Tuesday, March 19, 2013


My Favorite Mario Games

I've long counted myself as a Nintendo fan, but it's more accurate to say that I'm a Mario fan.  At least, this is what I've been telling myself for years.  But when Super Mario 3D Land didn't impress me and I actively disliked New Super Mario Brothers 2, it made me wonder if some sort of problem has arisen.  Am I growing out of the series?  Has its quality dipped?

But then I got to thinking.  There have been a lot of Mario games, haven't there?  And it's not like I've loved every single one of them.  I'm not alone in dismissing Super Mario Brothers 2.  Super Mario World was flashy and 16-bitty, but it didn't really inspire the same cherry Kool Aid sugar rush addiction that its immediate prequel gave me.

And it made me wonder.  Do I have another Zelda situation here?  In spite of my stated devotion to the Mario franchise, am I really just talking about a small number of favorites?

So sure.  Here's my favorite Mario games.  Only the good ones.

And since Mario has been in everything from tennis to Dance Dance Revolution, I figured I should narrow the scope strictly to platformers.  You know, games where your primary means of interacting with the world is running and jumping.  You start at one spot in a level, and you try to reach a different spot.  By this definition, I'm discluding the RPGs with turn-based combat.  Super Paper Mario would qualify, but it's not on this list because I just plain don't like it.

Also, it would have to be a Mario game.  Mario has to be a playable character.  So a number of games that I really like -- Warioland, Yoshi's Island -- are not up for consideration.

So here's the list.

Super Mario Brothers

Super Mario Brothers was the killer app for the NES, and it really pushed the whole video game industry to a different level.  It was sort of the pivot point where developers stopped thinking in terms of quarter-sucking amusements and toward more adventurey kinds of games.

These days, it sticks out as looking kind of primitive, and the gameplay is kind of basic, but damned if I don't still play it.  There was a long period where I wouldn't, just because it was such a step backward.  But then it was re-released for the Game Boy Color, and it made me realize, yeah, this is still fun.  Even without the raccoon suits or airships or even the ability to scroll left, it's still so much fun to play.

Super Mario Brothers 3

This game was one of the marvels of the NES.  I mean, it was just HUGE.  So many levels, so many great ideas, so many secrets.  Owning this game was basically THE event of my childhood.  I spent so much time going through its strategy guide, so much time exploring it just to explore it, so much time just thinking about it even when I couldn't play it.  And it still stands up today, whether it's on the Wii Virtual Console or on the Game Boy Advance.

Donkey Kong '94

The Game Boy was a pretty amazing gadget when it came out.  If not the first of its kind, then at least the first runaway success.  And yet, when I played the Super Marioland games, I could never escape the fact that these were the pocket versions, you know?  It was like playing a Game & Watch or Tiger Handheld remake of your favorite NES game -- there was just no getting away from the fact that this was the shrunken-down version.

Then the Super Game Boy launched with this remake of Donkey Kong, and I didn't really pay attention to it.  Donkey Kong was that old NES game, right?  The one with four levels that looped forever?

But when my cousin let me try his copy, I was floored.  Yes, it's Donkey Kong, but it's like Donkey Kong reborn.  There's so many more levels and so much more to do; it was Donkey Kong taken apart and rebuilt with more modern, Mario-y sensibilities.  I bought my own copy, and I've loved it ever since.  This was the real Game Boy Mario game.

Super Mario 64

Why Super Mario 64?  Why is this the one that I keep coming back to?  Why not the more impressive Sunshine or Galaxy games?  Is it just the nostalgia goggles?

I think it's just the fact that Super Mario 64 was designed to be a world to be explored rather than an obstacle course to be run through.  There's a real feeling of openness to its worlds that sort of encourages you to have a look around and see what might be hiding in its nooks that you don't get with some of the more modern 3D Mario games.  Your path isn't very well-defined.  You can get the stars out of order and skip some altogether.  And while this can be kind of frustrating at times -- I remember spending a lot of time wondering what the hint at the beginning of a level was supposed to mean -- it's also very freeing.  You can strike off in any direction you like, and you're almost certain to find something interesting eventually.

And there's also a very pleasant retro-future feeling to it.  Like, back in the 90s, this is what we thought Virtual Reality was going to look like.  Things made of polygons, weird floating geometric shapes with flat shading or incredibly pixelated textures.  The world is just so strange and alien.  I love coming back to it.

And the DS version -- with more playable characters and new levels -- is a lot of fun too.

The Subspace Emissary

Maybe I'm kind of fudging my definition here -- this qualifies as much for my Zelda list as my Mario list -- but hey.  You can play as Mario.  There's platforming.  It fits.

The Subspace Emissary doesn't get enough love, as I've opined in the past.  I'll never understand how people can be unhappy about a game where all of the Nintendo characters meet to battle each other and, eventually, to team up against an enormous evil that's threatening all of their worlds.

