Saturday, March 03, 2007


The Greatest Game Ever

I remember it well. It was a bright and cheerful November morning. Folks were lined up outside the Funcoland, ready for the day of the big launch, and I was near the front of the line.

When the doors opened, the clerks announced that they hadn't received as much stock as they'd wanted, and told the people who had pre-ordered that they would get a discount if they were willing to settle for a gray cartridge. I scoffed at the offer, smug in my assurance that my early arrival had earned me the special collector's edition gold cartridge. After all, what had I pre-ordered it for if not for the bragging rights?

I remember paying about seventy bucks for it. The clerk who rang me up offered me the box with a wistful look in his eye. "The store won't let me buy it from here until after Christmas," he confided. "Enjoy it for me, all right?"

I assured him with a smile that I would.

And that was how I came to own The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. I almost immediately joined in the chorus of Nintendo fans who sang its praises far and wide in the hopes of driving away the foul and demonic influence of Sony from this world. "ELEVEN OUT OF TEN!!!" the reviews declared. It was the greatest game ever made! It was a flawless work of art! It belonged in a museum! It cured cancer and AIDS!

I bought right into the hype. And I kept repeating it to myself, over and over. This is an adventure like no other. This is the most absorbing video game experience in the world. The storyline and the characters are deeply moving. This is the only game I'll ever need for as long as I live.

Over and over again, I lied to myself.

Even when it became clear that I wasn't absorbed by it, that I wasn't even happy playing it, that I would never bother to finish it, I continued to cling to the idea that it was a beautiful game, a perfect game, a flawless game.

But eventually, mercifully, the fanboy in me died. And, finally, I admitted to myself, if no one else, that I'd been a dupe, a dummy, a sheep. I'd let other people make my mind up for me.

Don't get me wrong. I can see why other people enjoy the game so much. It's well-crafted and epic in its scope.

But it's not the greatest game ever.

It's made for a very specific audience: the people who enjoyed the rest of the Zelda series. And when it comes down to it, the Zelda series has always forged its identity from its reputation as a hardcore game. From the very first game in the series, which seems like it was designed to sell strategy guides with its obscure and often unmotivated "puzzles", Zelda was an exclusive club where the big boys of the video game world hung out.

And so it was with Zelda 64. Twice I resorted to a walkthrough to figure out how to advance the plot. The first time, it was because I hadn't seen the bottle at the bottom of the lake that I'd needed. The second time, it was because I hadn't the faintest idea that I was supposed to be pushing around tombstones at random until I found the one that the hookshot was hidden under. These weren't puzzles in the sense that a problem was presented to me and I had to work out a solution -- these were simply game-halting tasks that required persistence, patience, or psychic perception on the part of the player. And yet, both times that I resorted to a walkthrough, I felt like I had failed, like I wasn't good enough to figure these things out. It obviously wasn't the game's fault -- it's the greatest game ever, right? -- so it had to be some sort of failing on my part. Right?

This was a perception that I carried with me until I started playing through The Wind Waker. I actually thought it was modestly enjoyable until I came to the slime-infested Deku Tree and spent an hour trying to remove the slimes from it. And that's when I had an epiphany.

The greatest game ever shouldn't be an exclusive club. It should be a game that anyone can enjoy. Hell, that should be self-evident; it should be implied by the title "Greatest Game Ever", but a lot of reviewers live in that exclusive club bubble and don't always see when a game just doesn't appeal to the people on the outside. A game doesn't have to be easy, just accessible. It should never make the player feel cheated, like he never had a chance to figure out the solution.

Thing is, what constitutes the Greatest Game Ever is completely subjective and open to interpretation. One person's Greatest Game Ever may not be the same as another person's. I understand this.

However, it doesn't change the fact that I'm right and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.

In that spirit, let me explain to whoever wants to read this that Super Mario 64 is, in fact, the Greatest Game Ever. Furthermore, let me give you some reasons why I believe this.

It Keeps Things Simple

Okay, so maybe having a character with 327 different ways to jump and dozens of multi-button moves is a little more complicated than the original Super Mario Brothers. Still, the basics are mostly intuitive and there's rarely need for the more advanced moves.

And while a lot of games like to pile on the complexity as the player gets further in and force him to backtrack with the new moves he's learned (I'm looking at you, Banjo-Kazookie), SM64 is pretty conservative about giving Mario new ways to solve puzzles. Apart from the power star requirements to reach each new stage in the game, the world is usually pretty open-ended. Very rarely will you find an interesting nook or cranny that the game will keep out of reach until you've aquired some sort of special item.

It's Non-Linear

When I got stuck on Zelda 64, there wasn't much I could do about it. Either I had to figure out the solution or give up and read a walkthrough.

You can't get stuck in Super Mario 64. Out of the 120 stars in the game, fully 50 of them are optional -- and you get to pick which 50 you're going to ignore. Hell, the first time my brother and I played through, we crossed the finish line without ever finding the red cap switch or Big Boo's Haunt. Zelda would've scolded us and told us we weren't going anywhere until we'd figured out where they were. Mario let us run off and do something else.

It's Fun to Play

Many, many times I have booted up Super Mario 64 just to take a slide down Cool, Cool Mountain, take a swim with Dorrie in Hazy Maze Cave, climb Tick Tock Clock or Tall, Tall Mountain, screw around in Tiny Huge Island, or just wander around aimlessly in the castle courtyard. The environments are fun to just play in, even if you don't have any particular reason to be there.

If a player feels compelled to play your game just for the sake of playing it -- win or lose -- you've done something right.

It's Epic

Not even the most hardcore of gamers can balk at the sheer mass of this game. There's a wide variety of environments -- Super Mario staples like water levels, ice levels, sky levels, plus a healthy dash of new locations like Tick Tock Clock and Tiny Huge Island -- and 120 different objectives to fulfill. Despite its low barrier to entry, it's a meaty, satisfying game. Quite an amazing feat for a launch title!

While Zelda 64 may be the darling of the hardcore Nintendo fans everywhere, Super Mario 64 is the game with the real widespread, lasting appeal. Both games will endure through the ages, to be sure, but the magic and fun of Super Mario transcends skill levels. It's truly a game for everyone.


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