Thursday, March 26, 2015


Poker of the Dead

Texas Hold 'Em is an almost purely psychological game.  The players have no agency over the cards in their hand -- there's no draw phase -- so the only way to mitigate the luck of the draw is to learn how to read and manipulate your opponents.  Every hand has four rounds of betting, and the pool of community cards is larger than each player's personal hand, so players have a lot of known information about each other and lots of opportunities to present themselves as weak or strong in an attempt to force their opponents to raise the stakes or fold out.  When players play intelligently, you can get some pretty intense games going.

Poker of the Dead has none of that.

The excuse is that your opponents are brainless zombies, and so they play unintelligently, always calling bets with their unlimited available cash.  You always have three options: to raise the stakes, to raise the stakes higher, or to fold out.  Oh, and you don't get to bet after the River card is turned over, so you have to make your last bet with an incomplete knowledge of how your hand will turn out.  The game becomes completely one of luck.  There's no way to read your opponent's intent because it will always react the same way no matter what hand it's holding.  Folding is a bad option because the River card could always turn your hand around.  The player has very little knowledge to base his decisions on, so there's very little one can do to play intelligently.

What saves Poker of the Dead is its theming.

This is a zombie survival game.  The idea is that zombies are knocking at your door, and you ward them off by playing Hold 'Em.  Every time you win a hand, regardless of the stakes, you get a bullet for your shotgun.  When you get three bullets, you can use the "All In" option.  If you go all in and win, you double your cash and blast the zombie away.  You lose your bullets, another zombie appears, and the game continues.  There are ten hands in a game day, with the stakes rising every day you play.  If you survive seven days, you win.

It's a cute, silly bit of fun.  A lot of developers, understandably, took a conservative approach to the e-ink Kindle game shop, with popular board games, pen and paper puzzles, and choose your own adventure stories.  This game is at least slightly imaginative, and I appreciate that.  Even if the game is mostly luck driven, it's still satisfying to blow zombies away with full houses and push my high score ever higher.  It's right up there with Jungle Juice as one of my favorite games on the system.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Some Timely Musings About the New Super Mario Brothers Games

I've been getting into Game Grumps for... gosh, is it almost two years now?  I started watching just around the time that Dan started on, so it's been a while now.

Point is, I found their series on New Super Mario Brothers Wii, which is roughly equally divided between Jon and Arin pissing all over the sad state of Mario games, and Jon and Arin responding to the vocal backlash of offended fans.  I listened to the whole series, and it kicked loose a number of thoughts that I've had about the New Super Mario Brothers games.

We've Had Enough

Let's start with some common ground that I can share with Jon and Arin.  The New Super Mario Brothers idea has been run into the ground.  I've touched on this before.  There are currently four games (five if you want to count New Super Luigi U) in this Super Mario Brothers revival series, and they're all more or less the same thing.  They look the same, they sound the same, they have the same eight themed worlds, they have the same enemies and level elements -- it's too much.  And after the long dry spell that separated Super Marioland 2 from New Super Mario Brothers on the DS, it feels like we're getting oversaturated with all of these games piling up in such a brief period of time.  I completely understand the sentiment that Nintendo's gotten lazy with these things.

New Super Mario Brothers Wii is My Favorite Mario Game

My review still stands.

I think Jon was the one who said that NSMB Wii is sort of like the Super Mario Brothers formula perfected.  And that's about the way I feel about it.  Yes, the game is made up almost entirely of references to the old games -- Yoshi, the Koopalings, Bowser Junior, Kamek, not to mention countless level elements and enemies.  But I'm okay with it because this was sort of the first game to bring all of these elements together in exactly this way, and I love it.

And there are new twists on familiar ideas, and every level does have some sort of unifying idea to it, and there are some new, cool ideas going on.  I've played through the game multiple times, and I get that same spark of recognition that I'd get from replaying some of my favorite levels in the classic games.  Oh, this is the one with the giant clockwork cogs!  This is the one where the wind blows you around!  This is the one with the floating water bubbles!  This is the one where you bounce on the giant wiggler!  This is the one with the rising lava!  This is the one where the giant black cloud chases you!  This is the one where you have to ride on the giant rotating block!