New Super Mario Brothers Wii

This is the single best Mario game ever.  Where New Super Mario Brothers on the DS was just sort of a nice throwback to classic platforming games, this felt like a game that was decades in the making.  Not a single note rings false.  So many familiar elements of the Mario canon have been brought together -- the Koopalings, Bowser Jr., Kamek, the airship, Yoshi, Bowser -- and not a single one of them was thrown in offhandedly.  Everything has been developed and had a new twist put on it.  Every single level has an idea to it.  Simultaneous four-player is so fun and so natural -- it's really the only way to play.


Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Jungle Juice

My iPad hasn't survived as a game device.  The potential for games is amazing, but something about it turns me off.  It doesn't help that the freemium/social model has gotten so popular there, resulting in an avalanche of variations on the themes of Farmville and Words With Friends.

But my Kindle survives.  The limitations of the hardware force developers into some fairly narrow genres, but it's also inspired some to put a creative spin on familiar ideas.

Jungle Juice is a Lemonade Stand game.  You figure out how much juice to make every day based on the weather, set the prices, and so on.  But two things set it apart.  First, there's just the fact that it's been so thoroughly developed.  There are three game modes, each of which has a different level of management and involvement by the player.  On the easiest setting, you just specify the number of cups per day, the price per cup, and advertising.  On the next setting, you have to manually manage stocks.  On the hardest setting, you even have to adjust your recipe to your customers' tastes.  There are upgrades to buy and achievements to earn and there's really just a whole lot to do.

The other thing is just how much personality it has.  The game is presented in a very kid-friendly kind of way, with silly talking animals and everything, but there are a lot of jokes and references for adults to pick up on -- I couldn't help smiling when I found the Metal Gear Solid joke.  It actually plays out as a story in three chapters, all about a pig who's been tricked into managing a run-down juice stand in the middle of the jungle and how he's trying to survive and, eventually, get back home.  Little events pop up here and there, and you have to decide how you're going to interact with these characters.

It's a really great game, the kind that makes me think, "I can't wait to pick up my Kindle so I can play it again."  If you have the device, then you should get it.


Monday, March 04, 2013


Stonefire Pizza Co.

The pitch I got for Stonefire Pizza Co. was "Chuck E. Cheese's for adults", which is roughly correct.  At least, there are designated areas where you are encouraged to eat pizza and play video games, and it's possible for an adult to enter alone without being accused of pedophilia.  It's a place where you can bring your kids, but there are more than nominal concessions for Mom and Dad.


The main dining area has roughly the look and feel of a proper family restaurant, as opposed to a kids' restaurant.  There's a bar, and widescreen TVs are positioned on the walls overhead.  When I walked in in the late afternoon, they were split between two channels -- some were showing sports, and some cartoons.

Food is served buffet style for $9.95.  The pizza is... there.  It exists.  You put it in your mouth because you might as well.  The standards are represented -- cheese, sausage, pepperoni -- but they've got a couple exotic tastes too.  When I was there, I got to try both BBQ and Buffalo chicken pizza.  So, you know, they've got the balls to offer more than one unusual choice at a time.

There's a salad bar.  Ice cream.  A table with one or two non-pizza main dishes.  Nothing especially stunning, but if you want to get filled up, you can do it.


You never know what kind of arcade you're going to get in a place like this.  Sometimes you'll just get a bunch of those dumb carnival games, where you dump money in them and get tickets to exchange for shitty plastic crap.  Certainly that genre was well represented here -- the perennial Skeeball was present -- but there were also some genuinely awesome games.  Pac-Man Battle Royale, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2, some sort of DDR clone, House of the Dead 4, one of those deer-hunting games, Tekken 5, a touchscreen Fruit Ninja game -- just about every arcade genre you'd like was well-represented.

The interesting thing about the place is the game cards.  Instead of coin slots, all of the machines are equipped with swipes.  You put money on a magnetic card, and it tracks not only how much money you still have, but how many tickets you've won in the games.

I wasn't told at the door, but apparently you can get a special "blue card" at the door with the purchase of a buffet for $9.95 which gives you unlimited access to specially-marked games for three entire hours.  They don't even limit you to just the dumb games; most of the machines that I saw had the special blue swiper.  Genius idea, really; if I'd known, I probably would have plumped for it right away instead of just giving them the "I'm just looking" $5.

In the end, it's kind of cool to know that there's still arcades out there -- in fact, very close to me!  But on the other hand, the experience has made me realize that the arcade as I know it is dead.  The games I remember are gone, and how can I blame them?  Where would you find a Rampage cabinet in this day and age?  The end of the arcade is probably as much to do with companies moving their focus away from coin-op production as it is to do with the business model of filling a building with coin-op machines.

And the price?  For $20, I can eat unlimited pizza and play unlimited games.  Or, I can stay home, throw in a pizza, and play unlimited games for $5 or under.  The pizza is comparable quality, and the games are better.

I love my childhood memories of Chuck E. Cheese, and it was a nice nostalgia trip to spend the afternoon eating crummy pizza and paying per-session for video games.  But maybe it would be best to move on.


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