I’ve been playing a lot of Splatoon 2 lately and enjoying it a bunch. One thing that I’ve done so far that I didn’t get to do as much in the first game though was play the story mode; I mostly just didn’t have time then, more than anything. Naturally, I decided to correct that with the sequel, and I found something interesting within: the level design is highly reminiscent of another game I had been thinking about recently.
I’ve had Super Mario Sunshine on my mind lately. There’s no specific reason, it’s just been a handful of small things that bring it to mind on occasion. It got a lot of flak at the time of release, some of which was due to changes it made to the beloved Super Mario 64’s formula, which is to be expected with Nintendo. They’re constantly tinkering with their franchises, and won’t release something unless they feel like it brings something substantial to the series.
I liked a lot of the new stuff, and unfortunately, there hasn’t really been a game since that quite capitalized on some of the things they introduced. The water/jetpack-thing that Mario wielded was one thing in particular that I minded a lot less than everyone else. The level design was also notably different than most subsequent 3D platform games. Sunshine built on Mario 64’s system of a hub world (Delfino Island in Sunshine, Princess Peach’s Castle in 64) with extensive connected levels, which was pretty ubiquitous to the genre at the time.
Sunshine seemed to almost build an entirely connected world; unlike in earlier games like 64, where levels were simply represented by paintings, you could see the levels in Sunshine from each other, way out on the horizons of the stages. Dummied-out data even reveals a planned train connected the world even more; were it not for size-limitations, the game might have been even more interconnected. But this aspect seemed to sort of dead-end with the game.
The one aspect of the game that many people at the time seemed to really like about Sunshine at the time though was the bonus levels. These were collections of floating platforms in a space-like void, stars in the distance, where you’d be stripped of your F.L.U.D.D. waterpack (for the first run-through, at least) to focus on precise jumps and maneuvering. It’s not hard to see how this fed into the design of the follow-up game, Super Mario Galaxy. Every level in the game was collections of planets floating in space, each focusing on jumping and maneuvering without the distraction of a waterpack.
Consequently, the main hub world of Comet Observatory was scaled back to a fraction of Isle Delfino, with a fraction of the areas to explore and tasks to navigate. This was something that the follow-up, Super Mario Galaxy 2, would take to even greater extremes, leaving something that was in total not even the size of the first section of the Castle from way back in Super Mario 64, with most of the navigation of worlds done via selection screens.
And this has sort of been the state of 3D platformers since. Super Mario 3D World got an overworld sort of similar to Super Mario World from way back on the Super Nintendo (maybe it's own topic one day, given my love of Super Mario World), but nothing quite like those original hub worlds of 64 and Sunshine.
And that’s where the Splatoon series and its story mode ties in, in my mind. These games seem to be going back to the days of Super Mario Sunshine and exploring a divergent evolutionary path from the Mario series.
The most obvious change is in the central mechanics of each. Given that people complained about the mechanic of an advanced water gun strapped to Mario, Nintendo apparently decided it was worth separating out into its own game, where it could be fleshed out and played with more extensively and without disrupting the core of the Mario series. In turn, that became a game centered entirely around the mechanics of a Super Soaker-esque water gun and tank strapped to your back, albeit with the ammo changed to ink to fit in with the squid theming of the new game. And, thanks to focusing on this mechanic, the game instead veered more towards the third person shooter genre rather than the 3D platformer.
But it didn’t totally abandon those roots. The level design in story mode is heavily indebted to the same bonus stages that inspired Super Mario Galaxy, as a set of floating platforms suspended in some sort of void that need to be navigated, the main difference being that this time the challenges are a little less based on deft maneuvering and more based on the this-time-included gun mechanic.
And of course, there’s the overworld system. Both Splatoon games moved away from Super Mario Galaxy 2’s primarily-menu based navigation. Instead, there’s a central hub world of a city plaza serving as the menu for each game, with the story mode getting it’s own set of “mini-worlds” in which you navigate to different levels by finding grates to travel through, and completion of a set of levels opens up new “mini-hubs” with their own sets of levels, much like Super Mario 64’s castle with paintings for individual levels and different sections of the castle with new sets of paintings to travel to. And in the case of Splatoon 2 at least, you can see other points from where you stand; the main square is off in the distance, as are the other “mini-hubs”. It’s definitely reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine’s set-up. It's still not quite on the level of Isle Delfino, which was set up to feel like a real place, while the hubs in Splatoon (outside of the main plaza) are still technically just floating blocks in space, but it's definitely moving back in that direction after a long time away from that design.
It’s worth noting that the Splatoon games may just be a preview of things to come for Nintendo. This fall, they’ll release Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch, and while we don’t know the exact specifics of how it will play, it looks like it might take the design of Sunshine a step further, with small worlds serving as both the individual levels of the old games and the hub worlds. So instead of one major central area with a bunch of different “spokes” coming off it, instead we may get several interconnected worlds that are both their own “hubs and spokes”, with their own missions and goals throughout.
If so, I couldn’t be more excited; it’s been a decade and a half since Super Mario Sunshine, and things like Splatoon 2 seem to indicate Nintendo is itching to return to their old ways. I can’t see what big ideas they can bring back to the 3D Platformer; I've missed seeing this genre push itself in new ways.