MOSAIC: 3 – On Generations and “Timeless” Games

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

Share this page

We are proudly a Play-Asia Partner


Ads support the website by covering server and domain costs. We're just a group of gamers here, like you, doing what we love to do: playing video games and bringing y'all niche goodness. So, if you like what we do and want to help us out, make an exception by turning off AdBlock for our website. In return, we promise to keep intrusive ads, such as pop-ups, off oprainfall. Thanks, everyone!


Mosaic Image Featured

There is an entire philosophy paper waiting to be written about how certain games remain timeless and why. While I won’t write volumes regarding this sentiment, it’s certainly worth discussing for a while. My first MOSAIC focused upon time travel, the next focused upon my life-long journey with a certain franchise. It’s only fitting that the third examines a handful of games that I truly feel are timeless—two or three games that perpetually vie for the number one spot in my list of the greatest games of all time. Without ado, ladies and gentlemen, the third chapter in my MOSAIC:


Thanks to Tom Mead from our graphic design team for this image!

Super Mario World was released on the Wii U Virtual Console this past Friday, as I write this. Regardless of how I feel about the line-up or the stigma associated with Nintendo’s retro-catered service, I put down the dollar fifty to experience SMW for the hundredth time. I tackled the “Special” levels as immediately as I could, and took screenshots to share my nostalgia with the world via the Miiverse.

It hit me as soon as I began browsing the Miiverse in my leisure—there are kids half, or even a third of my age, who are playing this game for the very first time.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that “the rapid evolution of technology kind of treats videogame hobbyists as though they age in ‘dog years’. The influences of someone who is seventeen versus someone who is my age bring about a cultural gap similar to that of you and your parents. Perhaps that’s why we’ve taken to referring to one family of consoles to the next as ‘generations’.” Every once and a while, it hits me how aged certain games and franchises really are…

My Origins piece reflects that Link’s Awakening was the game that opened my eyes to the philosophy, narrative and depth of the medium. But Super Mario Bros 3 was my absolute beginning as a gamer, because a game like that made for some damned good entertainment. I had dabbled in SMB 1 & 2 while very young, given that I held a controller in my hands about as early as a child could, but SMB3 was the one I spent the most time with, the one with the most secrets, the grandest design.

Generations Super Mario World Artwork

How many Mario games have we seen since 3 and World ruled the early/mid 90’s? …Too many. Enough to argue that “the platformer” has truly become a lost art, drowned in a sea of imitations or “here’s your gold star; you tried” kinds of games. Regardless of the sheer number of Mario games released since then, many of whom try to capture the greatness of these others (it can be argued that Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel actually succeed, but…that’s for another day), if you ask folks around my age what the best games in the franchise are—it’s usually a tie between 3 and World.

Are the other Mario games somehow invalidated? What of those who believe 64 or Sunshine are among the best? It’s important to note, moving forward with this reflection of the past, that one’s education regarding certain franchises (like Final Fantasy or—God help me, Sonic the Hedgehog) is largely a “generational” thing as well. Nostalgia plays a much bigger role in making a game “timeless” than any one of us, including me, could ever truly understand. That’s why I’m having difficulty getting into a franchise like Mega Man, despite a good number of the oprainfall Staff insisting those games are truly wonderful.

But before I get too distracted: in order to truly discuss timelessness, I must flip my metaphorical coin to the other side and discuss a character that has undergone several transformations across “generations”. Because, folks: the first time I played Super Mario World wasn’t really until I experienced it via the Wii Virtual Console. The “gaming icon” that truly had an iron-grip upon my childhood was Sonic the Hedgehog, and the game I thought couldn’t possibly be conquered, even in comparison to the SNES games I had seen at the time, was Sonic 3 & Knuckles.

Sonic 3 & Knuckles Cast

There are people whose only exposure to the “blue blur” involves the Sonic Adventure games, or even the ones that came after like Unleashed or Sonic ’06. I remained open-minded regarding Sonic, way longer than I probably should have, until I saw this trailer.

It’s quite rare that I can determine where exactly I lost faith in a certain franchise, but…man, 1:24 in that trailer is precisely one of those moments. Ever since they began to explore a sort of comic-book, action-style narrative with Sonic games, I think the platforming and other things that once made the franchise great suffered in exchange for “strengthening” the story elements. Hell, the “new Sonic persona” quite literally guns down the old; I don’t think you can get a clearer symbol of change than that.

