Mario games don't give a damn about story (and that's wonderful)

Pardon me while I get a little judgy. You may remember from a few weeks ago when I wrote about asking Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto about remakes. It started a conversation, and I was happy. Others in attendance asked significantly worse questions. One in particular involved how the developers handle writing for Mario characters, namely Princess Peach. Even before the devs answered, I rolled my eyes at this guy wasting his sole query on something so obvious. Mario doesn’t bother with plot, and his games are stronger for it.

Miyamoto’s response to that fruitless, questionable question was what you’d have predicted after playing any number of Mario games: the story and characterization are meant to be expressed through gameplay. They don’t give a shit about Mario’s “agency” or “ludonarrative dissonance” and neither do I. You know the differences in the personalities of the playable characters based on how they run and jump. Mario games only need the flimsiest of excuses to send players into the many stages in front of them. Anything more gets in the way of the intentionally straightforward design of Mario games.

Super Mario 3D World begins with a wordless and brief cinematic showing Bowser kidnapping seven magical Sprixies. Mario and his pals chase after Bowser--then BOOM, you’re in World 1, jumping on Goombas. Each Sprixie you free has about 20 seconds of celebratory animation; when you battle Bowser for the final time you get another light cinematic; and then, finally, you get the credits. The end.

As video game storytelling matures and expands, Mario’s dearth of narrative might seem backwards and wrong. But as much as I welcome games advancing their writing, releases like 3D World prove that AAA games can totally ignore the typical action-film plotting that most titles resort to--if the gameplay is good enough. 3D World doesn’t need a cutscene where Mario and Peach discuss their plans to avenge Bowser’s destruction of the Mushroom Kingdom, and Luigi need not confide in Toad about his crushing self-doubt. You learn all you need to know about the cast from a simple “Woo-hoo!”

Compare that to a more contemporary platformer like Knack. It starts with a simple set-up-- humanity needs a robot that can stop a monster invasion--but soon enough it gets needlessly complicated. You’re introduced to Knack’s cheesey personality, see some secretly evil character slowly plan his betrayal, and watch a scientist pine for his late wife. These types of easy, predictable story elements don’t make the game play any better, nor does the writing aspire for anything above the most rote children’s film.

Instead of learning from past Mario games or other contemporaries like Super Meat Boy and Rayman Legends, Knack spent time and money creating lengthy cutscenes to tell a thoroughly perfunctory story, when its gameplay fundamentals could've used some extra effort instead. 3D World is satisfied with being the best game it can be, instead of preoccupying itself with telling the equivalent of a direct-to-DVD Disney movie.

Of course, I don’t need to pick on Knack to make this point, because Mario himself was held back by an overemphasis on the brain-dead-zombie-urgh plotting. Both Super Mario Galaxy games told their stories through level progression and boss battles, but before that, Super Mario Sunshine went the opposite direction. Sunshine had continued the series' quality gameplay, but there were way too many lengthy cutscenes to tell a story of false imprisonments, island natives’ distrust, and the mystery of Bowser Jr.’s mother. Just watch this Mecha Bowser battle to see how on-screen dialogue only gets in the way of a truly fun section.

Though Sunshine went on to be one of the best-selling GameCube games, the developers noted how the talkative cutscenes pushed players away from Mario’s better attributes. The franchise went back to its roots from then on, valuing gameplay above all else, which continues to serve the series well in Super Mario 3D World. It can all be traced back Mario’s earliest hit: the original Donkey Kong arcade game.

Mario’s debut game had the thinnest of three-act structures: ape grabs girl, man battles ape, man saves girl. Here we are 32 years later, and Mario is still following that same basic template. Some may call that overused or childish--but if the games can stay as fun as 3D World, that’s all the plot needs for the next 32 years.




  • Timisloggingin - December 3, 2013 12:01 p.m.

    I see a mirror of the cinema evolution in this article, "Who needs these new fangled 'talkies' when the actors can emote with their faces and actions!"
  • Jennero_Rossi - November 24, 2013 7:50 a.m.

    Miyamoto always said, "Characters express themselves with the actions they do." You don't need a good story for a platformer, just need great level design and control.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 24, 2013 9:38 a.m.

    I think that would be a gross oversimplification, given that Miyamoto himself was the one who largely popularized, if not introduced storytelling in games through Donkey Kong. It's a very light narrative, yes, but one has to question how well games such as that or Super Mario Bros. would have done without the whole "rescue the princess" angle.
  • runner - November 23, 2013 1:34 a.m.