None of the other NSMB games really grab me the same way the Wii version does.  The DS version was a novelty because it was the first of its kind in well over a decade, but it didn't really stick with me. The 3DS version felt like a hollow imitation of the DS version.  The Wii U version felt like a tired retread of the Wii version's ideas.  But the Wii version struck just the right note for me.  It had just enough familiar stuff, just enough new stuff, and the fun of multiplayer made it an enduring hit with my family.

Where Does Soul Come From?

It seems like there are two ways to come up with a new game idea.  To hear Shigeru Miyamoto talk about his inspiration, it seems like he starts with an idea and then builds everything else around it -- what the worlds should be like, what characters should be in it, and so on.  He started with this idea about tiny planets with cool gravity effects, decided that Mario would be a good fit for it, and Super Mario Galaxy was born.  He had an idea about a game where you directed creatures to pursue tasks for you, and Pikmin was born.  He thought it was fun to track his weight loss from day to day, and Wii Fit was born.

The other way to approach a new game is to figure out what direction to take an existing idea.  Super Smash Brothers was a very popular game, so naturally fans wanted another one.  We're into the fourth iteration now, but the game hasn't fundamentally changed very much.  The new ideas tend to be minor tweaks to the overall experience rather than major changes to the core experience.  We get new characters, levels, items, and bonus material, but the actual game mechanics are virtually identical.

When Jon and Arin describe the NSMB games as "soulless", I think that what they're feeling is the fact that these games come from the second camp.  Miyamoto didn't sit down and say, "I've got this great new idea for a whole new gameplay element that players will love to play around with, and the Super Mario Brothers formula is a perfect fit for it."  He (or someone) sat down and said, "Let's make a new Mario game."

There is a fundamental, inescapable problem here.  There's only so far that you can get when you start from "I want to make a game that's just like that game."

Should These Games Exist?

The thing is, to the extent that I enjoy the NSMB games, I really don't think of them as "major" entries in the Mario series.  I don't think Nintendo does either.

I think that people tend to forget just how far stretched Nintendo is compared to most companies in the games business these days.  Of the Big 3, Nintendo is the only hardware company that produces their most popular software themselves.  And they have two platforms to support.  And their IPs run the gamut -- Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Wii Games, Pokemon, and a dozen or so others, not to mention new IPs like Splatoon or The Wonderful 101.  And fans are constantly screaming for more of everything.  What happened to F-Zero?  What happened to Earthbound?  What happened to Star Fox?

It was one thing, in the days of tiny, tiny hardware with sprites and tiles, for Nintendo to build an entire library in-house.  But when landmark games take huge teams years to create, they really need some smaller projects to stop up the gaps and give players something to do while they wait for the real game-changers to come along.

Yeah, the New Super Mario Brothers series is kind of a cash-out.  They don't take as many resources to make, so Nintendo can put them out to launch with their console and make a safe profit off of the name recognition.  But... I really don't think Nintendo has given us any illusions about them.  They're not sold to us as "the next Mario masterpiece" or whatever.  When Jon complains that "They're fun... but that's it."  Well... they're not really trying to be anything else.

It would be one thing if NSMB was supposed to be Nintendo at the top of their game, but I don't think anyone is saying that it is.  I don't think the fans perceive the games that way, and I don't think Nintendo positions them as landmark titles.  I'm sure they're popular and profitable, but it doesn't seem like Nintendo wants that to be the face of their brand.  I really do think that they're aiming higher than that, but they need something to sell while their better games are cooking.

And all of that aside?  Yeah, I liked Super Mario Brothers 3.  Yeah, I would like to play a game that's very similar to that, but with new levels and things to do.  I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with wanting that or with Nintendo for giving me that.

What's The Bottom Line Here?

I guess this article is just sort of an exercise in trying to reconcile all of these ideas and get them out of my head so they stop running around in circles up there.  So what am I ultimately trying to say?

First, Jon and Arin can feel however they want about these games.  I actually feel like I agree with them more than I disagree with them.  They admit that they're having fun playing, and I admit that the games are getting kind of bland and samey.

I think where we differ is that they seem to think that these games are a sign that Nintendo's gone off track and that we need to start demanding more of them.  And... I agree that these games aren't the best that Nintendo can do, that we shouldn't just "settle" for mediocrity.  But at the same time, I like NSMB Wii for what it is, and I'm inclined to think that better things will come eventually and this shouldn't be the meter stick by which Nintendo is measured.

Now, when they release something more akin to Super Mario Galaxy 3 or their new open world Zelda game?  That's when I'll be passing judgement.


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