It may come as a surprise to a handful of you, but Sonic Team told superior stories without making the characters ever speak (or wield guns, or ride motorcycles). The complete story told in Sonic the Hedgehog 3, then Sonic and Knuckles (or the two when combined—because you could “lock-on” the two games during the Genesis hay-day, hence Sonic 3 & Knuckles), is the definitive example I use when discussing how voice-acting and some movie-script style narrative is not necessary in gaming.

S3&K Narrative 001 S3&K Narrative 002 S3&K Narrative 003
S3&K Narrative 004 S3&K Narrative 005 Sonic the Hedgehog 3 Screen 001

Unfortunately, it’s not something I can discuss at length until you’ve experienced the game(s) for yourself. Not one word is exchanged from these characters, but I hope you can still see the emotion present between them. The music and world do a lot to accommodate this. I think the reason a lot of people prefer “old Sonic” to “new Sonic” is because during the pinnacle of the Genesis era, Sonic Team relied entirely upon gameplay elements, environment and music to tell a story. Too few games do this anymore… it’s an aspect of gaming I truly, truly miss.

If there were a handful of games out there I could force those born much later than me to experience, I think Sonic 3 & Knuckles would be among them. The Mario games of my youth offer quite the credit to the platforming genre, but S3&K did all that without a single line of dialogue between characters, or directed towards the player. There’s definitely something to be said about that, something that made me proud to pick Sega over Nintendo during the first real console war of the 90s. I think that competition (read: console wars) once inspired developers to create better products.

Now, I think the same thing only inspires companies to think about what sells…

Sonic Unleashed - Packshot Pose Split Super Mario Galaxy 2 Packshot Pose

It’s so very fascinating to reflect upon the present/future of Mario and Sonic. Both characters have undergone so many changes since my childhood. Mario has become a brand that Nintendo has clearly over-saturated to the point where a truly groundbreaking Mario game is hard to find in today’s world. And everything that made Sonic great, in my opinion, has been lost in the effort to create some cohesive comic-book narrative (with an abundance of characters that aren’t truly necessary).

Is it any wonder why so many of us “old folks” are truly bitter when it comes to video games as a whole? Things change, and those who resonate so deeply with the past are often not happy regarding the directions their favorite characters take across time. Given my thoughts on New Super Mario Bros U and Sonic Generations…I remain cautiously optimistic towards how developers are attempting to unify past and present ideas.

There is an entire volume of MOSAICS to be told from the eyes of the people who make games versus those who play them. On a note of unity, a note of hope, I leave the past behind, until next time…

  • I totally agree with your assessment about wordless storytelling in the old Sonic games. Just those screenshots brought me back to that Saturday afternoon when I watched Knuckles realize, in the span of a few seconds, that he had been betrayed by Robotnik. Not to mention the murals on the walls in some of the later levels giving you the sense of history around you, and progession during the act to act transitions – like Angel Island being engulfed in flames by Robotnik’s warships, all you need to know about the lengths he’ll go to get what he wants.

    There’s so much more pathos in these brief, minimalist sequences than in all the voiced cut scenes in Shadow the Hedgehog.

  • Matt Taylor

    TTo discuss the idea of narrative in a Sonic game, or Mario game for that matter is kind of missing the point. It’s only in recent years that narrative, and the idea of storytelling in video games has been given any thought, and this has obviously been as a reaction to modern games that have the technical and creative might behind them to deliver such experiences. To shoe horn in ideas about narrative in older games reeks of being a little overly pretentious. After all, did storytelling really have a place in the medium through the 70s and 80s? Did you ever wonder what Pac Man was doing in that maze and why? Did you care enough for him to escape the maze? Your answer is probably no. Video games, from their inception were something much more abstract, often quite surreal creations (I mean what the hell is a Pac Man anyway?) born of limitless enthusiasm, serious commercial drive, and incredibly limited technology. The idea of a video game, purely for video game’s sake was still the driving force behind much of the 8-Bit and 16-Bit era output, that’s not to say it wasn’t without exception, but it was very much the norm. It’s quite easy to get overly nostalgic and sentimental about games from our youth, but the fact of the matter is that the entire Sonic series just hasn’t aged with any of the grace of the Mario Bros. series. The impeccable level design, character traits, puzzle solving, and sheer cohesion of the world in the Super Mario Bros. series stands head and shoulders over anything that ever came out from Sonic’s universe. It’s testimony to Miyamoto’s strong enemy design, that you can curse and swear at every single critter that kills you by name in a Mario game, but struggle to name any of the faceless enemies dotted about Sonic’s ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ race tracks. This doesn’t necessarily make the Sonic series bad, but timeless, is perhaps something you’re nostalgic brain is projecting onto it.

