Saturday, December 19, 2009

New Super Mario Bros. Wii

A simultaneous multiplayer version of Super Mario Bros. is something I'd long dreamed of. Given the very title of the game, it just seemed so obvious, yet Luigi hadn't truly mattered since the original Mario Bros. Alternating multiplayer is no multiplayer at all, and Super was clearly a one-man show, leaving perhaps mechanically inferior games to brave the multiplayer platformer frontier. I think it's accurate to say that my interest in LittleBigPlanet, despite all its other advertised features and innovations, was primarily due to it having support for four simultaneous players. The entire time I was playing it, however, I would be thinking how much better the original Super Mario Bros. felt, and that only made me wish all the more that I could have been playing a four-player Mario game instead. Little did I suspect that the real thing would be coming so soon after. So is New Super Mario Bros. Wii everything I dreamed it would be?

Not quite, but it's still the most fun I've ever had with a Mario game.

Even as a child, I recognized that a cooperative mode would have been difficult to implement on account of the fast pace of the game. It might have been too impractical a challenge to ask two players to keep together on the same screen while making huge running jumps and dealing with enemies that could kill them in one hit. Super Mario Galaxy introduced the inspired option to have a second player take on a subordinate role, providing minor assistance as a detached pointer, and before New Super Mario Bros. Wii was announced, I might have thought that was as much as I could have expected. It looks like Nintendo finally got my letters, however, and NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits this is not. Surprisingly, instead of taking all these years to devise the perfect solution to the potential power struggle scenario, NSMB Wii almost seems to embrace the idea of partners as burdens as a way to encourage coordination in a multiplayer mode that otherwise feels largely tacked-on, even as it was the advertised revolution of this installment.

Reading coverage of the game, it sounded like a lot of previewers got off on deliberately sabotaging their friends in multiplayer, only really attempting to progress through the game in single-player. I don't personally see the fun in that sort of griefing in a non-competitive game (and unlike The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, the story mode here contains no competitive aspects), nor did I have any interest in playing by myself. Playing with my two siblings, we were in it to beat the game, and the "friendly fire" of being able to bump into and jump on top of one another was our most consistent obstacle.

As a player who traditionally likes to proceed at a quick pace, I found it frustrating constantly running into someone's back, or having to slow my own pace to wait for a straggler. Midair collisions also happened frequently due to breakdowns in communication, usually resulting in death for at least one of us. Additionally, with three or more players, whether I'm using a Mario brother or a Toad, there is a high probability that, due to the frenzied pace and regular switching of outfits, I will at some point forget which character I am controlling, and however brief that moment of uncertainty is, it will be enough to result in a needless death.

I had heard some reports that this was an extremely challenging game--maybe even Contra 4 hard. That was surely hyperbole in any case, but I suspect the multiplayer is actually more forgiving than going solo, with the bosses feeling particularly neutered when outnumbered. Yes, despite the more frustrating elements of multiplayer, the chaos of bumping into your buddies is more than balanced out by the extra chances you get by being allowed to respawn on the spot, so long as you do not run out of lives or happen to die at the same time as all your allies. Playing with two players of comparable skill levels, as often as we blamed the partner collision for screwing us, the reality is that we each had our share of deaths that did not involve anyone else. The idea of having to restart from the last checkpoint after each such sudden occasion is almost too horrible to contemplate, even though we've all faced it before. Playing solo, I'm sure I would have lost interest the instant a stage forced me to restart five times. That was exactly when I got bored with and gave up on the original New Super Mario Bros. I suppose that is one of the reasons Miyamoto came up with the "Super Guide" feature, but I haven't experienced it yet for myself (because it isn't available in multiplayer).

Speaking of respawning, the bubble mechanic is, as part of the multiplayer design, one of the most brilliant ideas in the game, although, armchair game designer that I am, I feel it could have been handled better.

Not only do you arrive powerless within a drifting bubble upon respawn, but you can also enter the bubble at will at any time, thereby rendering yourself invincible. For advanced players, this introduces entirely new tactics--you can jump to reach a coin suspended above the abyss, then bubble up just before you fall to your doom--and it also becomes addictive as a way to save yourself after careless missteps (which will likely become more frequent as a consequence).

