing it. Every moment is a very particular joy. You know how there’s something special about Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, because it’s both so focused and so unusual, a compact little play area that somehow feels toylike and totally separate from the wider series? I feel the same thing about Bowser’s Fury. I’m in love.
This is Mario not just in three dimensions but in what amounts to an open world. All levels, as it were, are laid out and fill the same space – islands on a calm sea. At times it’s almost a parody of Ubisoft open-world games. Mario unlocks new territory by climbing towers! Sure, laugh, but they’re actually light houses, and they fit into Mario quite well. Delfino Plaza and its Shines feel very close by.
I love open-world games, but a Mario open-world game, even one that feels a bit dashed off and experimental, is still very special. It transcends the formula, while somehow making the formula feel more visible and intoxicating. My favourite section of Bowser’s Fury so far plays with the idea of pipes – you have to navigate a series of pipe systems to collect various doodads, all based around a single island and a single tower. I know, deep down, that this is a pipe level, the same way that there are plenty of levels built around a single idea in Mario 3D World itself. But somehow, the fact that I can leave the pipes at any point and go elsewhere, the fact that I can stand on the pipes and see other parts of the world around me, the fact that I can stand on the pipes and not have to worry about a countdown timer, and I don’t have to feel tied to any specific objective, makes it feel very different. It’s a level, sure, but it’s not confined by its levelness. It feels like I’m standing in the pipes district of a huge Mario city. Down on 12th.
The more I play, the more I am starting to see the limitations of Bowser’s Fury. I understand, for speed of travel and separation of elements, for example, why the whole thing has to be water-based, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. I feel like we have passed up the chance for Mario to laze in the equivalent of Hyrule Field. But for every thing that feels slightly off, there is something stellar. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t just have a day and night cycle, it truly weaponises it. Night is when Bowser returns, regardless of what you were up to at the time, and the world is transformed. Why put a day-and-night cycle in a game purely because the real world has days and nights? Nintendo seems to be asking. Don’t put anything in a game unless you’re going to spin it, to use it in a fresh way. Don’t use it unless you can make it count. And there’s something else, perhaps. Series like Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs never get to benefit from this unusual fact: there is something very appealing about an open-world view into a game series that has previously not been open-world. Bowser’s Fury is partly powered by novelty, partly by familiarity, and partly by the day-and-night cycle thinking: it’s Mario with wider game ideas in it, and it’s also those wider game ideas given the Mario thought process.