    For me, video game has 2 aspects: gameplay and narrative. Of course, if you are able to make both good, that will be awesome. But if you make at least one aspect good with another passable, the game will be good enough. Mario (and maybe Nintendo in general) is the type that tend to emphasize in that direction from the get-go, and since they seem to seriously know what they are doing, so it's good enough. (at least for me) On the polar opposite, we have Quantic Dream and Telltales who focus more on the narrative part and lacking on another which is still good. (Though I must admit I'm not a big fan of Quantic Dream's game) The point is, I think if the developer know what their strong point is (or at least what they actually want to do) then it's better if they will stick to that rather than forcing to include something they're not good at or don't want to do.
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - November 22, 2013 11:32 p.m.

    No. It's not. Storylines are what make games for adults, and it's also the only reason that video games started being accepted as art form. Mario games are essentially just the toys that ignorat people who hate video games think all video games are
  • TheAsterite - November 24, 2013 12:35 p.m.

    Except it's not. What is SotC known for? Its story or its environment and colossi fights?
  • shawksta - November 22, 2013 10:06 p.m.

    Your right, Mario has always shown that he does Gameplay excellently that we actually care about it more than the rest of the aspects because were always interested. However i will say the subtle instance of Story is still neat, Galaxy did it, especially with Rosalina and even Galaxy 2 especially later down the road. 3D World, not being centered on a main theme or area (Technically i guess its a circus that you start seeing) really didnt need one. Its neat that NSMBU decided to go backwards where Peach's castle is the final level instead of always seeing it in the first level, and 3D World let peach not be on the other side of the story. Hope this continues where we push a little forward, if not, then just go through the subtle insteance of Galaxy.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 22, 2013 9:17 p.m.

    Frankly, I disagree. I'm not saying the games need to be narrative-heavy or anything, but the same "Bowser kidnaps Peach" bit was getting really old. New Super Mario Bros. U was at least a little more interesting for putting a twist on it, whereas New Super Mario Bros. 2 felt incredibly by-the-numbers, whereas sticking Wario in to do virtually anything would have made it more interesting. And don't even get me started on Sticker Star. When they're trying to take story out of the RPGs, that's just too much. But hey, now we have Super Mario 3D World. Yeah, it's still Bowser, and yes, he's still kidnapping, but at least he left Peach out of it, and I think the game is all the richer for it. Mario may not need much in the way of "story", per se, but things like setting and premise still go a long way. People wouldn't still be talking about Super Mario Bros. 2's ending to this day otherwise.
  • Jackonomics - November 22, 2013 8:06 p.m.

    It's been established over a hundred fucking times that if you want story in a Mario game, go for the spin offs, it's not that fucking hard.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 22, 2013 9:18 p.m.

    Like Sticker Star? Oh wait, Miyamoto didn't want story there, either.
  • shawksta - November 22, 2013 10:09 p.m.

    They wanted to be different in sticker star, and technically speaking, each of the worlds i guess you could say, had their own story to them. It was fair to be honest. Though the premises of a console game being simplified on a handheld is stupid, Mario and Luigi did it right, Paper Mario didnt need to. Intelligent System these days have been mediocre except for Fire Emblem, they need to learn their priorities and learn to split resources.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 23, 2013 7:33 a.m.

    It wasn't BAD, but far below the standards I have for a Paper Mario game. No unique characters based on Mushroom Kingdom creatures, no sidekicks (except the one, Kersti, who was apparently exempt from Miyamoto's "no new characters" mandate), and Bowser doesn't even speak. It felt more like a proto-Mario RPG to me, rather than the latest in a long line. I get that Super Paper Mario turned some people off, but rather than seeing it was HOW the story was told, or even that perhaps it was just that particular story, they decided to throw the entire thing out and everything associated with it. I have to agree on Intelligent Systems: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was one of my favorite games of all time, and I'm not even much of an RPG player, but it's been downhill ever since in that franchise. My heart has been broken there, as I'm really not looking forward to what comes next for Paper Mario until I'm given good reason to-- a day I never thought would come.
  • shawksta - November 23, 2013 5:31 p.m.