More significantly, in my opinion, the bubble presents a way for younger or less skilled players to enjoy a game that might otherwise be too challenging for them. Playing alongside more veteran players, they could simply enter the bubble during difficult sections and allow their partners to carry the team through. At least, that's the promise I see. The problem is that, while you can enter the bubble on your own, to a large extent you cannot choose when or where you pop out of it. You cannot control where you drift, except by shaking the remote to move closer to a live player, so that they can break you out on contact. But in precisely the delicate situations where the bubble would be fine refuge, it becomes just another hazard. I know there were moments when I died because a bubble flew unexpectedly into my jump arc and dumped another player on me. Personally, I don't see why they couldn't have let you control where the bubble moved. So long as you were still dependent on your friends to burst you out, it's not like there would have been any way to cheat.

Given all the promotional focus on the four-player aspect, and with casual being the key demographic for the Wii, I expected a more lightweight Mario game that, like Four Swords Adventure, might have felt compromised when played alone. To my surprise, it actually feels very much like a traditional single-player installment that then had the multiplayer thrown in later. Not only is the game as fast-paced as ever, but many of the timing-specific sprints or jumps clearly only accommodate, at most, two single-file acrobats proceeding with a never-look-back mentality, before a ledge recedes or a gap closes on the third. When presented with an unbroken series of such obstacles, I don't see how more than two players can possibly be expected to all survive. And aside from the bubble mechanic, the only other technical advantage that having multiple players adds is the ability to perform the combined ground pound, which is powerful but difficult to pull off under pressure. At least the game probably changes drastically with each added player, so one could potentially get four different experiences out of it, albeit some would be considerably more broken than others.

The game is visually underwhelming and looks virtually identical to the DS New Super Mario Bros. I speak not only of the technology but also the concepts. It's all very functional and not ugly, but it's sad to see that, in what has been positioned as Nintendo's prestige title of the year, there is nothing even so impressive as the Mode 7 effects from Super Mario World, nor as original as Giant Land from Super Mario Bros. 3. Truly, the most disappointing thing about NSMB Wii is the sense that Nintendo just doesn't try as hard as it used to. The adventure takes players through a series of overly familiar locales, including a desert world, an ice world, an aquatic world, and a fire world. Yoshi appears rarely and with no fanfare, perhaps because he is completely extraneous to the experience. The new penguin suit, while cool, is sadly underutilized, and the mini mushroom is largely useless. The most offensively stupid thing about the game is its omission of the princess as a playable character, instead offering two playable Toad characters that are distinguished only by their colors. Miyamoto has offered a few different explanations for this, none of which are valid, in my opinion, nor as funny as he seems to think.

That about covers my complaints with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The game still excels other 2-D platformers in the ways that Super Mario Bros. always has. The physics and level design are, of course, perfect, and even the motion controls work quite well. That's all the good stuff that should be expected of the series. Yet as I grew older, none of that was enough to keep me engaged. Playing New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, I became quickly bored without any meaningful context or sense of purpose to motivate me. But those are non-issues when you have other people to play with, which is why, for all its frustrations, I do feel that the multiplayer is a transformative addition to the series. Thus is NSMB Wii only the second Super Mario Bros. game that I've played all the way through (and considering that Super Mario Land was, in its entirety, only about as long as maybe two of NSMB Wii's eight worlds, it barely counts).

It is, at the very least, the best E-rated game of the year and probably the best co-op experience of the year. Now let's have a four-player sequel to Super Mario Bros. 2!


Czardoz said...

"the mini mushroom is largely useless"

Hahaha, is that a pun?

For me, it's not a certainty that either single-player or multi-player is harder, but I think that multi-player takes away a lot of freedom to explore at one's preferred pace, whether that's very fast or leisurely. And there's this intense focus on just finishing the game, rather than going back to a stage to pick up a big coin that you missed, or looking for a way to get to an out-of-reach area.

I much preferred Four Swords Adventures, which seemed like it was designed to bring out the best in multi-player gaming. In New Mario, it feels like the multi-player design elements come by accident, and are not at all necessary to enjoying the game.

Henry said...

I also found Four Swords Adventures to be a much more satisfying game. It's disappointing that Nintendo didn't put as much thought into the multiplayer design of Mario.

That said, the multiplayer was an absolutely integral part of my Mario experience. At this point in my life, I do not expect to play this or any other Mario game by myself. Maybe when life takes another turn, but not now nor in the near future.