A half-century ago, a young boy named Shigeru Miyamoto saw a hole in the ground near his home in the Japanese village of Sonobe. The next day, he returned with a lantern, made his way into the hole and discovered a small cavern.
"He could see that passageways led to other chambers," a profile of Miyamoto in the New Yorker noted last year. "Over the summer, he kept returning to the cave to marvel at the dance of the shadows on the walls."
Within that cave was something far more significant: Inspiration that led, much later, to Miyamoto becoming one of the world's greatest video game designers and father of two of the most beloved game series on the planet: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.
Mario, the character, was created by Miyamoto at Nintendo for 1981's Donkey Kong, and saved the floundering video game industry (and Princess Toadstool) in 1985 with the release of Super Mario Bros.
In 1986, the world was given Miyamoto's second great creation, The Legend of Zelda, featuring a small boy named Link who explores the fictional world of Hyrule with a sword and candle that reveals hidden passages and illuminates dark caves and dungeons.
25 years later, Mario and Zelda are still the flagship series at Nintendo, with the 59-year-old Miyamoto overseeing the fleet of developers and artists who create each entry. In rapid-fire succession the company has just released two new masterpieces: Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS handheld system on Nov. 13 and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii home console on Nov. 20.
Like millions of others, I've been playing Mario and Zelda games for most of my life. As a technology journalist, I've been accused of being either an Apple fanboy or a secret employee of Microsoft, depending on the article. In fact, I am neither. I am a Nintendo fanboy, utterly devoted to the products of my favorite company since the mid-to-late-1980s. And while there are other great video game series on Nintendo and other platforms, I say with the certainty of semi-rational subjectivity that Mario and Zelda are the two greatest, end of story.
While Mario, at its best, is pure fun, and absolutely nothing else, Zelda with its temples and puzzles is more like life itself: extreme frustration mixed with moments of awesomeness and an absurd sense of achievement. In 25 years, neither series has changed its basic premise. What's impressive is they give players the same feeling while pushing the bounds of new technology. From 1985's side-scrolling, pixelated adventure, Mario now runs and jumps through 3D environments courtesy of Nintendo's innovative 3DS system. And 25 years after kids controlled Link from the top-down perspective, like in a board game, the little guy in the green tunic now swings his sword not with the push of a button but with the swing of the player's hand through the wonders of motion control gaming.
Super Mario 3D Land
Video game review site IGN gave 3D Land a score of 9.5 out of 10, and it's easy to see why. The new Mario platform is both a reimagining of the earliest Mario games and proof of the viability of Nintendo's no-glasses 3D. Using the 3DS is less like watching characters jump out of the screen of a 3D movie than it is viewing a diorama in a shoebox: if done right, the extra layers make the game prettier and provide added perspective helping players navigate platforms and enemies.
Nowhere is this put to greater effect than in the battles against Bowser. 3D Land cleverly recreates the 1985 boss battles in which Mario must fight his way past the demon king and hit a switch that destroys Bowser's bridge, confining him to the lava pit in which he belongs. Instead of a straight left-to-right dash as seen in the original, 3D Mario goes forward into the landscape, then right, then forward, jumping on platforms surrounded by lava, dodging enemies and Bowser's fiery breath and stomps, up a series of collapsing steps, ultimately making a mad dash past Bowser's oncoming fireballs to the switch that dooms him to death (until the next game).
There is, basically, nothing I'd change about Super Mario 3D Land, except I would add one of those levels where you go down a giant slide as fast as Mario-ly possible. Still, there is much to do, with three hidden star medals in each course, 100 of which are required to advance to the final showdown with Bowser. Nintendo brings back the Tanooki powerup, and although the raccoon tail doesn't allow Mario to fly as it does in Super Mario Bros. 3 (my all-time favorite game) the ability to float through the air makes staying alive and grabbing those star medals a much simpler and more enjoyable task. There are even eight extra, super-hard worlds to be played once you've beaten the game, doubling its length. A good player might defeat Bowser within a few hours, but enthusiasts are rewarded with many more hours of challenging gameplay, and the ability to play as Mario's high-jumping, green-clad brother, Luigi. It's a welcoming game for amateurs, too, with the option to skip levels if you die 10 times in a row.