    • I can 100% agree with most of what you’re saying, especially when discussing how Mario’s games have aged in comparison to Sonic’s. I do not, however, think I was shoe-horning ideas about narrative in older games… except for the two franchises I discussed. I don’t think talking about narrative in these games for a handful of paragraphs detracts from the point I was making, either.

      They were indeed surreal creations born with selling in mind, but they had to be given purpose, did they not? There are some wonderful stories told in some of the early Mario games. SMB2 was all a dream, SMB3 featured seven/eight diverse locals ruled by kings with unique attributes, and the princess was kidnapped at the end versus all along, if I recall. And Super Mario World (& Yoshi’s Island) introduced Mario’s companion and offered a take on Mario’s infancy.

      I’m not suggesting that Sonic 3 & Knuckles contains as much story-driven philosophy as a game from the modern era–but I am indeed suggesting that narrative, however thinly veiled, exists within these two franchises–and that the early Sonic games chose a more creative way to tell a story, which is to their credit.

      If that makes me overly-pretentious to you, I’m cool with that. To each his own. 🙂 But you’re totally talking to the little kid who wrote Sonic stories creating dialogue based on S3&K when he was eight, and grew up to be an aspiring novelist sometime down the line.

    • dbclick

      Well, I think the ambiance of the levels serves more purpose than that of a window dressing. Otherwise, we might as well have all the levels set in Grass Land or Angel Island (respective to Mario Bros 3 and Sonic 3). The light narrative serves as a vehicle to invest you more in the world in which you are playing. This was certainly more the case in the later 80s and into the 90s when graphics and computing power got strong enough to portray such things.

      I personally love both games and can name all of the badniks from Sonic 3 in addition to all the enemies from Mario. I do agree with Jonathan that something was lost during the transition to 3D for Sonic (though there still is some good fun to be had with Adventure behind the overblown story). Sega has definitely transformed Sonic into something it wasn’t over the years. However, do I think that there is a certain timeless element to Sonic 3 & Knuckles as well as Mario 3 (including Sonic’s refined controls, level design, and characters). Both are very different takes on the 2D platformer, but I think both are very valid and hold up well to this day in ways many other games of the time don’t. If that doesn’t define timeless, then what does? (I will readily concede that most if not all of Sonic’s later games are not timeless.)

      Two caveats: 1) You have to take Sonic 3 & Knuckles as a whole – the games separately aren’t as good as they are together. 2) I do think Mario 3 is a better game overall, if only by a little.

  • fjurbanski

    Hmmm. This is not an easy topic to discuss. But, I think a fairly simple test of “is a game timeless” is just play it again as an adult and see if it still holds up. Or you have to find another adult who never played it as a kid and see if they can enjoy it.

    For instance, the first time I played Chrono Trigger was around 2008 as a senior in high school. I’d been playing all the most recent blockbuster games, and this 16 bit game completely blew me away. Everything about it was just plain good. Timeless.

    What you cannot do, I think, is get a kid to play the game. The reason kids like the new sonic is because kids will like anything. Give a kid old sonic and they’ll probably like it too. I’ve had a few funny little “arguments” with my nephew about how old pokemon were better. Things is, he doesn’t hate the old pokemon, he thinks they’re all equal. He loves NSMB U, but when I got Mario World on the VC he wanted to play that one instead of NSMB U. Not because he preferred it, but because he hadn’t played it recently.

    Another aspect of being timeless is to not feel “factory made”. NSMB absolutely nails the fundamentals of platforming, but aesthetically it looks like it was designed by committee. And the music…… ugh.

  • Nate Gattten

    While I do praise a philosophical essay on games wherever I may find them, they are some huge problems with your argument that must be brought up.

    1. They are quite a few Sonic games that manage to maintain a story with dialouge, the most notable being on the handheld, such as Sonic Rush. I would also like to note that Sonic has the right to talk now as it is part of his character. The writing may never be as good as the Mario RPG series, but thats how it is.

    2. Mario has always been oversaturated. Count the number of mario games released in the nineties and you’d be surprised. Also, remember The Super Mario Super Show?

    3. It’s silly to compare fine vintage wine with wine yet to be vintage (catch my drift?). I hated Super Mario 64 when it first came out, but over time I grew attached to it. I realised it’s greatness lies in it’s quirks and uniqueness that was different at the time.

    Change is good, so long as you know how to change back. Peace.