film studies has drilled into my heads that movies and tv are still absurdly young artistic mediums, so if you think about it, video games are still just barely getting out of their infancy. as i write this article, Pong’s still a few months away from rounding the big 5-0. sure, graphics are continually squeezed further and further past a point of diminishing returns, but that’s just on the technical end of things. the ways in which players interact with games is constantly changing, with common conventions slipping in and out of fashion over the last half-century. the theory of what makes a video game fun is a subjective art form we’re going to be chasing for a long, long time. today, i want to take the time to champion one of my favorite methods of interactivity in games, a technique that is equal parts stuck in another time and still gripping the industry to this day. let’s talk hub worlds.

back in the era of the arcade, video games were bite-sized experiences meant to drive players to out-do their peers and themselves, often to the tune of 25 cents per play. they were, in a sense, like board games or sports - you play once, your score’s your score, and the next time you go at it, you’re starting from square one to see if you can do better this time around. even in the earliest days of consoles designed for the home, though, developers were chasing the illusion of a continuous long-form experience. if the game was at the player’s fingertips, how do you keep them coming back? you iterate, you extend the experience, and you find ways to reframe the experience.

The World 1 map screen from Super Mario Bros. 3

RPGs and the often ill-defined “action-adventure” genre were trying to create fleshed-out worlds even when the hardware could hardly support them - games like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest are looked back on harshly, but not for a lack of trying when it comes to crafting an interconnected experience. even platformers like Super Mario Bros. were picking up a few tricks here and there, with the third entry in the series adding a connective map between levels with branching paths, optional content, and moving enemies. sure, it’s hardly the most convincing ‘world’, but it’s an ambitious leap ahead of the original game’s simple “WORLD 1-1” title cards, especially when you consider that the two games were running on the same system.

flash forward to the mid-90s, and just like with the move from arcades towards home console experiences, the incoming rise of 3D games was a tumultuous time for the industry. there was no standard for how a player was going to expect a 3D game to control, and companies all had to devise their own solutions in an increasingly competitive market, innovating on their 2D games while simultaneously trying to keep one step ahead of their fellow studios.

there’s plenty to be said for all the things Super Mario 64 did for the art of video games - the work that went into translating Mario’s movement to something that feels just as ‘right’ in the hands even with an entirely new axis of depth, the oddities of the Nintendo 64’s controller and how they were fine-tuned to try and ease players into the mindset of options like camera control and analog movement. i am not here to dive into the fundamental game design questions of what makes a good 3D game, or why Super Mario 64 does or doesn’t accomplish those things. we’re talking about one specific slice of its massive influence on the history of video games.

Princess Peach’s castle is, at least in my opinion, one of the biggest ongoing icons of the Super Mario series as a whole. castles have always had their place in the series from day one, but this isn’t just any castle, this is very much the castle, the one you probably think about if you’re not just picturing the sprite from the original game. it’s the first place you see in Super Mario 64, and it’s the connective tissue of the whole experience. any level you access is through the context of being found somewhere in the castle, through paintings, a choice which has always struck me as somewhat odd and only very sparingly gets touched on by Nintendo themselves. the player has the freedom to roam both inside and outside of the castle, and more of it keeps opening up as you collect more stars.

maybe this is all a little unnecessary to recap, but let’s stop and think about it for a second, especially in contrast to what came before. Mario can very easily be thought of as a linear experience, but 3 and World showed ambition in how they implemented their map screens to flesh out the world as it existed just off-screen from these isolated levels. Super Mario 64 isn’t out here letting you roam the entirety of the kingdom, but by narrowing its focus onto the castle, the developers were able to truly let the player interact with another layer of Mario's world. the paintings, odd as they are, provide a clear contextual reason for the main stages to be isolated spaces, and engaging with a place that exists between these areas is just baked into the experience. the map screens provided a shallow sense of location and continuity - the castle demands your attention, requires that you engage with the things that go on between levels.

on top of providing that sense of location and context for Mario's adventure, the castle serves a very necessary role in easing players into the concept of moving a character around in three-dimensional space. it’s like a lobby - although, to be fair, there is also just literally a lobby. the player is given the freedom before approaching any goal to get a feel for how Mario moves, to, in the parlance of our times, “fuck around and find out”. it is easy to take for granted now, over 25 years later, as conventions and expectations for 3D games have emerged from the primordial soup of the N64 era, but i can imagine the developers probably found it very necessary to provide this cushioning layer of content between players and the main stages. documentation of the early days of Super Mario 64 show that the concept certainly took off quickly - an early version of the castle’s interior is featured in the famous Shoshinkai demo, while the exterior can be seen in patent documents for the Nintendo 64 itself.

it is at this point in the article that i must confess to committing the cardinal sin of being a Fake Gamer, though. i have dabbled in Super Mario 64, but it was not the game that made me fall in love with hub worlds. by the time my mind was developed enough to grasp that the funny plastic in my hands was making something happen on the television, the Nintendo GameCube was the console of choice, and it was Super Mario Sunshine that has always been my one true hub world love.

i'll do my best to keep the rose-tinted glasses off for this section, but i love Delfino Plaza so much. to this day, i think some of my most formative memories of playing video games at all are firing up the GameCube not to go collect Shine Sprites, but to simply explore the game's hub world. Isle Delfino is so ingrained into my mind that, much like with real-world locations, i find that i remember it being much bigger when i was a kid.

so, then, what changed in the six years between these two games? Super Mario Sunshine has a reputation for being one of the weirder games in the series, and that reflects in the presentation of Delfino Plaza. gone are the days of the prim and proper castle music, replaced with infectiously jaunty and folksy guitar. for as odd as Sunshine seems in hindsight, i think it executes on its main vision of "Mario on vacation" exceptionally well. the plaza is a sort of diametric opposite to the castle grounds in many ways - rather than being boxed in by hills on all sides, it's main boundary is a wide open sea. the indoor areas have been de-emphasized, with all the level entrances scattered out in the open town. perhaps some of these decisions were the result of Nintendo wanting to flex the computational power of the GameCube, but regardless of where the initiative came from, it lends the area a very distinct and memorable feel.

even moreso than Peach's castle, Delfino Plaza experiences a lot of change as you play the game. the entire area brightens up as you collect more and more Shine Sprites, and the game is constantly highlighting new developments in town through introductory cutscenes whenever you load back into the hub world. more than any other Super Mario game, i feel like Sunshine does by far the best job of feeling like it takes place in, well, a place - the levels here aren't abstracted in the same way as 64's paintings, they're just literal parts of the island Mario is able to visit, contextualized through the lens of Delfino Plaza as the center of the resort.