A kingdom for a castle garden

Have fun!” is an absurd, contradictory order, right at the same level as its siblings „be spontaneous!“ and „don’t think about it”! Thinking that you could control emotions and thoughts via simple commands makes you naive, psychotic or a video game tutorial.

Back in 1996 everything seemed to be nicely on its way just when for the first time Super Mario jumped out of the pipe into the third dimension of Princess Peach’s castle garden. The paradigm shift did not only bring technical challenges. A very new language was needed to be found and taught with which one could be expressive in a satisfying way. Enough of the simple “go right until you hit the goal”; a task that needs lots of reaction but only little decision making. Now, with only one additional dimension, the possibilities and questions of the gaming world and its interactions were massively multiplied.

The industry often thinks of level 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. as the perfect archetype of an intuitive how-to-play. I say, the castle garden from Super Mario 64 is the actual pinnacle of all beginning levels in which Nintendo used two things most prominently: space and time.

After a short but effective introduction Mario jumps out of his iconic pipe and into the castle garden of Princess Peach, which neither has enemies nor serious hazards. There is no event on the horizon where one could feel drawn to, no arrow or signpost, not even music. The silence. The freedom. Only my curiosity and the plumber’s full body breathing.

As if by accident I start to run, try a button and jump. First short, then long, then towards a tree and whoops – Mario can climb them! I wanna go further and do a hand stand in the top of the tree. Impressive and expressive. I did this all by myself, I comprehend it and wanna try more. Walking, slow and fast (what does this button do?) and hey – I can swim and dive in the water.

It feels good to navigate through the garden, although I do not now where to and why, but I wanna try just because. Playing for playing’s sake, not because somebody tells me how it works. My motivation comes from my insides, it is intrinsic. This is how I played as a child, this is how I learned playing.

The game shows respect for this seemingly meaningless experience and with that, for the first time by a game, I feel treated like a person with agency, with the capability for decision making and learning – in short: like an adult. I cannot remember that a game before or after ever dared so little offensive tutoring in a tutorial level. Even the successors in the main Mario franchise all start with a clear goal, with text boxes and “Simon says“ sections.

Granted, video game design faces more and more challenges, juggling experienced player and noobs, boredom and overload, frustration and success, topped with issues of time and monetary budgets. In a modern game the castle garden might not have a place anymore, maybe that magic was too tightly bound to the 2D/3D-shift and nothing like it will ever appear again.

With the beginning of the (performant) 3D-era, Nintendo delivered a perfect balance. Luckily, the learnings from there were not entirely sacrificed by set piece corridors and “press x to pay respects” prompts. In modern format one can find the spirit of the castle garden in games like Breah of the Wild, Dark Souls or even Subnautica. Games, that left a huge footprint in the video game landscape. They are standing on the shoulder of giants und became giants themselves. It will always be a wonderful mystery to me on what shoulders Super Mario 64 might have stood to find such a perfection in the early days.

If you do not know Super Mario 64 you are either really young or lived the last couple of years as an eremite. As the 3D debut of the Nintendo mascot, the game was along Pilotwings 64 one of the two launch games for the Nintendo 64 which saw the day of light 1996 in Japan and the USA and was the first Nintendo console with enough power for smoothly playable 3D worlds. The game got remade 2004 for the Nintendo DS and also re-released in the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection for the Nintendo Switch this year.

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