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Ori and the Blind Forest: How Moon Studios Made the Anti-Mario

Content of the article: "Ori and the Blind Forest: How Moon Studios Made the Anti-Mario"

I have a confession. I don't think 2D Mario games are… fun. Don't get me wrong, I love 2D platformers, I consider them to be among my favorite genres, but I've never really enjoyed Mario's. If you know anything about platformers and their history, you know that this is a problem, as almost every single one is heavily based on everyone's favorite plumber.

But there's been something of a quiet revolution happening in the platformer world recently. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze scored amazingly high on many reviews by eschewing traditional Nintendo level design. Celeste used an entirely unique level structure and checkpoint system to create one of the most beloved games of the decade. But above all of these lies one title that managed to do what no other game has. One platformer that ignored every design decision Nintendo made, instead choosing to forge it's own path. One game, that truly stands as the Anti-Mario. Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a 2015 game developed by Moon Studios exclusively for the Xbox One. It was published by Microsoft Game Studios and went on to be a moderate success, at least enough to warrant a 2020 sequel. It's a Metroidvania title that breaks from the genre's norms by focusing on platforming, something that feels more like an afterthought in most Metroidvanias. But how exactly does it undo Mario's design?

The first key to the puzzle is right there in the genre, Ori isn't even a traditional platformer, it's a Metroidvania, a genre just niche enough to warrant a small explanation. The core of any Metroidvania is exploration. They have a simple gameplay loop. Explore. Find a roadblock. Explore elsewhere. Find an upgrade. Use the upgrade to pass the roadblock. Repeat until the whole map is available. Most of them are focused on combat instead of intense platforming. They often have very forgiving jumps and fairly simple challenges with them to make exploring less tedious, since that is most of what the player will be doing. Combat is usually where the difficulty lies, and it's also where Ori's first subversion is found.

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Ori's combat sucks. You mash a button, and your wisp friend shoots fire that automatically locks onto nearby enemies. And that's not a complaint. Ori isn't about combat. Enemies are there to provide dynamic obstacles and to liven up the world. Combat is only in the game because enemies are. It was never meant to be the focus, so making it very simple is a great way to communicate that. Ori is a platformer. But you don't always go right. You have a whole world to explore and uncover, not levels. Challenges are built into that world. It's obvious that it doesn't follow Mario's structure.

That's it. That's the post. Ori is the Anti-Mario because it doesn't follow Mario's structure. I'm only half joking. This is an important part, but Celeste also has it's own setup, one much more unique than Ori's. There's one other key way that Ori breaks away from Mario, and it's a little bit harder to see.

Sort of. It's actually noticeable from moment one. Ori's jump is floaty. Mario doesn't stay in the air very long. His game is built around precision, so having that very small window is important for the key objective of the game. But Ori is different, he stays in the air for a long time, and slowly unlocks abilities that keep him there longer. That's because Ori isn't about precision. Ori is about airtime. The challenge doesn't lie in timing the jump from point A to point B, it lies in chaining the right sequence of moves together to get there. This is what makes Ori special. Challenges can work in both directions because precision isn't the point. The first upgrade literally allows you to scale walls. It's about reaching the next objective, not timing it.

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In spite of my gushing, Ori isn't perfect. The game gets pretty complicated as abilities pile up and challenges get harder. I found myself fighting to remember the controls way more often than I was fighting enemies. The game can drag, and the story often tries way too hard to make you cry. But in spite of all of this I can't stop thinking about it. Because Ori dared to try something entirely it's own. And even if it falters at times, that attempt is still worth commending for the breath of fresh air it provides. I love Ori. It is among my favorite games ever made, because it tried to be it's own, something no platformer has done in decades. Ori forged it's own path, and with any luck, it's a path many studios will follow.


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