Tuesday, October 02, 2012

 

New Super Mario Brothers 2

I have to stop doing this to myself.

When the details of the 3DS started coming out, I realized, "Wow.  This thing is going to have a lot of problems, not the least of which is the huge price tag."  But then one day, Nintendo announces that early adopters are going to be rewarded with this shower of free software, and I start thinking about how nice a portable virtual console would be, so I end up buying it anyway, and it goes straight in the desk drawer where it sits forgotten.

Then details about Super Mario 3D Land start coming out, and none of it sounds very interesting, but you know, I figure a new Mario game would be just the thing to get me interested in this expensive new device I just bought, and what do you know, it isn't.

So what was the push for New Super Mario Brothers 2?  "You can collect coins!!!"  And that was pretty much it.

Considering that Mario is arguably Nintendo's flagship property, the actual Mario games are pretty few and far between.  When a new Mario game does come out, there's usually an idea behind it.  Super Mario Brothers 3 had the crazy power-ups, Super Mario World had a dinosaur you could ride on, Super Mario 64 was 3D, Super Mario Sunshine had FLUDD, Super Mario Galaxy had all these tiny planets and crazy gravity effects, New Super Mario Brothers Wii had 4-player simultaneous play...

New Super Mario Brothers 2 has coins.  The idea is that there are coins, and you collect them.  Why? Because there are a lot of them.  There are a lot of coins, and you pick them up.  Oh, and you can be a raccoon again in this one.  Remember that, in Super Mario Brothers 3?  You liked that one, right?

It's a dull concept.  It is so dull.  Nothing about this idea excites me.  But, you know, there was that New Super Mario Brothers Wii game, I rather liked that one.  And maybe a new Mario game is just the thing to get me interested in this is going to be a huge disappointment isn't it.

Nintendo vs. The Quality of Software

You have to give Nintendo credit for recognizing a threat.  Once upon a time, cell phones were kind of a luxury and kind of a novelty, and the only people who took cell phone gaming seriously were the kind of people who have to paint ridiculous visions of the future in order to make a living and Nintendo.  It probably had to do with the fact that their home console business had been completely undermined by Sony and Microsoft, and the Game Boy, with Pok√©mon, was their lifeline.  

When the Wii was starting to make a splash, who did they point to as their biggest concern?  Not Sony.  Not Microsoft.  

Apple.  

A company that had made no formal announcement of interest in the video game market.  

And why should they?  Their approach to electronics was entirely different.  They weren't trying to cram extra features into a game device -- they were simply offering games as another feature of their tiny electronic everything-machines.

So for years, Nintendo has seen this trend, and they've been trying to move themselves into a position where they'll still be relevant when the hammer falls.  The Game Boy Advance became the SP, a slick little clamshell number that moves away from the look and feel of a toy.  Then they dropped the kid-friendly "Game Boy" name altogether, opting for the slick, never-officially-explained acronym, DS, which itself molted into a tiny MacBook and then a sort of iPhone-lite.

And now, with the 3DS, Nintendo seems determined to meet the challenge of the smartphone market head-on.  They've been speaking openly about defending their position by offering consumers a different kind of experience from smartphone gaming.  Sure, they're going to charge forty times the going rate for a portable game, but they're going to differentiate themselves by offering QUALITY.  Richer, deeper, more satsifying games, the kind of experiences that nerds obsess over.  None of these "garage developers" you get making iOS games, oh no!  Nintendo is going to be the stronghold of REAL video games.  3D graphics!  Platformers with real buttons!

The problem is that New Super Mario Brothers 2 feels like an iOS game.

I actually had a similar problem with Super Mario 3D Land.  There's just this sort of hollow feeling to it.  The level design isn't particularly interesting.  The spaces haven't really been designed to make you think, "How can I get up there?  How can I avoid that obstacle?"  Like an iOS game, it's been designed so that it's not very hard to get to the end of any particular level, and also the levels are short so that you can feel like you're accomplishing a lot very quickly.  Then there's the large coins -- again, like an iOS game, you're encouraged to "three-star" a level, which unlocks more content.  

And finally, there's the concept that you're collecting all of these coins.  Instead of making the levels interesting and challenging in the usual way, they've tried to make you think about how you can get all of the coins out of every level, and there's this counter that keeps track of all the coins you've collected, and the game connects to the Internet and keeps a tally of all the coins that have been collected worldwide, and there's already over 100 billion or something.

I don't care about coins!  I want to get to the end of the level and rescue the princess!  I'm not going to sit here and figure out how to maximize profit from this stupid coin puzzle you've put in the level!  That's the most boring thing I can imagine!  Collecting a lot of coins is a stupid gimmick that iOS games use to distract you from their complete lack of depth, and Nintendo is trying to do exactly the same thing.  It's ridiculous!  How in the hell can they call they claim to be offering a better experience than iOS games when they pull exactly the same stupid ideas that iOS games do?

