Tuesday, January 07, 2014


Super Mario 3D World

I just got done lauding Super Mario 3D World as one of the reasons 2013 was a good year for Nintendo fans.

Let's talk about what's wrong with it.

The great thing about New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii and the Wii U is how accessible it is.  The basic multiplayer mechanics are kind of a stroke of genius.  They seem so obvious that you wonder why nobody made a simultaneous multiplayer platformer that worked like this before.  Less experienced players can come along for the ride, do the parts they're capable of, then pop into a bubble when the heat is on.  More experienced players can clear the way for them.  And if, along the way, you get in each other's way, unintentionally hit each other with turtle shells, hey, that's all part of the fun.

Ever since Nintendo made headlines for getting ordinary people to try video games again, they've been talking about making "bridge" games.  Games that are satisfying to the hardcore gamers with thirty years experience in staring at television screens while barely moving their thumbs, but still accessible to people with jobs and social lives and stuff.  New Super Mario Brothers is a perfect example of how to do this, and it's done so well that it looks effortless.  It doesn't feel like something that was argued out in a boardroom; it feels like it just happened all on its own.

And, at first, Super Mario 3D World looks like an improvement on these ideas.  All players share a common pool of lives, so there's no more situations where a player has to sit out until a level finishes.  Extra items are kept in a collective stock that's accessible at any time, so no more having one player scoop up all of the items -- intentionally or accidentally -- and leaving the rest to starve.  And the bubble mechanics have changed -- the last player out can't bubble, players can't bubble in midair, and a player can pop his own bubble at any time.

Then you get to the first Bowser castle and find out you haven't collected enough green stars.

No.  Just... no.

Although 3D World is a game with three-dimensional level design, it's not laid out like the free-roaming, exploration-heavy worlds of, say, Super Mario 64.  It's more like a regular Super Mario Brothers -- the levels are largely linear obstacle courses, and your challenge is simply to get to the end.  As in the New Super Mario Brothers games, there are three macguffins -- here, green stars -- sprinkled through the levels in hidden or difficult-to-reach spots.  But unlike in New Super Mario Brothers, the game will stop you from time to time if you haven't collected enough of them.

This was annoying enough in the single-player Super Mario 3D Land -- and in fact, at one point I got sick of it and put the game away for a few months -- but to be playing through this game with my family, clearing one level after the next, laughing and having a good time, only to be stopped and told, "No.  You've been doing it wrong.  Go back to the start and do it again, and this time do it right."... It's a total buzz-kill.  We don't get to see what's next -- we have to go back and retry the levels we've already done.  And the levels are laid out to invite you to run to the end, so I have to stop us from time to time and remind us that we're not in this level to have fun, we have to stop and scour this area for green stars.  Suddenly our game night party game is a dull chore.

Three-dimensional platformers are already unfriendly to casual players.  Add that extra axis of movement, and suddenly it's that much harder to judge your position, your momentum, where you're trying to go, all of that.  I hear anecdotes about people who were big Mario fans until Super Mario 64 came out, and then they just sort of cooled on it all at once.  And I'm certainly seeing that in my family -- someone misjudges a jump and falls into a pit and blames "the fucking 3D".

Why would you add to that frustration?  When a player finally gets his head around a level and gets to the end, why do you make them turn around and make them do it again, and this time make sure that you visit all of the hard parts that just looked like bonus challenges at the time?  It's not like these tollgates require an insignificant number of stars to pass.  I haven't done the counting, but in our efforts to progress in the game, there have been very few stars that we've been allowed to skip.  What's worse is how many of these necessary stars are stuck in single-player "bonus levels" where no one else is allowed to participate -- all they can do is watch on, passively, as I maneuver around these tiny puzzle boxes.

This isn't how you make a "bridge game".  I'm sure it appeals to the hardcore gamers to be challenged to repeat levels they've already conquered with extra objectives to complete, but when I'm playing with my casual family, I just want everyone to have a good time, cross the obstacles, and get to the end.  I want them to be able to interact with the levels in their own way and at their own pace.  If you want to have the green star challenge, make it optional.  If you want to reward the players who complete it, do what they did in New Super Mario Brothers -- make a World 9 that takes place after the main game is complete and let them open up even harder levels with the stars they've found.

Everything else about Super Mario 3D World is pretty great.  And now that we have enough green stars to access all of the levels, maybe we'll go back sometime and give it another shot without that pressure on us.  But right now, I'm feeling a little burned out on it.  We've gone back to New Super Mario Brothers U.


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