Continued from Part 1.
What I only realised recently is how the game teaches you that you don’t have to play the stars in order on the very first level. Right at the beginning of the game you have no choice. You must tackle star one on level one -‘Big Bob-omb on the Summit’.
After being dropped in you’re taught how to read/speak to things. This is the only thing the game forcibly teaches you, as it is the only thing it can’t teach you through reading or speaking to things, all of which is optional. The game encourages you just learned on a friendly, fuchsia explosive (remember, this is Mario), but you don’t have to.
If you do elect to, he/she/it confirms what would probably be your natural inclination based on the star’s name: to head to the top of the level’s only hill, where the personable pink ordinance tells you an important bad-guy is waiting.
Your path to this moustachioed munition however takes you right past a caged star in plain sight, guarded by a huge Chained Chomp (a massive, vicious metal ball with teeth and eyes, for those unfamiliar) whose chain is held in place by a wooden stake hammered into the ground.
You know you can ground-pound (If you read the manual. This is the 90s.), and that post looks awful stomp-able. But surely, it wouldn’t let you get that star this early… would it? Dodging the chomp, probably taking a few hits and retreating to get some health-giving coins [insert satirical comment on US health system/future of the NHS], you eventually land the three required butt-slams to drive the thing completely into the ground, freeing the chomp. Liberated, the beast galumphs in happiness, smashing the cage before bounding away to freedom. You grab the star, and upon re-entering the level discover that it was actually the sixth (of six). The blinkers are off.
I’m pretty sure this was the first star I got. The whole game isn’t quite like this; some stars can only be claimed on their specific mission, such as those where you race tortoise athlete Koopa the Quick. Other levels are changed by one-time events, as in Whomp’s Fortress, where after defeating the boss the former arena sprouts a tower, which is required to get one of the later stars.
So even with limiting cap-unlocks aside, you can’t get every star in any order. Still, this system led to some wonderful moments. The one that sticks with me most is in Shifting Sand Land. The level itself is found when after touching a seeming dead-end you notice it shimmer like the painting-portals you’ve been using. This gives it an air of mystery to begin with. The first star is supposed to be grabbed form a bird circling some columns, but why would you bother with that when there’s an awesome looking pyramid to explore? Find a certain hole and you discover the pyramid is bigger on the inside, almost another level in itself, and you’re treaded to an obstacle course of flame-spitters, electri-balls and belligerent mummified stonework.
Not all the game is this open. Towards the end the game, as games do, becomes more difficult; and as a platformer this means the terrain you traverse and the jumps you make must become more dangerous. Which means terrain must be more tightly crafted, which then means limiting choice so the player has to encounter that difficult terrain. The final two courses, Tick Tock Clock and Rainbow Ride, are the two most linear non-Bowser courses; the latter is mostly moving platforms and open sky, ensuring perilous leaps but also meaning there is little chance for exploration outside its fixed branching paths.
Super Mario 64 is still the most unrestricted Mario platformer. Follow-up Super Mario Sunshine kept the open, non-linear levels even making them larger (though fewer) but would only spawn the Shine Sprite(star) selected when entering the world, gave a pan-over of the level to your target upon starting the level and often made parts of courses inaccessible during certain Shines by closing doors or making the water poisonous and impassable. The Super Mario Galaxy games had a few stars per level, but each one was essentially a different set obstacle course on the same backdrop.
Don’t get me wrong, I like obstacle courses. In fact I usually prefer them (they mean tighter level design). I started on the 2D Mario games and love the obstacle-tastic Galaxy 2 and 3D World. In fact most of my very favourite games, 2D and 3D, are about overcoming pre-set tasks or obstacles rather than exploration. Rare took the 3D platformer ‘open ended, no fixed doodad order’ framework and ran with it in Banjo-Kazooie/Tooie and Donkey Kong 64 but I never took to either in quite the same way as Mario 64. You always remember your first, I guess…