Old Super Mario Brothers

I remember some grumbling around Gamecube message boards that Nintendo was milking Mario, and they needed to move on and find something else to do.  I never understood the complaints; as I said before, Mario games are relatively few, and they always bring something new to the table.  It wasn't until just recently that Nintendo have decided to start churning the games out in rapid succession.  Two Mario Galaxies, three New Super Mario Brothers games, and a Super Mario 3D Land, all within just a couple years?  That's quite a change from the 90s.  But it hasn't been a problem because the games have been pretty good.

Then you get this.

The thing about the New Super Mario Brothers games -- the first two, on the DS and Wii -- is that, while they were pretty obvious throwbacks to the NES and SNES games, with lots of fan service and references and returning enemies and everything, they remixed those familiar elements in interesting ways and included new ideas of their own, especially in the Wii game.  But here, it's like... I don't think I've seen a single element that I haven't seen in another Mario game before.  It seems like there are actually fewer kinds of enemies and level elements than there were in the first New SMB.

And these games all look the same.  And they all use the same music.  Not that it's a bad look or bad music, but this is the third game in this series, with a fourth on the way, and they're starting to blur together.  Arguably, the early Mario games were more distinct because of the way technology had changed from one to the next, but I miss the way each game had its own feel.

And there's the raccoon tail.  It's really awful because it's such an obvious attempt on Nintendo's part to remind the fans of one of their favorite old Mario games -- in this game and Super Mario 3D Land.  But Super Mario Brothers 3 was more than just Mario in a fursuit -- it was cool enemies and level elements, and the way every level had its own idea, and this sort of RPG mechanic where you could store items and use them strategically.  They wanted to play on our feelings of nostalgia, but there's nothing else to it.

Nintendo Doesn't Want People to Use Their Online Store

When Nintendo announced that their next portable console and its games were going to compare in price to the Wii, I was more than a bit disheartened.  The low price tag has always been one of the most attractive features of portable games.  It's really curbed my interest in the games coming out; if I'm going to pay $40 for a game, it better be damned good.

So when Nintendo announced that all of their first-party software on 3DS and Wii U would have a downloadable counterpart, I was quite interested.  Perhaps, without production and distribution costs, Nintendo will be able to offer their games at slightly cheaper costs.  Perhaps this is their solution to the fact that Nintendo downloads have been underperforming.  Of course I wasn't expecting the $2-$8 price range of DSiWare.  Of course I can appreciate that full retail-release software is going to be more robust than those smaller projects and command a higher price.  So what price range are we talking about here?  Twenty dollars seems a bit low.  Thirty maybe?

Nope.  Full price.

Full.  Fucking.  Price.

Nintendo wants you to pay exactly the same price whether you go to the store and buy the cartridge or whether you download it from their online shop.

You can spend $40 and download a piece of software that is tied to a single device -- not an account with multiple active devices shared by siblings or a household or even a single nerd who just happens to like acquiring multiple units -- and which can be transferred to different devices a limited number of times.  Or, for the same price, you can buy a physical cartridge that can be exchanged, save slots and all, as many times as you like between as many devices as you like, which will occasionally go on sale at brick and mortar shops, and which can be sold back to someone else when you decide you're tired of it.

I kind of understand Nintendo wanting to maintain good relationships with retail distribution by not undercutting them with a cheaper e-Shop version of the same software.  I totally get that there is more to making business decisions than simply giving the customer everything they want every time.  But you are not allowed to act surprised or disappointed when you discover that customers are not downloading your games -- they were talking about something like only 5% of sales came from downloads in Japan? -- when you have given them no incentive to do so and a number of incentives not to.

Ill Tidings

I'll just say it.  I don't like the trend Nintendo is taking.  One dull Mario game is unfortunate.  But two in the same year starts to look like a pattern.  They're not differentiating themselves from iOS.  They're not even holding up to their own standards.

Maybe it's just that they lost their footing with the weak 3DS launch, so they had to kind of rush these games to have something on store shelves.  Maybe their A teams are busy prepping for the Wii U launch.

But this game seems to be indicative of the trajectory of the 3DS so far.  From the dumb AR toys that came in the box to the limited video service to the tiny e-Shop to the retail software, it's just been a lot of flashy experiences that are pretty to look at, but have nothing beneath the surface.   As much as they want to be the alternative to iOS, they're falling into the same traps, and they're not even offering the lower price tag to justify it.

I hope they can turn this thing around.

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