Back in the days when sprites were moved around the screen in a linear fashion, with pixel-perfect accuracy often required to overcome single-screen levels and similarly limited enemies, Super Mario Bros on the NES opened up opportunities for creative level design and an equal amount of creativity on the player’s part to navigate them.
This more freeform approach to character movement was mainly provided by a reliance on inertia, giving a constant sense of analogue manipulation of speed providing cautious walking, adrenaline-fuelled running and in-air controlled jumping throughout each of the carefully crafted levels.
Faux Analogue Control
Long before the introduction of true analogue movement with the N64’s revolutionary analogue thumbstick, simulated analogue control was provided via the acceleration control on the NES’ B (fire) button. Holding B accelerated up to run speed, releasing B decellerated down to walk speed, with the all-important on/off control affording the player access to all speeds in-between.
The exact same control was available to jump-heights, with vertical height increasing dependent on the duration the A (jump) button was held. These two seemingly simple variables allowed control over both the X and Y axis prevalent in the 2D gameworld of the day.
The Move To 3D
The move to 3D was again spearheaded by the Mario series. While games such as the same-era Tomb Raider relied on a button press to enable walking, (most likely as a requirement to ensure safe passage navigating the many perilous drops), speed variability was afforded purely via the analogue thumbstick. The new frontier open to the 3D pioneers at Nintendo was directional movement, and they milked it to a new level compared to other developers still struggling to shoe-horn 3D games into 2D sensibility constraints. Known as 2.5D, (two-and-a-half D), see Pandemonium and the Tekken series.
Mario 64 focused on momentum via inertia, where said momentum was lost under improper handling of the titular hero, encouraging players to carve out organic circular turns, build up speeds to overcome longer jump distances, as well as link several jumps together to reach greater heights.
This deliberate reliance on momentum provided a more energetic and thrilling navigation of the “instant death”-laden vertical landscape than the altogether slower-paced and more cerebral (though no less fun) Tomb Raider.
(thanks to this guy for the use of his Mario3 guitar cover)
Look to Mario 64, or the recent DS re-release, to see the original occurrence of recent driving animation mainstays 90 and 180 degree turns and turn-leaning. By penalising the player for turning too sharply via the loss of momentum, the player is forced to take a more organic approach to driving Mario if they wish to prevail.
Interestingly, the more recent and less-than-perfect Mario Sunshine eschewed a reliance on momentum for the first time in the series, illustrated best by the immediate 180 degree turn with no loss of speed, (most visible at the static “save-game select” screen), and in my opinion suffered all the more for it.
Achieving the correct amount of inertia is paramount to the player’s enjoyment in driving around their character. Too much and the whole game can feel slow and unresponsive, but too little and a golden opportunity for adding another layer of fun to the game is lost.