    Super Paper Mario was still good and true to the series charm, its just wasnt turn based. Otherwise it had a lot of great things and its writing is frankly the best in the series. I dont blame them, they were just trying to experiment but the resources was mostly taken by Fire Emblem. Sticker Star is great when you play it for what it is instead of complaining about why it wasnt Thousand Year Door. Thousand Year Door's already amazing, it makes sense for them to try something else. Sticker Star was more focused on its puzzles. Despite not having any unique characters, It did however give the Toads the best performance in the series. And the thing about Silent Bowser is for 2 things, one being that they wanted to get to the point and not stall, and second that technically speaking, the entire games problem was the Sticker Crowns, Bowser originally wanted to pull a prank but ended up messing it up and especially true with that backstory music part after you collect the crown of each area. Patience my friend, maybe on the Wii U they can make a game that's a mix of the best things from the past games.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 23, 2013 9:53 p.m.

    Super was pretty good, and I enjoyed it. I think the problems following that are twofold: One is that it came out right at the start of the Wii, and it was a pretty long time before we got anything else. The other part is that they're being perhaps too experimental. That's not to say they shouldn't; but I think following up one experiment that didn't resonate so well with another risky endeavor after several years, eight in all, likely didn't do them any favors. Something traditional, then something risky would probably do better for them, as fans wouldn't have to wait so very long to get their next fix. M&L games come out with greater frequency, and knowing that Sticker Star is it for several years, until which point they'll do lord knows what... not very reassuring.
  • shawksta - November 24, 2013 12:58 a.m.

    Game and Wario was half assed too, which is why i think Intelligent isnt on the ball lately except for Fire Emblem. So who knows.
  • Vonter - November 22, 2013 10:30 p.m.

    The problem was also that Sticker Star gameplay was shallow, having to backtrack to obtain the right items to face a boss and battles that could end in one turn were very backwards for an RPG, (still this also shows some irony because this game tried to do new things). Story can be many things from a cinematic narrative of three act structure or the subtle story through gameplay found in Super Metroid. I think most Nintendo games get their story from what fans speculate or theorize. Like those shadow figures in Galaxy, or that book in Sunshine.
  • LBD_Nytetrayn - November 23, 2013 7:29 a.m.

    I find that just a good set-up can work, like the black magic of the Koopa tribe turning all the Mushroom People into bricks, etc. in the first game, the whole "Wart has taken over Subcon, please save us" of the second, or the third, which had Mario rescuing kings from each country of the Mushroom World-- Peach's kidnapping wasn't even a part of it until the final act. Vonter: You mentioned Super Metroid, and on that front, I REALLY love how New Super Mario Bros. told a simple story through similar means: A mysterious cloud attacks Peach's castle, and Bowser Jr. kidnaps Peach when Mario is distracted. Mario chases them to a fortress where he fights and kills Bowser in the lava, leaving Jr. to run the show. Towards the end of the game, you encounter Lakithunder, who was the one responsible for attacking Peach's castle and starting the whole mess in the first place. Then in World 8, you fight the recovered/reanimated Dry Bowser corpse. Then Jr. shows he really is loyal to his dear old dad by using that black magic to revive him, even stronger than before, and the two fight together. It's very simple, and told mainly through in-game actions, but I like how it came together.
  • ParagonT - November 22, 2013 7:35 p.m.

    I would have agreed to this around 8 years ago, but the simplicity of the story now seems more of a hindrance to me personally. I'm not saying all Mario or Nintendo games need to be "cinematic" or "cut-scene heavy", but I would like a few games to break the mold with something more. If that somehow "ruins" the Mario character, then it just shows how much Mario the character himself is driving sales alone. Variety is the spice of life, and Nintendo games are the epitome of alternate universes colliding and mashing together, so I see no reason to not try it out more often. I bet I will anger many people about this, but I find Nintendo's "gameplay" kind of over exaggerated. Most of the mechanics talked about are pretty much the same things being done for over 15 years. I will admit that certain games such as Luigi's Mansion and the like interests me and I've played them because of it. But I think Nintendo is generally glorified for things that they don't do. I'm not trying to say that any of the FPS's, Fighters, and the like are any better, but they make up for that point in story. I think that Nintendo makes up for the lack of story just with the crazy premise and versatility of the Nintendo Universe, that anything is possible and ect.... I think Nintendo games are valid and fun for many, but I think it's important to separate nostalgia and what we perceive as being "Nintendo's Innovation and gameplay" with the reality of the matter.
  • Jackonomics - November 22, 2013 8:08 p.m.

    Normally I would agree with you, if it wasn't for the fact that genre's Nintendo games are in are fucking dead.
  • TheAsterite - November 24, 2013 12:37 p.m.

    In other words you liked Metroid: Other M?

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